Thu | Dec 9, 2021

Real emancipation still needed

Published:Friday | August 1, 2014 | 12:00 AM

By Peter Espeut

One hundred and eighty years ago today, 309,331 Jamaicans who had been the legal property of others ceased to be slaves. The slave owners, who considered themselves to be 'civilised' people, expected widespread disorder and violence, but all over Jamaica, chapels and churches were full of civilised people rejoicing prayerfully.

Meanwhile, the former owners moped and bellyached at the paltry (they felt) £6,161,927.5.10 (rather more than £19.0.0 per head) in compensation for the loss of their immorally held property. The really injured parties - the former slaves - received no compensation for the loss of decades of freedom and displacement from family and homeland.

Emancipation freed more than the slaves; emancipation also liberated slave owners from dehumanising relationships with persons whose labour and lives they exploited, for slavery dehumanised the masters, too. Emancipation was an opportunity for thousands drunk with almost absolute power over hundreds of thousands to foster a new society of free people. Very little effort was made to grasp this opportunity.

Emancipation gave legal freedom, but not power - either economic or political - to the former slaves. The former slaveowners still controlled the House of Assembly, the judiciary, the militia, and the vast majority of the land. The former slaves owned no land and, therefore, had no right to vote (only landowners could vote, and, in fact, if you owned land in several parishes, you could legally vote in each and all of them, although you could only stand for election in one parish at a time).

The ruling elite did not consider their uncivilised former property to be ready for full freedom, so they required them to first serve an 'apprenticeship' to learn how to be free. Four years later - 176 years ago today - they were declared 'full free' by law, on terms largely determined by the former slave masters. The dehumanising relationship between masters and slaves was replaced by new dehumanising relationships: between masters and servants, and landlords and tenants. The former slaves were offered pittances as wages and were charged huge rents for house lots and provision grounds they and their ancestors had occupied for generations.

Rather than launching a 'New Jamaica', Emancipation launched a new class war which, many will argue, is not over yet. The Morant Bay Rebellion nearly 31 years later was inevitable, as were the labour riots, 100 years after 'Full Freedom'. We can argue that Emancipation in 1834 was not an event but the beginning of a process, but it is turning out to be an everlastingly long process.

Fully 180 years after Emancipation, we can appreciate that the mentalities and attitudes of slaves and slave masters have very much persisted into 21st-Century Jamaica. The Jamaican labour force lacks an ethic of hard work; and many of the modern elite (of all shades of colour) have retained a contempt for the majority of the population.

Jamaican politics has organised to keep the majority under control - dependent and underdeveloped. It is amazing how durable these old relationships and old attitudes are. Jamaica has not sufficiently transcended its history of slavery and colonialism.


Today, the need for Emancipation is greater than ever, for we Jamaicans are in bondage to a political system very little less dehumanising than colonial slavery. The plantations needed an unlettered labour force, and the plantocracy had no use for education among their field workers. Too many Jamaicans are still only lightly educated.

Too many Jamaicans have to toe the line in political garrisons administered by political thugs, to whom higglers, shopkeepers and business owners have to pay extortion money. Too many of us are hostage to a political system dominated by shadowy figures who make secret donations to political parties and pull strings behind the scenes.

During slavery, the slave masters had little but contempt for the slaves, but at least they valued their lives (since they cost money). We rejoice that, in modern Jamaica, extrajudicial killings by agents of the State have declined slightly, but are still among the highest in the world. When will agents of the State begin to respect the lives of ordinary Jamaicans?

In 2014, we need to be emancipated from mental slavery, but we also need liberation from our present two-party tribal system and their backers. We lionise Deacon Sam Sharpe and Deacon Paul Bogle as national heroes, but they sought liberation by confrontation, and did not eschew violence - not a very acceptable approach. By what means and through what agency shall we achieve the emancipation we need today?

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to