Peter Espeut | Emancipendence – a work in progress
One of the problems with marking historical events with holidays is that people begin to believe that they are full-blown achievements. When we celebrate Emancipation and Independence, what we actually do is mark the anniversary of the coming into force of legal enactments that began processes which are still works in progress.
The Emancipation Act 1833, which came into force on August 1, 1834, declared all enslaved people in Jamaica to be legally free; but we know that for many people, this meant that they were now free to be landless, homeless, jobless, and free to starve. The imbalances in land ownership, education and status remained.
The Jamaica (Constitution) Order in Council 1962 declared Jamaica no longer a colony of Great Britain, and now free to conduct business on its own behalf, including borrowing money and educating its people. We have done well at the former, and poorly in the latter, but the trappings of colonialism remain, and may have become even more entrenched. We still address human beings as 'Your Worship', and just the other day, Parliament passed a law upgrading the honorific title of the prime minister from 'Honourable' to 'Most Honourable'.
We sing - truthfully - that legal slavery may be over, but mental slavery remains. If that were the only vestige of slavery, we might consider ourselves well off. There is much else around today from which we need to be emancipated.
In 1834, the planters did not free their slaves; they were forced to give them up; and because they controlled the House of Assembly, they passed laws to keep their former property in their places, like making the power to vote contingent upon owning land, and then restricting the sale of land. It took another 110 years before all adult Jamaicans - rich or poor - were given the right to vote.
Did you know that the first real high school in Jamaica began only in 1850? Several academies began earlier (e.g., Wolmer's in 1736, Manning's in 1738, and Rusea's in 1777), but these did not go up to fifth form as they do today. Until 1850, any Jamaican child wanting to go to high school had to be sent overseas; and only the elite could afford to do so. It was the Church that inaugurated and then expanded high-schooling in Jamaica. The Jamaica House of Assembly voted itself out of existence in 1865 and over its 201 years had not founded even one high school!
Being free is a good thing, but 178 years later, many Jamaican children have only limited access to high-quality primary education. Many children go to school for nine years and still cannot read and write. And the majority of Jamaican children leave high school without the five CXC subjects they need to access further study or a good-paying job. The process of emancipation needs to go a lot further for most Jamaicans to be able to achieve their full potential.
Political Independence was supposed to be an important step to deepen the emancipation of all Jamaicans. In 1962, we already had a well-defined national identity, with a national cuisine, a budding music industry, a promising literary and theatre tradition, a growing tourism industry, and a few Olympic medals to our name. Independence was supposed to be the gateway to a 'New Jamaica', and optimism was high.
Freed from the fiscal constraints imposed from London, after 1962, successive Jamaican governments failed to sufficiently grow the economy and borrowed the country into dependence upon fiscal constraints imposed by the International Monetary Fund. I wonder if 54 years after political Independence, we have more control over our economy than we did in 1961.
Independence was a gift - we did not have to work hard to get it - but we will have to work hard to deepen it and give it meaning. After 72 years of universal adult suffrage, less than half of those eligible to vote actually did so. Most Jamaicans do not trust their government or the police, believing that corruption is rife. The existence of garrison communities diminishes our democracy and creates a huge gap in our body politic.
Independence is a work in progress, and we have to work hard to deepen the little democracy we have. Public outcry has led to baby steps in the direction of the transparency we seek. Some public officials have let a few people peek at their financials, but the inadequacies unearthed can only lead to full disclosure.
Dismantling the garrisons created by corrupt housing policies will be another important step.
Yes, both Emancipation and Independence are works in progress, and the progress is slow. As we celebrate, let us commit ourselves to work hard to deepen them.
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.