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The role and impact of Africans in Nation Building

By Dr Sharon Syriac

On  August 1, Dr Lovell Francis, High Commissioner to South Africa, revealed that there are many forms of emancipation. However, in 1834, the colonial government granted only a narrow legal emancipation to enslaved Africans in the British West Indies, leaving them chained. However, through their resilience, resistance, and reinvention they attempted to free themselves from the other types of slavery.

Dr Lovell made this address to the Holy Faith Sisters and Associates in collaboration with Faithline 1 on ‘The Role and Impact of people of African origin on Nation Building in Trinidad and Tobago’ during the Emancipation Day holiday.

He began with an overview of African enslavement in the British West Indies, defined emancipation as a process and explained the motivation, purpose and methods used by people of African origin to emancipate themselves and lead to nation building.


Core or Peripheral?

Dr Lovell first critiqued the oversimplified view of history used to justify imperialism, given by economic historian, Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory which distinguished between core and peripheral countries.

Wallerstein argued that there is a world economic system dominated by core countries which drive historical development by exploiting peripheral countries for labour and raw material.

However, Dr Lovell maintained that this notion of ‘core and periphery’ has led to the teaching of Caribbean history in a way which undersells and often misrepresents our own position of significance to world history. This significance is seen in our role in the re-conceptualisation of wealth.

As evidence, Dr Lovell contended that although all Caribbean countries (except Brazil) were nominally owned by Spain, the Spanish Crown had no interest in them, because these islands were unable to generate wealth.

At that time, Western Europeans saw only two ways of generating wealth – either by digging precious metals out of the ground (bullionism) or by trade (mercantilism). Caribbean islands could do neither.

No gold. No silver. No system of production to generate trade. We were deemed “useless” by the colonisers. However, a third avenue for generating wealth was re-conceptualised. Agriculture-for-profit. Therefore, the system of commercial arable agriculture was invented in the Caribbean. It is a Caribbean tradition.


Economics of Colonialism

Colonialism is mainly about economics – the production of wealth for the Mother Country. Therefore, the capturing, transporting, enslavement, and dehumanisation of African people in the Caribbean to produce raw sugar was driven by the need to generate wealth.

Yet colonisers have repeatedly emphasised their civilising and Christianising mission to justify the “thing-i-fication” of African people, basing some of their arguments on Biblical precepts. These excuses merely masked the economics that drove colonialism.


Resistance and Resilience

The British have long argued that the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies was motivated by humanitarian concerns. However, Dr Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery strongly disagreed. He claimed that economic considerations were at the forefront of emancipation.

Additionally, the pivotal role enslaved Africans played in their own emancipation cannot be underestimated. Some resisted slavery by running away from plantations and settling in Maroon communities. Others led spectacular revolts. Didn’t the Haitian Revolution lead to the first Black republic in the world?


Process of Emancipation

In 1834, legislation ended slavery and in 1838, apprenticeship ended servitude. All Africans were declared free. However, Dr Lovell declared that the British granted a narrow emancipation, aimed only at changing the Africans’ legal status.

Meanwhile, plantation owners aided by the colonial government, ensured as far as possible that emancipated people stayed and worked on the sugar estates, for low wages. Mental, psychological, political, and economic freedom was never intended.

Yet, despite this restrictive legal emancipation, our resilient African ancestors began to seek other forms of emancipation. One way of doing so was demanding decent wages.



In the post-emancipation period, despite the colonial government’s restrictive legislation and the constant attack of plantation owners, former slaves began to re-invent themselves and reorganise their lives, families, and communities.

They did not run amok and perpetuate violence as the British had anticipated. Instead, some tried to search for families raped by the separation that scattered fathers, mothers and children sold to different plantations.

Many expanded and diversified the economy. Those who had acquired skills on plantations as masons, carpenters, mechanics etc. moved into towns to build communities. Others chose to pursue agriculture.

Tobagonians engaged in food production and for a time, Tobago was the breadbasket of Trinidad, while in Trinidad, many engaged in cocoa production – crowning cocoa as king.


Resistance. Resilience. Re-invention. We are all still treading these paths on the road to emancipation.

Education. Independence. Repentance. These vehicles drive its achievement.



I repent for rejecting and trivialising the process of emancipation.

Forgive me Lord, for …

… being shackled to shame, believing that I am less than others because of my race, colour, and creed (R)

… accepting and modelling negative stereotypes about my race and religion (R)

… thinking that working the land is to court the enemy my ancestors had tried to vanquish (R)

… not discovering about or sharing the legacy of gifts handed down by my ancestors (R)

… not embracing resilience and re-invention but operating as victim rather than victor. (R)

… imagining that the blows to family life my ancestors endured, condemn my present family to rupture and dysfunction (R)

May I embrace the emancipation process today, so I can help sing the songs of freedom. Amen.