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An Untold Vincentian Legacy: Emancipation Day in the Caribbean

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In just a few days St Vincent and the Grenadines joins other Commonwealth territories in celebrating Emancipation Day. This is on Monday August 1, 2011.

This year marks 177 years since our foreparents on the Caribbean plantations were first allowed any semblance of a life on their own. In the existence of any entity—be it real or imagined—lasting 177 years is a most noteworthy feat. Yet, year in and year out, the August 1 public holiday comes and goes and it seems the Caribbean region as a whole couldn’t care less.

I am saying that it is a killing of our history when we recognize historical dates only by the obligatory remarks from the relevant MP under whose portfolio the commemorated event falls, and then give out one or two news releases. Is that all our past means to us? Certainly not! I am sure more will be done if this living generation really understands what the struggles of the past entailed.

In the 1990s I specifically walked the eastern or windward side of St Vincent to garner the level of knowledge and appreciation that citizens had of the August 1 holiday. Just as the enumerators are going from house to house polling information for our 2011 census, I talked with all households, people liming on the block, the drinkers in the shops, and all accessible persons at the time.

Back then, I was expecting that there would be some persons who did not know what the holiday was about. But the overall percentage left me baffled: I found that two thirds (66%) of those questioned had absolutely no idea what the August 1 holiday was about. And this I thought was significant because my survey was done during the day in the most rural of areas. All the highly educated persons would have been long at their workplaces. I instantly realized that we have not done even a mediocre job of sensitizing and empowering our 20th and 21st century generations about their past and, hence, about their identity as a people in this global village.

Additionally, one of the questions I put to the respondents was whether or not they thought the Emancipation holiday was important. Close to 100% replied in the positive.

Our people wants to be educated about their history, their heritage and the legacy that is theirs.

I am glad that the holiday itself is once more being observed on the actual date of August 1, and not on “the first Monday in August” as was the case a few years ago. Observing the actual day is important for a historical lesson to be taught and appreciated.

In the Caribbean, when we think of history we generally think of slavery, and an almost unwelcome sigh suggesting, “Oh no, not the slavery story again,” seems to be the non-verbal reaction. We have associated slavery with so many of our negative situations that even Caribbean citizens are becoming fed up with hearing the S word.

It is my opinion that we are getting tired of the slavery talk because the history of our Caribbean people has not been told from or by our Caribbean people.

Keith Joseph, a Caribbean socio-political commentator, said several years ago that the international community was responsible for creating our Caribbean and that it is likely that those who formed the Caribbean as we know it may very well “delete” the Caribbean. I use the word “delete” because of its common ITC usage.

I raise the above point to say that everything in the modern Caribbean’s existence has a foundation of some sort in the actions of European activity. Britain, France, Holland, Spain—they all seemed to have determined what we know and, indeed, who we have become.

A few years ago, Disney selected St Vincent and the Grenadines as the site for the prequel of its trilogy Pirates of the Caribbean. While the movie was an economic shot in the arm for the island, it also injected an historic misconception that we still need to immunize ourselves against.

Historical documents show that when the Spaniards came to the land they found some human remains. The news was “tweeted” (or that time’s equivalent) that the islanders were cannibals. Our modern historians have found no substantial supportive evidence of this. And Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean continued the stereotyping of our Caribbean ancestors as leaving a legacy of eating human remains.

I vehemently oppose this!

But until we begin to publicize this with fervor, passion, and a Caribbean tenacity that flourishes with pride and reflective love, the world—and our own offspring—will only see us and our existence through the eyes of the myopic European history.

Just as the Americans have for years used Hollywood to promote the adventures of the wild wild west, we in St Vincent and the Grenadines have to begin to showcase the rich history and exploits of our foreparents.

I was left with a dropped jaw when I found out that St Vincent was one of the last islands in the archipelago to be colonized. So even though we had slavery here, it was not for as long a period as elsewhere. And this was due to the fierce resistance of our Black Carib ancestors. The average Vincentian does not know that on several occasions the European powers were defeated and chased from the islands by the Caribs.

Even the story of the creation of the ethnic group called the “Black Caribs” is an interesting one worth telling. Actually it reminds me of the popular soap operas we look at today, such as The Bold and the Beautiful.

You see, St Vincent was seen as a safe haven, a place where slavery was not enforced. The slaves from Barbados and St Lucia ran away and allowed the NE Trade winds to bring them ashore. While the Caribs did not tolerate the white man’s presence on the island, they allowed the blacks to settle and intermingle. The black men had sexual relations with the Yellow Carib women. As much as the Yellow Carib men were upset at this, they soon realized they could not go head to head with the Black Carib men and win. The creole offspring became known as “Black Caribs.”

Also, our people do not know about the historical competition between the Yellow Caribs and the French, or between the Black Caribs and the British. The Yellow settled on the Leeward side and wanted to expand their territory to the Windward side while the Black Caribs on the Windward side wanted to expand to Leeward.

Then there is the legendary Joseph Chatoyer, who has been recently named as St Vincent and the Grenadines’ first national hero. Chatoyer was a chief, meaning he had his immediate village to lead, while other areas in St Vincent had their own chiefs; however, Chatoyer was also a Paramount Chief—in times of war he would be the chief of chiefs, so to speak.

But even more praiseworthy is the fact that Chatoyer at one time commanded not only the Carib followers but also the French in a war against the British.

This is breaking news to me because not even in this age of ethnic enlightenment can I easily imagine the French serving under the command of a Vincentian, and a Black Vincentian at that.

All these are facts that must be taught to each generation. And not just taught in formal classrooms. The exploits of the Black Caribs must be part of the domestic chats that occur between parents and children. But to enable such transmission, a revolution in our awareness of our cultural heritage and legacy must be made.

I propose that the use of electronic and printed media, fully inclusive of social networks and cell phone providers, be brought on board to educate our populations in the Caribbean on an ongoing basis. There should be programmes not only at each independent island level but also at the level of the OECS and Caricom.

It is time our secondary school children have Caribbean televised contests or game shows that give teams a chance to tour the historic sites of the region.

Cultural performing groups must be injected with grants, headquarters, accommodations, and island-wide touring opportunities to show the lifestyles of our foreparents. Information on the living conditions in the immediate post-slavery days needs to be made readily accessible to today’s children.

Caribbean governments must secure the services of our historians, our archaeologists, and a reputable filmmaker to produce top-of-the-line feature presentation films (both fictional and documentary) about our history—told from our viewpoint now.

I am convinced that if we make our history an every-season-of-the-year activity, then our pride, behaviour, and consequential international status will take a giant positive leap.

Happy Emancipation Day, everyone.

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About Ashford Daniel

  • Jay

    Great Article.

    Happy Emancipation Day

  • Ashford daniel

    Thank you for your comment. Enjoy your August 1 as well.