Celebrating Freedom: Caribbean People commemorate Emancipation.

For the last quarter century, during the last week of July and the first of August annually, celebrations and commemorative events have been hosted in recognition of the Emancipation from slavery, which was proclaimed in the Caribbean in 1834 and fully enforced from August 1, 1838. These contemporary events are held throughout the region in many of the islands, such as the US Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Anguila, Antigua, Dominica, Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent, Montserrat, and Trinidad and Tobago. The South American mainland Caribbean nation of Guyana also bear witness to the emancipation festivities.

The 2011 Emancipation festivities a particularly significant in the context of the declaration of 2011 as ” The Year of People African Descent” by the United Nations. This declaration was made in recognition of the millions of people worldwide, whose ancestors came from the African continent, and especially in recognition of the horrors experienced during the near 400 years of slavery and the continued discrimination and racial abuse faced since. In making this declaration it is the hope that efforts to end discrimination on the of race would be redoubled.

The last half of the 19th century saw the coming in to being of emancipation celebrations akin to those of today. In many of the islands at the time, freedom from the shackles of slavery was celebrated in that first week of August. Many of these celebrations eventually became subsumed by the various Carnivals that emerged then and are still held to this day around this time of the year. An example of this is the Cambulay that was held on August 1 in Trinidad but was suppressed in the famous Riots of 1881. The procession, masking, music, and other performance forms associated with this events eventually becoming incorporated into the pre-lenten Carnival. However, the Carnivals of places such as Barbados, Antigua, and Grenada continue to be hosted during the last week of July and the first of August, close to the August 1st proclamation of freedom.

In 1985, Trinidad and Tobago became the first country to declare a public holiday annually in recognition of this historically significant event in the history of the “people of African descent” and indeed, the history of the world. The acceptance of this holiday by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago came after the ground was laid by the Emancipation Support Committee in the years prior. The committee was then spearheaded by the late Lancelot Layne and included leading members such as, Ella Andell, the late Brian Honore – Commentor, John Cupid, in addition to some of the members that hold the fort today.

The commemorative activities initiated by this early committee included processional visits to historic areas and sites, significant to the experiences of the enslaved and their descendants in Trinidad and Tobago. Some of these included: Lopinot, Aranguez, the Lavantille and Picton Hill area, and the Gonzalez/Belmont community which was a former slave village. Sites of cemeteries for the slaves; trees on which hangings and beating were carried out, were pointed out to participants in these processions, which served an educational function in addition to the celebratory. These emancipation commemorative activities have developed to include an extended Emancipation village in which performances and speeches featuring local and foreign guests (especially from African countries) are delivered, and it culminates with a procession on August 1.

Similar types of celebratory events and activities are hosted in other parts of the Caribbean region. In Jamaica the day is recognized as a national public holiday. An Emancipation Park was opened in Kingston in 2002,
and festivities are held in many different parts of the country. For instance in Spanish Town, St. Catherine there is a reenactment of the reading of the Emancipation Declaration. This town was the seat of Parliament for the colonial government when the abolition of slavery was proclaimed in 1838. Other towns, such as Morant Bay, St. Thomas, host celebrations that feature cultural forms such as mento, and kumina among other cultural activities. In 2011, the community in St. Anns hosts activities that culminate on July 31 with festivities entitled “Let the drums talk”.

In Guyana the occasion of the emancipation anniversary is observed throughout the country and is marked by road and cycle races, the distribution of hampers to the poor and elderly, and essay writing competitions. Additionally, church services are held in some areas and there are performances of dance and song. Groups from neighboring Brazil and Suriname are invited to participate and contribute to the events, particularly in some of the border towns. And, processions are held in which the participants adorn themselves in West African print and march along to the strains of African music.