During the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s, the anniversary of Emancipation seemed to have been forgotten in Trinidad by all but a few race-conscious intellectuals like JJ Thomas. Even the 50th anniversary of the formal end of slavery (1834) passed unnoticed, to judge from the absence of any reports in the local press.
But the Jubilee of full emancipation in 1888 was different. It provided the occasion for a revival in public interest in slavery, emancipation and "the progress of the race", and an increase in race consciousness on the part of the educated middle class.
One factor in all this was the final end of African enslavement in the Americas—the local newspapers carried several reports, in the first half of 1888, on the progress of abolition in Brazil, the last New World country to end slavery. Another was the "Reform Movement" at home, a campaign for constitutional reform which had begun in 1885 and reached its climax in 1888. By that time, too, ambitious young mixed-race and black lawyers, teachers and civil servants were struggling to shape a sense of racial and social identity, and they seized on the Jubilee to publicise their ideas.
Led by Edgar Maresse-Smith, a solicitor, this group planned high-profile celebrations for August 1, 1888, including a public dinner. They were opposed by older "liberals", both white and mixed-race, who organised a rival dinner for the night. The whole affair generated considerable controversy and discussion, on slavery itself, on the progress of West Indians since 1838, and on contemporary race relations. This public debate was extensively covered in the local press.
Some took the position that slavery should be forgotten and, therefore, the Jubilee should be celebrated as quietly as possible: "that long past time", one summed up, "is one which, I feel sure, every right thinking man in the community, to whatever race he may belong, would gladly see buried in complete oblivion".
"Why should a few noisy agitators", asked a black correspondent, "remind respectable people of the misfortunes of their ancestors, and give fresh vitality to sentiments of hostility that are fast sinking into oblivion?" This fear—that celebration of the Jubilee would revive unfortunate memories of past wrongs and stir up race and class hostilities—was expressed by everyone who disapproved of Maresse-Smith and his group.
He rejected these arguments and called on all race-conscious Trinidadians to remember slavery and their links to their slave ancestors. He attacked mixed-race men (he was one himself) who tried to disown their black grandmothers and affected to despise people darker than themselves: "Let us then be not ashamed of our race, and understand for good that the servitude of our ancestors was a misfortune to them, for the which we need not blush". He looked back to the years when August 1 was regularly celebrated in Trinidad as "the birthday of our race", and concluded that it was the "clear duty" of all Trinidadians of African descent to celebrate the Jubilee.
These young radicals naturally rejected the claim that the Jubilee would revive old hostilities and divisions, but they stressed that it would help to "uplift the race". It was an opportunity to promote "the social and moral emancipation of their race from the chains of political cowardice, ignorance and superstition". Its celebration would promote unity among African-Trinidadians and "racial feeling", which was said to be weak because of the mixed population.
This "mixed" population gave the governor a plausible excuse not to declare August 1, 1888, a one-off public holiday: there were several important groups with no connection with slavery, he said, and people of African descent were "not a majority of the people". Some agreed with him, like the person who thought "a Jubilee of Emancipation may suit other colonies, but it is out of the question for Trinidad".
Should the anniversary be celebrated by everyone in the society, or only by the descendants of the enslaved? Perhaps predictably, the consensus was that Creoles (locally-born people) in general, whether descended from the enslaved or the enslavers or from both, should celebrate the end of slavery. It had debased and degraded the owners as much as the owned; the former were freed by the Act of Emancipation as much as the latter. "Everyone, white or black, has gained by the glorious abolition of slavery", and whites of British descent should be especially proud to celebrate the "great act of justice" by their nation.
Inevitably, the Jubilee events reported by the press were organised and attended by men who were mostly the descendants of slave-owners (mixed-race and white) rather than of slaves. Outside Port of Spain, however, the anniversary was observed in small towns and villages, where the children and grandchildren of the enslaved took part in more popular festivities. Jubilee celebrations were reported in San Fernando, Arima, Arouca, Chatham, Couva, California, Mayaro, Tortuga and Mayo, and some of these incorporated elements of the Creole folk culture. At Arouca there was a Canboulay type procession; at Mayaro a lady aged 80 "told how they used to suffer at the time of slavery", and proceedings closed with a "Belle-air or drum dance" which lasted into the morning of August 2.
• Bridget Brereton is Emerita Professor of History at UWI, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of T&T, and the Caribbean, for many decades.
— Prof Brereton's column returns to its
regular fortnightly space in the Express on August 16