Jamaica Emancipation; Jamaican Independence; Jamaican Heritage; Jamaican History; Jamaican People; Jamaica Attractions; Jamaica Culture
“I rejoice I am a slave no more, and you are slave no more, Jamaica is slave no more. Amen!”
With similar jubilation, thousands of ex-slaves, who gathered at town centers and churches in every British Caribbean colony, broke into joyous celebrations after hearing the final words of the Emancipation Declaration, affirming their full freedom from slavery.
The Emancipation Act 1838 was passed by the British Government following a sustained abolition campaign, underscored by bloody slave uprisings in the colonies and widespread public outcry against slavery.
Emancipation Means Hope for Change
As we celebrate Emancipation on August 1, we honor the sacrifice and struggles of a resilient people – the Jamaicans. The atrocities of the Middle Passage, the whippings, the long and hard days of unrewarded work on the plantations, the executions, the rebellions… I can only imagine, so we celebrate not the struggles, we celebrate our freedom as the Emancipation road was a painful one.
Happy Emancipation Day!
What is Emancipation?
The period of enslavement in Jamaica began with the first European colonizers, the Spanish. The arrival of the Spanish in 1494 led to the decimation of the indigenous Tainos. In less than a century, the Tainos all but died out. They were required to work as forced laborers on Spanish plantations and in their mines, and as a result, many died due to exhaustion, others died falling victims to famine and diseases, and others were brutally killed.
According to Philip Sherlock and Hazel Bennett (1998), when the Spanish settlers found their labor force depleted, they turned to Africa for replacements. Bartholomew las Casas, a Spanish priest, recommended the use of Africans in Jamaica and other Spanish territories when Indian labor had diminished. Until then, the only Africans on the island were personal household servants of a few settlers. These servants did not come directly from Africa, but from European countries where African slavery was already institutionalized.
Close to 1 million enslaved Africans were imported to Jamaica. Most of the African captives came from the Gold Coast (present day Ghana, Togo and Benin) and the Bight of Biafra (including present day Nigeria, Cameroon and the Equatorial Guinea). The inhumane treatment for the Africans began at the point of capture.
The conditions of the Middle Passage were unspeakable. The slavers were usually overcrowded and this led to unsanitary conditions, resulting in the outbreak of various diseases, including small pox and dysentery. Many Africans died as a result of these contagious diseases, and others died from inhumane treatment. Over 2 million Africans, or 10 per cent of the total shipped, lost their lives in the Atlantic crossing, and maybe another 4 million died as a direct result of capture and enslavement within Africa.
Enslavement itself took its toll on the confined population. This means that millions of those who survived the Middle Passage died young, in a short time, in the Americas. Many historians now accept the calculation that about 30 per cent of survivors of the Middle Passage died within the first two years of arrival in the Americas. Many were maimed or killed as punishment for daring to seek freedom. The enslaved African was now chattel, an item that could be disposed of at the whim of the enslavers, in the same way as land, cattle, furniture or equipment.
How Was Emancipation Won?
On December 28, 1781, the Zong docked in Black River, St Elizabeth, with 208 Africans, 232 fewer than when it left the African coast. The matter was brought before the British courts, not for the mass killing, but because the insurers refused to pay ship owners, James Gregson et al, compensation for the loss. This is just one of the many cases of inhumane treatment on the slavers.
Abolition of the slave trade was only the first step towards full emancipation. By the 1820s British Parliament began to send planters directives specifically concerned with the amelioration of the slaves' working conditions. These included forbidding the use of the whip in the field, the flogging of women and allowing slaves religious instruction. Jamaica, governed by an Elected Assembly, refused to follow these directives and news of this soon spread to the slaves. Numerous instances of civil unrest followed as slaves felt they were being denied certain benefits that had been conferred on them in Britain. Anti-slavery sentiments were increasingly expressed in the colonies through the work of nonconformist missionaries, particularly Baptists such as William Knibb and Thomas Burchell who were arrested for inciting slaves to rebellion.
In the midst of the campaign, which lasted from 1780 until 1838, several individuals distinguished themselves as true anti-slavery champions. Among these include:
Thomas Burchell, and
Freedom in Stages
The bill for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies received the royal assent on August 28,1838. It stated:
The passage of this bill in the British Parliament in England enabled approximately 311,000 enslaved Africans in Jamaica and hundreds of thousands more across the colonies the freedom for which many of their predecessors had fought and died. Freedom can be said to have arrived in two stages; the first being the early morning of Friday, August 1, 1834. On that day many slaves were said to have walked up hills and climbed trees so as to clearly witness the literal dawning of their freedom. Around the island thousands attended "Divine Services" to give thanks and praise. August 1, 1834, marked the emancipation of all slaves in British colonies but it was a case of freedom with conditions. Although the Abolition Act stated that slavery shall be and is hereby utterly abolished and unlawful, the only slaves truly freed were those not yet born and those under six years of age. All other slaves were to enter a six-year "apprenticeship" during which they were to be "apprenticed" to the plantations.
The Apprenticeship System was officially ended in 1838 when it was proven to be a failure. It ended on August 1, 1838, two years short of its intended six-year term. This marked the second stage of freedom, the day all slaves were made free. In Jamaica on that "full free" August morning, peaceful demonstrations and celebrations occurred across the island. A hearse containing shackles and chains that had been used to shackle rebellious slaves, was driven through the streets of the capital Spanish Town, and ceremoniously burned.
Emancipation did not mean the beginning of good times. According to Sherlock and Bennett in "The Story of the Jamaican People" (1998): "Emancipation gave them the right to free movement, the right to choose where and when they wished to work, but without basic education and training many were compelled to remain on the plantation as field hands and tenants-at-will under conditions determined by the landlord, and for wages set by him."
How is Emancipation Day Celebrated?
August 1, Emancipation Day in Jamaica is a public holiday and part of a week-long cultural celebration, during which Jamaicans also celebrate Jamaican Independence Day on August 6, 1962. Both August 1 and August 6 are public holidays.
The holiday is more than just a welcome break from work when one can lounge around, and relax in preparation for the Independence Day weekend. For Jamaicans of African descent, the day is a very important date in their history as a people, as it represents the time when their forebears were "freed" from the shackles of chattel slavery.
Emancipation Park, a public park in Kingston, opened on the eve of Emancipation Day, July 31 in 2002, is named in commemoration of Emancipation Day.
If you liked this story, join our email list to have the blog delivered to your inbox weekly.
She is a blogger, content writer, engineer, corporate planner, project manager, and musician. Jackie loves to see people transformed through her work.