This blog was written by Catherine Ross. Catherine Ross is the Founder and Director of the Museumand, National Caribbean Heritage Museum – the first museum in the UK to celebrate Caribbean heritage, culture and social history. She emigrated to the UK from the Caribbean island of St Kitts in 1958, aged seven years old. Catherine is also a published author, former teacher and management consultant. She has been a national strategic development adviser at both The Red Cross, and The Scout Association.
The 1st August marks the anniversary of the day that slavery was abolished in the British Empire, it has become known as Emancipation Day. The act that ended slavery, the Slavery Abolition Act is held by the Parliamentary Archives. The Parliamentary Archives and ParliREACH asked people what this Act and Emancipation Day means to them.
The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 appeared to be one of the first acknowledgements by the powers that be that Black Lives Matter, with full emancipation in the British Caribbean isles finally achieved five years later in 1838. For many of my Caribbean ancestors it must have seemed momentous, heralding a future of hope, self-realisation and self-determination. At last it was acknowledged by the British government that the lives of Africans they had allowed to be forcibly enslaved in the British colonies were their own, and from here on in people would be “free” to decide what they wanted to do with their lives.
In reality though, the consequences of slavery continued to make themselves felt. Some enterprising Africans came into their own and were able to carve out a meaningful existence. Others, who had been secretly preparing for emancipation, could finally make changes to their lives, openly. But many of the former enslaved simply did not have the resources to make the most of this life-changing right and had a very difficult time. Being cut adrift from plantation estates without the basics of life such as food, shelter and a way to make a living forced people to fall back on offering their services to those who ran the plantation system, a system stacked against them.
The plantocracy, who had for centuries dictated and directed all aspects of African’s lives, had no such problem. Their “what next” after emancipation had been made comfortable by the riches they’d amassed at the expense of the enslaved and the great pay-out they had been given by the British government as compensation for releasing their African slaves.
For them, the fact that many of the former enslaved had no choice but to continue working on their plantations must have been the cherry on the icing on the cake. Africans may have been “emancipated” in theory, but an unjust system made sure they were still forced into back-breaking, life-threatening work in exchange for derisory payments. The terms “slave labour” and “slave wages” remain in our vocabulary today, reflecting the fact that some people in society still have little choice but to work long hours in exchange for poor wages, while others profit from their labour.
The sums that plantation owners became entitled to after Emancipation were so substantial that the debt payable under the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 was only repaid in 2015. We know this because of a Freedom of Information request to the UK Treasury in 2018. In contrast, the enslaved never received a penny in reparations, or even an apology. The value of my ancestors’ services to Britain’s plantocracy may have mattered, but not their lives.
In 1948, my ancestors’ services were called on again, when the British government invited Caribbeans to help rebuild Britain after the Second World War. The Windrush Generation arrived on British shores ready to help what we were told was our Mother Country. I was among them, a seven year old girl from St Kitts.
Once again, Black labour helped the UK to prosper, but when Caribbeans demanded fair treatment we were cut adrift with legislation and policies that paved the way for a Windrush Scandal we didn’t see coming. As a result, some members of the Windrush Generation have lost their jobs, their homes; their right to healthcare and even their lives; reliant on the kindness of family, friends and campaigners. Collectively, Caribbeans in the UK and their British-born descendants have felt the impact of being treated unjustly. When the Windrush Generation answered Britain’s call for help in 1948 they quite rightly believed themselves to be British citizens, only to find themselves treated as illegal immigrants 70 years later, faced with wrongful arrest and deportation.
The institution of an annual Windrush Day to celebrate the Caribbean contribution to the UK was a positive step in the right direction, but it was difficult for many Caribbeans to celebrate when members of the Windrush Generation were facing the fallout from decades of legislation and policies that left them unprotected when a hostile environment policy on immigration was introduced by the Home Office in 2012. The Windrush Generation pre-1948 were British subjects and post-1948 “citizens of the United Kingdom and colonies” – migrants, never immigrants. Once again, it felt as if Caribbean services to the UK were valued, rather than our lives.
Emancipation Day for me will be a remembrance of the sacrifices my ancestors made so I can have days such as these. It will be a day when I express thanks to those who helped bring the Transatlantic Slave Trade to an end. I will spend it reading and reflecting on the words Caribbeans have passed on to help us remain resilient, strong and mindful. People like Marcus Garvey who urges us to remember our past, so we are better prepared for our future. For me, that past includes the years my people spent enslaved on British Caribbean islands in the 19th century, as well as the injustices of 20th century immigration legislation and policies that led to the Windrush Scandal in the 21st century. Bob Marley offered us advice too when he said we need to free ourselves from mental slavery; the impact of what we as a people have been put through.
Their words confirm what freed Africans and those who supported their emancipation in 1838 knew – Black Lives Matter. Centuries later we have another change-making movement helping to shine a light on the often brutal and tragic truth of colonialism and its legacy, with the history of slavery still echoing through Britain’s statues and street names. Hopefully, the movement will bring about the sustainable change emancipation promised and the respect and human rights that are an essential part of everyone’s experience.
Perhaps next year, on Emancipation Day 2021, we can go beyond an Instagram moment with an event which all sectors of British society will embrace – celebrating the meaning of emancipation not just as an historical event, but the right of everyone living today. To be free doesn’t just mean not being enslaved, it means having the rights, resources, opportunities and support to thrive, alongside true equality, inclusion and representation.
We were told we would be given the status of citizens and a stake in society as an equal. We were told that the label of slave would be consigned to history. We believed British promises in 1838 and we believed them again in 1948. The time has come to finally make good on those promises.