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The Bicentenary Commemoration of the abolition by Great Britain of the Trans-Atlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans is without doubt a defining moment in the history and contemporary realities of Jamaica. For, it effectively cut the source of supply of the exploited labour that fed and nourished the system of slavery now universally regarded as a “crime against humanity”.
The Abolition of the Trade in Enslaved Africans, lest we forget, did not bring an end immediately to the indecency of dehumanisation of millions severed from ancestral homes, to labour as chattels in the canefields of Jamaica and the rest of the British West Indies.
Nor did it cut off supplies to the rest of the Americas including the United States, Cuba and Brazil. Rather, the degradation, despair, the denigration of things African, the wanton exploitation and extreme punitive measures against surrogate beasts of burden on plantations and plot, continued unabated for many years later. In 1838 “full free”, as our forebears described that Second Abolition, marked the legal extinction from Jamaican reality that debilitating practice of man’s inhumanity to man.
But the first Abolition – that of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade – did prepare our forebears to deepen and maintain the struggle against the indecency on this side of the Middle Passage. They fought for the attainment of freedom both under law and for us to be the architects of our own fortunes. Those struggles allowed us to determine the direction and the courses of action that can take us into civil society capable of coping with the third millennium.
Between 1807 and 1838, the process of creating an indigenous culture by the native-born slaves certainly helped to hone and develop the sources of resilience and determination to stake their claims as members of the human family.
So years before the abolition of trade, many historians will recall, the response of a great Haitian leader to the then President of France, “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”.
Such is the spirit in which the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, perpetuated to have certain human beings become the property of others, must be seen. It allowed all who came to Jamaica and the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean itself to enter a society after the abolition of slavery not as slaves dragged from homelands India and China as slaves, but as free men and women. They came not as property of other men but as contract workers under strict rules of engagement, as indentured servants without undue denial of fundamental rights to their personal liberty and cultural heritage.
It is in this sense that the bicentenary commemoration must be seen as all-inclusive and all-embracing. For what it has resulted in, wittingly or unwittingly, are the building of a nation and the shaping of a society rooted in cultural diversity and the continuing quest for a society among us all regardless of race, colour, political affiliation or creed. And I might add, regardless of gender since our women ever since Nanny of the Maroons, have remained critical to our collective and individual identity, growth and development as every Jamaican son, spouse or partner will agree.
The bicentenary commemoration is significant to us because the legacy of slavery continues to force into memory the urgent need to forget our history. This history could be in danger of being repeated if we fail to pluck from the jaws of the despair of the past, a future of hope that lies within our grasp.
Such hope admittedly lies in the acknowledgement by the transgressors of their obligation to repair the damage done in that past with its imposition of a threatening sense of loss and chronic deprivation. This is in large measure the point of those who advocate reparations. But the hope lies even more in the conscious vigorous mobilisation of our creative energies in the spirit of the 1937 Garveyite injunction, that only we ourselves can free our minds from mental slavery which is part of the legacy that still fuels embers of self-doubt and sometimes rage.
So even while we commemorate, we need to pay ancestral homage to forebears who left us another legacy, namely the love of freedom, a sense of self, and a claim to our humanity which we, as Jamaicans, have all come to treasure as fundamental to our collective empowerment and individual existence.
For as is well known it is our forebears before and after 1807, who made it possible for us now to be creative participants in the challenging process of shaping a new habitable society and building a modern viable nation inhabited by an aggregation of souls who can be sure of themselves, proud of our heritage and committed to tolerance, mutual trust and that characteristic assertiveness without rancour.
It behooves us all to remember, to commemorate and engage all aspects of history supportive of our endurance and liberation. For as an African proverb goes, “Until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
It is no less significant then, that a National Committee – non-partisan and dedicated – should have been set up to plan and promote here in Jamaica the observance of this defining point in our rich, engaging and challenging history.