On slavery and emancipation in the Caribbean

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

Rethinking freedom in the Bahamas
By Nicolette Bethel
In 1833, the British Parliament passed an Act to abolish slavery in the British Empire. As of August 1, 1834, all slaves throughout the empire were to become free to some degree — if they were under the age of six, they would become free immediately, but if they were over six, they were to be apprenticed to their former masters. Apprenticeship was finally abolished on August 1, 1838.
It is partly for this reason that Emancipation Day is a holiday in The Bahamas. It is a holiday throughout the former British slave colonies of the Caribbean as well — and the reason that Jamaica, for example, chose it as its Independence Day. We don’t celebrate our holiday on August 1, although we remember the date; rather, we have chosen to make the nearest Monday the holiday.
Here, then, together with hot weather, rain, and hurricanes, the summer months bring the twin holidays that commemorate our freedom. As a nation, we have the opportunity of remembering how far we have come, of honouring our ancestors who — slave and master alike — were dehumanized by the institution of slavery and indentureship.
So far, though, we have not made the most of this opportunity. Oh, we celebrate all right. We have a Junkanoo parade on Independence Day, and two Junkanoo parades on the August Holiday weekend. We have cook-outs (what better way to party than eating?) But that’s about as far as it goes. Indeed, considering the amount of time we spend speaking of such things, it’s possible to imagine that if a Bahamian child didn’t grow up watching American television, they might be surprised to learn that Bahamians were once ever slaves.
And yet.
As I’ve written before, slavery is not over in the Caribbean. I’m not talking about the kind of “slavery” that people like to raise when making these kinds of statements — a “slavery” that assumes that every Black Bahamian is subordinate to and poorer than every White Bahamian, that assumes that all Whites were slave owners and all Blacks slaves, that believes that Black Bahamian slaves were captured in African jungles and transported to The Bahamas on slave ships — an image of slavery that has more to do with history as outlined in the ABC miniseries Roots than our own story, which is far more complicated and interesting.
No. I’m talking about the kind of slavery Bob Marley recognized in his own people when he wrote and performed his “Redemption Song” — the mental slavery that continues to dominate our society.
What do I mean by mental slavery? It manifests itself in a number of different ways. There are the obvious — the concept that Bahamians aren’t able to do things very well, and the resultant habit of looking elsewhere for models and expertise; the preference for hiring consultants from abroad to give advice that Bahamian experts have already considered and rejected; the willingness to privilege outside plans for development over local ones; the general contempt for anything home-grown, and the overconsumption of anything from across the sea.
But as common as these tendencies are, I’m thinking of other, smaller, more insidious actions and habits that show the residue of slavery in our everyday lives.
The biggest one is the apparent reluctance of the ordinary employee ever to make a decision. Decisions, you see, require that one take responsibility for those decisions, and if one is wrong, one gets in trouble. The result — particularly in the civil service, but not only there — is that for too many people, there is only one way of doing something.
How many of us have found ourselves in a situation where we make a request that is unusual, that takes a salesperson out of her comfort zone, that surprises her, forces her to think?
The result: roadblock.
Another one, though, that I get to see often in my line of work, is the tendency of many people who are possessed with a good idea to seek first and foremost the kingdom of Government Money. Despite the fact that we live in a society which welcomes millions of tourists every year, in which money flows like water, in which Bahamians as well as visitors are willing to spend good cash on things they enjoy, we seem to believe that our enterprise must first and foremost be supported by handouts from the public treasury.
A third is the paralysis that I also witness, as a manager of a department and as a teacher of students, among people who seem to be waiting for someone to tell them What To Do. They can’t — or won’t — act unless they get an order or a clearance from above.
All of these are examples of the mental slavery from which we continue to need emancipation.
Emancipation, you see, only begins with the awarding of political freedom. It is true that on August 1, 1834, slaves were given the gift of themselves; they were able, for the first time since their enslavement, to own their bodies, their loved ones, their offspring, and their possessions. But the residue of slavery lingers still. The political and physical emancipation of the slaves didn’t mean that there was a corresponding psychic and mental freedom that came with it. That has to be worked on.
So it’s that time of the year again; it’s our freedom time. Massa’s long gone. It’s time for us realize that every West Indian who refuses to make a decision, every Bahamian who seeks a handout, every West Indian who looks outside our region for validation, every Bahamian who believes that what we do isn’t good enough, is in need of emancipation still.
It’s time we emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.
Nicolette Bethel currently serves as Director of Culture for the Government of the Bahamas . She is a social anthropologist and a writer. Her plays have been produced locally, and her fiction and poetry have appeared in various collections.
She blogs at Bahamapundit
Please e-mail comments to editor@thenewblackmagazine.com

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