Emancipation Day is a day to recall the triumphant resilience embedded in the human spirit of our forefathers in their quest and thirst for freedom, equality and justice. Slavery is a stain on the very fabric of our humanity. This is reflected in that seminal calypso, “I am a Slave” by the quintessential Dr Franciso Slinger O.R.T.T (The Mighty Sparrow), graphic in its potent lyrical description of the misery and horror that was slavery. It mirrors the anguish of the enslaved soul – “Caught and brought here from Africa… well it was licks like fire….. Weeks and weeks before we cross the seas to reach the West Indies”; and when freed, the humiliation, statelessness and abject poverty that came with Apprenticeship – “Put on the street, Ah ha no clothes, have no food and no place to sleep, had no education, no particular ambition.” And then the final anchor line, “I want to be free.” We were not there but Sparrow’s lyrical masterpiece can take us all back to garner a deeper appreciation of the brutality and horror of slavery, what was and what should never have been.
At Emancipation time the buzz expression is ‘To emancipate yourself from mental slavery’ but the genesis of that entreaty must not be lost upon us. It was Marcus Mosiah Garvey, that imminent Pan Africanist, who raised in all of us a collective consciousness that real Emancipation must be rooted in a free mind that encourages a culture of critical thinking and critical thinkers. In his seminal speech in 1937 he stated, “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because while others might free the body no one but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, Sovereign. The man who is not able to develop or use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind.” Emancipation day must therefore, be a moment of regeneration, to renew in our lives a purposefulness to lead a life of quality, of sustainable ambition, independence, personal self-worth and vision.
Emancipation Day is an occasion on which we must all reflect as a Nation, on the road we have travelled since our African ancestors were formally freed by an Act of the British Parliament in 1833, which was partially implemented in 1834, after which the former slaves had to undergo an additional period of Apprenticeship which ended in 1838. The shared devastation of the genocide wrought by slavery is reflected in the statistics that are macabre; 5.5 million enslaved Africans came to the Caribbean and when Slavery was abolished after 180 years the population has dwindled to 800,000, a survival rate of 15%.
From that time to now, we have witnessed the contributions of the descendants of African Chattel Slavery to the development of what has become modern Trinidad and Tobago; that Trinidad and Tobago now celebrates this important milestone (the first in the world to do so) in Nation- building. It must not be taken for granted. It took many years of advocacy by numerous individuals and groups who made representations, submitted petitions and who used other forms of activism to the colonial authorities and later to the leaders of independent Trinidad and Tobago in order for August 1, to be observed as a public holiday in honour of and in remembrance of all those who perished, who were emasculated, and who were victims of the genocide that was chattel slavery.
Consequently, we must also recall the pioneering work of all those who laboured to ensure that August 1 is a national holiday. In this regard, very special mention must be made of the tireless and sometimes unappreciated efforts of the late Chief Servant Makaandal Daaga, former leader of the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) and members of that organization for their campaign over many years in stoutly making the case for a day to be observed in commemoration of the role of the hapless victims of slavery and the slave trade on the road to independence and national development. The late Makaandal Daaga, Liseli Daaga, who sacrificed so much, Nyhuma Obika, Ome and Rajah to name a few, travelled throughout the Caribbean Region and Africa advocating the celebration of Emancipation Day resulting Emancipation Day being a national holiday in many countries. It tells us what advocacy can do and has done in the name of a just cause. It is not an overstatement to say that without the struggles for Emancipation, Independence would not have been won.
However, as we participate in the street processions and celebratory events mounted by the Emancipation Support Committee and other organizations, in our cities, towns and villages, we must ask ourselves the question, have we done as much as we should have, or are we doing as much as we could to honour the sacrifices of those who slaved on the plantations and in the factories without pay and without any sense of human dignity?
This is a very important issue as we acknowledge that there still exist today many residual mental and other vestiges of slavery which are apparent or subtle in our daily lives. This brings me to a topic which has engaged and continues to engage the attention of Caribbean governments and members of the wider society over the last few years. I refer to the issue of reparations and compensation for atrocities committed under slavery. Notwithstanding the fact that full Emancipation took place some 180 years ago, the matter of reparations is still very much relevant today as we seek to properly honour the sacrifices of those who toiled without being compensated in any manner or form by their enslavers.
In this regard, it is appropriate for us as a Nation to support the efforts of CARICOM Governments on the question of Reparations which was addressed very succinctly by Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies and Chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Commission who, in addressing the British House of Commons on the matter of Reparations on 16 July, 2014, the same body which enacted the Emancipation Act of 1833 indicated: “That the Government of Great Britain, and other European States that were the beneficiaries of enrichment from the enslavement of African peoples, the genocide of the indigenous communities, and the deceptive breach of contract and trust in respect of Indians and other Asians brought to the plantations under indenture, have a case to answer in respect of reparatory justice”. The Caribbean is not alone in its quest for Reparation. The Afrikan Emancipation Day Reparations March from Brixton to Parliament Building in the United Kingdom is part of that yearly struggle to address the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors that finance the economic growth and prosperity of Europe.
As a former judge, and a firm believer in reparatory justice, I am of the view that as we celebrate Emancipation Day 2017, we must examine affirmatively the case for reparations as adopted by CARICOM Governments and as advocated by Sir Hilary and other spokespersons. We in Trinidad and Tobago must view the call for reparations in the context of the duty we owe to our forefathers who made the ultimate sacrifice and whose contributions to our present well-being must be recognized in a world which now accepts that compensation and reparation are prerequisites in the dispensation of justice. As such, the case for reparations is not too late, but it is timely.
We must not forget that the United Nations remembered. The United Nations General in its resolution 62/122 of 17 December 2007, declared March 25 the lnternational Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. On March 25, 2008 in a performance at the General Assembly Hall to mark the occasion, before a packed audience, this proud Caribbean man, the Mighty Sparrow who is a recipient of the Order of CARICOM, the Region’s highest award, and who was the first calypsonian to receive an honorary doctorate from UWI, performed his classic number, “I am a Slave”. The performance, according to the Jamaican Ambassador to the United Nations at the time, was in the ‘stratosphere’, as ‘The Birdie’ got a standing ovation after his emotional and scintillating performance of the song which provides a graphic picture and profound analysis of the damaging effects of slavery.
I wish to call on all citizens to take time out during the Emancipation Holiday to focus on their life’s journey: from whence they started, where they consider themselves to have reached and what is to be their life’s achievement.
And, in spite of the difficulties that you, dear citizen, face if you can still be your fellow citizen’s keeper then a very serendipitous place awaits you.
Emancipation continues to be a work in progress.
Source: Office of the President Republic of Trinidad and Tobago