By Dr Lawrence A. Joseph
A pleasant good evening is extended to all. We are here to participate in the Formal Opening Ceremony of the 2015 Rainbow City Festival. It is a privilege of rare distinction to have been given the opportunity to deliver the Feature Address this evening. The privilege is even more distinctive as I have been a founding member of the St Andrew’s Development Organization which organization is spearheading today’s event. The theme for this year’s celebrations is: “Celebrating our Emancipation through Community Cultural Expressions.” My presentation therefore will embrace the basic tenets of the theme in hand, so I will endeavour to explain what is meant by “emancipation”, why we should be joyous about it and therefore why we should celebrate its achievement through community cultural expressions.
In the present context “emancipation” refers to the achievement of freedom from slavery by people of African descent who were forcefully transported to the Caribbean and the Americas by Europeans for over 300 years from the 16th to the 19th centuries. These Africans became slaves in what was referred to as the “New World”. This slave trading was done by the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Spanish and the Dutch.
It was not until 1833 that the British passed the Slavery Abolition Act in parliament which effectively ended slavery in the then British Empire on 1 August 1834. That day became the original “emancipation day”. Emancipation Day therefore is generally celebrated during the month of August throughout the Caribbean. In Grenada we recognize this day as being the first Monday in August of every year. It is good therefore that the St Andrew’s development Organization is giving due recognition to this important day and has seen it fit to incorporate its celebration in this year’s theme.
In giving consideration as to the reasons why we should celebrate Emancipation Day, it is most important for us to reflect on the circumstances which led to having an Emancipation Day in the first place. In so doing we must recall the so-called “discovery” of what was referred to as “the New World” by Christopher Columbus in the late fifteenth and early 16th centuries. As a consequence of that “discovery” Europeans like the British, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French and the Dutch had found new commercial opportunities outside of their own countries.
Following the “land grab” which established various colonies, the Europeans needed a lot of labour to work on their plantations of coffee, tobacco, cocoa, sugar cane, cotton and timber. They also needed a lot of labour to work in the gold and silver mines, in the rice fields, in the construction industry and in their households. Western and Central Africa provided them with the opportunity to have a super-abundance of free labour.
It was as a consequence of this tremendous demand for free labour in the colonies that the transatlantic slave trade was born and which trade subsequently flourished. It is estimated that over twelve million Africans were forcefully transported from Africa to the “New World” over the three hundred year period of the transatlantic slave trade. Captured Africans were packed like sardines on ships to make the long and horrific journeys to the New World. It is estimated that 15 out of every one hundred Africans died during their journey through what was referred to as “the middle passage” from Africa. These deaths were mainly due to overcrowding, malnutrition, accidents and disease. Those captured Africans who were considered by slave traders as not having “commodity value” were generally killed by their African handlers before they even reached the ship.
Africans on the ships who were earmarked to be slaves were treated as cargo. Before the ships left Africa with what was considered to be their cargo, slave traders would usually take out insurance coverage for this cargo. The financial coverage was thirty pounds for every African on board the ships. In 1781, on their way to Jamaica, the crew of the slave ship called “Zong” threw approximately 140 potential slaves overboard in 3 batches as the crew feared that there would be an insufficient amount of water on board to quench the thirst of all of their “cargo” before they reached port. On reaching Jamaica, the owners of the ship made a claim to their insurers for the loss of cargo which they claimed was necessitated in order to save the rest of the cargo. The insurers refused their claim for compensation and the matter was then taken to court for redress.
The matter of ‘the Zong massacre” was heard in England in the case of Gregson v Gilbert in 1783. Whilst the court did not allow compensation to be paid to the slave traders, the court held that in some circumstances the deliberate killing of slaves as a means of jettisoning cargo to save lives would be legal and that insurers would be liable to pay compensation. However, the court found that following the throwing overboard of the first batch of slaves from the “Zong”, a sufficient quantity of rainwater was collected in order to make the journey, so there was no need to kill the rest.
It is to be noted however that the principle which was established by the Gregson case was overturned by the well known case of R v Dudley and Stephens which was heard in England in 1884 after a cabin boy was killed and eaten when a ship was lost at sea. On a charge of murder Dudley and Stephens relied on the doctrine of necessity as a defence. This defence was rejected by the court because the killing of an innocent person was involved.
It was after the publication of the “Zong”episode that public opinion significantly turned against slavery in general in Great Britain. Abolitionists such as Granville Sharpe, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and a freed African slave called, Olandah Equiano (also known as Gustavus Vassa) gathered a lot of public sympathy for their cause to abolish slavery. Several Slave Trade Acts were passed in parliament in Great Britain between the years 1788 and 1799 which Acts tended to improve the accommodation of captured Africans being transported through the middle passage. In 1807 the Slave Trade Act abolished the slave trade in Britain and its overseas territories and in 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act was passed which abolished slavery in the British Empire on 1 August 1834.
It is interesting to note that whilst European countries such as Britain and France participated in the slave trade and encouraged slavery in their overseas territories, they could not accept that there was any legal status for having slaves in those mother countries. The case of Somerset v Stewart known as the Somerset Case which was heard in a British court in 1772 by Lord Mansfield held that chattel slavery was neither supported by common law or by statute in Britain so the purported slave owner, one Stewart did not have any authority to forcefully transport Somerset whom he considered to be his slave out of the country. In France similar principles were previously upheld in the case of Jean Boucaux v Verdelin which case was heard in that country’s court in 1738.
In recent times quite a number of apologies have come from many leaders and institutions whose countries were involved in the transatlantic slave trade. Apologies have come from British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2007; from the US House of Representatives and the US Senate in 2008 and 2009 respectively; from President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin (formerly called the Kingdom of Dahomey) in 1999; from President Jerry Rawlings of Ghana in that same year and in 2001 France passed a law appointing 10th of May of each year to recognize slavery as a crime against humanity.
Although many apologies have been delivered, many are now calling for reparations to be paid to the descendants of slaves by all those European countries which made tremendous profits from slavery. One of the earliest leaders to do so was one Father Levine of the United States of America in 1951. Over the years a number of African countries have also been making claims for compensation for the loss of sizable portions of their populations, but to no avail. In the Caribbean, the independent states of Guyana, Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica, Barbados and St Vincent have all made claims.
From all appearances therefore there seems to have been a turning point in recent times where Western democracies have recognized that the atrocity of slavery ought not to have been carried out against human beings. This new trend gives us further reason to celebrate Emancipation Day as the day when our fore-parents were freed from the bondage of slavery. It is quite fitting and proper therefore that we celebrate this event by participating in community cultural expressions such as what we are engaging in today. It is an opportunity for communities to come together in song and dance and in other cultural activities to give thanks for the deliverance of our fore-parents from bondage nearly 200 years ago.
The St Andrew’s Development Organization therefore must be highly complimented for enabling the celebration of Emancipation Day to coincide with the celebration of Rainbow City Festival. I offer my sincerest congratulations to all.
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