As several Commonwealth Caribbean countries celebrate Emancipation Day tomorrow, it is important to locate the significance of the emotions felt on such an occasion, especially in relation to the issue of human rights.
In the British West Indies there was a fundamental dichotomy between the values espoused by the 1215 Magna Carta that was subsequently revised several times, and the construction of slave society. Magna Carta has been celebrated as the foundation stone of many constitutional systems and human rights matrices in a variety of countries. However, in the West Indies, it is apparent that the principles of Magna Carta were not prominent in the history of the region until the preparation of independence constitutions.
The fundamental challenge lay in the failure of British settlers in the British West Indies to apply the principles of Magna Carta to all people in the colonies that were settled, conquered or ceded in the name of the British Crown. Primarily, the laws that were devised to facilitate slavery and the slave trade in the British West Indies regarded African slaves as property and not as people thereby contravening the core principles of Magna Carta.
The attitude of the British imperial courts towards slaves demonstrated the diversion from Magna Carta in the West Indies.
The best example of the racial superiority factor in the approach of British colonial administrators is captured in the following excerpt from the Report by Major E F L Wood who toured the West Indies and British Guiana in 1921-22:
"The whole history of the African population of the West Indies inevitably drives them towards representative institutions fashioned after the British model. Transplanted by the slave trade or other circumstances to foreign soil, losing in the process their social system, language and traditions, and with the exception of some relics of obeah, whatever religion they may have had, they owe everything that they have now, and all that they are, to the British race that first enslaved them, and subsequently to its honour restored to them their freedom. Small wonder if they look for political growth to the only source and pattern that they know, and aspire to share in what has been the peculiarly British gift of representative institutions." [Report by the Hon Major E F L Wood, MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Colonies) on his visit to the West Indies and British Guiana, December 1921-February 1922, Cmnd. 1679 (1922), p 6].
In framing colonial policy for the British West Indies, this quote from Major Wood (who later became Lord Halifax, the Second World War Foreign Secretary in Winston Churchill's War Cabinet) highlights the mindset of racial superiority as the basis for engagement.
There were two legal cases that held great significance for the way in which slaves were to be treated during the pre-emancipation period.
The first was the matter of Somerset v Stewart [(1772) 98 ER 499] which established that slavery could not be practiced in England, but left open the issue of whether it could be practiced in other parts of the British Empire by virtue of the ambiguity of the judgment of Lord Mansfield in this regard.
The second was the matter of Gregson v Gilbert [(1783) 3 Doug KB 232] otherwise known as the Zong massacre. In this case an insurance claim involving a slave ship called the Zong was admitted. The insurance claim was for recovery of losses by the shipowners for a loss of cargo when 132 slaves were thrown overboard in order to retain supplies of food and water for those on board. This horrific act was upheld by Lord Mansfield and the owners were later compensated for the loss of the slaves.
The philosophy of regarding African slaves as property and not as people was a core imperial legal philosophy of the pre-emancipation era as highlighted by these two cases.
Even though Emancipation Day would come on August 1, 1834, it is really the advent of human rights in the independence constitutions from 1962 onwards that secure equality and justice for all in the society. Both the Canadian Bill of Rights 1960, in the case of T&T, and the European Convention on Human Rights 1950, in the cases of the other eleven independent countries of the Commonwealth Caribbean, can trace influences from Magna Carta.
In T&T, our constitutional foundation was best captured by Dr Eric Williams at a public meeting on July 19, 1955, in Woodford Square, Port-of-Spain, before he had entered electoral politics, when he said:
"The Colonial Office does not need to examine its second hand colonial constitutions. It has a constitution at hand which it can apply immediately to Trinidad and Tobago. That is the British Constitution. Ladies and gentlemen, I suggest to you that the time has come when the British Constitution, suitably modified, can be applied to Trinidad and Tobago. After all, if the British Constitution is good enough for Great Britain, it should be good enough for Trinidad and Tobago."
It is within this model that our human rights provisions were subsequently included for the independence Constitution.