Glorious day(s) of the happy and the free

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 01, 2021


The masters were “dam tief”, the Governor an “old rogue”, and the King not such a fool as to buy them half free when he was rich enough to pay for them altogether.

—Port of Spain Gazette, August 5, 1834

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeToday is Emancipation Day. Ashton Ford, one of our respected elders, remembers the impetus that led former prime minister George Chambers to change the Discovery Day holiday (a day that recognised the misdeeds of our oppressors) to Emancipation Day that honours the achievements of our ancestors.

Chambers believed if you named your streets and monuments after local patriots, you encouraged a sense of nationhood and strengthened national identity among the population.

There is another aspect of this name change that is worthy of consideration. In his biography, Dostoevsky in Love, Alex Christofi outlines the themes that undergird Dostoevsky’s writing: “The importance of understanding that autonomy and dignity are more precious to us than the rational self-interest of economics; that more people are killed by bad ideas than by honest feelings; that a society with no grand narrative is vulnerable to political extremism.”

In 1848, at a meeting with his literary circle, Dostoevsky read V Belinsky’s famous open letter to NV Gogol. It said: “The most urgent questions of national importance in Russia at present are the abolition of serfdom; the abolition of physical punishment; and the enforcement of laws that already exist.” Belinsky described the Russian serfs as “white Negroes”. Dostoevsky devoted much of his early life to the liberation of the Russian serfs, which took place on March 5, 1861, Russia’s Emancipation Day.

One should keep these two considerations (Chambers’ rationale for creating Emancipation Day and Dostoevsky’s hatred of serfdom) in mind as one reads today’s and next week’s columns.

On August 1, 1834, the glorious day arrived which the Trinidad planters had so opposed. On August 5, the Port of Spain Gazette apologised for not publishing its regular issue on Emancipation Day, “the day on which for the first time for centuries the sun shone forth on the British West Indies without lighting a (single??) slave to labour; upon which 850,000 human beings who had gone to rest the previous night suffering under the weight of slavery and [sad]ness insupportable, arose free and happy, and rejoicing at their deliverance from [slavery] which had from birth kept them down to the level of beasts”.

Prior to that glorious day, the enslaved made it clear that after Emancipation Day they did not have the slightest intention to work in the fields again. The Port of Spain Gazette reported that the orders of council, the ordinances and the proclamations relating to emancipation had been fully published and explained to the enslaved who “had generally laughed at and rejected” the interpretation of that august document that the governor had offered. They believed “the King had freed them right out, and that the apprenticeship was a job got up between their masters and the Governor. Their masters were ‘damn tief’, the Governor an ‘old rogue’, and the King not such a fool as to buy them half free when he was rich enough to pay for them altogether.

“These were the feelings expressed by the slaves whenever the topic of Apprenticeship was ventured upon, either by their masters or the Government, and it was consequently thought wise to provide some mode of convincing them of their errors more forcibly, than mere explanation and reasoning, and four companies of the local Militias were ordered to hold themselves in readiness to commence permanent duty.”

This show of force did not intimidate the newly freed population. On the morning of that glorious day, the newspaper reported that the apprentices moved into town “in numerous groups and gangs, and wended their way to Government House. Long before His Excellency the Governor arrived in town, the Court Yard and surrounding neighbourhood were peopled by the happy and free, to the number of about 400, who had come to inform His Excellency that they had resolved to strike work”.

These men and women were determined to demonstrate their free condition. They would listen to nothing that the governor had to say about any restrictions on their freedom. “They were not only utterly disregarded but grossly insulted, and openly set at defiance. Explanation was drowned by vociferation; persuasion was attributed to fear and treated with disdain, whilst threats [were] met with contempt. The mob [the newspaper’s description] would listen to none, and became more turbulent and insolent each moment.” After being treated as “beasts of burden” for many years, they displayed a new understanding of their place in the world.

Even at this moment, the dominant class could not but show its adeptness and coercion. “The militia were requested to appear and in a space of time scarcely creditable, the whole of the town corps were under arms, and in a force and state of appointment gratifying to every man [presumably, the whites] who beheld them.” Mercifully, all of the armed forces did not behave the same way.

