Mr. Speaker, I am very grateful for the opportunity to rise before my colleagues, and indeed the entire nation to address an issue of great importance, not just to Jamaicans, but to people of conscience across the globe.
On Sunday March 25, 2007 – a wide cross section of Jamaican people gathered at Kingston’s historic waterfront to share in a very moving event – the celebration of ancestral funeral rites for our forbears of African origin.
Mr. Speaker, there was joy amidst the solemnity of the occasion, as this was truly a national event, with a seamless inclusiveness, cutting across religion, socio-economic means, political affiliation, personal agendas and gender. And yet, the facts which precipitated this special occasion were anything but pleasant.
I do not stand here today simply to agitate old wounds, Mr. Speaker, but this is something we cannot afford to forget. Still, we cannot afford to do it with any bitterness or with a mindset of self pity. On the contrary, I suggest we examine the bitter realities of grave injustice in a way so as to remind us of our collective pedigree based on a history of concerted collective action.
It is this history that we must always hold before us with pride and not shame, with a sense of victory, and not defeat. It is a history that yielded the feisty spirit in every Jamaican that allows us to survive the gravest ills, and which also makes us intriguing to the rest of the world.This, Mr. Speaker is what propelled Nanny of the Maroons, ‘Daddy’ Sharpe, Marcus Garvey – the most enduring icon of Pan Africanism, Paul Bogle, George William Gordon for whom this honourable house is named, and of course the founding fathers of modern Jamaica – William Alexander Bustamante and Norman Washington Manley.
These are the facts Mr. Speaker:
The forced transportation of over 15 million enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and the wider Americas, the permanent dislocation of over 30 million in communities across the continent, and the mutilation and murder of millions unknown, constitute modernity’s greatest crime against humanity.
At the same time, it remains puzzling that Western Europe with a stated political culture, of aggressively championing the cause of human liberty, political freedom, and the public accountability of government, should have promoted and globalised for nearly 400 years race-based chattel slavery to further its own economic ends.
ALL societies, Mr. Speaker have known a variety of insidious crimes, however none has been as corrosive of the concept of humanity, as the evil represented by the centuries of chattel enslavement of Africans by Europeans in the Atlantic world.
Jamaica alone accounts for the receipt of about 25-30 percent of the 3-4 million Africans robbed of their freedom and brutally plucked from their homeland to grease the wheels of sugar production in the British Caribbean.For those who do not understand – by default or deliberation.THIS is what we celebrate:
From the very moment of capture, our African ancestors and their descendants in the region fought against the trade and slavery. This forced European intellectuals, economists, humanitarians and politicians to pay closer attention to this travesty of justice, and to later join the campaign to end the trade and slavery by the end of the 18th century.
Do not be fooled – the system did not end simply by grace.the fact that it took centuries of sustained struggles by our Ancestors was to the disgrace of the perpetrators. Yet the lesson once again is not bitterness, but pride in and respect for our heritage.
The abolition of the transatlantic trade in Africans (TTA) was a phased process in the British-colonized Caribbean, officially taking place between 1805 and 1808. Briefly, in 1805, the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, secured an Order-in-Council indicating that as of 1806, certain Crown Colonies (Berbice, Demerara, Essequibo & Trinidad) would no longer be allowed to import Africans (especially to start new plantations).
In January 1806, Charles Fox, Pitt’s successor, moved a resolution for the immediate and total abolition of the trade but no Bill was passed in that year. The ‘Slave Trade Abolition Bill’ was eventually passed in both Houses on 25th March 1807, to become law on 1st May 1807, with an outside compliance date of March 1808, subject to penalties.
The formal records indicate that the last slaver, the Kitty’s Amelia, arrived in Kingston Harbour on 25th January 1808 with 200 captives, the majority from the Igbo people. The rationale for this post-1807 journey was that ships cleared to participate in the trade before March 1807 could proceed with their plans. With fresh importations being illegal after 1808, there was an increase in the internal relocation of people in the island, planters uprooting people from their place of abode as they tried to keep their properties going. The intra-Caribbean trade in Africans also continued, causing the up-rooting of people who had already established roots in a particular Caribbean territory.
The trade therefore did not end with the March 25, 1807 Act of the British Parliament – in fact subsequent research by Professor Verene Shepherd this year revealed that the Kitty’s Amelia was not in fact the last arrival.
Jamaica’s plans to mark the 200th anniversary of the passing of the Act to abolish the trade in Africans are proceeding, even within the context of this knowledge that trade continued illegally for some time and that the slave system itself remained in place until 1834.
