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On August 1 Guyanese joined the peoples of most english-speaking former British colonies, and Canadians to observe the annual Emancipation Day. The date of the observance was chosen because it was on that date in the year 1834 that the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was made into law across the British Empire. That Act resulted in the emancipation of more than 800,000 enslaved Africans across British-controlled territories around the world including Canada. In 2021, the Government of Canada joined other countries in officially designating August 1 as Emancipation Day.
Emancipation means the act or process of being set free from legal, social, or political restrictions. The word has come to mean the act of freeing a person of African descent from the condition of slavery. Guyanese — who are well aware of what slavery implies — turn out to public gatherings or converge in private residences to celebrate the abolition of slavery. Citizens assemble to remember the system of slavery, pay homage to ancestors who were enslaved, and reflect on the desire that such a brutal, cruel, and inhumane system must never again be allowed to exist.
Slavery is one of the most callous, sadistic, and barbaric system of labour relations ever conceived by the human species. Under slavery, human beings were kidnapped from their homelands by foreign masters, and forced to endure horrendous conditions while being taken to unknown lands to work for no pay. Many slaves died along the long journeys as a result of the monstrous conditions. Once slave arrived at their destinations, they’re sold as property to the foreign operators of plantations. There slaves were forced to labour often until they died. Slaves has no human rights. Their religious, language, and cultural rights were stripped away, and they were viewed as non-human chattel.
Sociologist Richard Hellie writes: “There is [still] no consensus on what a slave was or on how the institution of slavery should be defined. Nevertheless, there is general agreement among historians, anthropologists, economists, sociologists, and others who study slavery that most of the following characteristics should be present in order to term a person a slave. The slave was a species of property; thus, he belonged to someone else. In some societies slaves were considered movable property, in others immovable property, like real estate. They were objects of the law, not its subjects. Thus, like an ox or an ax.” The expert added: “No relatives could stand up for his rights or get vengeance for him. As an “outsider,” “marginal individual,” or “socially dead person” in the society where he was enslaved, his rights to participate in political decision making and other social activities were far fewer than those enjoyed by his owner. The product of a slave’s labour could be claimed by someone else, who also frequently had the right to control his physical reproduction.” Clearly, there can be no question of the inhumanity of slavery.
As Guyanese and other peoples remember the horrors of the system of slavery, we should not only celebrate its abolition by eating, drinking and being merry. As thinking human beings, we should also solemnly observe and acknowledge what happened during that dark period of our history. We must iterate our collective and individual humanity. And we must hold to our pledge that no circumstance such as slavery must ever again exist.