On Monday, July 31, Belize will commemorate Emancipation Day with a full public and bank holiday. For years, Ms. Virginia Echols, and then Ms. Ya Ya Marin Coleman, both of the UBAD Educational Foundation, were almost alone in observing Emancipation Day, until the John Briceño government, which was elected in 2020, decided in 2021 it was right that our nation join the rest of the Caribbean that experienced slavery under the British, in honoring the day.
Britannica at the website britannica.com said the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was an “act of Parliament that abolished slavery in most British colonies, freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and South Africa as well as a small number in Canada. It received Royal Assent on August 28, 1833, and took effect on August 1, 1834.”
Full freedom wouldn’t actually come until 1838. Between 1834 and 1838 our enslaved ancestors were apprenticed to their former “owners”, professedly so they could learn a trade, in reality because the slave owners, who had been remunerated by the British government for the loss of their slaves, successfully lobbied that they couldn’t afford to lose their services so abruptly. Trinidad and Tobago was the first country in the Caribbean to have Emancipation Day declared an official holiday, in 1985. As the Amandala Tuesday editorial noted, Belizean Simon Lamb unsuccessfully petitioned the governor of the colony to sponsor the celebration of the 1888 Jubilee of Emancipation Day.
In Belize, so as not to unduly disturb the work week, Emancipation Day is being commemorated on Monday, July 31. Some Caribbean countries insist on observing Emancipation Day on August 1, which is on a Tuesday this year, but for reasons similar to ours, Emancipation Day in the Bahamas, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, and St. Kitts & Nevis is commemorated on the first Monday in August. So, in those countries they will be commemorating Emancipation Day, which they also call “August Monday”, on August 7 this year.
It is a good question why Belize took so long to get on board with the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean. Belize has long had the practice of sweeping things that are painful or sensitive under the rug. It doesn’t get more painful than the enslavement of our African ancestors for 300 years. Isolated from the motherland, their journey to freedom from physical shackles was agonizingly long and hard. Those who couldn’t find hope in prayer in the midst of their misery, rebelled, and they were killed or forced to accept life away from their families.
When their efforts, coupled with support from civilized elements among the Europeans, finally forced their freedom, it was only from physical chains. Unlike the Jews, who came out of their 40 years in the desert triumphant, the former slaves limped into their day of freedom mentally broken. That’s because the enslavers not only stole their bodies, they had wiped away their past. For most of our enslaved African ancestors, their origins began in the hold of a slave ship. Thus, they were an easy target for further exploitation. Colonialism would follow slavery, and then neocolonialism, systems that secured the bulk of the natural resources and the products of labor for the former enslavers, and left the offspring of the enslaved just about as dirt poor economically as their parents were in the worst of times.
Over time, the glorious contributions of the people of the African continent have come to light, putting paid to the terrible lies that were told. So many things were stolen from Africa. A recent report explained how the specialized ironworking skills of enslaved Africans in Jamaica were taken to Great Britain, where the credit for the knowledge was given to Europeans.
It is dramatic, how the world changed after Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the Americas, and the Europeans took the land away from the peoples here. With their powerful war machines and the diseases they brought, the Europeans would preside over mass genocide. To harness the resources of their stolen lands they would turn to the African continent, for our ancestors whom we will celebrate on Monday.
The Europeans would become mighty rich after Columbus’s ships survived the journey across the Atlantic. The environment in Europe at that time, particularly the development of the printing press which allowed for rapid dissemination of information, much of which they had gained from Africa, Arabia, and Asia, was fertile for growth. The idea that they were a superior people, after stumbling on the Americas and conquering it, formed a great part of their impetus. But their explosion of growth would not have taken place without the raw wealth they took from the Americas, and the enslaved Africans who did all the work, for free.
The Europeans can be credited with making hay while our enslaved ancestors, under whip and chain, did their work for them. It is the Europeans who have guided the system that since 1492 has produced tremendous advances in medicine, development of machines and tools, agriculture, and other areas. Fortunately, the benefits are mostly for all. One “benefit” which is not for all mankind is weapons of mass destruction. None of the countries on the continent of Africa from which our ancestors were taken have vaults of stored up diseases which they can unleash upon the world, or the bombs which can destroy life on earth as we know it.
The European-guided system has produced many stellar talents. Many of them are not European. Many of these talents are natives of Asia, Arabia, and the Americas, peoples they conquered with their mighty weapons, but did not enslave, not the way our African ancestors were. And many of these stellar talents are African or have origins in Africa.
In spite of all that was done, 300 years of enslavement, the offspring of the enslaved Africans have produced excellence that has improved our world in every sphere. Naming but four of some top influential black scientists featured in Discover Magazine, we find Charles R. Drew, the creator of the blood bank; NASA scientist Katherine Johnson, who helped calculate the path for the first U.S. human spaceflight; mathematician Gladys West, a leader in the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS); and Percy Julian, a chemist, who did extensive work on synthesizing cortisone.
Dr. Ben Carson, a black neurosurgeon, led a team that successfully separated conjoined twins, joined at the head.
Still, many Europeans maintain their illusion of superiority. Maybe, when one of us makes a weapon of mass destruction we will get their respect. Indeed, power still comes out of the barrel of a gun. Five hundred years after Columbus stumbled upon the Americas, the Europeans still rule the world. They still take the lion’s share of the world’s resources, and their leaders still plot and scheme to keep the peoples of Africa and of African ancestry under heel.
The sober people of the world recognize that it was on the backs of our enslaved ancestors, their blood and sweat, that much of what we have in this present world was built. Despite being burnt out by their heavy toil in the fields, our enslaved ancestors made tremendous contributions to the world in science and technology and the arts. On Monday, we pay tribute to them. Happy Emancipation Day, Belize!