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August 1, 2021, Marks 183 Years Since the Emancipation Declaration was First Read

Jamaica Emancipation; Jamaican Independence; Jamaican Heritage; Jamaican History; Jamaican People; Jamaica Attractions; Jamaica Culture

The Old Kings House, Spanish Town
The Emancipation Declaration was Read From the Steps of the Old Kings House in Spanish Town

“I rejoice I am a slave no more, and you are slave no more, Jamaica is slave no more. Amen!”

Ex-slave, Thomas Gardner, shouted these words in Jamaica on August 1, 1838, as he celebrated the abolition of the system which had dehumanized his fellow Negroes in the British Caribbean and England for more than 150 years.

With similar jubilation, thousands of ex-slaves, who gathered at town centers and churches in every British Caribbean colony, broke into joyous celebrations after hearing the final words of the Emancipation Declaration, affirming their full freedom from slavery.

"The hour is at hand, the Monster is recounting the mood in his church that night he said- "the winds of freedom appeared to have been set loose, the very building shook at the strange yet sacred joy."

William Knibb, non-conformist Baptist preacher and abolitionist, at the dawning of August 1, 1838

The Emancipation Act 1838 was passed by the British Government following a sustained abolition campaign, underscored by bloody slave uprisings in the colonies and widespread public outcry against slavery.

Emancipation Means Hope for Change

As we celebrate Emancipation on August 1, we honor the sacrifice and struggles of a resilient people – the Jamaicans. The atrocities of the Middle Passage, the whippings, the long and hard days of unrewarded work on the plantations, the executions, the rebellions… I can only imagine! So we recall the victories and the sacrifices as we celebrate our freedom, as the Emancipation road was a painful one.

Don’t ask why Jamaicans are resilient, creative, assertive, persistent… it’s due to the lessons of a long, hard road to freedom. Now our flag represents that resilience which is known world-wide through well-known personalities such as Usain Bolt… and little-know personalities such as hard-working Adrian who owns a little shop on Palisadoes Road selling natural Jamaican products.

Happy Emancipation Day!

Emancipation Day Celebration Dawn
A New Day of Emancipation Dawns Over the Nation of Jamaica

What is Emancipation?

Emancipation Day is observed in many former European colonies in the Caribbean and areas of the United States on various dates to commemorate the emancipation of slaves of African descent.

The period of enslavement in Jamaica began with the first European colonizers, the Spanish. The arrival of the Spanish in 1494 led to the decimation of the indigenous Tainos. In less than a century, the Tainos all but died out. They were required to work as forced laborers on Spanish plantations and in their mines, and as a result, many died due to exhaustion, others died falling victims to famine and diseases, and others were brutally killed.

The Tainos in their livelihood
The Taino People

According to Philip Sherlock and Hazel Bennett (1998), when the Spanish settlers found their labor force depleted, they turned to Africa for replacements. Bartholomew las Casas, a Spanish priest, recommended the use of Africans in Jamaica and other Spanish territories when Indian labor had diminished. Until then, the only Africans on the island were personal household servants of a few settlers. These servants did not come directly from Africa, but from European countries where African slavery was already institutionalized.

When the English invaded Jamaica in 1655 and subsequently captured the island, the enslavement of Africans became far more degrading. During 1655 and 1658, the Spanish freed and recruited the enslaved Africans in their battle against the English. Many of these Africans fled to the interior. Here, they interbred with the free Tainos and became the Maroons. Over time, the ranks of the Maroons were swelled by Africans who sought freedom from enslavement on the plantations of the English.

Close to 1 million enslaved Africans were imported to Jamaica. Most of the African captives came from the Gold Coast (present day Ghana, Togo and Benin) and the Bight of Biafra (including present day Nigeria, Cameroon and the Equatorial Guinea). The inhumane treatment for the Africans began at the point of capture.

The villages were raided to get sufficient numbers for the voyage to the West Indies, and in some cases, the Africans consisted of prisoners of war. Once captured, they were forcefully brought to the African ports of departure in chains where they awaited the arrival of a slaver. The journey from the African coast to the Caribbean took on average five to eight weeks in good weather. This leg of the journey was referred to as the Middle Passage or the Atlantic Passage.

