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News > World

'Our Heritage, Our Strength': Caribbean Countries Celebrate Emancipation Day

  • Citizens celebrate Emancipation Day in Trinidad and Tobago.

    Citizens celebrate Emancipation Day in Trinidad and Tobago. | Photo: Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Diversity and Social Integration

Published 1 August 2018

Emancipation Day is a way for people of African descent in the Caribbean to remind themselves of the struggle for freedom.

English-speaking countries throughout the Caribbean celebrate Emancipation Day on August 1. The public holiday was by no means gifted by the British Empire or even white abolitionists. It was the result, according to Ajamu Nangwaya, of “accumulate covert and overt acts" of resistance by enslaved Africans.

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Emancipation Day was first "established," after the British Parliment passed the Slave Emancipation Act in 1833 banning its policy of enslaving and transporting Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean islands. Trinidad and Tobago later became the first country in the world to declare a public holiday to celebrate the abolition of slavery, replacing Columbus Discovery Day, which commemorated Columbus' landing at Moruga on 31 July 1498. 

The British declaration, purposefully, did not mention the growing number of revolts and establishment of free territories of Black people throughout the Caribbean and mainland Americas, the most successful of which was the Haitian Revolution, resulting in the first Black Republic in the Americas on January 1, 1804.

Almost 28 years later, after the Haitian Revolution, insurgents, led by Jamaica's Sam Sharpe, initiated a general strike, envisioning emancipation, on December 28, 1831. It involved roughly a fifth of the island's 300,000 slaves. They ruined, by fire or hatchet - similar to recent revolts in Haiti against government attempts at a structural adjustment plan - 145 plantations valued at 200,000 British pounds.

Emancipation Day is a way for people of African descent in the Caribbean to remind themselves that they too are the sons and daughters of Africa and their freedom came through sacrifice and struggle. It's also a means to celebrate their culture and customs after nearly 400 years of European colonization and slavery, forced to change their names, religions, beliefs, languages, and more.

“Today is an opportunity for descendants of the enslaved, and enslavers, to reflect upon the causes and consequences of these crimes against humanity, and in particular their significance on how we live today, and will in the future,” wrote Hilary Beckles, vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies and chair of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) Reparations Commission.

Emancipation Day is also celebrated in Ghana, London and parts of Canada and the United States, all home to large Caribbean communities.

“Emancipation: Our Heritage, Our Strength,” is the title and theme of this year's Emancipation Day in the West African country. The concept was launched on June 6, coupled with the release of the book titled “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Landmarks, Legacies, and Expectations.”

Activities included the re-enactment of the crossing of the river Pra at Assin Praso, a point of no return for Africans who were captured and slated for the Atlantic crossing to the first-stop Caribbean islands. They also included a wreath-laying ceremony to honor pan-African leaders such as Trinidadian author and journalist George Padmore, former Ghanian President Kwame Nkrumah and others.

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