Nevertheless, we need to celebrate the fact that by that Act, millions more were saved from the dehumanizing Middle Passage and slavery in the Caribbean and that even though abolition has traditionally been presented as a benevolent act by British humanitarians and politicians, thousands of Africans and Creoles in Jamaica participated in the long anti-slavery struggle.After 1804, the increase in maritime marronage was further encouraged by Haiti’s 1805 emancipatory constitution. This, coupled with a greater awareness of the importance of their labour power among the enslaved, especially females who formed the majority of all field gangs, and therefore increasing instability in Jamaican society; for the more the British enslavers tightened military control and made punishments for so-called crimes even more horrific, even stepping up deportation, the more the enslaved found ways to resist. So effective was resistance that by 1832, and the suppression of the Jamaica war, the writing was on the wall.
The year 2007 provides a space for Jamaica and the Caribbean to reflect on and explore openly its historical relationship to the TTA and slavery. It also provides an opportunity for to appropriately memorialize our freedom fighters who suffered and fought to secure an end to the transatlantic trade in Africans and ultimately the slave system.
The decision to meet at Kingston Harbour on Sunday was quite deliberate. It was the site of the largest number of arrivals of enslaved Africans, as well as a thriving slave market. Just to reiterate Mr. Speaker that the purpose of the ceremony was to redress a wrong that was done centuries ago- that is, bury our family in the way that we should have done centuries ago and honour them for what they endured in the cause of Caribbean freedom. It is true that some of our ancestors received a proper burial by their families and fellow enslaved brothers and sisters, where plantation owners allowed them to do so. We even have examples of funeral scenes in 19th century Jamaica and at least one sermon preached at one such funeral. However, countless others were never accorded the funeral rites to which they were entitled, whether Muslim, Christian or traditional African ceremonies.
Many family members and ethnic kin were never given a chance to bury their loved one in any event, as many died, jumped or were thrown overboard deliberately on the Middle Passage journey. Thousands were dumped all over Jamaica after they were murdered for their participation in wars of resistance. We have no idea what happened to the others deported. Sunday’s ceremony was an outward symbol of our collective attempt to begin the process of correcting such wrongs today. It has taken Jamaica a long time to do this, but better late than never, I say.
Why an interfaith ceremony, many will ask?
What right do Jews, Muslims and Hindus have to participate in a ritual that is designed to allow the African ancestors to rest in peace? Were some Jews not traders in enslaved people, some may hasten to remind us? And, surely no Hindus or Muslims were around until after the 1840s, some may add. My answer is that many of our African ancestors were Muslims and so Islam was almost indigenous to Jamaican culture. In fact, the Jamaican community of Hindus have been willing partners in this process of national healing – often expressing appreciation for the warm welcome accorded by the enslaved Africans to their Indian ancestors who arrived at Old Harbour Bay as indentured labourers in 1845. [NB. This first party consisted of 261 persons in all – 200 men, 28 women under 30 years old and 33 children under 12 years old]
In addition, the history and experiences of our African ancestors should not only be of concern to African descended people. Whether we like it or not, we now live in a multicultural space in this blessed island of Jamaica. Indeed, our diverse histories have moments of convergence and interdependence. The history of Indians is tied up with the history of emancipation and our post-slavery experience. So, our country has always experienced a level of inter-ethnic inter-dependence and continues to do so. We need to move to a situation where we destabilize ethnic cultural exclusivity, we must learn to honour each other’s ancestors, participate in each other’s heritage days and move towards a future of unity, solidarity and reconciliation of hierarchical differences. We owe it to our ancestors. It was a wonderful feeling to share that special moment and I believe we all left the waterfront filled with a new sense of purpose that will augur well for nation-building and unity.
We note with interest the observances elsewhere in the world, and the utterances of the British Prime Minister, and the Archbishop of Canterbury acknowledging their shame for the roles of both church and state in this process.well, that is well and good, but I must remind us all that closure and ultimately the power of true emancipation resides exclusively within our own minds.
The manifestations of this.the true test will be in how we treat each other.how we conduct our affairs.it will become evident when we demonstrate respect for self, including pride in our history and our God-given physical features..when we learn to accept who we are.when we demonstrate transparency and truth in all our dealings. Let us not undo the hard fought gains, Mr. Speaker – let us continue to be a proud people, a people of solid pedigree, and a people of royal heritage. My personal thanks to our religious leaders and to our head of State, His Excellency the Most Honourable Professor Kenneth Hall for so willingly facilitating the process of making March 25, 2007 a day of national pride and solidarity. I now close with the potent words Claude McKay:If we must die, let it not be like hogsHunted and penned in an inglorious spot,While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,Making their mock at our accursed lot.If we must die, O let us nobly die,So that our precious blood may not be shedIn vain; then even the monsters we defyShall be constrained to honor us though dead!O kinsmen we must meet the common foe!Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!What though before us lies the open grave?Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Let us continue to unite along this freedom journey as we give due honour to our ancestors.
One Love!

Skip to content