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One hundred and sixty seven years ago, our forebears gathered in churches all over this island to give thanks for the release of some 400,000 former slaves into full freedom. On that day, a clear message was sent to the world that, as children of a Common Creator, no one could rightly, justly or morally be the property of another.
The assertive character of Jamaican has never allowed us to sit idly by and allow that part of our history to be either forgotten or ignored. It is our solemn duty to secure the gains won by the invincibility of the human spirit against such great odds with passionate and loving care.
We are about to celebrate yet again that freedom which set hundreds of thousands of our ancestors free and to give the society they were to inherit, as free men and free women, the capacity to become civil, tolerant and enduringly humane.
The great Haitian leader, Touissant l’Ouverture in his memorable reply to the President of France, the colonial ruler asserted (and I quote) “It is not a circumstantial liberty conceded to us that we wish, but the unequivocal adoption of the principle that no man whether he is born red, black or white can become the property of his fellow man”.
It is that spirit of determination to effect human equity and equality for which we here in Jamaica have struggled, regardless of race, colour, political affiliation or creed.
The celebration of August First, then, remains an important observance for all who inhabit this land of ours. Today’s challenges may appear formidable. But the fact that our forebears could overcome the greatest hardship of all – that of being enslaved – is cause enough, both for hope and for the strengthening of our resolve, to overcome every obstacle.
We dare not betray the trust placed in us who have come after the generation of 1838. We must never give up the fight to become the self-directed, liberated human beings we were created to be.
The abolition of slavery meant more than the emancipation of the slaves. It also meant the emancipation of those who held them in bondage, at least from the burden of callousness and greed – factors that devalue human life and desecrate any society intended to nurture that life.
So, let us again say thanks for that Emancipation which allowed thousands of others, whose descendants now call Jamaica “home”, to enter a free society. They were still being exploited on contract during the period of indentured labour, but at least there were prescribed rules of engagement covering conditions of work.
They bequeathed this precious legacy to our workers and their trade unions, to our professionals and their staff associations, to our citizens and their right to choose their leaders who hold power in trust on their behalf. It was this legacy which was to help guide us into Independence, another milestone that we will observe in a few days. This legacy set us on the road to civil society, democratic governance and peaceful co-existence.
Our Emancipation Day observance is therefore a fitting tribute to that legacy of determination and inner strength which our freedom-loving ancestors have given to posterity.
May I wish blessed and pleasant Emancipation Day to everyone!