Dr. Fraser- Point of View
August 7, 2009
Emancipation: Continuing the conversation

On Friday evening last I had the honour to address the Emancipation Activity put on by the Antigua 200th Committee at Betty’s Hope estate in Antigua. Antigua was one of two countries that opted for full emancipation in 1834, so what they were in fact commemorating was the 175th anniversary of Emancipation. Addresses were also delivered by D’Orbrene O’Marde, Chairperson of the Committee and Prime Minister, the Honourable Baldwin Spencer. There was also Poetry, Drumming and performances by a Steelband and the Antigua National Choir. What I wish to do here is to continue the conversation which I started there. My point of reference is a quotation from the editorial of the Times newspaper of St.Vincent on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Emancipation. This was a very insightful piece and really gives us a lot to aid our continued reflection.{{more}}

It reads as follows: “Physical emancipation of the body is but the first step. Of far greater importance is emancipation from the stranglehold of economic slavery, intellectual and spiritual emancipation. It is not for us to contemplate the past with bitterness. Slavery was not only degrading to the slaves, but has been a blot on our Christian civilisation. The past is irrevocably passed. The unknown future with its wealth lies before us. On the foundations of the past we should seek to raise the superstructure of the coming centuries. It is for us to go on from emancipation to emancipation.” One of the historians of Antigua, Brian Dyde, in reference to Prime Minister Vere Bird’s address on the achievement of Independence, noted that certain parts were not very different in content from the address delivered by Governor MacGregor in 1834. “My people we are free this night. But freedom cannot exist without responsibility. The full burden of our freedom now rests squarely upon our shoulders.” We can therefore better understand the Times editorial; “It is for us to go on from emancipation to emancipation.” In Bird’s view the people of Antigua were free that night, truly moving from emancipation to emancipation. When the Times stated that, “It is not for us to contemplate the past with bitterness…The past is irrevocably passed,” it was for us to pull out the lessons learned from slavery, not to concentrate on the evils but to realise that we could not undo what was already done. And of course, we have to be reminded that there were many positives we could take from slavery. It pointed also to the future in suggesting that “On the foundations of the past we should seek to raise the superstructure of the coming centuries.” I made the point that what transpired on August 1 was a legal Act that gave our fore-parents some space to refashion their lives, although the road ahead was bumpy and filled with potholes. It was the beginning or part of a continuum that had different milestones, among which were Adult Suffrage and Independence.

Every year at this time we discuss what emancipation means to us. We examine the legacy of slavery and how slavery had retarded our development. What we hardly ever do is to examine slavery within the context of Colonialism. Although Slavery as a legal entity came to an end in 1834/1838, the forces of Colonialism continued. The planters still controlled the mechanisms of power and even though later they surrendered their power to the Crown in most of the colonies and the Crown was supposed to protect the former slaves, the reality was different. But even outside of Slavery, we need to pay a lot more attention to the system of colonialism. There are three views of colonialism which would help us to understand that phenomenon. The first is a speech attributed to Lord Macaulay, (1st Baron Macaulay). He was said to have delivered this speech about India to the British parliament on February 2, 1835. There is some dispute about the speech, the date on which it was delivered and the occasion. But what it says is extremely significant as it tells us much about the nature of colonialism. It reads: “I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage and therefore I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self esteem, their native culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.” This is serious stuff and was the logic behind colonialism. The other piece is from Dr. Carter Goodwin Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Woodson writes, “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.” Woodson is really saying the same thing, but sees it from a different perspective, not that of the Colonial Master.

The other person I want to bring into the discussion is the Kenyan Writer, Wa Thiongo. He makes the point that when you control a people with guns that control is only effective once the guns are focused on them, but if you convince them about their inferiority and dismantle their culture you control them indefinitely. In all of these comments which are really about colonialism, the themes that are highlighted are those of education and culture. We could think of some examples – the banning of the drums, the law against the Shaker religion referred to as a relic of African barbarism. An even better example of control and of depriving a people of their humanity is the depiction of the Caribs as cannibals. The Caribs had to live with this for a long time, believing that they were inferior. The effect was to have them deny themselves. It led to a sense of shame to the extent that some people of Carib descent refused to admit that they were Caribs. People of African descent also suffered in that the colonial text books portrayed Africa as a primitive country in an effort to convince the enslaved people that they were inferior and to rationalise the role of the Europeans in slavery. It is true, however, that like the Christians teaching to the slaves, those subjected to colonial education took away different messages than were intended. So while Lloyd Best refers to the Afro-Saxons going to England in their three piece suits to ask for Independence, there were others subjected to the same education who struggled against the system. Even though we had rid ourselves of the legal shackles of slavery for over 170 years, we had to contend with colonialism until quite recently. We are now struggling to survive in an era of globalisation. We are literally at the crossroads. CARICOM which was to have been a base to allow us to withstand the forces of globalisation is in a state of paralysis with our leaders screaming at each other across the waters about the free movement of peoples and about matters of trade. Our Cricket team, once our pride and joy is in disarray. There are some of us still reluctant to give up the British Monarchy and the Privy Council, the last vestiges of Colonialism. Our culture which defines who we are and which has to be our base as we continue our quest to become players in the globalised world is being bastardised as we ply for the tourist market.

It is however not all gloom. In a region as small as it is, we were able to produce three Nobel laureates. Our athletes have been climbing to the pinnacle in their fields. Our writers and poets are recognised and celebrated world-wide. There is untapped potential which we fail to recognise. The process continues as we go from emancipation to emancipation. The new challenges arise but we need to be a united people, to tap our human resources and to develop confidence in our ability to achieve our goals.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.