On Sunday, August 1, 2021, Belize, the jewel in the heart of the Central American and Caribbean basin, joins the rest of the Caribbean in recognizing Emancipation Day, for the very first time. The official recognition of this event in Belize is a journey which began with Belizean patriot, Simon Lamb, in the late 1800s, and after disappearing almost completely in the 1900s, it was rekindled on August 1, 2014, by Sister Virginia Echols — who at the time was spearheading the activities of the UBAD Educational Foundation (UEF)— with a symbolic ceremony at the seashore in front of the Yabra Green in Southside Belize City.
That flame became a fire under the inspiration of present UEF chairlady, Sister Yaya Marin Coleman, who got considerable assistance in the mission from Image Factory founder and former head of the National Institute of Culture and History (NICH), Brother Yasser Musa, and his St. John’s College (SJC) colleagues. In 2013 SJC embraced African and Mayan history, a foundation platform of UBAD (United Black Association for Development) from its inception in 1969, and SJC remains, incredibly, the only educational institution in this country predominantly peopled by persons of African and Mayan descent, to have done so.
This “idea” took a long time coming to fruition, but, “better late than never,” so respect is due to our present government for giving this level of recognition to the day that marks the end of the worst atrocity in the annals of human history. On August 1, as the libations are poured on the waters across this land, those who fought for this recognition and are still here will feel the spirits of those soldiers who have gone on before. We will all join them in song.
Emancipation Day is a time for reflection on where we came from, the glorious pre-enslavement African history, and the struggles and survival against huge odds of our enslaved African ancestors. It is an occasion to rekindle our sense of pride and unity as a resilient, beautiful and courageous people.
All Belizeans, regardless of race, should join in the moment to reflect on the suffering of the ancestors of their Afro-Belizean brothers and sisters in the days of slavery, what it was like for the freed slaves when they woke up on August 1, 1838, and the blood, sweat and tears the children of Mama Africa shed in the making of the Belize we know.
August 1, 2021 marks 183 years since slavery was abolished in British-controlled territories on July 31, 1838. Resistance by the enslaved blacks, which included burning of plantations, abandonment of works, and violent acts against slave masters and their surrogates; constant agitation by abolitionists; and economics, all played a part in the British Parliament passing the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 which freed children under six-years-old and set in place the eventual end of slavery in the Americas five years later. In the five-year period between 1833 and 1838, the enslaved blacks were forced into a period of apprenticeship, as compensation to the slave masters for their impending loss of free labor.
Slave masters were also given financial compensation for their “loss” of slaves. According to the Tax Justice Network, at the website taxjustice.net, British taxpayers didn’t finish paying off the money borrowed to compensate some slave owners until 2015. The Tax Justice Network says: “The British government borrowed £20 million to compensate slave owners, which amounted to a massive 40 percent of the Treasury’s annual income or about 5 percent of British GDP. The loan was one of the largest in history.” Those who were enslaved did not get a penny.
When those enslaved blacks were officially freed, they had no land and no businesses; most of them had no choice but to return to the employ of their former masters, at slave wages. Through the colonial period, which succeeded slavery, the disadvantaged children of the enslaved Africans subsisted on meager wages, and in Belize this condition persisted for many through self-government, and into the independence era. There are a few token successes for the children of the enslaved, but today finds the masses of the offspring of the enslaved Africans largely in disarray — with most of their children without hope in the modern Belize, many of them acting out their frustration in violent acts, many of them incarcerated.
The children of the enslaved have serious economic work to do. Leaders in the Caribbean and the USA, following in the footsteps of the great early 20th century leader, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, are making demands on those who extracted massive wealth through slavery and the slave trade, to make reparations. Some refuse to acknowledge the debt they owe for the terrible crimes they committed, and a few, grudgingly, have acknowledged their wrong and set about atoning.
There is much serious economic work to be done. Understanding the system is the first step towards realizing the need to come together in a strategic way to become self-sufficient by pooling our energies and resources – cooperatively, to become productive and effective participants, rather than victims to be exploited, in the current capitalist system. This is a time to re-focus our vision of a better future for our next generation, and re-awaken our resolve to forge a clear and strategic path forward towards that day of true Economic Emancipation.
Leaders must emerge from among the children of the enslaved and other roots Belizeans who will prioritize addressing the woeful economic situation in our communities. We need organizations that buy bulk goods and sell at best prices in community-owned supermarkets. We need to establish communal farms; we need organizations patterned after the Black Cross Nurses to teach nutrition, and teach our people how to prepare nutritious, tasty meals from the bounty of the land, sea, rivers, and lagoons in our country.
We need the profits from our gaming habits (boledo and lottery) to be channeled back into our communities. We need to use sports to instill discipline in our youth, and to create businesses. We need leaders who teach us about managing money. We need the advanced syndicate proposed by financial expert Erwin Perez, where a share goes toward developing community projects.
Our economic system is not a zero-sum game. Our economy will grow when all of us are working and getting a fair share of our “wealth untold.” The children of the enslaved Africans and other roots Belizeans have been denied for too long. On Sunday we reflect on the past with an eye to the future. Happy Emancipation Day, Belize!