Today, August 1st, is a very special day for all people in the English-speaking Caribbean. It marks the 189th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. This so-called emancipation proclamation heralded the death knell of the inhumane and barabric enslavement of African people, my ancestors, by Europeans. It is without a doubt one of darkest periods in Caribbean history, eclipsed only by the genocidal extermination of the indigenous amerindian peoples of the region.
As I commemorate this momentous occasion my mind is dominated by thoughts of the tremendous suffering and cruelty that many of my enslaved forebearers endured, generation after generation, for more than three centuries. I cannot fathom what it must have been like to live under such hopelessly barbarous conditions, nor can I fully apprehend the exhuberant joy that they must have felt when they heard the news that they were free. What had no doubt seemed impossible days, weeks, months and years before, had finally come true on August 1st, 1834!
Yet even after being told this ecstatic news about their freedom, they were still not yet truly free. The Abolition of Slavery Act mandated a five-year period of apprenticeship for the former slaves, prior to gaining their full emancipation. So their celebration was unceremoniously deferred. Yet it did eventually come four years later, unleashing a dam of pent up euphoria. Interestingly when it arrived, it was the slave owners and not the slaves who were compensated by the British government. Onstensibly this was shamelessly done due to the loss of property by the slave owners. The slaves who had toiled for years in the unforgiving Caribbean sun, under constant threat of a whip, received absolutely nothing for their suffering. It goes without saying that reparative justice is a moral imperative of the former European slaving nations, for which we Caribbean people, descended from slaves, will continue to fight.
The sheer joy and exhileration of thousands of former slaves in Barbados, is beautifully captured in this chant which was sung in 1838 (after the apprenticeship period was terminated early):
“Lick an Lock-up Done Wid, Hurray fuh Jin-Jin [i.e., Queen Victoria]
De Queen come from England to set we free
Now Lick an Lock-up Done Wid, Hurray fuh Jin-Jin”
These profound words uttered by former slaves leave me speechless every time I reread them. I am truly grateful that they have been preserved for posterity since they embody the essence of this seminal moment in the history of my people. Happy emancipation day 2023!
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