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Emancipation—Time to celebrate, commemorate and reflect

Published: 
Tuesday, August 1, 2017

No one is ever likely to know for sure how many Africans were enslaved and sent to the New World during the slave trade era. One of the best estimates, calculated by the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, puts the figure at just over 12.5 million Africans who were captured and taken to the slave ships between 1525 and 1866, also according to the database, of those who were embarked, just over 10.7 million disembarked in the New World, as the awful conditions of travel normally cost the lives of many.

What makes the story of the African slave trade to the Americas unique is not slavery itself—sadly, mankind has been enslaving mankind since the early years of our existence. And, in the Americas itself, African slaves were brought in only after the colonial powers enslaved—or tried to enslave—the local Amerindian population.

It also took time for slavery to be illegal all over the world. Here, the British act that ended slavery was passed in 1833 but it needed another five years only for the shame of the “apprenticeship” scheme to be finally discontinued. Brazil, the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, only saw the ban taking place in 1888.

And it may sound shocking but the last country to formally end slavery in the world was Mauritania in 1981. Even then, legislation to criminalise slavery in the North African country was only enacted in 2007—before that, despite the ban, no one would go to jail for having slaves.

Although universally illegal, it is estimated that up to nearly 50 million people around the world today live in conditions akin to slavery, forced to work for little or nothing, many of them in illegal trades like prostitution, and often trafficked from one country to another.

Today, when we mark the end of slavery on our islands, we all ought to pause for a moment to commemorate and remember all those, then and now, who have been deprived of their most basic freedoms, treated as no more than an object, forcibly taken away from their birthplaces and, quite often, also forced to forget their beliefs, their customs and culture.

Today is also about celebrating those who fought hard—African descendants and White Europeans—for the end of slavery in the 19th century and the beginning of a new chapter for those living in the Americas.

It is a moment to celebrate the vibrant and rich cultural tapestry that, unwittingly, the forced movement of people from Africa to the Americas brought with it. From Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, our continent is a much richer and better place with its melting pot of peoples from all over the world and we shall rightly be proud of it—without condoning how this melting pot came to be.

However, today is also a moment to reflect. To reflect on progress made since emancipation, through independence more than a hundred years later and life today in Trinidad and Tobago. The fact is that true emancipation of all those who came to our islands, irrespective if as slaves, as indentured labourers or poor economic migrants, will only be fully achieved once we have made sure that this land’s opportunities are open to all.

This won’t be achieved through populistic measures, or easy but costly subsidies for all. It will be through high quality education and mentoring for all our children from all walks of life and in every community; it will be through the creation of opportunities to shine for all, irrespective of how well educated or wealthy their parents may be.

When we achieve that—and we can—emancipation will have been completed. Then, we will be able to be even prouder of marking the braver, the courage and determination of all those who fought so hard to bring an end to one of the most shameful chapters in the history of mankind.