Happy Emancipation Day Jamaica!

Emancipation Day, August 1st, marks the day slaves in Jamaica and the former British colonies in the Caribbean, were finally freed.

On July 31, 1834, the eve of the day they would taste freedom, many slaves traveled to the tops of the country’s mountains so they could greet the sunrise and the dawning of the new chapter in their lives. At daybreak, scores more crowded into churches across the island to give thanks.

But they weren’t truly free. The ending of slavery came with a condition that slaves serve a 6-year “apprenticeship.” It ended 2 years early on August 1, 1838. On that day, the slaves were said to have demonstrated peacefully and burned the shackles that were used to bind some of them. (Tortello, Jamaica Gleaner)

Like the slaves had done years earlier, a group of friends and I decided to watch the sun rise on Emancipation Day. We traveled to Seville Heritage Park in St. Ann for a full evening of cultural performances. On the way, we wondered how the slaves must have felt — a mixture of excitement and fear, we were sure. They were not free economically. Their former owners, on the other hand, were compensated handsomely by the British Government for their loss.

I’ve always been in awe of my slave ancestors and because of that I was excited to go to Seville to be part of their remembrance. I was excited to go to Seville for another reason.

In Jamaican history, Seville is important ground as it is the location where in 1492 Christopher Columbus first set foot on our soil. It is fitting then that Seville’s Emancipation Jubilee, the largest of the island-wide events, attracts up to 7,000 people.

Emancipation Day 2012
Emancipation Day 2012: Waiting for the bus

I was also looking forward to hearing the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in Seville and greet August Morning, as some people call it, like my ancestors had done.

By the time we made our way into the park, around midnight, the parking lot was full and cars lined both sides of the street. Inside, the excitement was palpable. As we arrived, the crowd burst into applause as an energetic group of drummers finished their act with a flurry of acrobatic moves.

I walked around a bit trying to find a place where we could spread a blanket – the terrain in some spots was pretty rocky – but

Emancipation Day 2012
Emancipation Day 2012 – A taste of rum for the ancestors

eventually we did find a place that gave us a view of one of the monitors. We got food and someone passed around a bottle of rum. We had been told to bring mugs for hot chocolate tea but that line was so long, we would still have been waiting.

Sometime after midnight, we heard the sound of a helicopter above and someone said the prime minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, was arriving. She didn’t stay long after delivering her message.

Someone in our little group said they felt raindrops and before we knew it we were scrambling to find shelter.

The rain came in spurts and we took advantage of the lull to find our vehicle. I prayed that it would stop long enough for us to return to the park and see the end of this year’s observance. Unfortunately, it did not cooperate. We’re such wimps, I thought.

Would those hardy people from whom we spring let a little rain dampen their celebration, I wondered as we agreed to pack it up and leave. And during the 2 hour drive back, not a drop of rain was in sight.

14 comments on “Happy Emancipation Day Jamaica!

  1. Another nice read about the history of Jamaica. Interesting that slave masters were compensated as a result of emancipation. How was life for slaves after emancipation? You may have spoken of a person already but what noted slaves made it better for others after freedom? Who established independent schools, etc? What were the relationships like between whites and former slaves?

  2. The slaves got nothing. In fact, the majority returned to the plantations to live/work. Yes, there were quite a few people who advocated for slaves after emancipation as their condition didn’t improve much. You can’t be independent if you have no money and you couldn’t vote if you didn’t own land. So their lives were only improved marginally. As can be expected, the relationship was always strained and testy. The people I mentioned before were Paul Bogle and William Gordon. Some landowners established schools.

  3. A major celebration that starts at midnight? That sounds pretty cool, but I can see why the prime minister didn’t hang around long. I’m way too old for things like that.
    Sorry about the rain though. That’s what you get for claiming your independence during the rainy season.

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