AUGUST 1, 2011

We have a truly remarkable history. We were not the original inhabitants of the land we now call our own.

The indigenous Jamaicans were the Taino or Arawak Indians, not dissimilar to the population of South America. They were constantly invaded and attacked by the warlike Carib Indians but they resisted. What they were not able to endure were the diseases that erupted after the Spaniards “discovered”, as they say, Jamaica. The Arawak population was completely wiped out.

Later, the English “captured” Jamaica from the Spanish and set up plantations to grow sugar for the British market. Africans were captured or bought on the west coast of Africa and transported by ships to Jamaica to work the plantations. For more than 150 years, they were made to live and work under brutal conditions, ripped apart from their families, sold and re-sold like items of furniture, whipped on their backs when they were not seen to be working hard enough, executed when they were deemed to be troublemakers.

Many times they rebelled and fought for their freedom but they were crushed and brought back in line. But they never gave up. Through the courageous efforts of our heroes like Sam Sharpe and Nanny of the Maroons, through the defiant struggle of persons like Tacky and Three-Fingered Jack, through the strident advocacy of conscious white men like William Wilberforce in England and William Knibb in Jamaica, through the missionary work of organizations like the Baptist church, slavery was officially abolished in 1834. This transplanted, oppressed and brutalized people set about building the nation we call Jamaica.

This is our history. It is these experiences that define who we are and what we are. Emancipation Day is intended to observe and celebrate that critical turning point.

It is a cause to celebrate, for slavery is the worst abomination that one set of people can, through their power and might, inflict on another. In that celebration, we honour the courage of those leaders who fought the battle against slavery at times when it seemed to be a battle that would never be won, those who sacrificed their lives so that our forefathers could be free and our nation be built.

It is also a time to reflect and assess. Importantly, it is a time to connect the dots, to link where we are coming from to where we are and where we want to go. The challenges we face today and the challenges of the future may be different from those that confronted the slave leaders but they require the same quality of courage, commitment and even defiance if we are to triumph as they did and fulfil the legacy they left us.

Slavery officially ended at midnight on July 31, 1834. The building of our nation will never end. It will continue for as long as life lasts. Our task is to do our part in the same way that our slaving forefathers did theirs and so better enable those who come after us to deal with the challenges that they will face.

Today, as we celebrate emancipation, let us give thanks. Let us honour those who made it possible. But let us also recommit ourselves to the nation-building process that they made possible and started and which we have a duty to advance.

I commend to all Jamaicans an Emancipation Day of reflection and renewal.

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