JIS News

Over the years, thousands of Jamaicans have been flocking to the Emancipation Jubilee, a national heritage festival, to pay tribute to their African ancestors. The event is celebrated each year on July 31 at the Seville Heritage Park in St. Ann’s Bay.
This year it should be no different. Thousands are expected to attend the event scheduled to begin at 6:00 p.m. and run through to Emancipation morning, Sunday, August 1, under the theme, “Ancestral Reflections . A Bridge to the Future.”
Emancipation vigils are held in all parishes on the same day. The event is hosted by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) in collaboration with the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC).
Now in its 14th year, the idea to start the ceremony began in 1987 when the JNHT was contemplating an activity to commemorate Emancipation Day.
“We were doing some archaeological work at Seville Heritage Park and we were actually trying to find the slave village at the Park itself,” Technical Director of Archaeology at the JNHT, Dorrick Gray, tells JIS News.
He says that excavation work was conducted at the Seville plantation by the JNHT, in collaboration with a team from the Syracuse University, USA, between 1987 and 1997.
“We were lucky in that, we were not only able to find the village and the foundation of these houses, but we were able to find the remains of our ancestors that were buried in the back yard,” Mr. Gray reveals.
In 1997, he says a decision was taken to re-bury the four remains at the front yard of the great house, with a massive celebration at Seville Park.
“It was just phenomenal, in terms of how the Jamaican people turned out to that event and stayed all night until morning,” Mr. Gray remembers.
“This was in fact the first activity we had, and it was an all night Nine Night. In the morning they had a service and then the re-burial, which brought together all the main traditional groups and organisations,” he states.
Mr. Gray says the event was significant, as it was the first time in the western hemisphere that “we were able to find not only the village of Africans on the plantation, but we were also able to find four remains – three males and one female.”
According to him, analysis carried out at the site and on the remains, by local and overseas investigators, revealed that there about 270 enslaved Africans, how they lived and other aspects of their lives.
“Most of the houses they lived in were 10 feet x 10 feet, and we were able to find the foundation of 24 houses and their associated artifacts with them,” he says. The houses had thatched roofs and limestone floors. Some of the artifacts included pen knives and smoking pipes.
Investigations also revealed that the four remains were all buried facing the east. Mr. Gray says that this was an important phenomenon, noting that burials were done in a similar way in some rural areas.
“This was, basically, a tradition for a lot of enslaved Africans in the western hemisphere. You bury your dead facing east, because it was the view that some day they will go back home. In fact when they die, they will go back home which was in the east,” he explains.
Since 1997, he said the heritage festival has been held each year under a different theme, featuring music, dancing, fashions, foods and exhibitions and dramatization. There is an all night vigil with the reading of the emancipation proclamation at midnight, and the laying of floral tributes to honour these ancestors.
The focus is not only on the ceremony, but persons are encouraged to wear their African dress to the event. There is also on display a variety of traditional foods, handed down from ancestors.
One of the highlights of the event is the free Jamaican chocolate tea, which is served all night in enamel mugs.
“You carry your mug and you get free chocolate tea all night,” Mr. Gray adds.
Noting the importance of the celebrations on Emancipation Day, Mr. Gray says that it was the only day, between January and December, when Jamaicans have the opportunity to honour their African ancestry.
“This is the day, the 31st of July, that we look at their lives, their resilience on the plantation and, of course, we try and learn from them as to how we, the present, can organise and move ourselves forward,” he adds.

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