August 1 is Emancipation Day in Jamaica, and all across the British Caribbean.
I cannot think of one single dignified or humane thing that can be said about slavery. Over the course of two hundred years, Britain* transported nearly 3.5 million enslaved people from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas (another 2-4 million were likely killed during their enslavement or at sea during transport). Multiple generations of people were stolen from their homes and families, brutalized, stacked like sardines in the bowels of cargo ships, and sold like farm animals, only to be subjected to a lifetime of hard labour, illness, malnutrition, rape, abuse, and the withholding of their freedom. One of the reasons the slave trade kept going for as long as it did was that conditions were so bad for enslaved people that they kept dying and had to be replaced with new slaves. An entire economic system that lasted hundreds of years came out of this hideous abuse.
The overwhelming misery caused by the enslavement and murder of millions of people didn’t end when a bunch of bureaucrats signed the Emancipation Act of 1833. After a further 4 years of ‘apprenticeship’ (aka indentured servitude), emancipated Jamaicans were expected to join the free market as labourers with no preparation, no support systems, and little legal protection. Meanwhile, British-Jamaican planters collected more than a quarter of the £20 million the government set aside as compensation for the “loss of property” – not a penny went to the emancipated slaves.
Seven generations later, the consequences of this systemic ruination of an entire population are still felt every day in Jamaica. It’s the foundation for ongoing racism, poverty, illiteracy, violence, and political abuses, all which are alive and well throughout this country, the Caribbean, and the entire world. A lot of people will argue that enough time has passed, that it is time for people to move on from this history, to start to succeed on present-day merits instead of suffering because of the burdens of the forefathers. But that isn’t how catastrophic trauma works. It isn’t how experience evolves through generations.
Emancipation Day is a cause for celebration, but it is also an opportunity to pause and consider the widespread, multi-generational impacts of systemic racism that continue to ruin the lives of millions of people. It is time to take the burden of responsibility off the shoulders of those who have been tormented by the consequences of humanity’s absolute worst actions and place it on those who walk through life along a path that was made clear by this horrible history. If we do this, then perhaps one day something dignified or humane will come of all this pain.
*Although the Jamaican slave population was almost entirely the result of the British slave trade, Britain was not the only country responsible for slavery. Before the British slave trade became the largest in the world around 1670, the Portuguese had held a near monopoly on the slave trade for two hundred years.