On this day, 187 years ago, the Emancipation Act came into effect, starting the process of freedom for thousands of enslaved men and women in the British West Indies.
But it wasn’t freedom in the true sense as the former slaves were still shackled by the period of apprenticeship which had to be served out before they were finally liberated from the plantations and years of oppression and servitude.
When the enslaved population in this country—estimated to be about 25,696—finally got their freedom, the vast majority moved off the plantations, settling in areas across the country that are now well-established communities.
These and other important historical facts about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the long fight for freedom and the eventual achievement of Emancipation must be kept at the forefront.
Today’s Emancipation Day celebrations are not only an opportunity to look at key events that shaped the society we are today but also to reflect on the lessons from those experiences that can help in the building of a more united and stronger nation.
While T&T can take pride in the fact that we were the first county in the world to declare a national holiday to celebrate the abolition of slavery, citizens should also be aware of the difficult process leading to the proclamation of that annual observance in 1984, on the 150th anniversary of Emancipation.
Commemorations were nonexistent for decades due to a decision by the Legislative Council to replace them with Discovery Day, a holiday honouring Christopher Columbus and his journeys to the new world, in 1939.
Much credit is due to those who began lobbying for an Emancipation Day holiday in the 1970s. Their persistence finally bore fruit on August 1, 1985, with a holiday and colourful celebrations that have remained prominent on the national calendar since then.
Other countries in the Caribbean have since followed in T&T’s footsteps.
Notably, it was only this year that Juneteenth, which commemorates the effective end of slavery in the United States on June 19, was finally celebrated with a public holiday.
The official celebrations for the people there, just like the abolition of slavery itself, came decades later than in the Caribbean.
But as recent events have shown, for descendants of the enslaved in the Americas and across the world, the darkness of the Trans-Atlantic trade continues to affect our societies.
The painful experience of some 20 million men and women, snatched from their homes in Africa and brought in chains to the Americas has too often been glossed over and misrepresented. But now there is a demand for the truth to be told and accepted, as well as for reparation to be paid by the former colonisers who derived great economic wealth through the sweat and toil of the enslaved.
Casting off the lingering social, mental and political shackles is an ongoing process but today’s commemorations provide space for debate and reflection in the quest for healing and reconciliation.
This is also a time to celebrate the rich legacies of the Yoruba, Hausa, Congo, Ibo, Rada, Mandingo, Kromanti and Temne that are reflected in our people and culture.
A blessed Emancipation Day to all.