Ancestral Remembrance on Emancipation Day

shoot hard labour“The truth is, white massa didn’t have much use for old worn out slaves. The ones that was old and couldn’t work hard had to leave the plantation. But not for freedom. No, it was the custom of the Old Road slave massas to take the weak and sick slaves out to sea and throw them overboard. They didn’t have any time to dig holes and bury them. I think that everybody in Antigua know the story about a slave that was taken away and bury alive. She was crying, ‘Massa, me no dead yet! No bury me!’ Now massa say, ‘I have money to buy more, pull um go along.’

You know, it’s a strange thing, but I heard that when slavery was over the slaves at Old Road didn’t even get drunk. I heard there was no great happiness among them. They didn’t know what would happen, so them give assurances that they will not leave the plantation, that they will continue on working for the old owners. The old slave massas let them continue to work the ground and grow food for themselves.

But though assurances was given, the young slaves wanted to know what the land was like. So most of the young ones didn’t stay at Old Road after slavery end. Some drift from plantation to plantaion; others settle down in one place.

Now the old slave massas at Old Road was tricky and smart people. After slavery end they wanted the strong slaves they sell or swap off during slavery to come back to work on their plantation. Them through them have proper luck: slavery was all over and they wouldn’t even have to buy them back. They would have both the slaves and the money. So the bad-minded slaves massas at the Old Road Plantation make sure they tell everybody where their people can be found. All the families say how they give thanks to massa for his great interest, but everybody have in mind not to return to Old Road. People badly want to unite with the family – particularly with womenkind. I hear that the women was furious and desperate to find their family.” – from To Shoot Hard Labour: The Life and Times of Samuel Smith, an Antiguan workingman 1877-1982.

August 1st 2017 is Emancipation Day in Antigua and Barbuda (the enslaved people having been legally freed in 1834), but as the excerpt above indicates, the end of my ancestors’ enslavement was not necessarily the beginning of freedom. No, in 2017, freedom, in every way we can be free, remains a work in progress. I am just back from Watch Night, an Emancipation Eve event that’s been going on for something like 10 years, give or take. Per usual it included a mix of speeches, performances (Promise, Kiyode Erasto, King Zacari, King Short Shirt, and a group called …Lion King (?)… a young musical quartet that made me think of the Lion Crew in my book Musical Youth), and drumming by the Nyabinghi drummers. It intersects with but has not really been integrated into Carnival, though this year it did move closer to the city, to the Botanical Gardens specifically. Baby steps.

I’m blogging about this tonight because I wanted to honour my ancestors on whose shoulders I stand, and because I wanted to do my part to share with Antiguans the programme for the rest of the week – yes, for the first time, there’s a whole week of activities.

Time     Tuesday           Wednesday           Thursday            Friday                Saturday
11:30    Opening
12:30    King FrankI      D. O’Marde           M. Brann             L. Johnson
Emancipation  Carnival                Community        Reparations
14:30    Word/Drums    Calypso Joe          Headwraps          Fashion             Pan
16:30    Dance                 Mas                       SoCalypso             Onion Effect    Cuban band

There is also an art, artifacts, and photo exhibition and book sale at the Public Library, Wednesday to Saturday starting at 9 a.m. DJs will be at the Botanical Gardens every day from 10:30 a.m. – Nez on Tuesday, Chicki on Wednesday, Irish on Thursday, Charlie on Friday, and Undercover on Saturday, plus a daily food, bar, and marketplace.

The book quoted above should be essential reading in Antiguan and Barbudan schools; in school is where I was introduced to it, in secondary school history class, after a lifetime of hearing one side of the story. The full has not yet been told, but that book’s a good start. As noted to tonight, its relevance is that history informs our present in more ways than we realize – culture, food, economy, psychology, socially, and in so many other ways. The past is present. Also check out this link which quotes from the work of Desmond Nicholson, another noted local historian.