My fellow Jamaicans at home and in the Diaspora, it gives me great joy to greet you on this special Emancipation Day! This year we celebrate the 175th anniversary of full freedom from slavery. Now more than ever we must draw on the history of our ancestors, the spirit of our ancestors and heed their call – a call captured in our theme of this year’s Emancipation and Independence celebrations: “Celebrating Jamaica: Triumphant, Proud and Free”.
We are triumphant, we are proud and our freedom allows us to chart the course we want for ourselves. In our ancestors’ names and ours we define that course. On that course I speak triumph. I speak national pride. I speak victory. I assert our freedom to be.
Emancipation represented the pillar and ground of all our civil liberties. There could be no meaningful celebration of an independent state without the achievement, and hence celebration of personal liberty. It is important that as Jamaicans who so zealously guard our freedoms, that we take time to contemplate the meaning of Emancipation. It is important that we celebrate its roots in our restless and ceaseless struggle for freedom; that we vow to eliminate any legacy of what one scholar of history refers to as the “indigestible fish bone of slavery.”
Our ancestors never lost sight of the ideals of human dignity and human rights, even when they were so shamelessly denied and so mercilessly trampled upon by their enslavers. They claimed freedom as their unchallengeable right. They refused to resign themselves to the inferiority and the sub-human, status that was foisted on them. There was something incredible within them that caused them to insist on their right to liberty, despite their circumstances.
This insistence on freedom and human rights is our heritage, fellow Jamaicans. It is a heritage of resilience, perseverance, resourcefulness; a heritage of a stubborn and defiant affirmation of our human dignity. It was that indomitable spirit which caused the Maroons to stand up to the British in their quest to secure their freedom. The result of that was the momentous Treaty of 1738/39 – 275 years ago.
In addition to these successful campaigns by the Maroons, there were other indications – from Taino times to the Sam Sharpe-led war – that our ancestors “refused to be, what they wanted them to be”; that like Marlon James tells us, they would eventually say “enough done be enough”.
Our ancestors demonstrated that uncompromising spirit again and again in 1673, 1690 and 1760 through Tacky’s battles; in 1824 with the Argyle Campaign in Hanover and again in the all-island 1831/1832 Emancipation uprising led by Sharpe. Over 600 of his supporters suffered along with him in the aftermath of that war for liberation. But, they did not suffer in vain.
Those who punished our ancestors knew very well that punishment was excessive. The history books tell the tales of our ancestors, including Susan James who received 200 lashes. Governor Belmore, her enslaver knew of the pain he inflicted; but he defended its infliction anyway.
In 1832 he admitted:
“I regret to state, that in suppressing this most calamitous rebellion, many slaves have perished in the field, and numbers have been executed after trial, but the audacity of the rebels was so great, that striking examples were found indispensably necessary, for mistaken [leniency] would have only operated as an indirect encouragement to the disaffected to persevere in their lawless designs”. As we look back on those times, we can justifiably say, “Thank God for our audacious ancestors!”
- Their audacity resulted in the Emancipation Act that came into action in 1834;
- Their audacity resulted in the end of Apprenticeship and Full Free in 1838;
- That audacity led to continued protests against low wages, unfair labour practices; landlessness; injustice and the attempt to block worker representation.
- Their audacity allowed the Trade Union Movement to develop and accelerate the decolonization movement so that today we can proclaim that we are “triumphant, proud and free’!
That freedom was not a demonstration that the enslavers had evolved in their goodness or had developed a generosity of spirit overnight. Our freedom came because of our ancestors’ blood, sweat and tears.
As historian Richard Hart puts it: it was the “slaves who abolished slavery”. He speaks of those, some of whom I honour today in the African tradition of saying their names – Catherine Brown and the women of Cascade Pen, Caroline Smith of Lacovia, Sarah Jackson of Ginger Hill who all served in Sam Sharpe’s rebel army! They demanded nothing less than full freedom and I can imagine the joy, the unspeakable joy, the excitement, indeed the ecstasy, which greeted that first Emancipation Day when those who survived the war lived to see the day!
Why is it important to keep these things at the forefront of our minds as we move along our journey as a people? The words of Professor Don Robotham provide a stark reminder. He said, “Abolition (of slavery) had a direct and practical meaning to people: No more whipping, no more treadmill, no more rape and arbitrary brutality, no more being at the mercy of the overseer and the driver. No more being the property of another human being to be worked, rented, leased, attached, inherited, bought, sold and used at will”.
It is therefore appropriate that we both celebrate and contemplate on this Emancipation Day. We must celebrate Emancipation with the same spirit of jubilation as the workers of the time did. At Emancipation, there was a whole week of celebrations before workers returned to work.
As we take one day to reflect, our celebration must be seen in our commitment to the furtherance of our people’s mission, as we return to work and build our nation. As we contemplate, let us honour our historians who have ensured, through their research and scholarship, that we never forget the travails and triumphs of our people.
Ours is now the struggle for full liberation. That liberation must come in the form of economic emancipation and further social evolution. We are now in charge of our own house and our destiny. We have to fashion our future. We have to set our economic house in order.
Our ancestors were not afraid to take tough decisions and neither should we. It is in the name of these brave ancestors that we call on those who trespassed against them to do the right thing as we in the Caribbean explore all the avenues related to reparation.
We have to now unite around a common goal. We have to ensure that we build consensus; that we elevate cooperation over confrontation; that we mend fences rather than engender foes and that we choose participation over passivity.
Fellow Jamaicans, let us draw on the strength of our forebears to meet whatever challenges lie ahead. Let us meet those challenges with courage and determination. Let us swim into life’s billowing waves. Let us embrace our inner shouts of victory.
National Hero Marcus Mosiah Garvey, at an Emancipation Day rally in New York in 1922 said, “I trust that each and every one of you will, therefore, realize that you have a duty which is incumbent on you; a duty you must perform because your forbears who suffered, who bled and who died had hopes that are not yet completely realized.”
My fellow Jamaicans, the same is true of us today.
The baton has been passed to us. We must run this leg of the journey, holding it fast to hand to those who will carry it onwards for the next glorious leg.
Brothers and Sisters, as the negro spiritual urges, let us keep our lamps trimmed and burning as we move forward, as poet Maya Angelou says–and I quote:
“Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear – I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise, I rise, I rise.”
Let us arise and build Jamaica Land we love.
God Bless Jamaica, land we love and God bless us all.