Beginning in 1904 and continuing into the 1980s, Emancipation Day in the English-speaking Caribbean was commemorated as “The First Monday in August”, a public holiday. Few people know why. In 1902, having defeated the Boers in South Africa, Britain was at its imperial zenith. August Monday was a new propaganda to revive an old concept of Britain as a moral empire and imperialism as a civilising mission. The plan needed the resurrection of William Wilberforce as the primary mascot of British conscience. There was no role for African emancipators in this celebration.
In the year preceding the first declaration of August Monday, the Trinidad Government had insidiously begun institutionalising the glorification of Christopher Columbus by proclaiming “Discovery Day” an annual public holiday. Other colonial governors were quick to emulate Trinidad. The date of “discovery” coincided with Columbus’ first visit or sighting of their respective islands. For Trinidad and Tobago, this date was July 31.
August Monday and Discovery Day were both tagged to Empire Day, which was first proclaimed in 1903 to glorify the achievements of the most successful imperialist monarch, Queen Victoria.
In T&T, Discovery Day often clashed with August Monday, for no other reason than they are consecutive days in the year and these public holidays were all celebrated on a Monday. To avoid celebrating the two events in one day, Emancipation was invariably pushed back to the Second Monday of August.
T&T firmly discarded August Monday in 1962 with the amended “Public Holidays Act”, which declared Independence Day as the next holiday to follow Discovery Day.
Following the Black Power Revolution of 1970, the National Joint Action Committee relentlessly advocated for a public holiday for Emancipation. They changed the narrative of Emancipation from an Anglo-Saxon celebration of Evangelical humanitarianism to an African-centred celebration of heroism and militancy. In this scenario, Toussaint Louverture replaced William Wilberforce as the true representative of African emancipation. In 1985, the T&T Government relented, and legislatively fixed the first day of August as Emancipation Day, no matter the day of the week. It was a first for the Caribbean.
Over time, the rest of the anglophone Caribbean followed T&T’s example, except Barbados. In Barbados, August Monday conflicted with the Crop Over festival or Kadooment. Because of the importance of Kadooment to the tourism market, Barbados commemorates Emancipation on August 23, the first day of the Haitian Revolution and the day recognised by the United Nations as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.
The Haitian Revolution is intimately connected to the struggle for emancipation in the British colonies, and more so in T&T. The Haitian Revolution was Britain’s bloodiest and most costly colonial war, up to the First World War.
Whereas Britain had deployed some 50,000 troops to fight the North American colonies in their War of Independence, she lost some 70,000 men (army and navy) in Haiti and other Caribbean colonies that had revolted against the slavocracy at the same time as Haiti, and actually contributed to Britain’s defeat in Haiti.
The financial cost of the war was equally staggering. Whereas Britain had spent some £80 million (equivalent to £1 trillion at 2018) in the North American war, the Anglo-Haitian war cost £150 million (equivalent to almost £2 trillion in 2018).
White British abolitionists feared Haitian expansionism in the Caribbean. Black abolitionists welcome it. Haiti had emancipated neighbouring Santo Domingo and assisted Simon Bolivar with weapons and cash to liberate South America, so the fear was grounded on fact. To counter Haitian influence, Britain accelerated the abolition of her Atlantic slave trade and embarked on a policy of scaling down the plantation model of colonisation to one of small farms, while creating buffer populations between the white slavocracy and the enslaved population.
The Chinese immigration scheme, launched in 1802, was the first such experiment. When that failed, Britain passed a Mutiny Act in 1807 emancipating the 10,000 black soldiers in the Twelve West India Regiments created during the Haitian Revolution. After the Napoleonic War, the Trinidad Government settled the Third West Indian Regiment in North Manzanilla and Valencia and gave each veteran land for cultivation.
During the Anglo-American War of 1812-1815, the British enticed enslaved Africans in the US with promises of emancipation to escape to the British lines. Six hundred of these runaways were constituted into a Black Corps and formally emancipated. They were settled mainly in south Trinidad and became known as the Merikins.
Self-emancipation was common in Trinidad. In 1804 a group of Mandinka Muslims led by Imam Jonas Mohammad Bath purchased their freedom and established a jamaat in Port-of-Spain. Between 1821 and 1834, over 1,000 other enslaved Africans purchased their freedom for some £60,000 (equivalent to about £4,000,000 or $40,000,000 TT at 2018), paid out of their own pockets.
The courage and triumph of these African freedom fighters and free Africans are all part of our Emancipation story in T&T.
Dr Claudius Fergus is the Emancipation Support Committee of T&T's director of Education and Research.