An Emancipation story
Many slaves were unprepared for freedom.

A few days ago Jamaica celebrated another Emancipation anniversary. Can you imagine what it felt like to be a free person then? Emancipation Day and its aftermath was a tumultuous period in the country's history.


Zaga stooped in the bush under a sycamore tree viewing the newly planted canefields that stretched as far as the eyes could see. The rainy season was due, and soon these plants would grow and produce the sweet profits sought by the backra maasas. He and the other slaves had done much back-breaking work to prepare and plant the fields. Next, they had to monitor the growth and prepare for the reaping.

Zaga had a lot to think about. The future was uncertain. It had been announced that all slaves would be emancipated on August 1, 1938. That was in two weeks. Zaga was worried. He knew that the planters weren't happy about the upcoming Emancipation. Everyone was concerned about what would happen the day after the forthcoming Emancipation.

Zaga wasn't in a hurry to celebrate. He had heard the stories of the rebellion in Western Jamaica led by Deacon Samuel Sharpe. The deacon and his followers were mistakenly informed that they were about to be freed. In the end, this was not to be, and many people died. So Zaga would not attend the Emancipation Proclamation Ceremony in Spanish Town square. He was afraid there would be trouble, and he knew the garrison in Port Henderson would be on full alert.

A depiction of Sam Sharpe

Zaga was confused. He had never thought about freedom as a real thing. After all, Maas Thomas had always provided for all his needs. He had a little room in the barracks and ate from Cousin Hilda's pot. Now Maas Thomas was saying he could stay in the barracks for free, work at a discounted rate, but find his own food and clothes. But his friend Quatty suggested they leave the plantation and squat in the mountains.

At Quatty's insistence, Zaga accompanied him to the ceremony in Spanish Town to witness the declaration of freedom. Zaga was surprised at the large crowds of now fully emancipated Africans enjoying the moment. He felt the apparent friendliness of some whites versus the looks of anger and disgust of others.

That night he and Quatty had a good drink of Ol Willie's home-made rum. The following day it seemed that every single African woke up in a trance, still trying to come to grips with freedom. But, unfortunately, many never took the prospect of complete freedom seriously and were unprepared for the reality.

Notice of a thanksgiving service to celebrate the abolition of slavery in the British colonies.

Zaga convinced Quatty to work for a wage with Maas Thomas. But Maas Thomas had changed. He was no longer pleasant and friendly. He announced that he could not pay top wages and that anybody with a problem should quit his plantation immediately. Zaga felt bad for Maas Thomas; he didn't like talking to his ex-workers as equals. Then, to everyone's surprise, Maas Thomas announced he was returning to England and would leave Maas Macky in charge.

That wasn't good news because Maas Macky was not a nice white man. Nobody liked him. Zagga and Quatty did not enjoy working for Maas Macky. He worked them harder than before, claiming he had to ensure the estate remained profitable. Two weeks after Maas T's departure, Zaga and Quatty quit. They would head into the mountains.

So Zaga, Quatty, his family, Ol Willie, and two other families decided to try their fortunes in the hills of St Thomas in the Vale. The families staked out a piece of mountainous land, built houses, and cleared the terrain for planting. Everyone assisted each other, and Zagga soon had his neat little one-room, dirt floor, thatch, and wattle and daub hut.

Living in the hills was not easy. Zaga found himself working harder than before. However, the fruits of his labour now belonged to him. He would get a ride on Milla's donkey cart to take his produce to Linstead Market on weekends. Zaga felt safe and more satisfied with his decision to live in the hills. He could make a living, although the soil was poor.

One day a band of six Maroons visited the small community. They demanded to know why the settlers were encroaching on their lands. Zaga and Quatty would have none of it and brandished their machetes, advancing towards the Maroons. The ex-slaves did not trust the Maroons, who worked closely with the planters. Zaga remembered when Sambo had run away. The Maroons captured and returned him to the estate. Maas Mac beat Sambo so severely that he died. Zaga avoided the Maroons after that.

Suddenly, the leader of the Maroons stepped forward smiling. He introduced himself as Chief Waxhaw. In a combination of broken English and Spanish, Waxhaw said he heard about the freedom of the slaves and had welcomed it. However, he warned that many of his followers were unhappy with this wholesale freedom. Waxhaw acknowledged that it would take time for his people to understand that everyone was now free.

Some of the other Maroons were waving sticks and shouting loudly. Zaga couldn't understand their language. Waxhaw explained that the loudmouths didn't like the idea of the new settlement. However, he congratulated them on their work and pledged his support.

Waxhaw seemed genuine, but Zaga didn't trust the others, and the settlers would establish watchposts at night. Thankfully, there were no further problems with the Maroons.

Every weekend Zaga would go to the market to sell his produce. He always had ample yams, dasheens, banana, plantain, and cocoa. During their respective seasons he would also have breadfruit and ackee. Business was good, and one day he ran into Penny.

Now Penny was a pretty young lady that had lived on the same estate as Zaga. Penny was with her 10-year-old daughter, who had a high brown complexion. Everyone knew the story that Penny was raped by Maas Macky when she was 13 years old. Penny was impregnated and had this pretty little white baby girl. Maas Macky himself named her Charlotte after some black-blooded English Queen.

