The Road To Freedom – Jamaican Emancipation Day

Posted on Thursday, August 1st, 2013 at 1:50 am
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Celebration of Emancipation on August 1, 1838 in the Square of Spanish Town, the then capital of Jamaica. There was a procession of the Baptist Church and Congregation of Spanish Town under the Rev. J.M. Phillips, with about 2,000 school children and their teachers to Government House. Amid tremendous rejoicing, Governor Sir Lionel Smith read the Proclamation of Freedom to the large crowd of about 8,000 people, who had gathered in the Square. The governor’s carriage is seen in the foreground. –

“The hour is at hand, the Monster is dying…in recounting the mood in his church that night he said- “the winds of freedom appeared to have been set loose, the very building shook at the strange yet sacred joy.” – William Knibb, non-conformist Baptist preacher and abolitionist, at the dawning of Aug. 1, 1838

Freedom can be said to have arrived in two stages; the first being the early morning of Friday, August 1, 1834. On that day many slaves were said to have walked up hills and climbed trees so as to clearly witness the literal dawning of their freedom. Around the island thousands attended “Divine Services” to give thanks and praise. August 1, 1834, marked the emancipation of all slaves in British colonies but it was a case of freedom with conditions. 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 tenets of ‘apprenticeship’ stated that the ex-slaves would work without pay for their former masters for three-quarters of every week (40 hours) in exchange for lodging, food, clothing, medical attendance and provision grounds in which they could grow their own food during the remaining quarter of the week. They could also, if they chose, hire themselves out for more wages during that remaining quarter. With this money, an ex-slave-turned-apprentice could then buy his freedom.

Overall, though apprenticeship proved confusing for the ex-slaves – they were told they were free but they were not really free. Indeed, for many, the quality of their lives had not undergone any great change. In smaller islands like Antigua and Bermuda, there was no need for a system of apprenticeship as all of the land was under cultivation, so the slaveholders knew the ex-slaves would have no choice but to work on the plantations.

Apprenticeship ended two years short of its intended six-year term on August 1, 1838. This marked the second stage of freedom, ­ the day all slaves were made free. In Jamaica on that “full free” August morning, peaceful demonstrations and celebrations occured across the island. A hearse containing shackles and chains that had been used to shackle rebellious slaves, was driven through the streets of the capital Spanish Town, and ceremoniously burned.

The road to full freedom was a long one, paved with rebellions and sermons by anti-slavery missionary preachers in the colonies as well as debates and the passage of crucial reforms in Britain.

Indeed, once full emancipation came into effect and free villages began to be established, the plantation system began to fall apart ­ wealth was increa singly determined by the amount of money a man had and not by the amount of slaves a man owned.

The tide was changing, struggles to keep down the number of runaway slaves and slave revolts (famous Jamaican revolts included Tacky’s 1760 Rebellion and Sam Sharpe’s 1831 Rebellion) seemed harder, and the ripple effect of the successful 1789 slave revolt in St. Domingue,(what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) was impossible to ignore. Public opinion began to shift in Britain ­ heavily influenced by the work of abolitionists like Granville Sharp and William Wilberforce. Sharp tirelessly circulated the proceedings of the 1781 case of the Liverpool slaver, The Zong, in order to bring the evils of slavery into full view.

Wilberforce, the leader of the anti-slavery movement in Britain, carried the fight into Parliament, year after year moving resolutions to abolish the slave trade and slowly but surely the support of the British people was won. Britain abolished the slave trade on January 1, 1808.

Abolition of the slave trade was only the first step towards full emancipation. By the 1820s British Parliament began to send planters directives specifically concerned with the amelioration of the slaves’ working conditions. These included forbidding the use of the whip in the field, the flogging of women and allowing slaves religious instruction. Jamaica, governed by an Elected Assembly, refused to follow these directives and news of this soon spread to the slaves. Numerous instances of civil unrest followed as slaves felt they were being denied certain benefits that had been conferred on them in Britain. Anti-slavery sentiments were increasingly expressed in the colonies through the work of nonconformist missionaries, particularly Baptists such as William Knibb and Thomas Burchell who were arrested for inciting slaves to rebellion. In Jamaica, the strongest example of unrest as a result of the fervor to put an end to slavery was the Christmas Rebellion of 1831. Also known as Sam Sharpe’s Rebellion, it began when slaves in the western part of the island, led by Sharpe, believing they had been freed in England but kept enslaved by the planters in Jamaica, conducted a peaceful strike. Sharpe, a Baptist preacher, was literate, unlike many of his fellow slaves. He had read many anti-slavery bulletins from Britain and communicated their messages to his followers. Yet Sharpe’s peaceful protest soon turned into the largest slave rebellion in the island’s history. Great houses and cane fields in the west were burned and hundreds of lives lost. This insurrection, however, became pivotal to hastening the process of emancipation. Sam Sharpe, now a Jamaican National Hero, was hung in 1832 for his role as organizer. Soon after, the British House of Commons adopted a motion calling for a Select Committee to be appointed to put an end to slavery throughout the British Empire. One year later, in May 1833, the British House of Commons stated unequivocally that the British nation must, on its own initiative, suppress slavery in all British Dominions. 


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.”

Yet, in testimony to the impact of freedom, Joseph John Gurney, a friend of American statesman Henry Clay, who visited Jamaica in 1840, wrote letters to Clay contrasting slaves in the southern US and the freed slaves in the West Indies. Gurney was arguing for the benefits of freedom in economies of scale as well as in moral, religious and political terms. Particularly impressed with what he saw in Jamaica, Gurney described ex-slaves as working well on the estates of their former masters, their personal comforts having been multiplied, their moral and religious lives strengthened. He exhorted Clay that with freedom “The whole population is thrown on the operation of natural and legitimate principles of action, every man finds his own just level, religion spreads under the banner of freedom, and all its quietness, order and peace. Such is the lot of the British West Indian colonies: and such, I humbly but ardently hope, will soon be the happy condition of every one of the United States.”

Rebecca Tortello


Sources – Black, C.(1965). The Story of Jamaica. Sherlock, P. and Bennett, H. (1998); The Story of Jamaican People. Gurney, J. (1840) Familiar Letters to Henry Clay of Kentucky describing a Winter in Jamaica; The Jamaica Gleaner (1995). The Geography and History of Jamaica. 24th Edition.; Robinson, C. (1987). Fight for Freedom. Kingston. Kingston Publishers Ltd.

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