Trinidad and Tobago

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Emancipation episodes

By Terry Joseph
July 08, 2005

Part 1

Just about everyone in Trinidad and Tobago should know this country was first in the world to declare a national holiday commemorating the abolition of slavery but far too many erroneously cite government's 1985 proclamation of Emancipation Day as the inaugural event.

Indeed, a surprisingly large number of Trinis are evidently unaware that nearly 100 years earlier, the very date, August 1, was officially declared a holiday by then Governor Sir William Robinson for precisely the same purpose.

Not that His Excellency willingly empathised with the plight of the enslaved and in a burst of magnanimity, surprised the country with a holiday. In fact, he steadfastly refused at first, even in the face of widespread feeling that the request was justified.

Sir William was first approached by the local African community early in 1887, with a request to declare August 1 Emancipation Day. He refused outright but a caucus of black activists, including prominent barristers Muzumbo Lazare and Edgar Maresse-Smith continued to agitate for the holiday, garnering even more influential support during the ensuing year, calling a public meeting on the issue at the Chacon Street School, Port of Spain, on June 18, 1888.

The leaders drew up a formal petition, attracting thousands of signatures. Among arguments presented was comparison of the historical significance of the abolition of slavery with Coronation Day, naturally concluding the former constituted greater cause for local observance.

Even when Sir William finally agreed and declared August 1, 1888, the inaugural Emancipation Day holiday, rejoicing in the black community was relatively short-lived for, soon enough, the holiday would be abolished; ironically replaced by Discovery Day.

It was a loud rebuff of not only descendants of former slaves but indigenous peoples, the latter already living with the ignominy of having the pioneering spirit of their forbears erased by Christopher Columbus, since he stumbled upon Iere (Trinidad) in 1498.

The Discovery Day holiday was, from the late 1940s, rendered a tad more palatable by annually hosting a second Carnival; enticement enough to "at least temporarily" subdue even those blacks still dedicated to the cause of marking Emancipation Day.

But the Discovery Day Carnival didn't last either, blame for its cessation beginning with the 1953 steelband clash between Dixieland and Ebonites, which took place on the Coronation Day holiday, further fuelling an ongoing outcry from the moneyed class about hooliganism at such festivities.

In the year following, Discovery Day Carnival was proceeding with unbridled jubilation, until a presumably inebriated reveler reportedly rubbed the used half of an orange into the face of one Mrs O' Connor, a lady of good standing, as the band made its way along Tragarete Road.

Her husband, a witness to the humiliating incident, charged into the passing steelband but in the resulting conflict was beaten to death with a baseball bat, the tragedy inspiring then Governor Sir Hubert Rance to issue a proclamation banning the Discovery Day Carnival for all time.

August 1 remained a holiday but with reduced significance, residually representing only the Columbus adventure which, by the late 1960s seemed an inappropriate commemoration, as our history began to be told afresh and by authors different from those who saw that event as reason for reverence.

As we approached the end of that decade, the pervading black awareness movement, initially a response to blatant atrocities against persons of African descent in the US, began spreading worldwide and Trinidad and Tobago was not to be left out of the robust call for racial balance; resulting in social upheaval during the early months of 1970.

It was, in essence, another demand for emancipation, albeit more than 130 years after the abolition of slavery. To compound matters, political and economic emancipation was assured by the attainment of republican status in the mid-1970s, leaving only the social component in abeyance.

As it happened, Trinidad and Tobago actually became a republic on August 1, 1976, but since that day was already a holiday, commemoration of the event was duly shifted to September 24, the day on which Parliament first convened under our newly acquired status and, perhaps by sheer coincidence, the birthday of Dr Eric Williams, the country's first Prime Minister.

As we shall see next week, the battle for reinstatement of the Emancipation Day holiday was about to start afresh and not rendered any less difficult by Trinidad and Tobago being fully in charge of its destiny.

Part II | Part III

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