Emancipation Day

Today is a historic day for all Guyanese but more so for Guyanese of African descent. It was on this day, 184 years ago that their enslaved forbears could finally cry- as Martin Luther King would do in 1963 – “Free at last; free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” While slavery was a feature of all older civilizations – the Bible, for instance, is replete with references to the practice – and in Africa from where they were bought, the form it took in the various European Empires established following Columbus’ stumbling over the Americas in 1492 was “Chattel Slavery”. Here, the slave was the personal property of the slave owner – as, say, cattle or a piece of furniture – and could be treated as such by the master or mistress.
The Spanish and Portuguese pioneered the “use” of enslaved Africans in Europe in the mid-fifteenth century in an innovation that created a new conception of what it meant to be “human” and invented the notion of “race”. Before then, it was obvious that various peoples had different physical characteristics but for the first time these characteristics were linked with social evaluations of inferiority and superiority and indeed, a conclusion that Africans were not “fully” human. One line of thought, pioneered by a Spanish monk Bartholomew de Las Casas, suggested they were not even possessed of souls as were the Indigenous Peoples. Much of this was to justify African enslavement, which otherwise violated aspects of Christian egalitarianism. These early justifications of “race” spilled over into a notion of “purity of blood” which frowned on “miscegenation”. In the US, their “one drop’ rule declared that even one drop of African “blood” made the person African and “impure”.
This pernicious notion spread across the world with the European conquests and became the normative ideal of westernization in the minds of populations as diverse as Mogolians and Hungarians. Last week, Hungarian PM Viktor Orban proudly declared that in contrast to Western Europe’s “mixed-race world” – where people mixed with arriving non-Europeans – Hungary was not a mixed-race country. While this has created a furore and has been denounced by several European leaders, the invidious perception of “mixing” with “lower races” remains firmly entrenched. We saw this exhibited during the evacuation of African students from Ukraine when their war with Russia started.
These incidents also illustrate the European belief called the “grand chain of being” where the universe is organized hierarchically – with God (a white grey-bearded man) on top, followed, in descending order, by his angels, the white race then the yellow, brown, red and finally black ones, with the latter just above the apes and other animals. What is ironic is that for a long while, and even today, there are many non-white persons who accept their “place” in the order once there are others “below” them, not realizing that they are accepting their subordinate status, which is decided by Whites. In Guyana during times of political conflict, these racial comparisons are routinely dragged out and hurled at each other evidently without any awareness that we are using categories invented by Europeans to rule all of us.
The British “made” slavery illegal in their colonies on Aug 1, 1838 – after a 4-year “apprenticeship during which earned wages were saved by some and used to purchase abandoned plantations. But the planters never reconciled themselves to accepting “free” labour. Their response to Emancipation took several forms, all designed to force the newly freed Africans to work under conditions totally favourable to themselves. This was unacceptable to the Africans who then mostly left the plantations to create their own free lives.
The Planters brought in Indentured labourers – Portuguese, freed West Indian Africans, “liberated” Africans, Indians and Chinese – who were contractually “bound” to work under specified conditions. As such, Emancipation Day should be a day of reflection for all Guyanese who should commit to create a One Guyana, in which all of us can share equitably in our national patrimony.
Only then will we be “free at last”.