“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy,
‘Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?
Some say it’s just a part of it,
We’ve got to fulfill the book.”
– Bob Marley
I don’t know how many people have any regard for the fact that of all the public and bank holidays we celebrate in Belize, the one we should be commemorating is August 1. This should be especially so for all of us who have some “tinge” of African descent in us! However, in Belize there is no national public and bank holiday on August 1, and maybe our people don’t even know what’s so special about this day. I wonder how many understand the significance and importance of this day?
1833 – less than 200 years
I am ashamed to think that at school we were never taught about the importance of Emancipation Day, despite Belize’s being one of the slave colonies of the British Empire. It took me until my 20’s to comprehend and appreciate the importance of this day, when I had the opportunity to do courses in history, political science, and the like at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica. It took me until then to become conscious as a Belizean of my slavery heritage and to accept that in Belize we pretend slavery didn’t happen and we overshadow it with the vain bacchanal and public celebration orgies at far less significant dates marking some public and bank holiday. To date, our history – as a people and nation – is still not adequately and sufficiently addressed in our education curriculum.
I wonder how many of our African-descent Belizeans know that there is a Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, except in those territories controlled by the East India Company (which is another travesty against humanity); and except the island of Ceylon and the Island of Saint Helena. However, these territories that were exempted eventually were covered by the Emancipation Act in 1843, a decade later. For many, August 1 is just a symbolic date in the sense that it has taken years, decades and centuries to really reach the full emancipation…. because even today with all the advancements and technologies and ideologies and human rights laws and liberations talks, many ex-colonies are still enslaved by some form of system perpetuated by the slave masters…. The Emancipation Act could never undo the chaos in history and the lives of enslaved people that slavery brought!
Even more important… did you know that at the time of the Slavery Abolition Act, although it was passed into law in 1833, it was not until 1834, 1st August that it actually took effect and when it did it was only slaves below the age of six years who were instantly freed. Those above age six technically remained enslaved under the pretence of them being made “apprentices” and required to work 40 hours per week WITHOUT pay…. Isn’t that still slavery? This was done as a form of compensation to their former owners in addition to monetary compensation given to slave owners in these territories. Imagine being enslaved and ill-treated under forced labour and being denied all your freedoms and rights and being treated less than human and then still having to work to serve those same masters because they are being compensated to allow you your God-given freedom, instead of them compensating you for the inhumane treatment you endured and the loss of your name, identity, language, culture, home of origin, family, and for the pain and suffering that you endured? This is how cruel slavery still is even after the passing of the law purportedly abolishing it, because in so passing the law, the former slaves were still demeaned.
According to some historians, full emancipation was finally achieved at midnight on 31 July 1838, some four years after the law came into effect. I say according to some historians because even 184 years later, the emotional, psychological and social effects of slavery have not been addressed and some only seek to sweep it under the rug and refuse to recognize that the same system of slavery is still practiced… albeit in a more “commercial” and political way, but with the same aim to enslave the marginalized and enrich the wealthy – but there is no abolition of this, because it comes under the guise of democracy, capitalism, United Nations, free-trade, NATO, economic-blockades, and the list goes on. In addition, many of the slave-masters who obtained wealth due to slavery maintained their competitive edge and dominance and the slaves were never uplifted to be on the same level playing field, so as to equally prosper and become privileged and entitled… today we see the practice of “white privilege” all too well, albeit, we cannot paint all “white” with the same brush!.
Maybe even more painful and offensive is the fact that the same slave-descendants have become proponents of the systems of dominance and even when they eventually obtained political power they have not reformed said systems to uplift their less fortunate brothers, but rather have perpetuated the slave-masters system and, worse yet, have rid the system of the few checks and balances, for their own aggrandizement and personal benefit. The political corruption Belize is now living through is a manifestation of this very problem I now place on record.
Call for a national holiday
As a child, I recall looking forward to the various holidays and not knowing what they meant, but I just wanted the free time to play with friends and run around the neighbourhood or go to the park to witness the official ceremonies and watch the fireworks, and parades with floats… they seemed spectacular in my little world. I recall the debate around whether or not we should obtain independence and not understanding what it really meant and wondering what was the relation of the fight for independence to the “Independence” cigarette, then a popular brand. … oh as kids we did not know better, but our educational system should have opened our eyes. Instead at school we were taught to glorify Christopher Columbus, as though he was a saviour, not a slayer! But not taught about the Caste War of Yucatan (Guerra de las Castas), which began with the revolt of native Maya people of Yucatán, Mexico against the European-descended population, called Yucatecos. Many of our ancestors fled that region and settled in the territory now known as Belize, thus some of our origin and history is rooted in said war. We do not celebrate nor commemorate this historic revolt.
Instead we had Columbus Day (October 12) ; Battle of Saint George’s Caye (September 10), Easter (March or April), Christmas (December 25), Baron Bliss Day (March 9) Labour Day (May 1), the Queen’s Birthday (now Commonwealth Day – May 24) and Garifuna Settlement Day (November 19). All these bank and public holidays, except for Garifuna Settlement Day and Independence Day have absolutely nothing to do with our true national and independent identity.