In spite of the military presence, the newly freed continued to swarm Government House until the evening “without exhibiting the least inclination to return to the estates to which they were attached, and the Governor upon taking his departure for his residence was assailed with every kind of abuse that apparently impunity could suggest”.

In spite of their jubilation, the newly freed remained remarkably peaceful.

The estate workers around Port of Spain “ceased work almost without exception, but not a single instance of violence was heard of”. After dark, the newly freed Negroes (their term) dispersed and went back to their estates.

5 thoughts on “Glorious day(s) of the happy and the free”

  1. Happy Emancipation Day to my African brothers and sisters. I am so thankful for the Liberation that came from the shackles of colonialism where black people were just property. To property owners.

    I have learned a lot from my black brethren. (1) I learned to love my people after seeing the love that my good friend a member of the 1970s black power movement had for his people. (2) I learn to love and respect others from one of my black sisters, she express that by her persistence and faithfulness in serving others. Always present, stood strong (3) I learn to grow a “backbone” after one of my black friends stood strong on my behalf, he stood for me in the injustice I was facing, because of his strength I won. No small task I assure you. (4) I learn to rise above circumstances when one of my black friends demonstrated resilience. He almost died from colon cancer went years without a pay check. Seize the opportunity to become a realtor and rise above it all to succeed in his previous field and now this new area of expertise. A man with a lot of self belief. I learn that anything is possible.

    Enjoy your special day as I celebrate with you! Cheers.

  2. Things for our Trini to be proud of:
    1.On August 1, 1985 Trinidad and Tobago became the first independent country in the world to declare a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery. Canada is celebrating its first emancipation day this weekend.
    2.First black woman to win Ms. Universe a Trini of course.
    3. First Olympic gold.
    4.The highest scoring batsman

    A lot to be proud of. I know that half breed Inconvenient Linda would be very very upset about this because she sees black people as victims.

  3. History is a reminder of “who we are” not “what we used to be”.
    Judging from what is currently happening around the globe, there is little hope that left to his own devices, man’s humanity will change towards his fellowmen. This does not mean that man is inherently evil, what it means is that man’s appetite to conquer and rule over others is irresistible to maintain “his superiority”. The word “his” is instructive because to achieve purpose, it is necessary to gather those of like mind to become successful in such a quest. In one hundred percent of the cases of unrest around the world, one group is fighting the other group in order to be victoriously accepted as superior. Thus, while prior to the advent of European slavery of Africans, Africans had no problems integrating with continental Europeans and Arabs. Envy (of the Africans) began when the richest man who ever existed, Mansa Musa, the African King of Kings, displayed his riches to the world by traveling through out North Africa to Asia and southern Europe with his entourage of gold, servants, camels, horses and caravans of soldiers, that Arabs and Europeans began to take stock of the riches of Africa. Even today, most of the materials is used to develop most of the sophisticated electronics products come from Africa. The result is this: Little is paid for the raw materials and the asking price for the finished products are either unattainable or too expensive for African use. Stigma lies as the success of Europeans to successfully label the African as “inferior”, hence the racist attitude towards us around the world. In order to keep us “inferior”, our ancestors were not allowed to learn to read, write, integrate, congregate but was allowed to suffocate in order to maintain the “superiority” of others. The celebration of emancipation is to remind us that the struggle to remain competitive is still very much with us. It is not enough to sing, dance and celebrate. Emancipation should be used as an infusion device to the young of our past and most importantly to encourage them to aim to greater heights. Inspire of all the struggles that we faced and the obstructionist devices put in our way to prevent our development, many of us achieved very great heights. It is important for us to remember Dr. Eric Williams, Marcus Garvey, CLR James, George, Washington Carver, Frederick Douglas, Leroy Clarke, Dr. Trebi-Ollenu and others who have risen to great heights. We MUST celebrate those who have shown that despite the obstructions placed before us WE CAN STILL ELEVATE AND ACHIEVE. Happy Emancipation
    Day my fellowmen!!!!!

    1. Very good analysis of the historical context of life. Happy Emancipation Day to you Kian. But this brother defies all by becoming the strongest man in the world. What is your limit? Remove it as Bruce Lee said to Jackie Chan, remove the limit. Even if you die so what???

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