Arts On Sunday: Emancipation and its impact on the culture and shape of society

Today is Emancipation Day with celebrations across the Caribbean.  It is also the carnival period in some of the territories when the important national festival of the respective countries is held. However, although marked by events, it is much more than a day and far transcends the events used to commemorate it, because emancipation has had a deep impact on the culture of the Caribbean and has been one of the most important processes in the shaping of the Caribbean societies.

The first of August is the highpoint of carnival in Antigua, it is also at the peak of the Jamaica Festival and it is Kadooment Day, which is the climax of the Crop-Over festival in Barbados. Carnival has a history with its origins in the period of slavery closely related to plantation culture, mimicry, satire and the class struggle followed by a history of socio-political struggle and intense cultural transformation after emancipation, with all of these expressing themselves in immeasurable creativity. Although Jamaica’s festival was created to celebrate its independence on August 6 (1962), it takes in the traditions which focused on Emancipation Day and the overall theme of liberation and nationalism.

Crop-Over has strong historical resonance in the plantation culture and a marked sense of cessation from its oppressive overtones.  It is the modern re-creation of a harvest festival signalling the end of the sugarcane crop; but even before the modern era it took on the theme of resistance and liberation with the symbolic “burning of Mr Harding” marking the end of it. This used to be done with the building of a huge effigy in the likeness of an eighteenth-century sugar planter which was set to flames at the end of the grand road march that takes place on Kadooment Day – the First of August.

The theme of emancipation is therefore carried in these national festivals, as it is in the various events in almost all the territories. However, although celebrated on the first day in August, the anniversary of the end of apprenticeship and the end of slavery in 1838, emancipation is much larger than any of these. It is not a Black celebration, or a Caribbean one since it has had an impact on the world. It brought to an end of one of the most devastating movements of forced migration in history and one of the most inhumane social systems to have been enacted against mankind. The dismantling of it had as great an impact on world politics, economy and demography as did the implications and consequences of the imposition of the system itself.

In the Caribbean, emancipation made a major contribution to change: to social change, as

ACDA’s Vergenoegen Youth Group performing during the cultural programme at the National Park on Emancipation Day last year. (Stabroek News file photo/Jules Gibson)

well as to social history, demography, agrarian reform and culture.  It opened the way for other migrations and was the cause of the emergence of multi-cultural societies in the Caribbean. In order to solve a labour shortage and the problems and economic issues arising from the firm and deeply impactful industrial action maintained by the former enslaved, workers were imported from parts of Europe, Great Britain, the continent of Africa and other parts of the West Indies.  The most significant migrations, though, were from India, China and Portugal (Madeira) under systems of indentureship.  Since many of these opted to remain in the Caribbean, whole communities of them and their descendants became part of Caribbean society in sufficiently large numbers to make plural societies in some territories.

Particularly in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, defined plurality developed with significantly large East Indian populations. Emancipation was responsible for such developments although commemorations of it have concentrated on the African factor, often to the point of exclusion of those significant developments that arose out of it.

Of very great significance in the contributions made by emancipation to Caribbean society is the development of the village movement. In the Guyana context a number of historians, including Walter Rodney, have provided accounts of the village movement which started with the exodus of the former enslaved from the plantations and developed most importantly with the pooling of resources by groups of settlers to purchase former estates which they transformed into villages. Some of these historical records detail the hardships that they often faced including poor infrastructural support and drainage problems. However, the emergence of several “free villages” became a part of the land development structure and settlement patterns.
Added to this were the estate villages that came into being later, which were the dwelling places of East Indian sugar estate workers, and many of these eventually developed independently away from the estates out of which they grew.  But they grew with particular characteristics of their inhabitants including the factor of language. There developed during slavery, the Creole languages of the Caribbean dominated by African linguistic elements in languages that were based on English and French. After emancipation, these creoles were adopted by the East Indians who introduced words and elements of their own Indian linguistic backgrounds, so that varieties of Guyanese Creoles (Creolese) reflect this significantly.

All of these factors have been a part of the deep influence of emancipation on the culture of the Caribbean. Within the village communities and in the urban extensions of the spread of the Black population, African cultural traditions were nurtured and transmitted across generations. Although several traditions have faded, diminished or disappeared, there are important factors. During slavery these were generally subject to suppression as some of them were seen as subversive (and indeed, some were disguised forms of resistance or dramatisations of it, containing the attitudes of the people towards white plantation culture; others reflected acceptance of inferiority, or neutral reflection of cultural influences).  The planter class viewed them with suspicion and scorn and very often reacted to them with pejorative comment and denunciation on the one hand and with prohibitive legislation on the other.

But after emancipation the African cultural elements achieved a greater presence and wielded more influence.  At the same time they came into greater conflict with the authorities, the colonials and the rising middle classes, but they began to have a more marked impact on the societies.  This was because of a kind of ‘break-out’ in which the former enslaved became more visible and vocal members of ‘free’ society and they practiced and exhibited their cultural expressions more expansively. These served to deepen the class struggle as the rulers, the middle classes and the white and coloured population sought to distance themselves from the now blatant expressions of African culture which were deemed violent and vulgar. Acts of resistance were also bolder as the Blacks themselves reacted to the attitudes and counter-actions of their social critics.  This is what often resulted in clashes between the groups.

These conflicts were more prevalent in urban settings as other sets of African cultural traditions persisted in rural communities and in many instances there was no known open conflict. The main trends were on the whole that emancipation allowed the cultural traditions to impose themselves more efficiently upon society.  This greater openness led to more pronounced hostilities and confrontations in some instances. This then caused imposition of legislation. The African cultural traditions then grew in proportion and impact before many of them began to fade. Some faded because of the gradual pressure of the prohibitions while an extremely important cause of the waning has been the attitudes of the Blacks themselves who have played important roles in the suppression of their own cultural traits.

In spite of that, however, emancipation has been responsible for innumerable elements of African culture emerging in modern society. But more than that, it has allowed Caribbean societies to develop indigenous and contemporary cultures which have given the societies of the region distinct identities.

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