Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Still from 12 Years a Slave, Directed by Steve McQueen.
I'm sure it was a good movie, but didn’t even bother try to watch 12 Years a Slave. Once an adult, twice a child: I would have reverted to a little boy sitting in a darkened cinema with my older brother, enduring a historical movie of ancient Rome, the Ben Hur kind of flick, in which some slaves are being whipped. My nose is snotty and tears pour from my eyes.
“I eh taking you theatre again if you going an behave so,” he says.
Years after that, I am attending lectures in West Indian history in UWI, Jamaica. The lecturer describes the conditions of Middle Passage and slavery in the Caribbean. As with with Schindler’s List, I use the door. But this time there is no escape. I must read CLR James' Black Jacobins:
“There was no ingenuity that fear or a depraved imagination could devise which has not been employed... irons on the hands and feet, blocks of wood that the slaves had to drag behind them wherever they went, the tin-plate mask designed to prevent the slaves eating the sugarcane, the iron collar. Whipping was interrupted in order to pass a piece of hot wood on the buttocks of the victim. Salt, pepper, citron, cinders, aloes, and hot ashes were poured on the bleeding wounds. Mutilations were common, limbs, ears, and sometimes the private parts, to deprive them of the pleasures which they could indulge in without expense. Their masters poured burning wax on their arms and hands and shoulders, emptied the boiling cane sugar over their heads, burned them alive, roasted them on slow fires, filled them with gunpowder and blew them up with a match; buried them up to the neck and smeared their heads with sugar that the flies might devour them; fastened them near to nests of ants or wasps; made them eat their excrement, drink their urine, and lick the saliva of other slaves. One colonist was known in moments of anger to throw himself on his slaves and stick his teeth into their flesh.”
On July 31, 1833 the Abolition Act was passed by the British Parliament to end slavery at midnight in a year’s time. A period of “apprenticeship” was enforced, despite the protests of the ex-slaves, from August 1, 1834 to August 1, 1938, when they were completely released from bondage. Thereafter the Trinidad Auxiliary Anti-Slavery Society (TASS) held public dinners almost every August 1 for two decades.
TASS was comprised of ambitious men, coloured rather than black. They stressed their identity with the ex-slaves, however, and their August 1 dinners were occasions for political speeches attacking government policies. Consequently, they were vilified by the conservative press for being “hot-headed demagogues”, “itinerant pedagogues”, “vile-tempered fanatics”.
“Let the emancipated rejoice by all means and celebrate the anniversary of their freedom as they list,” declared the Port of Spain Gazette when the Government announced August 1, 1842 a public holiday, “but we do not think it a case to authorise the suspension or interruption of public business.”
Two years later an anonymous policeman wrote to the paper remembering the days of slavery. “The labourer was a labourer, and instead of idling away the greater part of his time in dancing and drinking rum, attending radical meetings and keeping seven wives, he wrought for his living by the sweat of his brow,” he rhapsodised. “Those were the days when the island was not as yet cursed by the prophets and the sons of prophets and all the ragtail and bobtail of pseudo-philanthropy.”
Baptist churches organised a few August 1 meetings down South, but overall the ex-slaves of Trinidad, unlike those in Tobago, remained unimpressed. For them, Carnival and its Canboulay procession were the true celebration of freedom. The fishermen of Carenage held Emancipation celebrations, singing and dancing and drinking for three days, much to the disgust of the parish curé. And even that stopped after 1883, when the priest formally pronounced anathema on the venue: “cette case du diable.”
“African slavery played a major role in Trinidad for a very short period, effectively 50 years...perhaps the briefest experience of African slavery of any plantation colony in the New World,” suggests UWI historian Bridget Brereton in explanation. Besides, many Africans here didn't consider themselves "fuss augus niggers", having been freed generations before 1834.
As for the whites, they sat silently hoping that slavery – and perhaps Emancipation – would be forgotten. And by 1860 it seemed to have been. That year the black scholar John Jacob Thomas complained bitterly of “the guilty reticence with which, year after year, we sneak through the 24 significant hours of the First of August, which should have been the great commemorative day.”
In the 1880s politics intervened again. The constitutional Reform Movement launched by my great-great grandfather Philip Rostant; the activities of radical Chief Justice John Gorrie; JJ Thomas’ polemics with English writers Thomas Carlysle and Anthony Froude; all served to galvanise young black and coloured lawyers, teachers and civil servants. As the 1888 jubilee of full emancipation approached (a holiday in Tobago but not Trinidad), public debates were initiated on slavery, race relations and its progress (or lack thereof) since 1838.