The conditions of the Middle Passage were unspeakable. The slavers were usually overcrowded and this led to unsanitary conditions, resulting in the outbreak of various diseases, including small pox and dysentery. Many Africans died as a result of these contagious diseases, and others died from inhumane treatment. Over 2 million Africans, or 10 per cent of the total shipped, lost their lives in the Atlantic crossing, and maybe another 4 million died as a direct result of capture and enslavement within Africa.

Major ports of entry for the African captives in Jamaica included the Kingston Harbour, Port Royal, Falmouth, and Black River. Those Africans who endured and survived the horrors of the Middle Passage would then begin a life of inhumane treatment on the plantations, which included working without pay, whipping, torture, and sexual abuse.

Enslavement itself took its toll on the confined population. This means that millions of those who survived the Middle Passage died young, in a short time, in the Americas. Many historians now accept the calculation that about 30 per cent of survivors of the Middle Passage died within the first two years of arrival in the Americas. Many were maimed or killed as punishment for daring to seek freedom. The enslaved African was now chattel, an item that could be disposed of at the whim of the enslavers, in the same way as land, cattle, furniture or equipment.

How Was Emancipation Won?

The tide was changing, struggles to keep down the number of runaway slaves and slave revolts (famous Jamaican revolts included Tacky's 1760 Rebellion and Sam Sharpe's 1831 Rebellion) seemed harder. Also, the ripple effect of the successful 1789 slave revolt in St. Domingue, what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was impossible to ignore. Public opinion began to shift in Britain ­heavily influenced by the work of abolitionists like Granville Sharp and William Wilberforce. Sharp tirelessly circulated the proceedings of the 1781 case of the Liverpool slaver, The Zong, in order to bring the evils of slavery into full view.

The conditions of the Middle Passage were appalling. The slavers were usually overcrowded and this led to unsanitary conditions, resulting in the outbreak of various diseases, including small pox and dysentery. Many Africans died as a result of these contagious diseases and others died from inhumane treatment. For example, on September 6, 1781, the Zong left West Africa with a crew of 20 men led by Captain Luke Collingwood and a total of 440 Africans. As many as 60 died within the first seven weeks, and many others fell ill. One hundred and thirty-three Africans who the crew thought were least likely to recover were chained, ankle by ankle and then thrown overboard, weighed down with balls. Some 55 were thrown overboard on November 29; 42 on November 30, and 26 more Africans were thrown overboard on December 1.

The Middle Passage - Death on the Ocean Floor

On December 28, 1781, the Zong docked in Black River, St Elizabeth, with 208 Africans, 232 fewer than when it left the African coast. The matter was brought before the British courts, not for the mass killing, but because the insurers refused to pay ship owners, James Gregson et al, compensation for the loss. This is just one of the many cases of inhumane treatment on the slavers.

Wilberforce, the leader of the anti-slavery movement in Britain, carried the fight into Parliament, year after year moving resolutions to abolish the slave trade, and slowly but surely the support of the British people was won. Britain abolished the slave trade on January 1, 1808.

Abolition of the slave trade was only the first step towards full emancipation. By the 1820s British Parliament began to send planters directives specifically concerned with the amelioration of the slaves' working conditions. These included forbidding the use of the whip in the field, the flogging of women and allowing slaves religious instruction. Jamaica, governed by an Elected Assembly, refused to follow these directives and news of this soon spread to the slaves. Numerous instances of civil unrest followed as slaves felt they were being denied certain benefits that had been conferred on them in Britain. Anti-slavery sentiments were increasingly expressed in the colonies through the work of nonconformist missionaries, particularly Baptists such as William Knibb and Thomas Burchell who were arrested for inciting slaves to rebellion.

In Jamaica, the strongest example of unrest as a result of the fervor to put an end to slavery was the Christmas Rebellion of 1831. This insurrection, however, became pivotal to hastening the process of emancipation. Sam Sharpe, now a Jamaican National Hero, was hung in 1832 for his role as organizer. Soon after, the British House of Commons adopted a motion calling for a Select Committee to be appointed to put an end to slavery throughout the British Empire. One year later, in May 1833, the British House of Commons stated unequivocally that the British nation must, on its own initiative, suppress slavery in all British Dominions.

