Today is Emancipation Day. On August 1, 1834, exactly 180 years ago, 83,545 slaves (according to one source) were declared “free”. The word is within scare quotes because in reality, they had to serve an “apprenticeship” for another four years.
What that meant was they would now be paid wages during that time, but it gave the planters time to make arrangements to undercut their bargaining power to demand a “living wage”. The “arrangement”, which worked for the planters, was the importation of indentured labour of, in sequential order, Portuguese, East Indians and Chinese origin.
Emancipation Day is a seminal day in the history of this country, and it is one during which all peoples should reflect on the society we would wish to create now that we are presumably “independent” and in control of our destinies.
The first point we should consider is the fact that the emancipation proclamation declared, “Compensation in the form of a free gift of £20 million English (now worth about US$25 billion) should be paid to the slave owners for the loss of their slaves.” The slaves that enriched Britain (and the Netherlands before them) did not even get a firm handshake.
But unlike the stereotypes that abound today, the ex-slaves during the “apprenticeship” periods saved their meagre wages and in 1838, launched one of the most incredible initiatives in human history: they began what is now referred to as “the village movement”.
Maybe apocryphally, it is said they took their money in wheelbarrows to pay for abandoned sugar plantations – the first one being Northbrooke on the East Coast of Demerara. It was renamed “Victoria” in honour of the then reigning Queen of England. The slaves were not aware that it was more because of cold, economic calculus that the proffered “humanitarian” reasons that slavery had been abolished.
In building those villages, in the light of recent events, we have to also point out that they also introduced democracy into this country because it was in accordance with these principles that the villages made their decisions. We will not dwell too much as to how the early entrepreneurial spirit that created the village movement – and the collateral efforts to launch self sustaining economic schemes – were stymied by the ruling planter class, that was determined to destroy any effort not linked to serving the sugar industry.
We do so, because we believe that in the present there is now the opportunity to fan the flames of that spirit so that the descendants of those pioneers can at last echo that great American, Dr Martin Luther King and shout, “Free at last! Free at Last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
While the entrepreneurial spirit can be dampened, it can never die, because it is part and parcel of the human condition. Its practical application within diverse circumstances can also be taught. It is for this reason that this newspaper has made a concerted effort to encourage the Education Ministry to launch the CAPE Entrepreneurship syllabus this year.
Secondly, there is the struggle for Reparations that all Guyanese must support. Back in March 2007, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed “deep regret and sorrow” for his country’s role in the African slave trade, then [former] President Bharrat Jagdeo retorted to then resident British High Commissioner Fraser Wheeler: “Now that some members of the international community have recognised their active role in this despicable system, they need to go one step further and support reparations. Otherwise, their remarks about the horrors of the slave trade and slavery become meaningless and platitudinous, and such remarks may be expressed merely to absolve guilt.”
Thirdly, there is the Reparations Movement that was launched by Caricom Heads of Government, last year, which can provide the wherewithal – at long last – to the descendants of those slaves to fund their quest for real emancipation.
Happy Emancipation Day To all Guyanese at home & abroad.
Source: Guyana Times