Carolyn Cooper | Emancipate all beaches now!
Emancipation Day is a prime occasion for us to reflect on the legacies of plantation slavery. On August 1, 1834, enslaved Africans were emancipated. Sort of! They were forced to work for free for another four years under a new scheme called Apprenticeship. In effect, they were compensating their presumed masters for their own emancipation.
Wikipedia defines apprenticeship in this way: “a system of training a new generation of practitioners of a trade or profession with on-the-job training and often some accompanying study (classroom work and reading).” Clearly, this form of apprenticeship did not apply to emancipated Africans. They already had centuries of on-the-job training in brutal manual labour. And they were certainly not expected to read or do classroom work.
In addition, it was plantation owners who were further compensated by the British government for the loss of their 'property'. Emancipated Africans received no reparation for generations of enslavement. This was a crime against humanity of epic proportions. But the beneficiaries of plantation slavery and their heirs refuse to acknowledge guilt. They continue to enjoy blood money without a thought of its origins. For them, ‘reparation’ is a curse word.
By contrast, the Spanish word ‘reparación’ neutrally means ‘repair’. It’s the sign you see at auto mechanic shops all across Spanish-speaking countries. Unlike the English word ‘reparation’, the Spanish equivalent is not loaded with the weight of history. Even though the Spanish were also enslavers!
In common usage today, ‘reparación’ simply means repairing a damaged vehicle. Of course, the trauma of enslavement cannot be ‘fixed’ like an old car. But acknowledgement of long-sustained injury is the first step in the process of making reparations for centuries of slavery.
One of the legacies of plantation slavery in Jamaica is the sense of entitlement that many white people enjoy. They claim the right to the best of the island’s natural resources. At Emancipation, plantations remained in the control of white people and their brown agents. African people had no access to the best land. They were forced to grow crops on hillside farms. It was not easy, but they managed to survive.
When hardship became unbearable, hard-working people rebelled. That’s the story of the 1865 Morant Bay war. Governor Eyre exercised white privilege and crushed the rebellion. Almost 500 freedom fighters lost their lives. The Jamaica Information Service website optimistically asserts that the rebellion “paved the way for the establishment of just practices in the courts and it brought about a change in official attitude, which made possible the social and economic betterment of the people”.
Almost 153 years later, are the practices in Jamaican courts truly 'just'? And has the “social and economic betterment of the people” actually been achieved? Certainly not on a minimum wage of $7,000 per week – starting on Emancipation Day! Have official attitudes to injustice really changed?
One of the natural resources that wealthy people in Jamaica have captured is our beaches. Up and down the coastline, privileged Jamaicans fence off the best beaches for their exclusive use. Tourism has long been the excuse for this practice. And it seems as if it’s only foreign tourists who count. Locals are not entitled to enjoy the best beaches.
Even if you are willing to pay the exorbitant price for a day pass, hotels will still shut out Jamaicans on the guise of full occupancy. About a year ago, a group of us was excluded from a north coast beach on that basis. When I asked to see the manager and went to the lobby, I noticed that there was hardly anybody on the beach.
In response to my column, 'Who Is guarding our beaches?', published on July 1, I got a supportive email from Cayman: “The Ritz and the Marriott Hotel chains and the private residences all have beach frontage on the Seven Mile strip. Anyone can enter for breakfast, dinner, lunch and top it off with a fine swim and a tan on their beaches! Yes, Cayman might be the Caribbean’s biggest gated community, but they put people first regarding their rights as citizens.”
Another sympathetic email came from Antigua in response to my column, “Porto Seco Beach gone for good?', published on June 24: “ALL beaches in Antigua are public, whether there is a hotel development there or not.” We have so much chat in Jamaica on trivial issues and we’re not doing enough to protect our fundamental right to beach access.
The residents of Discovery Bay know better. On Saturday, August 4, at 8 a.m., community groups are holding a public meeting in the square. They are fighting to keep Peach Beach open to the public. They have already lost Puerto Seco Beach and the Members Beach to Kenny Benjamin’s Guardsman Group.
Proverbial wisdom advises that 'wat gone bad a mornin can’t come good a evenin'. I disagree. We can repair some damages. It’s high time to emancipate our beaches from the grip of greedy private-interest groups. We must support the Discovery Bay protest. Or we will continue to lose our beaches one by one!