For decades, we have encouraged residents during this season to remember the real reason for the August Emancipation Festival.
As we do the same this year, we are pleased to note that the community now seems to be discussing related issues practically every day.
On Aug. 1, 1834, slavery was formally abolished across the British empire as the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 took effect. This was a watershed moment, and it was certainly cause for celebration then and now.
But thanks to the good work of historians here and abroad, we know that there was much more to the story. For years after “emancipation” in the Virgin Islands, formerly enslaved Africans were forced to continue working under an “apprenticeship” system that in many cases was effectively no different than slavery. Meanwhile, plantation owners were compensated for the “loss” of the people they had enslaved while most “freed” slaves received nothing.
In subsequent decades, the VI was administered under an oppressive colonial system that privileged European culture and history over most residents’ African heritage.
The negative ramifications continue to the present day.
The good news is that such issues are discussed almost continuously now in the VI. Thanks in large part to public Facebook forums, many residents are quick to challenge established norms and to share information about the ramifications of slavery and colonialism.
These conversations take many forms. Residents might point out that the Sir Francis Drake Channel is named for a slave trader. They might argue about whether the dancing at the August Monday Parade is an inappropriate outgrowth of American music videos or a modernised celebration of the community’s African roots. They might debate whether the United Kingdom and other countries that were enriched by the slave trade should now pay reparations. They might question the territory’s current constitutional arrangement with the UK given the history of colonialism here.
Such dialogue tends to be passionate, and it sometimes is not as civil or as reasoned as it ought to be. But it is healthy and necessary as the territory works to come to terms with its history and to right past wrongs.
Amid the celebrations in the coming days, then, the Festival season should be used to further such conversations publicly and to honour the forebears on whose shoulders today’s VI was built. And after the last flag is put away this year, we hope the dialogue will continue, and that it increasingly will be backed up by historical research and other scholarship.
We wish everyone a joyful, thoughtful and meaningful August Emancipation Festival.