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What do Emancipation and Independence mean?

Published:Monday | August 4, 2014 | 12:00 AM

As we celebrate Emancipation and Independence Days, I believe that the majority of Jamaicans view them only as national holidays, ideal opportunities to enjoy two days away from work in one month, the biggest party weekend at the western end of the country, or any combinations of the three. It is hardly a period when we reflect on the legal milestones that these two dates represent.

Emancipation Day, which was first celebrated on August 1, 1838, marked the freedom of all slaves in British colonies. The governor read the Proclamation of Freedom and the Abolition Act came into effect. One would imagine that this meant that all persons who could have ever been classified as slaves within the colonies would have been freed. However, as with all legal documents, interpretation is critical, and an article I read from 'Pieces of the Past' in The Gleaner's Archives summed up the reality of the situation by stating that, "Although the Abolition Act stated that slavery shall be and is hereby utterly abolished and unlawful, the only slaves truly freed were those not yet born and those under six years of age. All other slaves were to enter a six-year 'apprenticeship' during which they were to be 'apprenticed' to the plantations."

The article goes on to say, "Emancipation did not mean the beginning of good times. According to Sherlock and Bennett in The Story of the Jamaican People (1998): "Emancipation gave them the right to free movement, the right to choose where and when they wished to work, but without basic education and training many were compelled to remain on the plantation as field hands and tenants-at-will under conditions determined by the landlord, and for wages set by him".

Although we were no longer slaves, it was only at midnight on August 5, 1962 that our nation gained its freedom from Great Britain. When we reflect on what it must have meant for the Union Jack to be lowered and for Jamaica's flag to take its place, for the constitutional documents, representing Jamaica's Supreme Law to be handed to our first prime minister, Sir Alexander Bustamante, to hear our nation's prayer echoed in the National Anthem and for that first independent Parliament to sit on August 7, 1962, I am filled with a sense of pride.

As a country and people, we have revelled in the freedoms that were hard-fought by our forefathers. In many ways, we have enhanced what they created and one of those significant milestones is the coming into effect of the Charter of Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in April 2011. In many other respects, however, we have trampled on our forefathers' legacy and abused the freedoms that meant everything to them.

frame our own destiny

On August 7, 1962, Sir Alexander Bustamante said, "Independence means the opportunity for us to frame our own destiny and the need for us to rely on ourselves in so doing. It does not mean a licence to do as we would like. It means work and law and order. Let us resolve to build a Jamaica which will last and of which we and generations to come will be proud, remembering that especially at this time the eyes of the world are upon us."

Sir Norman Manley also said: "We stand here today surrounded by an unseen host of witnesses - who through all our history strove to keep alight the torch of freedom - and what of the future? We have come to Independence prepared and ready to shoulder our new responsibilities and united, I believe, in one single hope that we may make our small country a safe and happy home for all our people."

Both statements are as relevant today, as they were in 1962. We all need to recognise that we have a part to play as politicians, administrators of justice and ordinary citizens of this country in ensuring that the freedoms we enjoy are used to benefit our people and our nation. Can we evoke that level of consciousness once again? That is my prayer.

Sherry-Ann McGregor is an attorney-at-law and mediator in the law firm of Nunes, Scholefield, DeLeon & Co. Please send comments and questions to lawsofeve@yahoo.com, lifestyle@gleanerjm.com or on twitter @lawsofeve