Why August 23 is a more important to Caribbean History than Emancipation Day

By Earl Bousquet

COVID-19 changed almost everything in 2020.

But the global change engine has also this year accelerated the frequency of clashes between old and new, past and present, ultimately resulting in increased resistance to institutionalized inequality, presenting greater challenges everywhere for those banking on maintaining the Status Quo to guarantee traditional levels of advantageous cohabitation between the oppressors and the oppressed.

Take the observance of August 1st as Emancipation Day in the (British) Commonwealth Caribbean, where the Queen of England remains the constitutional Head of State decades after independence and her crowned head still adorns our dollar notes.

This colonially imposed holiday has been observed for as long as any Caribbean person alive can remember, despite irrefutable evidence that we may be celebrating something not even worth observing – and again, with a holiday.

For 22 years, Caribbean Community (CARICOM) governments have absolutely ignored a call by UNESCO – since 1998 – for observance of August 23 as the International Day for Remembering Trans-Atlantic Slavery and its Abolition.

Both dates (August 1 and August 23) are important: the first celebrates Britain’s Emancipation Act that introduced Apprenticeship; the second observes the date of the start of the original process that led to the eventual abolition of slavery worldwide.

The Caribbean has been celebrating the Emancipation holiday every year, with most mistakenly believing that was the date slaves were freed from their shackles and bondage.

But while that date is dear to Britain, not so for the slaves of the day, who still had to slave for free for another four years, for their same masters on the same plantations, through the Apprenticeship system that had only removed the chains from their feet, hands and necks and tied them to their pockets and stomachs.

Generations of Caribbean people’s interpretations of slavery have been formed by English school texts like ‘Nelson’s West Indian History’ and ‘New Worlds to Conquer’ that made British colonial adventurism look and sound good in the region’s young minds.

Apprenticeship was presented like necessary introduction of skills and work ethics to soon-to-be ex-slaves over four years, but it was simply a ruse to allow for enough time to source Indentured Indian labourers to continue the slave work, with little pay and no chance of returning home.

Then came Abolition – and here too, different countries, reluctant to ultimately end free labor, postponed and delayed implementation of abolition laws and ended it on different dates – and it continued thereafter in most cases.

Nothing was ever taught in the colonial texts about the significance of August 23 – the date in 1791 that started the process that led to the Haitian Revolution.

The 1804 Revolution not only ended slavery on the island, but also made Haiti the first country in the world to legally abolish slavery and totally free slaves, which is why August 23 has been observed by UNESCO as the only true date for genuine Remembrance of TransAtlantic Slavery and its Abolition.

TransAtlantic Slavery featured a unique system called Chattel Slavery that legally reduced Africans to private property after capture, which (property) was then insured for the risky passage across the Atlantic, sold by auction on arrival and forced to slave on estates for the rest of their lives.

It is because of the particularly brutal nature of TransAtlantic slavery that the United Nations has designated it as ‘The Worst Crime Against Humanity’ in the history of humankind; and it is because the beginning of its end started in Haiti that UNESCO chose August 23 as the remembrance date.

But Caribbean governments, who and which should most be interested in preserving and protecting the region’s true history, continue to embrace the colonial holiday and ignore this genuine Caribbean day of significance.

Haiti is a CARICOM member-state and its governments are usually more interested in political survival than observing Haiti’s glorious past.

Besides, successive governments have been historically restrained on issues relating to Slavery and Reparations, as France sought to punish the island forever for the Revolution by demanding 150 million French Gold Francs as Reparations (compensation) for losses of French planters, which Haiti started paying in 1825 and only ended in 1947 — a sum today worth US $21 Billion.

Haiti’s history is part of CARICOM’s. Its historical achievements also belong to the Caribbean region and should therefore be shared and highlighted, promoted and defended with regional pride.

But alas, that’s just not so.

Different CARICOM nations celebrate August 1 differently, but none has embraced August 23 as a date of regional significance to be observed. Instead, they continue to see and treat it as only part of Haiti’s history.

COVID Social Distancing protocols restricted or eliminated August 1 observances in many places this year, but that may be a blessing in disguise that will give the region’s governments a full year to think hard about how best to correct the historical anomaly of still paying blind tribute, eyes wide open, to a purely colonial holiday – and for the wrong reasons.

More needs to be done to better explain what Emancipation, Apprenticeship and Abolition really meant to Britain, vis-à-vis the eternal contribution of the Haitian Revolution to the eventual abolition of slavery worldwide.

The process of rewriting the Caribbean’s true history is an ongoing one, but must not only be left to historians and publishers.

The thirst for knowledge is never quenched and those who know more must share more with Caribbean people, who are now — more than ever — waking-up to the fact that we know less of what we should know more about.

Our long slumber was not our fault. But it is entirely our responsibility to correct our history and to teach and learn more about who we really are, because, as has been noted by Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and so many others, none but ourselves can free our minds from the mental slavery inherited over generations.

In this new age of growing enlightenment, CARICOM governments, while pursuing Reparations from Britain, should also now seriously consider when and how they’ll start treating Emancipation Day for what it really was and give appropriate recognition to August 23.

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