Today marks the 29th year since this country made history by declaring August 1 a national holiday to mark the end of slavery in the British Caribbean. The elevation of Emancipation was a turning point in the national consciousness which has been plagued with issues of identity and cultural validity related to the region’s historical circumstances.
In 1985, 151 years after the Emancipation Act came into effect in the British West Indies, T&T took the bold step of declaring the holiday after years of unrelenting lobby by such persons as Lancelot Layne and other leaders of the African-Trinidadian community. It was a moment long in coming, largely because of the legacy of suspicion and ambivalence bred by a history in which the colonial power structure saw the emancipation of an enslaved people as surrender, not as triumph.
History, however, has its own way of righting its wrongs by bringing truth to light. Today, 180 years after Thomas Buxton’s Emancipation Bill became law, no reasonable human being would dare argue the case for a people’s enslavement, much less the government of any nation. In less than 200 years, mankind’s prevailing ethos has made a 180-degree about-turn on the issue of human dignity and rights.
While the world remains replete with acts of oppression and aggression on the basis of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality and income, the universal standard by which societies are judged to be progressive and civilised is its recognition and respect of human rights.
We in the Caribbean, who were brutalised by the experience of state-sanctioned enslavement, have a special responsibility to hold aloft the torch of freedom. This year, we are privileged to have with us another fighter in the cause of freedom, teenager Malala Yousafzai.
As we honour the memory and legacy of the African ancestors on this day, let us light a torch of freedom for enslaved and oppressed people everywhere. For, we stand as testimony to the fact that history can be changed and that the human spirit has the capacity to endure and rise above the worst that can be thrown at it. Sometimes, it even becomes possible to make right with history. This, after all, is the underlying theme of Caricom’s attempt to seek reparations from European countries which had operated the institution of slavery in this region.
Caricom’s ten-point plan for reparations, approved by Heads of Government in March, seeks a formal apology from Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark and demands they engage Caricom in reparatory dialogue to address the living legacies of these crimes. For this, Caricom has identified a series of measures, including debt cancellation, strengthening of the Caribbean’s public health, educational and cultural institutions, and the region’s technological sector. In enlisting the British law firm, Leigh Day, Caricom has set the stage for a unique initiative in justice.
As we commemorate Emancipation today, let us do so with a renewed commitment to the cause of justice.