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Peter Espeut | Elusive mental emancipation

Published:Friday | August 2, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Whether we believe that it was Sam Sharpe & Co or William Wilberforce & Co that played the major role in the liberation of enslaved Jamaicans, I believe that we can all agree that the Emancipation Act of 1833 only guaranteed formal physical freedom. The system of apprenticeship, which began on August 1, 1834, was a sham. It allowed the former slaveowners several more years of free labour – slavery by another name.

That faux freedom was brought to an early end by what was called ‘full freedom’ on August 1, 1938. The former slaves were given no land and were, therefore, forced to work for their former ‘owners’ for starvation wages while paying rent for the cottages and grounds their families had freely occupied for generations. Under slavery, their ‘owners’ provided them with food and clothing. After full freedom, they were now free to starve. Ultimately, they had no option but to flee into the hills to farm captured land, or to eventually buy into one of the church-sponsored free villages.

Some might argue that it was really the former slaveowners who were emancipated on August 1, 1838, from the unprofitable system of slave-grown sugar. Across the British empire, they were compensated for the loss of their human property to the tune of 20 million pounds sterling.

The British government borrowed the money to compensate the former slaveowners and only finished paying it back less than two years ago – on February 17, 2017. This means that contemporary British taxpayers – including many descendants of former slaves – have assisted in the compensation of their former slavemasters!

It is clear to me that the government of the United Kingdom – and maybe others as well – has not finished paying its debt to former slaves and their descendants. Reparative justice demands that fair compensation be paid for one of the worst crimes against humanity, which enriched the British state, society, and economy and funded much of contemporary British infrastructure.

Black people’s money

What bothers me is that Caribbean political parties are jumping on the reparation bandwagon, expecting a huge windfall in debt forgiveness or available cash to convert into political spoils to be distributed among themselves and the party faithful. Reparation payments for slavery are black people’s money and must not be used to pay the debts that incompetent and corrupt politicians have contracted. In fact, Caribbean politicians owe their people reparation because of how they have wasted decades of political independence.

What also bothers me is how many of us Caribbean people have wasted the emancipation that our forefathers fought and died for. Sam Sharpe and William Wilberforce and their associates did what they could, but none of them could free us from mental slavery, which is still very much with us. The Most Hon Bob reminds us that “none but ourselves can free our minds”.

Why should free people follow fashion so slavishly? Does a self-assured well-integrated person – comfortable with who they are – feel the need to colour their hair blue or orange, bleach or tattoo their skin, or pierce their flesh in numerous places? The success of slavery was to convince the enslaved that they were inferior, without personal dignity, and so could denigrate themselves or had to look and behave like their masters to be worth anything.

Why should free people with active brains remain enslaved by their animal passions? Why do intelligent men and women blight their futures by risky behaviour and lifestyles? What personality disorder leads some to physically and sexually abuse young people?

Can we do what is right because it is right, and not because of the lash? Are we still in beat-the-system mode, even when the system is supposed to work in our favour?

Eighteen decades after Emancipation, authentic freedom still eludes many of us.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.