The mezzotint The First of August was originally published in London to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the British colonies. It depicts a recently emancipated family with the father triumphantly raising his hands to the sky in a gesture of freedom. He stands on a whip (the symbol of the cruelty and oppression of enslavement), his children bury the shackles which once restrained him and his wife holds their youngest child who will never know slavery aloft. The work contains all the signifiers of freedom and was meant to wordlessly communicate the ethos of that moment in colonial history.
The 1st of August is an auspicious date in Jamaican history. It was on this day in 1834 that the Emancipation Proclamation was read in King’s Square Spanish Town; marking the abolition of the institution of slavery in the British Colony of Jamaica. The road to this event was a long one punctuated by the work of Abolitionists, the increased agitations of the enslaved for freedom – most famous among them Tacky’s 1760 revolt and Sam Sharpe’s 1830 Christmas Rebellion – as well as the continued reverberations of the successful revolution in the island of St Domingue (renamed Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
This was not the end of the struggle however, as the formerly enslaved were then placed under a system of “Apprenticeship” which saw many of them, without viable options for making their livelihoods, maintaining their ties with the same plantations they had been “freed” from.
It was exactly four years later on August 1st 1838 that “Full-Freedom” was granted to the black populace of Jamaica. As the struggle against the forces of imperialism, colonialism and white supremacy moved into the 20th Century, the names Marcus Garvey, Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante were among the most prominent voices that helped to move the nation towards Independence and self-governance.
As we reflect on the journey that has brought us to 2020, the unforeseen circumstances we have weathered and the new challenges ahead; let us focus on the strength, commitment and resilience of our ancestors that have brought us this far as we chart our path in the brave new world ahead.
Happy Emancipation Day Jamaica!