Q: Archbishop J, what do we celebrate on Emancipation Day?
I would argue that no event has shaped our national identity more than the day slavery ended. Emancipation Day has defined us for so many reasons. The fact that human beings were enslaved by others and subjected to the heinous crimes that were common at that time is a stain on humanity in general, and on Britain and Europe in particular.
Much of the vast wealth of Europe was acquired by the labour of slaves on plantations in the West Indies. The forced enslavement and labour, the rape and murder form the very dark unredeemed history of the archipelago called the Caribbean.
The British slave trade ended formally in 1807. The first group of Chinese arrived in Trinidad months before (1806) in preparation for the scarcity of labour. Emancipation from slavery happened in 1834. The first group of Portuguese labourers arrived in 1834. The slaves were still forced to work till 1838. The Fatel Razack arrived with 225 East Indians in 1845, seven years later.
So many things we take for granted in the demography of Trinidad and Tobago are a direct result of emancipation. The fact of our freedom, our ethnic and religious composition flowed as a direct result of emancipation.
Emancipation is a watershed moment in our nation that must never be forgotten. It has shaped us for better or for worse and has laid the foundations for modern Trinidad and Tobago. We need to celebrate this significant moment in our history.
Emancipation still coming
Caribbean theologian, Kortright Davis believes that Emancipation is the key to understand and reflect upon the Caribbean experience. He says: “The key in Caribbean society, with its experiences of slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism, and structural dependence, is emancipation: the pursuit, proclamation, and practice of human freedom. Emancipation is the key to Caribbean theology as well” (Emancipation Still coming, Introduction).
Emancipation, from the beginning was not an event. It was a process. Beginning in the 1700s with many false starts, the movement got its first event with the legalisation passed in both the Houses of Commons and the Lords and finally being signed by King George. The act of the abolition of the slave trade banned Britain and its dependents from trading in slavery.
Emancipation in 1834 still forced the ex-slaves to work on the plantations for 40 hours per week. After 1838 when slaves in British colonies were freed, compensation was paid to the landowners. No compensation or accommodation was paid to the slave. From this perspective Davis is correct. In our societies we need to see emancipation as the key to interpret all social reality.
The Canboulay riots of 1881, the Hosay Massacre of 1884, and the water riots of 1903 which destroyed the Red House are all part of this process of emancipation that is still coming.
The Butler labour riots of 1937 was another significant moment in this process. Better wages were now being demanded and the ex-slave turned worker was beginning to demand a fair share of the economic pie.
The Black Power movement in the 1960s and 70s culminated in a significant milestone— the 1970 protests. Here the essence of emancipation was touched. What was at stake was the dignity and status of the ex-slave and ex-indentured labourer. Were they lesser humans than the white population? Or were they equal in every respect to others? Again, only through protest was the point made and new ground gained.
Businesses began to hire black workers and put them in the front to face customers. Those that resisted were highlighted, like the Country Club, which refused to allow a black American doctor to use its facilities. This occasioned a media campaign from the Daily Express to highlight the inequality.
Little Black Boy
In 1997 when calypsonian Winston ‘Gypsy’ Peters sang ‘Little Black Boy’, he touched a raw nerve.
Why are our little black boys not going to school to learn? Why do they have little ambition? Why are so many dependent on drugs and becoming prisoners and vagrants?
Gypsy ends his Calypso:
“When you black, you just black, you can’t help but be black
But because you black, you don’t stay in the back
Be black, be black, but be conscious.”
The greatest challenge to the stability and development of our beautiful nation is the lack of development of our “little black boys” (African and Indian) whose heroes are those with guns, in crime and fathering many children with different women.
We need to begin reading our current challenge of these little black boys from the perspective of the unfinished emancipation project of 1834–38.
This is a systemic problem where the communities, the schools, the leaders, and the institutions have failed to address the real challenge that is facing us—systemic underdevelopment of our poor, black communities.
How to celebrate?
Emancipation Day should be the day when we put before the nation all the heroes who, despite the odds, excelled and proved that “little black boys” can achieve excellence nationally, regionally, and globally.
We need to put before the eyes of our youth new models for them to aspire to true freedom. This is the most urgent and vital challenge facing our young republic. It will require pundit and politician, priest and community worker, joining hands in a commitment to true freedom.
We have a choice! Let us make this commitment now or face the next unfortunate event that will catapult us out of the emancipation process.
We (Catholic Church) have begun to focus on East Port of Spain. We have moved key priests in partnership with an ecclesial community. They have begun concrete projects in East Port of Spain, Sea Lots, Beetham, Laventille and Gonzales.
We must all pray and play our part.