This holiday marks the end of slavery in the British Empire. It is a public holiday in several Caribbean countries and though the holiday commemorates events that took place on 1 August 1834, it may be celebrated in different days in these countries.
The British like other colonial powers had allowed the widespread practice of slavery to take place during the time of expansion to the new world. In 1772, the ruling in the case of the case of Somerset v Stewart determined that slavery was unsupported by the common law in England and Wales. While the ruling was not clear on the situation in other parts of the Empire, this case was seen as a key turning point in the change towards emancipation.
Slavery was finally abolished throughout the British Empire by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which came into effect on 1 August 1834. The territories controlled at that time by the East India Company, Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) and St. Helen's were excluded. Slavery was not abolished in these regions until 1843.
The collective cry of ‘Freedom’ echoed throughout the Caribbean in 1833. This auspicious day continues to be commemorated annually around the islands ,each with its unique flavor and activities. Emancipation day has a complex history but there are some commonalities with Caribbean Emancipation Day celebrations. Although the slavery Abolition Act of 1833 officially marked the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire, it was not fully enforced until August 1st 1834. Slaves below the age of six were free. The older slaves, however, were assigned a re-engineered form of slavery labeled as ‘apprenticeship.’ Slavery has definitely left an indelible mark on Africans throughout the diaspora. Despite its painful origins, Africans around the world have found ways to honor the sacrifices of the ancestors through various celebratory activities. Check out our Top Five list of Emancipation celebrations around the Caribbean.
Antigua and Barbuda have continued to observe the end of slavery since 1834. It may or may not be a coincidence that the islands annual celebrations also occur around the same time every year. On the first Monday of August, Antigua holds a J’ouvert celebration which is a huge street party that takes place in the wee hours of the morning.
Emancipation festivities run for a few months on the island of Barbados. It begins in April commemorating the Bussa rebellion. One of the major slave rebellions that took place in 1816. Many subsequent activities build on this initial commemoration including Crop Over festival, which includes May, June and the first week of August. Africa Day is celebrated on May 25 and the Day of National Significance, which commemorates the Labor Rebellion of 1937, is celebrated on July 26. Emancipation Day celebrations take place on August 1 and then there are festivities celebrating Marcus Garvey’s on August 17. The activities end with the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, August 23.
Fox Hill Village in Nassau is the home to the majority of Emancipation celebrations in the Bahamas. This celebration dubbed as the ‘Bay Fest’ starts on the first of August and continues for several days. The Hatchet Bay Festival brings together local residents and descendants of the settlement and visitors of the village on Elethura Island. The festival showcases various cultural activities including a Junkanoo rush-out, cultural/fashion shows, live band performances, Bahamian crafts and food and drinks.
In Jamaica Emancipation Day is part of a week-long cultural celebration, during which Jamaicans also commemorate Jamaican Independence Day on August 6, 1962. Both August 1 and August 6 are public holidays. Traditionally people would keep at vigil on July 31 and at midnight ring church bells and play drums in parks and public squares to re-enact the first moments of freedom for enslaved Africans. On Emancipation Day there is a reenactment of the reading of the Emancipation Declaration in town centers especially Spanish Town which was the seat of the Jamaican government when the Emancipation Act was passed in 1838.
On 1 August 1985, Trinidad and Tobago became the first country in the world to declare a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery. It replaced Columbus Discovery Day, which commemorated the arrival of Christopher Columbus at Moruga on 31 July 1498, as a national public holiday. The commemoration begins the night before with an all-night vigil and includes church services, street processions past historic landmarks and addresses from dignitaries including an address from the President of Trinidad and Tobago.