First Published: 1st of August, 2020 by Patrick Carpen
Emancipation Day is a national holiday observed each year on the 1st of August in Guyana, South America. The holiday commemorates the abolition of slavery by the British Empire and the beginning of a new life and identity for those Guyanese of African descent.
Africans were brought as slaves to the shores of Guyana to toil on the sugar plantations by European plantation owners. They were brought by force against their will via what is referred to as the Middle Passage. The voyage, which took place during the era of the Trans – Atlantic Slave Trade, was a harsh and cruel one which resulted in the deaths of many Africans who were reportedly “packed like sardines” in the slave ships.
The slaves were reportedly captured by rival tribes of Africans who sold them for a paltry sum and they were brought by European slave owners to the shores of Guyana for forced slave labor. The slaves were bound and loaded into the slave ships like cargo, stripped of their very humanity.
Upon reaching the plantations of Guyana, these slaves were beaten into submission and forced to perform hard labor under grueling conditions. Severe penalty was meted out to slaves who showed the slightest form of rebellion. These punishments included whipping, torture, and execution.
The slaves in Guyana rebelled against their European masters on several occasions. One of the most recounted of the rebellions is the Berbice Slave Rebellion in 1763 which was led by Cuffy – for whom a monument is now erected at the Square of the Revolution in Georgetown, Guyana, South America.
As a result of a Christian evangelical movement led by William Wilberforce in Britain, the British Empire was pressured into abolishing slavery. The abolition of slavery through the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 in the British Empire took effect in Guyana on August 1st, 1834. However, only children under 6 years of age were freed. Children over 6 years of age as well as adults were required to work for 40 hours per week without pay. It wasn’t until August 1st, 1838 that the slaves were fully freed and left the plantations.
Leaving the cruel treatment under bondage behind, the freed slaves would then embark on a long and arduous journey of survival and creating a new identity for themselves and future generations. This was no easy task. Needless to say, after emancipation, the Africans in Guyana faced many hardships – finding themselves in a foreign land without an established monetary system or a form of government.
Nevertheless, the ex-slaves formed cooperatives, pooled their resources, and worked to better their living conditions. Today, about 188 years after the abolition of slavery, Africans have advanced to serve in all fields of the modern world: medicine, politics, arts and literature, science, technology, and much more.
How Emancipation is Celebrated in Guyana
Emancipation Day celebrations in Guyana take many different forms. From social gatherings to parties and family gatherings. There are also state sponsored and privately organized cultural events.
Some popular places for Emancipation Day celebrations in Guyana include:
The National Park, Georgetown
No. 63 Beach, Berbice
Kitty Seawall, Georgetown