Emancipation Day Address 2001
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Honourable Damian E. Greaves,

Minister for Community Development,

Culture, Local Government and Cooperatives

On the Occasion of




In Barbados in 1640, just over ten years after slavery had been introduced on the island, the slaves revolted.


Mr. Richard Ligon, an Englishman who had been present on the island at the time, and who recorded the event, wrote:


“A little before I came from thence, there was such a combination amongst them, as the like was never seen there before.  Their sufferings being grown to a great height, and their daily complaining to one another (of the intolerable burdens they laboured under) being spread through the island; at the last, some amongst them, whose spirits were not able to endure such slavery, resolved to break through it, or die in the act; and so conspired with some others of their acquaintance, whose sufferings were equal, if not above theirs; and their spirits no way inferior, resolved to draw as many of the discontented party into this plot, as possibly they could; and those of this persuasion, were the greatest numbers of servants in the island.  So that a day was appointed to fall upon their masters, and cut all throats, and by that means, to make themselves not only freemen, but masters of the island”.


We must recognise that as the beginning of West Indian history. These people wanted not only their freedom, but to get rid of their masters, and to make themselves masters of the island, and masters of their own destiny.


Exactly one hundred and fifty years later the same thing happened in Haiti.   That is also what happened in Cuba in 1958.  They got rid of their masters and oppressors and made themselves masters of the island.


Freedom and liberty mean something very special and precious to us west Indians.


Now, slavery is nothing new in the world; it has existed for thousands of years.   In Africa, also, there was a kind of slavery, but those slaves were people captured in war.   It was a great battle in traditional Africa when six or ten warriors were killed.   The warriors who were not killed in battle, and were captured, were made slaves and became an integral part of the society.   They were not exploited or ill-treated.  The same as in ancient Greece and Rome.   Slaves there were the artisans, scholars, teachers and traders; they worked as such in the new societies to which they had been introduced.


The world’s first economist, Adam smith, in his monumental work, “the wealth of nations” and in a chapter entitled ‘motives for new colonies’ tells us that, in the roman colonies:


“All trades and manufactures too even the retails trade, were carried on by the slaves of the rich for the benefit of their masters, whose wealth, authority and protection made it difficult for a poor freeman to maintain the competition against them”.


That was not the case in the West Indian slave society.   When the Africans were captured in Africa and were transported to the West Indies, they went straight into a modern industrial society – the sugar plantations.   There they discovered that to be a slave was the result of their being black.   A white man, whatever his limitations, was not a slave, and those new arrivals from Africa, those who had survived the middle passage, had never been accustomed to that kind of slavery…   they rebelled.


And we will find, throughout West Indian history, there has always been this fact; that overwhelming desire for freedom and liberty.   However expressed, that desire has always been dominant in the West Indian people – that desire for freedom, to make themselves masters of their own destiny.


That burning desire has made west Indians the most rebellious people in the history of mankind.   It was the awareness, the knowledge that, being black, they had been made slaves, and the European was never a slave; he was a free subject, a man able to do whatever he wanted to in the islands.   That was what made our ancestors such fierce fighters against injustice.


I repeat, that is our history.

Just to illustrate further that determination of our ancestors to fight, to die, even, for their freedom, let us go back to Barbados.


Richard Ligon tells us that the plot by the slaves to overthrow their masters and to gain their freedom had been well planned.   The plot failed, and Ligon tells us why, and it was for this reason:


“…One of them (that is, one of the slaves), either by the failings of his courage, or some new obligation from the love of his master, revealed this long-plotted conspiracy; and so by this timely advertisement, the masters were saved.   Justice heathers all (whose servant this was) sending letters to all his friends, and they to theirs, and so to one another till they were all secured; and by examination, found out the greatest part of them”.


That kind of betrayal is also part of our historical experience.  That type is usually the house-slave.   Working in the house of his master, he has acquired what he thinks is a certain kind of respect; he becomes subservient to his master.


The fact that the slaves’ plot to gain their freedom had been betrayed, and the conspirators captured, did not mean that the masters were thus able to sleep in comfort and safety.   No.  The threat of rebellion was always there.   So what did the masters do? Eighteen of the principal slaves involved in the plot had to be put to death, Ligon tells us, “as example to the rest”.  The masters had to do that because they knew that the slaves would rise again in revolt.   In fact, Ligon goes on to tell us that:


“…The reason why they made examples of so many, was they found these so haughty in their resolutions, and so incorrigible, as they were liked enough to become actors in a second plot, and so they thought good to secure them; and for the rest to have a special eye over them”.


Those black, our ancestors, wanted and fought for their freedom.   They had not been able to enjoy true freedom.   They were not even permitted to speak their African languages, and Ligon tell us how the masters accomplished that.   They could not marry, and even when they brought forth children, the children did not belong to the parents, but to the owners of the plantations.   They could do nothing, except what their European masters allowed them to do.


What we are celebrating, therefore, is the anniversary of the end of one of the most outrageous experiments that any race of human beings had ever been forced to undergo.


In all our celebrations, therefore, we must never lose sight of the meaning and significance of the end of that historical experience.


What we are today, what we think, and how we think, our entire political, social, economic and cultural life, the very way we view the world about us; our relationship with one another and with the rest of mankind, have been shaped by that historical experience.


We have been reduced to one single purpose – the creating of wealth for another race of people to enjoy.


We have had no time, during those four hundred years of slavery, to create anything for ourselves – neither painters, poets, theorists nor intellectuals.  We had been reduced to beasts of burden.


It was left to the descendants of those ancestors of ours who had survived, to articulate what those ancestors of ours had experienced.  So when we hear one of our poets reminding us that:


the whip disputed with the buzzing flies for the sugary dew of our wounds”


We can appreciate the horror, the depth of violence that had been found necessary to maintain our slave ancestors in that state of abject subjection, which they had been forced to endure.


We must be very clear in our minds, therefore, about the significance of this day, this freedom, which we are celebrating.


Yes, it is a day for rejoicing, but it must also be the occasion for serious reflection, to take stock, as it were of where we are, who we are, and the long road along which we have travelled since emancipation.


To be free of certain historical and social experiences is not enough.  We need to know, to understand, and to appreciate what freedom means, and to exercise that freedom intelligently and meaningfully.


Our ancestors survived the ordeal and travail of slavery, and “survival” as our Noble Laureate, Hon. Derek Walcott has reminded us “is the triumph of stubbornness”.  The freedom, which we enjoy today, was not handed to our ancestors on a platter, was not a gift from the former slave masters.   It was the result of the constant revolt and rebellion by our enslaved and oppressed ancestors.  It was due to their resilience.


Whatever the renowned philosophers in Europe at the time might have meant or intended in their philosophical doctrines, liberty and freedom meant something completely different to our West Indian slave ancestors.


Revolts and rebellions might have failed from time to time, but we must recognise that the slaves, our ancestors, in raising the banners of rebellion, had taken the first steps on that long road which eventually led to their freedom.


Millions died in the process, but when they died, they sacrificed their lives so that we, their descendants, would one day enjoy the fruits of freedom.   To celebrate freedom therefore, is to honour those millions who had fought, and had given up their lives.


At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we should remember them.


Have a happy and reflective emancipation day!




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