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Emancipendence - Separate or together

Lance NEITA

Saturday, July 27, 2013    

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Jamaica is a good place to be in the summer.

The schoolboy's memo to himself reads: School is out; outings are in; mango walk, bird bush, riverside cooking, parties to go, iPod games to borrow, and so on. His itinerary well filled out for a lazy crazy summer.

Summer in itself has become big business. The newspapers are packed with advertisements for summer camps and special summer outfits go on sale for the fashion conscious. Trips abroad are not as affordable as they were several years ago, but there are still the tickets to buy to get the children off to families over foreign, or the weekend specials arranged by the hotels to tempt Jamaicans into being a tourist for a day.

Summer is also when the sports season steps up with cricket, the unending World Cup qualifications, Wimbledon standing on its own, fishing tournaments, golf, and of course athletics. The calendar is always full, with a Jamaican team involved in every international competition under the sun.

Consider this week alone, our Jamaica ladies are vying for honours in the Caribbean Football Union World Cup qualifiers, we are into the Caribbean Area Squash Association's Junior Championships, our local surfers swept the International Makka Pro at Yallahs, the Under-15 Regional Cricket championships are on, the Reggae Boyz are waiting in the wings for the CONCACAF play-offs, West Indies is battling Pakistan, and our Karate fireworks team topped the best of the United States on the mat in the recently concluded championships.

If you are not on vacation, you have two public holidays to look forward to, because we have chosen to separate Emancipation, August 1, from Independence Day, August 6.

But a glance at the calendar tells me that this year we are going to have a rather convoluted package as Emancipation Day falls on a Thursday, the middle of the week, surrounded by two full working days. The following week we celebrate Independence, and here we find the same conundrum, as Independence falls on a Tuesday, again neatly sandwiched between two full working days.

The granting of two holidays within five days of each other still confounds me and, as will be the case this August, represents the forfeiture of an enormous amount of time and money, and for business and industry, a stop and start.

Originally, August 1 was legislated as a public holiday to commemorate the abolition of full slavery on August 1, 1838. Four years earlier, the Abolition Act of 1834 had declared all children under six to be free, with their elders confined to work as apprentices for their masters under much the same devilish conditions as existed before.

It wasn't until August 1, 1838 that the slaves were granted complete freedom for all, and the day and time became known as "full free". The day, with its emotional significance, has been ingrained into the Jamaican consciousness for many years as the Negro Jubilee.

August 1 came at the height of the summer holiday season and was a popular day to visit the beach, for outings, for cricket matches, for curry goat celebrations, and for the Denbigh Agricultural Show.

Then came Independence in 1962, with that date legislated for August 6 and creating a problem as there was a reluctance at that time to have two holidays so close to each other. It was decided to celebrate Independence on the first Monday in August, and to subsume Emancipation Day into the Independence celebrations.

Hindsight showed wrong assumption as large numbers of persons continued to claim 'Augus' 1' as it is popularly known as their special holiday, and to this day there are several villages and districts where 'Augus'1' is celebrated with picnics and donkey derbies, as in Calderwood in St. Ann, with secondary attention given to August 6.

The double holiday was introduced in 1997 when a National Symbols Committee headed by the late Professor Rex Nettleford recommended to Parliament the reinstatement of Emancipation Day on August 1, and the celebration of Independence Day on August 6, its rightful anniversary, rather than on the first Monday of August.

But the last thing a poor country like Jamaica needs is another holiday. For employers it means double time twice per week or a drop in productivity. For others it has been a bit of a nice thing to have the two but with much confusion around the double dip sometimes occurring, as it does this year, in the middle of the week.

The dates are so close together that we should have rolled them into one and maintained the first Monday as the holiday, thus guaranteeing the continuation of a long and unbroken holiday weekend, rather than seek such an odd compromise.

The decision and the debate on the Public Holiday Act in Parliament were not without controversy. The then Opposition Leader Edward Seaga thought it would result "in the downsizing of the importance of Independence," and questioned whether anything important would be achieved by the change.

Bruce Golding, who at that time was the Leader of the National Democratic Movement, suggested the two be merged.

But Prime Minister P.J. Patterson soldiered on, defending the recommendation as a "sharpening of focus and reawakening of consciousness". And, of course, it meant a nice little fillip for his party to be championing the cause for singular recognition of our Emancipation.

Don't get me wrong. I fully recognise the importance of Emancipation Day. In fact, this year marks the 175th anniversary of full free, a fact which seems to have escaped more focused attention from our Festival planners.

Midnight July 31, 1838, marks the most epochal moment in the course of our history. In this 175th anniversary year, especially, we need to take note and reflect on the poignancy of that event. Lest we forget.

On the evening of July 31 the churches across the Island were opened for worship. The Rev William Knibb, that indefatigable freedom fighter, had his congregation in Falmouth sing a dirge composed for the occasion, and took them through devotional prayers until a few minutes before midnight. When Knibb started to speak his hearers were brought to a pitch of extraordinary excitement.

As the clock began to strike he shouted "the monster is dying", and at midnight, "'The negro is free".

Silence for a moment, and then the former slaves burst into long and continued shouts of exaltation. "Never did I hear such a sound", said Knibb, writing to a friend. "The winds of freedom appeared to have been let loose. The very building shook at the strange yet sacred joy."

The instruments of slavery, a whip, a chain and an iron collar, were buried in a coffin and interred in the nearby schoolyard, while the congregation sang:

"Now slavery, we lay thy vile form in the dust

And buried forever, there let it remain!

And, rotted and covered with infamy's rust

Be every man-whip, and fetter, and chain."

Last year we celebrated our 50th anniversary. This year we have a 175th to consider. Let us in future keep our focus on the religious aspect of Emancipation by worshipping in the churches on that day, and then enjoying the secular aspect of the holiday on the first Monday, in combination with our recognition of Independence.

Lance Neita is a writer and communications consultant. lanceneita@hotmail.com

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