Emancipation Day: ‘a bubbling stew’ of Caribbean heritage

Much of the Caribbean will honour Emancipation Day this Thursday, 1 Aug., with parties, food and music. The day marks two historic milestones for the British West Indies – the end of slavery in 1834 and the end of apprenticeship in 1838, both on 1 Aug.

The path to freedom, however, was a bumpy one and in practice varied from island to island. Caribbean historian and UCCI assistant professor Christopher Williams explains some of the day’s history, its implications in the Cayman Islands and Jamaica, and what it means today.

Cayman Compass: What is Emancipation Day?

Christopher Williams: On 1 Aug. 1834, slaves across the British West Indies were officially emancipated or liberated from slavery. However, that was not the end of it. … Apprenticeship followed on the heels of emancipation. Many historians agree that apprenticeship was just another form of slavery. The former slaves, now apprentices, did gain some freedoms but at the end of the day, they could not leave their former master’s property, now employer’s property, without express permission. They could not seek employment elsewhere. They did not get paid. They only got paid anything they worked over 40 hours a week. … So that continued for four more years. It was untenable because in the former slave’s mind, freedom should not have looked like apprenticeship. So many of them, especially in Jamaica and Trinidad, they more or less left. We call that the ‘flight from the estates’ movement. …

So [apprenticeship] came crashing down on 1 Aug. 1838. … When we celebrate Emancipation Day, we are not only celebrating 1 Aug. 1834 but 1 Aug. 1838, which more or less spelled out a complete and thorough end to slavery.

CC: What did apprenticeship look like in Cayman?

CW: In Cayman, although apprenticeship was instated, it only lasted nine months. So apprenticeship in Cayman came to an end in May 1835. … Cayman does stand out in annals because of this. … Historians and others have questioned why. I have a theory. I think that racial tensions were so high in Cayman … In Cayman’s case, a month following emancipation, a West Indian regiment was sent to Cayman. The attachment comprised 30 officers, 10 of them black. They were called black privates. Former Caymanian slave owners at this time are looking at this and they are like, what? Black privates to preserve law and order here? So there was conflict from the get go. A number of instances come to mind. Former Caymanian slave owners made it difficult for black privates, so much so that the following year, two of the 10 black privates found themselves in jail, one on trumped up charges of larceny, the other on trumped up charges of rape. So eventually, these black privates had to be removed.

Beyond that, Cayman apprentices, they had developed this sort of bold character. They realised that they were free and … they became bold and confrontational. … An apprentice and her now employer, former slave owner, they get into an argument. The employer, in a fit of rage, he decides to locate one of the apprentice’s pigs and more or less slaughters it right before her eyes. … So she enters his house. She finds his fattest chicken. She comes out with it. She snaps its neck and says, there. … I am of the opinion that this sort of racial conflict, it had to be defused. Because, in Jamaica for instance, most apprentices were not facing their masters down. They were running away. When you are running away from some, the conflict is still there but the conflict is not as sharp. … But in Cayman there was a sort of face off. I think it was for this reason that Governor Sligo of Jamaica decided that something had to be done. … It was sort of to defuse the conflict.

CC: How is Emancipation Day honoured now?

CW: It’s a time to party. … Usually people in the Jamaican diaspora, they fly home and it’s very colourful. So you have these street parties. People get together. It’s a celebration because people are, in effect, celebrating the fact that their enslaved ancestors were liberated. It’s symbolic. …

I think the importance is commemoration. So you remember not necessarily what happened back then or the enslaved experience, but you remember the essence of emancipation. So I think it’s also a point of pride and patriotism.

CC: What is the essence of Emancipation Day?

CW: For me, when I think about Emancipation Day, I think about duality. I think that emancipation is such a loaded word. It is such a subjective word. In terms of history, it meant different things depending on where you were, socially speaking. So, when I think about emancipation, I think about conflict but I also think about triumph. In other words, you look at what happened, you look at how these slaves were treated even after the fact of slavery, but you think, OK, but we are still here or their progeny – folks like me – we are still here.

When I think about emancipation, as well, I cannot help but to consider culture – culture from that creolised sense. … So, folks from the Old World, Europeans and Africans, they came over, they interacted – of course, it was not an equal interaction because the Europeans were the slave masters and the Africans were the slaves – but regardless, this interaction led to a new culture.

So, I’m not African, even though I have African ancestry and I look it. But, I’m not African. I’ve never been. I’m not European either even though I have an EU passport. But I think, if not for that disparate interaction at an earlier time, I would not be here. I would not have the accent that I have. I would not like the food that I do …. So, there’s that European part and there’s that African part. If not for that interaction, we would not be here ….

CC: Give us an example of that interaction.

CW: I like to use jerk chicken as an example. Where is jerk chicken coming from? You hear jerk chicken and you think Jamaica. But it’s a creolised thing … because the Tainos, they are the ones who came up with the barbacoa idea, whereby you are roasting meat outside over a spit. The Europeans come along, they like that idea, but it’s too wet for them. They preferred the drying aspect, like beef jerky. African slaves come along. They like the boucan or barbacoa method and they say, oh no, no, it’s not spicy enough. So that is where the Scotch bonnet pepper came in and the allspice. So when I think about jerk, I think about this. It’s a constituent of different cultural influences that have more or less led to jerk.

In my mind, when I think emancipation, I see it as a stew, a bubbling stew. Some folks would think ‘freedom’, but there is so much more under the surface that is not necessarily harkening back to the past. … Life has not been easy for Jamaicans. But Jamaica has been on the up, it’s safe to say …. Even though problems persist, there is that hope, there is that idea that, no, we are not lesser than. We just have to get our stuff together and look forward. Hope.

Emancipation Day is not the only festive day for the Jamaican community this week. Tuesday, 6 Aug. marks Jamaica’s independence in 1962 from the United Kingdom.

For more information on celebrations in Cayman, including Jamaica Culture Day on 2 Aug. and celebrations on 4 Aug., see the Cayman Compass Community Calendar.