In the midst of the campaign, which lasted from 1780 until 1838, several individuals distinguished themselves as true anti-slavery champions. Among these include:

  • Thomas Clarkson

  • William Wilberforce

  • Joseph Sturge

  • William Knibb

  • Thomas Burchell, and

  • Samuel Sharpe

William Wilberforce - Anti-Slavery Champion
William Wilberforce - Campaigner for the Abolition of the Slave Trade

Freedom in Stages

August 1, 1834 marked a special day for Africans in British colonies as it was the day they received freedom from slavery. In Jamaica, the Emancipation Declaration was read from the steps of the Old Kings House in Spanish Town, St Catherine, the country’s capital at the time.

The bill for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies received the royal assent on August 28,1838. It stated:

“Be it enacted, that all and every one of the persons who on the first day of August one thousand eight hundred and thirty four, shall be holden in slavery within such British colony as aforesaid, shall, upon and from and after the said first day of August, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-four, become and be to all intents and purposes free and discharged from all manner of slavery, and shall be absolutely and forever manumitted.”

The passage of this bill in the British Parliament in England enabled approximately 311,000 enslaved Africans in Jamaica and hundreds of thousands more across the colonies the freedom for which many of their predecessors had fought and died. Freedom can be said to have arrived in two stages; the first being the early morning of Friday, August 1, 1834. On that day many slaves were said to have walked up hills and climbed trees so as to clearly witness the literal dawning of their freedom. Around the island thousands attended "Divine Services" to give thanks and praise. August 1, 1834, marked the emancipation of all slaves in British colonies but it was a case of freedom with conditions. Although the Abolition Act stated that slavery shall be and is hereby utterly abolished and unlawful, the only slaves truly freed were those not yet born and those under six years of age. All other slaves were to enter a six-year "apprenticeship" during which they were to be "apprenticed" to the plantations.

The tenets of "apprenticeship" stated that the ex-slaves would work without pay for their former masters for three-quarters of every week in exchange for living benefits, and hire themselves out for wages during that remaining quarter. Overall, though apprenticeship proved confusing for the ex-slaves - they were told they were free but they were not really free. Indeed, for many, the quality of their lives had not undergone any great change.

The Apprenticeship System was officially ended in 1838 when it was proven to be a failure. It ended on August 1, 1838, two years short of its intended six-year term. This marked the second stage of freedom, ­ the day all slaves were made free. In Jamaica on that "full free" August morning, peaceful demonstrations and celebrations occurred across the island. A hearse containing shackles and chains that had been used to shackle rebellious slaves, was driven through the streets of the capital Spanish Town, and ceremoniously burned.

The road to full freedom was a long one, paved with rebellions and sermons by anti-slavery missionary preachers in the colonies as well as debates and the passage of crucial reforms in Britain. Indeed, once full emancipation came into effect and free villages began to be established, the plantation system began to fall apart. Wealth was increasingly determined by the amount of money a man had and not by the amount of slaves a man owned.

Emancipation did not mean the beginning of good times. According to Sherlock and Bennett in "The Story of the Jamaican People" (1998): "Emancipation gave them the right to free movement, the right to choose where and when they wished to work, but without basic education and training many were compelled to remain on the plantation as field hands and tenants-at-will under conditions determined by the landlord, and for wages set by him."

How is Emancipation Day Celebrated?

Emancipation Day was officially introduced as a public holiday in Jamaica in 1893. The "First of August" celebrations, however, were discontinued in 1962, when Jamaica gained independence. It was replaced by Independence Day, then observed on the first Monday in August. Emancipation Day was re-instituted in 1997 by then Prime Minister PJ Patterson as a national holiday celebrated on August 1.

Emancipation Day Celebration!
Emancipation Day Celebrations - Colorful!

August 1, Emancipation Day in Jamaica is a public holiday and part of a week-long cultural celebration, during which Jamaicans also celebrate 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 re-enactment 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.

The holiday is more than just a welcome break from work when one can lounge around, and relax in preparation for the Independence Day weekend. For Jamaicans of African descent, the day is a very important date in their history as a people, as it represents the time when their forebears were "freed" from the shackles of chattel slavery.

Emancipation Day is also celebrated in most other English speaking Caribbean countries and also in the French speaking countries of Martinique and Guadeloupe. The United States of America, Canada and South Africa also recognize the day.

Emancipation Park, a public park in Kingston, opened on the eve of Emancipation Day, July 31 in 2002, is named in commemoration of Emancipation Day.

Emancipation Park is known for the large sculpture Redemption Song at the park's main entrance.
Emancipation Park, Kingston, Jamaica - A popular Spot


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