What will you be doing on August 1st? If you live in Britain, probably enjoying many of the freedoms UK citizens take for granted. Chances are, unless you have any connection to one of Britain’s former colonies, particularly in the Caribbean, you will remain blissfully unaware the date marks Emancipation Day – a commemorative celebration of the emancipation of enslaved people of African descent. The fact this date will pass by without registering on most people’s social or cultural radar is an indication that more needs to be done to recognise its significance.
Given the recent Windrush scandal, it seems even more important to mark and observe Emancipation Day this year. Not only is it important that the end of the horrific abomination that was the transatlantic slave trade be more widely established and honoured, but by doing so also serves as a continuing reminder of the contributions made to this country by both its antecedents and descendants alike. Lest it be forgotten, it is estimated that about 12.5 million people were transported and enslaved from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean during the “middle passage”, which reached its height between the 16th century and 1807.
Britain’s involvement reached prominence from the mid-17th century onwards, with ports including Bristol and Liverpool key destinations from which triangulation of wealth – sending out of cargo vessels including slave ships and transporting of slaves and goods – was achieved on our shores. This wealth largely generated by slave traders, companies and groups of investors, politicians and the Royal Family, ensured that this country would become a dominant force on the global stage with all the contingent financial, legal, political and social influence that comes with power.
With the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 eventually coming into force on 1st August 1834, slavery was abolished throughout most of the British Empire. Despite this, in practical terms only slaves below the age of six were actually freed, with enslaved people older than this reclassified as part of the “apprenticeship” system and forced to continue work for many more years without pay.
Having visited the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool this year, I was struck by the realisation that we must redouble our efforts to learn from this human tragedy and suffering, continually fighting against all forms of oppression such as modern slavery. That is why the Labour Party has pledged to introduce an Emancipation Educational Trust. This new body will receive a grant from the Labour Government similar to the Holocaust Educational Trust which does fantastic work. Society must never forget and our young people should be taught about the horrors of the slave trade.
The Trust will deliver school programmes for young people, as well as visits to historical landmark sites and museums. It will focus on African advancement before colonisation, as well as highlight the positive stories and campaigners often hidden from history. This includes the immense strength, sacrifice and resilience of those enslaved, their determined efforts in fighting back and the vital role of women in abolishing it. It will acknowledge the special wealth and beauty of Africa and the Caribbean, much of which has enriched the rest of the World to this day.
The Trust will address the legacy of slavery and seek to give back to the primary descendants of those enslaved. It will consult and work with banks and businesses with historic links to the slave trade, to establish bursaries for education and training for Black, Asian and minority ethnic people.
Tying the celebration of Emancipation Day into the work of the Trust is a key part of achieving the recognition of the longstanding legacy of slavery. Whilst the day is a public holiday throughout the Caribbean, it passes with little fanfare here. But as demonstrated by the rise in popularity of “Juneteenth” celebrations across the United States, once momentum is established and embraced, a date of little regarded significance beyond those it pertains to can be commemorated and celebrated nationally.
Addressing the historic injustice of slavery is work the Trust, with the assistance and involvement of a Labour Government and interested groups, would undertake. Its clear aim ensuring that moving forward everyone will know what they will be doing on August 1st. Celebrating Emancipation Day. And making sure it, and the history it marks is never forgotten.