Emancipation is one of the most important holidays in the Jamaican calendar. It marks the freedom of slaves in 1934. This was a hallelujah day!

What followed was not hallelujah, however. The emancipated slaves, in most cases, refused to work on the sugar estates, even though under the new arrangement they would be paid. The pay was very small and they preferred to find lands and strike out on their own. The result was that without capital and with marginal lands they
barely survived.

All this came to a head when, some 30 years later in 1865, the Morant Bay Rebellion occurred as a protest against the social and economic conditions in the country. Following the protests, the system of Government changed and Jamaica willingly became a colony of the British Government again, hoping for better conditions. But conditions failed to improve markedly for the poor. In 1938, 100 years after Emancipation, things came to a head again, as a series of strikes occurred in protest. These protests led to a change in the system of Government once more, as Jamaica moved to the goal of self-government then independence.

Unlike the periods after 1834 and 1865 when little improvements occurred for the poorer class of people, there has been some forward movement since 1938. Trade unions have secured better wages and working conditions. Through the political process, better social conditions exist, although the pace of improvements have been slow and the gains have been inadequate.

One of the greatest improvements achieved since emancipation is the emergence of a significant Jamaican middle class over the past half a century. The children of the poor used education to “step up eena life”, and wider opportunities in business, not available before, allowed poorer people to improve their financial means. Countless thousands of successful people today can trace their origins to humble beginnings two generation ago.

In this sense, Emancipation eventually provided a new life for a great many Jamaicans after decades of struggle by generations of their forefathers.

We must build now on this emerging, broader foundation by wider education and greater opportunities to participate in the economy.

Despite these notable gains, however, we still classify one-fifth of the population as poor and a great number as nearly poor. The transformation, from poverty to substance with upward social mobility is not over by any means. It is simply underway.

The challenge before us now is to expedite this process so that poverty and social degradation will be one day so reduced that few will be left out of the process of betterment for themselves and their children.

This is not only a challenge but a vision for the future.

May this Emancipation Day echo the joy which it brought to the people of Jamaica 164 years ago.