Let’s look at our origin. Native title to the lands of Belize goes to the Mayan people, whether we like it or not, believe it or not, or accept it or not! The Mayas were the first people on these lands, yet not one of these holidays celebrates, recognizes or pays tribute to the resilience and contribution to the building of our nation by the Mayas. We do not even teach Maya history, culture or language in school… instead of calling their great architectural structures Mayan “temples,” at school were told they are Mayan “ruins” and that the civilization had disappeared and this is despite some of us in those very classrooms were Mayan or their descendants!
The truth as I now know it is that the same foreign empires that enslaved the Africans, enslaved, killed, decimated and destroyed the civilizations of Indigenous people of this region, the Mayas being just one. Sufficient survived, but their system of organized society and civilization did not all survive and, more importantly, their lands were taken away. The disrespect to these people in Belize was plainly manifested in the case between the Mayan Leaders Alliance (Alcaldes) and the Government of Belize… history however has exonerated the Mayas and the Indigenous people – but their struggle continues!
Then the African slaves were brought to this land against their wishes and will, and the atrocities committed against our forefathers/mothers have not been fully recorded and our children are not taught about it in school. They may have been taught slavery in general, but the details of the Belize experience is sort of romanticized by saying “slavery in Belize was not as bad as it was in the other British territories”… yeah …. Slavery by any degree was inhumane, degrading, and cruel.
I recall being taught in school that Creole does not have any culture… and I must say I was confused, especially being of mixed ethnicity. Please tell me which holiday of all those mentioned above celebrates the resilience of our “Africanness”? Isn’t Emancipation Day the perfect celebration to mark our struggle to gain freedom and respect for our black identity? Yet Belize has never celebrated/commemorated this day. And don’t tell me that the Battle of St. George’s Caye suffices – that does not in any way celebrating our freedom from slavery! Why would we celebrate when Columbus arrived on our shores bringing conquest, disease, slavery and exploitation? It is a myth that he discovered us … we were always here; rather this always confounded me as a child when told about this at school. I just wondered why would we celebrate the arrival of the people who destroyed our way of life? Why? Why? Then if we are independent, why do we celebrate the Queen’s Birthday? She has her own country and throne. We have to rebuild and create our own national identity with the fragments they left us! The Garifuna are admirable for fighting to have a day set aside to pause and never forget the history of how they arrived at our shoes… this is good!
Other countries already celebrate Emancipation Day!
The idea of calling for Belize to commemorate Emancipation Day is not novel…. But it is time that it be seriously considered and done! But it cannot be done like one of those celebrations where the meaning of the day is lost in the drunken stupor and revelling on the streets. It must be done so our people learn their history and understand the damning effects of slavery which have created the legacy of what we became. I am a firm believer that if we do not understand our past, we cannot properly craft our future and we are confounded in our present. Let’s stop pretending it never happened – we are descendants of slaves… slavery damaged us!.
Just for perspective, let’s look at all the former colonies that celebrate Emancipation Day and proudly so! Caribbean countries that celebrate this day on August 1 are: Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana (calls it “Freedom Day”). In Barbados, Emancipation Day is celebrated for an entire season and called “Season of Emancipation”, which runs from April 14 to August 23. In Jamaica, Emancipation Day is a weeklong cultural celebration which encompasses the Independence Day commemoration on August 6. In 1962 upon gaining independence the Emancipation Day celebrations had been stopped, but after a six-year re-instatement campaign, led the late Professor Rex Nettleford, it was reinstated under The Holidays (Public General) Act 1998. In 1985 Trinidad & Tobago began celebrating Emancipation Day as a national holiday and thus became the first country in the world to declare a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery replacing Columbus Discovery Day, which commemorated the arrival of Christopher Columbus at Moruga on 31 July 1498. Darn, we should follow suit!
St. Vincent and the Grenadines also celebrates it on August 1, no matter which day of the week it is, but there are other Caribbean countries that celebrate it the first Monday in August, namely: Antigua and Barbuda – has observed the end of slavery since 1834; Anguilla – Emancipation Day is the first day of “August Week”; Bahamas – concentrates the celebration at Fox Hill Village, Nassau, a former slave village whose inhabitants, according to folk-tales, did not know they were free until one week after – their celebration known as the Bay Fest, beginning on August 1 and lasting several days; British Virgin Islands: – the first Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of August are celebrated as “August Festival”; St. Kitts and Nevis -the first Monday and Tuesday are celebrated as “Emancipation Day” and also “Culturama” in Nevis; and in Dominica -the first Monday is celebrated as August Monday, while in Grenada – the first Monday in August is celebrated as “Emancipation Day”.
Martinique commemorates Emancipation Day on May 22, to coincide with the slave resistance on that day in 1848 that forced Governor Claude Rostoland to issue a decree abolishing slavery. Guadeloupe commemorates Emancipation on May 27 while Saint Martin has a week-long celebration around May 27, commemorating the abolition of slavery. Then there are the non-Caribbean countries that commemorate Emancipation Day and these includes some states in the USA, Canada, and South Africa.
Belize, what are we waiting for? By law we should end Columbus Day and Queen Birthday and Baron Bliss Day, even 10th September, and instead commemorate 1st August as a sober reminder that slavery was officially abolished and that we must emancipate ourselves now!