August 1, 1834, marked the end of slavery in Belize and the Caribbean and in some countries August 1 is observed as a national holiday. All across the Caribbean— in Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Dominica, Grenada, all the islands — there will be tributes to our ancestors, church services, and street processions to observe the end of this very dark period in our history.
In Belize, the UEF (UBAD Educational Foundation), under its chairperson, Ms. Yaya Marin Coleman, observes the day with a symbolic boat launch in memory of our ancestors’ forced crossing of the Atlantic, and speeches.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus, of Portugal (or Italy), flying the flag of Spain, landed in the Caribbean, beginning the massacre/genocide of millions of Native Americans, and the enslavement/murder of millions of Africans.
Columbus and his colleagues, Europeans, took home stories about gold, and Europeans from many nations rushed over seeking the riches in the so-called New World. The Europeans were heavily armed, and they were ruthless, and they were soon able to conquer the peoples they met in the islands and on the main — Mexico, Central, and South America. Who weren’t cut down by their swords and their cannons, would succumb to deadly diseases they brought from their crowded cities.
In North America, militant Protestants came over from England in the early 1600s, so they could practice their faith unencumbered by the British government. Many more Europeans would come over, from Spain, and France, and Holland, and they would bring with them diseases, and cannons, and a way of life that would decimate and displace the Native Indians of North America.
The Europeans established plantations; they needed laborers, and they found it by enslaving Africans. The Transatlantic slave trade began in the middle of the 15th century. Dr. Hakim Adi, in his online story (www.bbc.co.uk), “Africa and the Transatlantic Slave Trade”, said the trade “led to the devastation and depopulation of Africa, but contributed to the wealth and development of Europe.”
Dr. Adi says research shows that over the four centuries of the trade over 11 million Africans were ripped from their homeland, and “fewer than 9.6 million survived the so-called Middle Passage across the Atlantic, due to the inhuman conditions in which they were transported, and the violent suppression of any on-board resistance. Many people who were enslaved in the African interior also died on the long journey to the coast…”
Dr. Adi notes that “Africa’s economic and social development before 1500 may arguably have been ahead of Europe’s” and that it was “gold from the great empires of West Africa, Ghana, Mali and Songhay that provided the means for the economic take-off of Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries…The West African empire of Mali was larger than Western Europe and reputed to be one of the richest and most powerful states in the world.”
The millions who reached this part of the world, and their many millions of descendants, experienced the most degrading environment any race on earth has ever lived in. Those slaves who did not escape were sold like cattle. They were denied a home structure. They were forced, under the threat of the gun and the whip, to work for the enrichment of the Europeans. They were treated like animals, not humans.
The Transatlantic slave trade, and slavery, continued for over three hundred years, with painful effects on the bodies and on the psyches of the slaves, and their children. This sub-human treatment of a people, because of the colour of their skin, continues to this day, despite slavery officially coming to an end.
The end of slavery, on August 1, 1834 in our part of the world, came about because of endless resistance by slaves and because the slavery system had become less profitable for some European capitalists, than freeing the slaves to work for low wages in a labor market where massive unemployment would be the order of the day. There were also humanitarian concerns and abolition campaigns carried out by prominent British Christians.
It is stated on the British Library website (www.bl.uk) that “Resistance among slaves in the Caribbean was not uncommon. Indeed, slaves in the French colony of St. Domingue seized control of the island and it was eventually declared to be the republic of Haiti. Figures such as Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, by adding their eyewitness accounts to abolitionist literature, also made a major contribution to the abolition campaign.”
William Wilberforce was a British politician who led a movement to abolish slavery. In the year that Wilberforce died, 1833, the British passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which put an end to slavery in most British colonies. The Act came into force on August 1, 1834. In the USA, American president Abraham Lincoln led a war that led to the American Congress passing their Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865, to abolish slavery.
The essay, “The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833”, on the website www.thehistorypress.co.uk, says a “committee for the abolishment of the slave trade was established by a mixture of Quakers and Evangelical Protestants” in 1787, and after gaining 40 seats in parliament, and allying themselves with abolitionists like Wilberforce, “ they got a bill passed that abolished the slave trade, 1807.”
An “Anti-Slavery Society”, which “included notable luminaries such as Wilberforce and Henry Brougham”, was formed, and their mission was to end slavery, gradually. “Wilberforce argued that ‘It would be wrong to emancipate (the slaves). To grant freedom to them immediately would be to insure not only their masters’ ruin, but their own. They must (first) be trained and educated for freedom’…” states the essay.
A few days before Wilberforce died, the act to abolish slavery was read in parliament a third time. The website adds: “Interestingly, the government at the time took out a loan to pay for the slave owner’s compensation. The loan was at the time a large proportion of (40%) of total government expenditure and was only paid off in full in 2015 (mainly due to the gilt system of debt rather than the amount owed). The slaves themselves received no such compensation and were made to work as apprentices and given board and lodging for another 6 years. Children under 6 were immediately emancipated. Full emancipation for all was made legal on 1 August 1838.”
Emancipation Day, on August 1, 1834, must have been a joyous one for our slave ancestors, most of whom had never known a day without chains on their feet. It did not translate to economic freedom. The struggle of the children of the slaves remains uphill, not unlike that of the punishment of Sisyphus. In fractured Belize, 2019, the children of the slaves own few businesses, and have so little love of self and respect for each other that they have been murdering each other in the streets for more than a quarter century.
A hundred years ago, in 1919, eighty or so years after Emancipation, little had changed in Belize. In Belize, the children of the slaves joined with the children of the slaves in the Caribbean islands to support the British war effort in World War I, and went off to Europe to fight to save the British Empire. In Europe, and in the Middle East, they were discriminated against, treated like servants of the whites, their white allies refusing to fight alongside them.
When the men returned home they were again disrespected. Peter Ashdown, a British historian, in his story “The Problem of Creole Historiography” (Readings in Belizean History – Second Edition), said: “the ‘Ex-Servicemen’s Riot’ of July 1919 was the natural outcome of the discrimination practiced during the war and the shabby treatment received by the men on their return. They were hailed as heroes but treated as wage labor come back to serve in the forests and firms of the white Creole merchants and landowners.”
Dr. Assad Shoman, in his book, 13 Chapters of a History of Belize, wrote: “In July 1919, 339 members of the contingent returned to the colony, and on 22 July Sergeant Hubert Vernon led a section of the contingent through the streets of Belize Town, breaking the plate glass windows of the major merchant houses and assaulting selected officials and employers. They were soon joined by 3,000 Belize Town residents, who rioted and looted through the night and into the next morning.”
Not much has changed in the lives of the children of the slaves since Emancipation from our 300-year-long nightmare. We keep the hope that we can completely free ourselves of the shackles that were once on our feet. On August 1, we join our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean in remembering the pain of slavery, vowing that no one will ever put us in chains again. We keep the hope for a better future for our children.