Penny was as beautiful as ever and Zaga was smitten. Penny still lived on the estate and did weekly food shopping for the Great House. However, she complained that Maas Macky was now making passes at young Charlotte, his own daughter. Zaga made up his mind there and then. Later, Zaga followed Penny home and had her pack her things right there in front of a fuming Maas Macky. So with Penny and Charlotte in tow, Zaga headed for his mountain palace.

Penny was a godsend. She worked as hard as Zaga in the house and field. Most importantly, she could sell at the market while he worked. Charlotte was the pretty queen, loved by all for her bronze complexion. Penny, a Christian, insisted that they be married at the nearby Anglican church. Life was good for Zaga, and Penny quickly bore him two sons.

As the family grew, Zaga and Penny worked harder and sacrificed their all to ensure the best life for the children. Zaga was happy. He had a good wife and a beautiful family. What more could a free man ask for?

However, dark clouds were gathering on the horizon.

One day a well-dressed gentleman from the council visited the settlement with documents giving the settlers notice to leave the property. When Zaga heard the news, he almost went crazy. He considered the nearly four years of hard work he undertook to earn a living from the rocky mountainside. He thought about his young family. How would he be able to support them?

How could he start over again?

In desperation, he sent a message to Waxhaw. Waxhaw came immediately but was not perturbed by the notice from the Government. According to Waxhaw, this was Maroon land given to them by The Queen. However, he had some contacts in the council, so he told Zaga he would do a follow-up.

Waxhaw returned one week later. He said he had good news and bad news. The bad news was that the land had been bought in parcels by unknown persons in England. The good news was that rumours abounded that the land was purchased by the Anglican Church in England and was under the supervision of the local Anglican mission. Zaga and Waxhaw planned a trip to see the church's pastor.

At the meeting, preacher Tyler demanded that Zaga leave the land as it was earmarked for a free village called Sligoville. According to Tyler, Sligoville was the first free village and had been founded a few years earlier. The time had come for its formal settlement. Zaga pointed out that he was married in this church and had baptised all his children there. He promised Tyler that he would ensure that the 30 plus members of his settlement convert to Christianity and support the church. Tyler relented. After all, 30 plus new Christian souls, freed from the awful Obeah, would be a bonanza indeed. However, there was still a tiny problem.

The entrance to Sligoville, the first free village in Jamaica

The settlers would have to pay £10 to get documents of ownership.

Ten pounds was a lot of money.

Zaga was at his wit's end. When all the money from the settlement was pooled, it amounted to only £4. So the settlement was short £6, and time was running out. The pastor had given Zaga two weeks to pay the money because other ex-slaves had also submitted funds for their half-acre plots.

There was no way such a large sum could be acquired within this timeline.

Penny was feeling sick, and Zaga went to the market on the weekend in her stead. While walking and selling his produce, he heard preaching sounds and stopped to see if it was Preacher Tyler. He was shocked when he saw that the person preaching was none other than Maas Macky. It seems Maas Macky had become a significant figure in the Baptist Church. When Maas Macky saw Zaga, he held his head as if ashamed.

After the preaching, Maas Macky approached Zaga. He told Zaga that he had been fired from the estate and was now a senior member of the church. They spoke about several topics, and then Maas Macky sheepishly asked, "What about the little girl... Charlotte."

Slavery was abolished in the British colonies on August 1, 1838.

Poor Maas Macky was so embarrassed that he couldn't look Zaga in the eye. Zaga told him that Charlotte was fine and the prettiest girl in the mountains, loved by all. Zaga thought he saw tears of sadness in Maas Macky's eyes. He told Maas Macky that he shouldn't worry because Charlotte was well looked after. Maas Macky mumbled some thanks and took some money from his pocket. He put the money in Zaga's shirt pocket without counting, muttered something about his past life, and apologised for his behaviour. He then walked away abruptly.

Zaga felt sorry for Maas Macky; he seemed a broken man.

After Maas Macay had left, Zaga looked at the money in his pocket. He had to sit down on the sidewalk as he counted the money over and over. He was genuinely shocked. Maas Macky had given him £20. The next day Zaga presented himself to Preacher Tyler and paid the amount outstanding on the land. He was told that he would get official ownership documents from the Government shortly.

Zaga then visited the Maroon camp to tell Waxhaw the excellent news. He went on to Linstead, where he bought a pretty dress and shiny shoes for Charlotte. He also purchased a sizeable ram goat, rum, drinks, and food for the celebration he would keep on the weekend. Waxhaw and other Maroons attended the event, and the settlers and their guests danced and dined until late at night. Waxhaw had caught the eye of Quatty's eldest daughter, and in short order, they were married.

Zagga was the happiest man on Earth. He managed to save the settler's land and had gradually become the settlement's leader. His family was well respected, and the local church would burst at the seams on Sundays. Preacher Tyler always greeted the settlers warmly and sometimes would drop by the settlement in his horse-drawn buggy.

Sometimes at night Zaga would sit in deep thought on a rock overlooking his simple holdings. He thought about the accomplishments of the freed Negroes since Emancipation. He was proud of their hard work and upward mobility in such a short time. But then, he thought about his children. He loved them equally, although he had a soft spot for Charlotte, the bronze Queen.

He wondered if the youngsters would grow to appreciate this freedom previously denied him. He hoped they would grow to replicate the hard work of their parents. He also thought about Sligoville and his little settlement. What would become of this little village in the next 100 years?

Rohan Budhai

Rohan M Budhai is a tax consultant, writer, and history enthusiast. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or

Rohan Budhai

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