Fri | Dec 4, 2020

Peter Espeut | Swapping one slave master for the next

Published:Thursday | August 3, 2017 | 12:00 AM

This week is sandwiched between two celebrations of freedom: freedom of individual Jamaicans from chattel slavery (August 1) and freedom of the Jamaican State from colonial domination (August 6). If we want to take an optimistic view, we can say that both remain a work in progress, for we have not really achieved either.

If we want to be pessimistic (and maybe more realistic), we can say that all that has happened over the last two centuries is that we have swapped one master for another.

Jamaican slave owners gave up their valuable property under duress. Only children under six years old (who could not work) were emancipated immediately in 1834. The slave owners demanded six years more of free work from field slaves and four more years from house slaves (eventually reduced to four years for both) before they were to become fully free; and after decades of stolen forced labour, they also demanded to be financially compensated for the loss of their human property, as well as future labour.


Wage slavery


The former slave owners still controlled the Jamaican colonial state through the Jamaica House of Assembly, and they did all they could to force their former slaves to work for low wages, ensuring they never became more than second-class citizens. Without the right to vote or to stand for election, and without reparations in terms of land and education, Jamaica became the land of their oppression under wage slavery.

The 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion and the 1938 riots and labour unrest had a lot in common with Sam Sharpe's 1831-1832 slave revolt, because Emancipation did not bring the freedom that had been expected. Even today - 183 years after Emancipation and 179 years after full freedom - and 73 years after being allowed to vote - the majority of the descendants of the enslaved still suffer high levels of illiteracy, educational underachievement, unemployment and underemployment. Somehow, the celebration of Emancipation by descendants of Jamaica's former slaves seems a little hollow.

I would have expected Jamaicans to celebrate our personal freedom, and to eschew anything resembling what Bob Marley (following Sidney Moxsy and Marcus Garvey) called "mental slavery". So many of us, though, misuse our freedom by choosing slavery to fad and fashion: like skin bleaching, tattooing, and body piercing, to name a few. Is using one's freedom to follow the crowd really freedom? Or is it a new kind of slavery?


Wasted freedom


We have misused our freedom - hard won by Sam Sharpe, Wilberforce and Knibb. Instead of choosing education and ethnic pride as the road to self-respect, many have chosen to ape their white oppressors, and to mutilate their bodies. Emancipation is very much a work in progress.

Jamaica could not prosper under colonialism. British policy demanded that nothing should be manufactured in Jamaica that could provide employment for British labour at home; if they could have shipped freshly cut sugar cane to Britain for processing by British labour, it would have been illegal to locally manufacture brown sugar and rum. Even today, we do not refine white sugar locally. Some countries that cannot grow cocoa are famous for their chocolate confections; and we, with some of the best cocoa in the world, can't make a success of manufacturing chocolates.

The spirit of colonialism is still with us! And this is because at Independence in 1962, all we did was change white colonial masters for brown local ones.

In 1962, the bad, bad British bequeathed us a national debt of zero pounds sterling, and in 50 years of independence, a series of PNP and JLP governments borrowed billions to bequeath to this generation of Jamaicans one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world.

Political Independence promised liberation from colonial oppression. It has led to garrison communities, political corruption, and the deepening of Jamaica's oppressive colour-class divisions through an apartheid education system.

'We're out to build a New Jamaica' might have been the slogan, but those who jockeyed to put themselves in charge of the Jamaica Independence Project have not delivered. We have ended up much the same, under a different rubric. The political freedoms gained through political Independence have been misused to enrich the political class and their cronies. Independence is very much still a work in progress.

We may celebrate freedom this week and next, but there are many of us who will mute our celebrations until we are a little farther along.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and rural development scientist. Email feedback to