The young radicals organised a jubilee banquet and the older liberals, Rostant included, did so too. On the other side conservatives black, white and every shade in between preached amnesia.
“Why should a few noisy agitators remind respectable people of the misfortunes of their ancestors?” asked one black correspondent, “and give fresh vitality to sentiments of hostility that are fast sinking into oblivion?”
One white newspaper editor pointed out that the young radicals were coloured men as much descended from Europe as Africa, from slave owners as slaves.
The poor and black, at least in Port of Spain, stayed away. Away from the city, however, in San Fernando, Arima, Arouca, Chatham, Couva, California, Tortuga and Mayo, they marked the day with drumming and dancing in the streets. In Mayaro an 80-year-old woman recalled, for those who would listen, the days of slavery.
Thereafter the commemoration of slavery’s demise languished in Trinidad. In Tobago it persisted long after. Young coloured and black professionals found other outlets for their political ambitions. August 1 became a celebration of Columbus’ arrival in 1498 – Discovery Day.
Like the 1880s, the 1930s were a time of economic depression and cultural and political resurgence. Significantly, it was largely through the lobbying of an Afro-Chinese cultural and social activist, Patrick Jones, who sang calypsoes under the sobriquet of Chinee Patrick, that the memory of slavery was revived and a holiday granted on August 1, 1933.
But that day wasn't the centenary of the (partial) emancipation of the slaves (1834) or their full emancipation (1838) but of the Abolition Act which was passed in 1833, and of the death of William Wilberforce which took place in the same month, both of which were celebrated in Britain, according to historian Seymor Drescher, “as an imperial triumph in behalf of humanity.”
Fireworks were organised for Discovery Day and an essay competition held on the life of Wilberforce. One store advertised Discovery Day Bargains (a neat ladies' dark brown shoe with medium heels: $1.50), while the Trinidad Electric Company offered to let "peace, contentment and freedom reign in the home when you use electrical appliances" (the new turbo-vaporizer rids you of your cold overnight).
The churches joined the act. On Sunday 23 August in La Brea the Methodists claimed “Methodism covered itself with glory in the struggle for freedom.” At the CIC cathedral Rev. Fr. O’Dea, in a startling reinterpretation of history, claimed that “the abolition of slavery was due primarily and chiefly to the teaching and influence of the Catholic Church down the ages.”
The Anglican Vicar General EJ Holt in the Trinity Cathedral claimed that under slavery, “many women, children and aged people were well provided for, and many of the planters were kind-hearted men who treated their slaves generously.”
Unlike the 1888 jubilee, however, the 1933 centenary attracted the masses because it was promoted as a Carnival. From morning bands paraded the streets and mas and calypso competitions were held before 10,000 spectators at the Oval. Atilla, Lion, Beginner, Radio, Executor and other bards mounted a three-act Emancipation Drama.
Throughout the festivities, however, an old Baptist woman walked the streets of the city ringing a bell and calling down fire and brimstone for the Carnivalesque desecration of the day. And just before noon, the deluge came.
The St Ann's River burst its banks and swept away houses and their contents from Belmont down. Harpe Place to Nelson Street was hit especially hard. From St James to the Oval was almost waist-deep. It was the worst flood in living memory. Hundreds lost homes and all their belongings, and 58 were compensated sums ranging from one to ten dollars.
Thereafter Emancipation Day was ignored for another half century, during which CLR James and Eric Williams reinterpreted the history of slavery in The Black Jacobins and Capitalism and Slavery respectively. In those two brilliant works they changed Caribbean historiography, showing irrefutably that slavery was an economic proposition, and emancipation was only granted when the slaves’ rebelliousness made it no longer profitable. James was awarded an honorary doctorate in Hull, Wilberforce's hometown, in 1983, and William's book was the subject of an international conference in 1984, by which time both books were considered some of the greatest works of history ever written and translated into dozens of languages.
The following year, in 1985 the government of Trinidad and Tobago declared August 1 a public holiday, the first country in the world to officially celebrate the abolition of slavery.
Emancipation Day Parade, Port of Spain, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Carnival Institute of Trinidad & Tobago.