I greet you, my fellow Jamaicans, on this “August Morning” – the 176th anniversary of our emancipation from enslavement.
It is also the year in which we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League by our icons, Marcus Mosiah Garvey and Amy Ashwood Garvey.
While we in Jamaica are celebrating Emancipation from Negril to Morant Point, our Diaspora family are giving thanks for this day- from Alaska to Argentina, from Addis Abbaba and Algeria to Capetown and from Norway to New Zealand.
I salute you for sharing this historic moment with those of us on the rock.
As I rose this morning, thanked God for another day and greeted the sunrise, I imagined our ancestors in 1834 and again in 1838, staying up all night, as some of you did symbolically at islandwide vigils on July 31, so that they could witness, the dawning of freedom; freedom promised for so many years; freedom hoped for and fought for.
I ask you to take a moment to recall the sacrifices that led us to this day.
On May 23, 1832, at the young age of 31, the Rt. Excellent Sam Sharpe, hero of our emancipation, was hanged in the Montego Bay Town Square by order of the colonial government in Jamaica. Rev. Bleby recorded Sharpe’s attitude toward freedom, when he said:
‘Sharpe . . . was not, however, to be convinced that he had done wrong in endeavouring to assert his claim to freedom.
When reminded that the Scriptures teach men to be content with the station allotted to them by Providence, and that even slaves are required patiently to submit to their lot, till the Lord in his providence is pleased to change it, he was a little staggered – and so he should have been!”
Sam Sharpe, like so many of our forefathers and mothers, had endured brutality and genocide that took place at shocking levels.
When I learned about the dreadful experiences of:
* Mary Prince of Bermuda, who recorded memories of the atrocities she endured, the horrors endured by the enslaved and pregnant Rosie at the hands of her captors.
* When I think of the over 130 Africans mostly from Ghana on the ship Zong, who were deliberately drowned.
* When I recall the fate of Carpata and Tula in Curaçao in a terrible act of intimidation and humiliation in 1795;
* Whenever I think of the over 700 Africans locked in to drown in the Maroni River estuary in Suriname in 1738 while the crew made their escape;
* When I read about the conditions on board Liverpool ships transporting Africans to Jamaica;
* When I learned that of 1-5 million captured Africans sold in Jamaica over 2 centuries, only 20% survived.
Of the 5.5 million persons imported to the British Caribbean, there were only 800,000 left at the time of Emancipation…..
When I think of these things, I can only imagine the delight of our forebears, who on 1st August 1838, could say, like Martin Luther King Jnr’s Civil Rights speech, “Free at Last, Free at Last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last”.
The British preacher Ralph Wardlaw, capturing what the slaves must have felt on the approach of Emancipation said:
“Oh, what heart is there so cold, so seared, so dead as to feel no thrill of exulting emotion at the thought that on the morning of this day, eight hundred thousand fellow-men and who during the past night slept bondmen, awoke freemen!”
Imagine the unbridled joy, the inexpressible delight, the unprecedented hope that those ex-slaves felt when it finally dawned on them that they were really free.
Scholars tell us that some of the ex-slaves, walked up hills and climbed into tree tops, so that they could clearly witness the literal dawning of their freedom, so anxious were they not to miss the first light of liberation day.
In Jamaica on that “full free” August morning, peaceful celebrations occurred across the island.
A hearse containing shackles and chains that had been used to bind rebellious slaves, was driven through the streets of the capital Spanish Town, and ceremoniously burned.
On the day of “full free”, itself, reports are that:
Some of our ancestors went to Church to give thanks.
Others gathered in community celebrations.
Some, especially women, stayed home, because for the first time in their lives, they could!
* For the first time at last on that August morning, there was no conch shell being blown at the crack of dawn, to which they had no choice but to respond.
* For the first time at last on that August morning, they did not have to hustle out to the fields and other work places.
* For the first time at last on that August morning, there was no-one to police their weaning, and no one to tell them when or whether they could eat or drink.
After emancipation, when they were good and ready, some of our ancestors returned to the plantations that offered good labour practices but fled the others.
Some sought jobs in the urban centres, some chose home and backyard gardens combined with their housekeeping and some migrated to seek a better life.
Others found the means to access land and moved into free villages and yet others set up small businesses.
In light of these historical truths, I ask you, three fundamental questions:
– How will you spend this commemorative day in a manner that will bring honour to your ancestors, those freed on 1st August 1834 and those freed on August 1, 1838?
In those four years, those four lost years, our ancestors were forced to give the planters additional labour to the value of 27 pounds in the fraudulent system that they called apprenticeship.
-How will you honour the local and regional activists who could not enter the British Parliament to press their claim for freedom?
They used all means necessary to influence the Emancipation Act in one protracted struggle, which Historian Sir Hilary Beckles called “The 200 years war”, a war which began with the Taino warriors and included ancestors we remember today; including Tula, Bussa, Sharpe and others.
I ask you on this Emancipation Day, to visit a monument in your area.
Every monument to our ancestors, new and old, is important in celebrating the memory of those who bled and died, struggled and sacrificed so that we can be free.
Remember not only the ancestors whose names we know well.
Today I suggest a few of the lesser known ones:
* John Clarke and Edward Jarrett, leaders of the Argyle war in Hanover in 1824;
* Abraham Peart of Spice Grove in Manchester;
* Solomon Atkinson of Fairy Hill in Portland;
* Sarah Darling of Mitcham in St. Elizabeth;
* John Barclay of Spring Valley in St Thomas in the East and
* Charles Duncan of Charlton in St. Thomas in the Vale; all of whom were punished for fighting for freedom in 1831/32.
Other names from other parishes are in the records of the National Library of Jamaica.
Seek them out. Pay homage to them.
Historian, Professor Hilary Beckles has said of our post-emancipation struggle, “Our citizens have faced this past head on, and have established a vibrant culture of community self-help and sustainable regional development mobilization”.
This is why we need to remember not just the brutality, savagery and wickedness of slavery.
We need especially to remember the tenacity of purpose, the resistance, the resilience, the indomitable will of the enslaved.
Fellow Jamaicans, it is a remarkable and startling thing to imagine that there were actually persons of our bloodline…
* who were not seen as persons;
* who were categorized as brute beasts without human dignity; and yet
* who in the face of such dehumanization clung stubbornly to the notion that freedom was their right.
* Somehow they had the concept, denied all around them, that they were children of God equal to their slave masters.
If our ancestors could nurture that ‘all-things-are-possible attitude’ under those heart-rending conditions:
* what could there be that we, their heirs, can’t do today?
* What circumstances can exist today….
* what challenges can we face that could ever overwhelm us or cause us to lose hope?
They struggled valiantly against oppression when it seemed there was no hope.
Everything was stacked against them and it seemed utterly futile to grasp for anything better; but they did, against all odds. So to can we!
Our ability to overcome against all odds, our determination and our never-say-die attitude define us as a people.
It is who we are, irrespective of our lineage – Out of Many, One People – resilient, capable, determined and strong!
Poet Vera Bell’s words ring true:
Ancestor on the Auction block
Across the years your eyes seek mine
Compelling me to look…
…I see you sweating, toiling, suffering,
Within your loins I see the seed
From your Labour
Grow roads, aqueducts, cultivation
A new country is born
Yours was the task to clear the ground
Mine be the task to build
Build we can… build we must…build we shall!
This is Jamaica, our Jamaica, Land we love.
I thank you.