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A Close Look at Emancipation Day in Cayman

Cayman Conversation 08 May, 2024 Follow News

J A Roy Bodden

By Stuart Wilson

Cultural Historian, Mr. Roy Bodden sat down with Caymanian Times Publisher, Mr. Ralph Lewis to discuss the re-introduction of Emancipation Day Celebrations in the Cayman Islands.

 Mr. Bodden is interested particularly in the aspect of Caymanian history that has to do with slavery and the progress of the black people in the Cayman Islands’ society.

“Caymanians are not very familiar with the history of slavery in these Islands. We do not have a lot of written material on the history of these Islands nor were we a people who were interested in our history for various reasons, but that happily has changed now,” said Mr. Bodden, who noted that people are now researching and reading and trying to find out more about their background, which is very good.

Mr. Bodden noted that there are also many people in Caymanian society who are slavery deniers, many may feel ashamed or angry their family may be implicated as former slave holders.

“For various reasons people tend to deny it, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with investigating slavery,” he remarked, adding thar, “…It’s out history there is no running away from it.”

According to historical records, Bodden Town was the slave capital of Grand Cayman. There was little to no slavery in Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.

Mr. Bodden stressed the importance of Caymanian’s knowing their history.

“If we don’t know where we came from, how can we know where we are going? It is very important for us to know our history because we should know as a people who we are. Otherwise we will have to rely on what others tell us. This is more important as we evolve as a young nation state.

We are becoming a ‘nation state’ and it is important to know from whence we came.

As far as his research goes, Grand Cayman did not have plantation slavery, as there was limited land mass to economically farm sugar cane or tobacco, although there was a time in the history of Grand Cayman when ‘sea-island cotton’ was grown. It did very well on a limited scale until the United States cotton plantations dominated the market and because Cayman was not an economy of scale, cotton fell out of vogue here.

The slavery therefore in Cayman was mainly domestic slavery. The slaves worked for ‘near ‘white masters and even the slave masters in Cayman were not as wealthy in comparison to the slave holders in Jamaica, Barbados and the other slave economies, according to Mr. Bodden.

“There were no great houses or estates here. Slavery here was based more along color lines than wealth, as in Jamaica or Barbados where the masters were not only white but the were wealthy,” he explained, adding that in Cayman, slave masters were white but not all that wealthy.

He said against this backdrop a conversation surrounding reparations seems irrelevant.

“I do not believe we should be seeking revenge against the white masters and I am lukewarm on reparations debate.

“where are we going to get the money from, how much money are we going to get what are we going to do with it when we get it,” He exclaimed.  

Mr. Bodden said it is best for us to try to move on and find out how we can be interdependent and make the world a better place.

In 1807 the British abolished the trade in slaves. That meant that it was against British Maritime Law to transport African slaves in a ship and the Royal Navy was dominant in patrolling the seas to prevent that. Slavery still continued in the colonies, it meant that you couldn’t bring any slaves from Africa.

By 1817 the British government commissioned the slave registration act which was a census of all the slaves on the sugar plantations in the British Caribbean.  However, the Caymanian slave owners never participated in that.

There may have been two reasons for that:

1. The Jamaican slave owners did not tell Caymanians because they knew that it was something to do with compensation and they figured if they included Cayman, it would be less money for them. 

2. The Caymanian owners knew but did not participate because they had no intention of giving up their slaves.

The next important event on the calendar of enslavement was in 1834 when the British Parliament voted for the emancipation of slave (different from abolition), in which all slaves must be freed as of this date.

In order to allow the slave masters to make an adjustment for the labour they were losing, the British Government said the slaves had to work for 4 years as unpaid apprentices to give the slave masters time to replace them as laborers.

That information was again withheld in the Cayman Islands until 1835 when it was made known and because of that the slaves in Cayman were granted absolute freedom. So in 1835 slaves in Cayman were free and did not have to do apprenticeship like the other British Caribbean Territories.

This is a significant difference in what transpired in Cayman than in other British Caribbean Territories and is why the British Caribbean emancipation celebrate August 1st 1834, and the Cayman Islands celebrate it on May 3rd 1835, when our slaves were manumitted.

“In earlier times Emancipation Day in the Cayman Islands was celebrated as a Public Holiday annually on the First of August(August 1st) . This holiday was eventually removed from the Caymanian cultural calendar and replaced with Discovery Day, which was celebrated in May. The original Emancipation Day celebrations took place in Bodden Town, the official slave capital of the Cayman Islands. This celebration was one of great fanfare where black people from all over the island assembled for merriment and celebration.

 The main event was a grand soiree held at the Bodden Town Hall under the distinguished patronage of Dick Frederick, a respected and popular black man. A retired seaman, he regaled in his travels around the world and popular folklore claims he visited the Great Wall of China and supported his claim with a huge jade ring set in eighteen carat gold, which he boasted was purchased in Peking (now Beijing) China.

There was something else I found striking about Dick Frederick, and that was he held an incredible pride in being a black Caymanian with roots steeped in African slavery.

” said Mr. Bodden.

Emancipation Day had been replaced by Discovery Day in the Cayman Islands, and the British Territory had stopped celebrating it some decades ago. However the Cayman Islands Government has now reinstitute the observance.

Mr. Bodden said his hope is that the celebrations are well supported.

“I am happy to see that there is a consciousness and we are celebrating this because it is something to be celebrated,” he noted, adding that Slavery was a disgraceful occurrence but we cannot erase history.

“Your readers may find it interesting that in Bodden Town there were many reminders of our connection to the African diaspora. Among these were the celebration of Jonkanoo (John Canoe), an African animist practice. Bodden Towners also grew what we called “Guinea corn” a cereal, used mainly for porridge brought by the African slaves from the “Grain Coast” of West Africa’” he added

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