MONTEGO BAY, St James — Emancipation Day, celebrated by the nation on Monday, was a bittersweet occasion for a group of Rastafarians who gathered at the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) playing field here to celebrate the occasion.
Ras Ivi, who claimed that it was the Rastafarian community who played an integral role in successfully lobbing the Government in the late 1990s to reinstate the celebration of Emancipation Day, said the commemoration of the August 1, 1838, abolition of slavery is "meaningfully for the memory of the freed ancestors".
"The emancipation I know about is just the removal of the shackle off our hands and feet and it gives us a freer movement from the plantation. On this day our ancestors, we know the joy that they would have felt when they could now feel free to say leave a plantation in St James, go to Westmoreland because his girlfriend may have been sold to a plantation in Westmoreland. So to me, that's freedom because earlier he couldn't do that unless he would brave the dogs coming at him, gunshots, the hooves of the horses tracking him down," Ras Ivi reflected.
"Outside of that there were no benefits for the ex-slaves because the planter got £20 million in benefits and pack him bag and gone."
He added: "It was Rastafarians who had been prodding the Government into action to reinstate the day and we have been writing numerous letters to the PJ Patterson Government. So 1997 when the PNP Government reinstated Emancipation Day, it was a step in the right direction that we could now start to look at emancipation from a different level."
But Ras Iyah V, in making his case for reparation, contended that while the British Government compensated the "owners" of enslaved people to the tune of £20 million for their "loss of property", the people who were freed were not compensated.
The outspoken Rastafarian elder argued that Jamaica could not be fully emancipated from slavery with the British Queen remaining as head of State.
"I could never consider our people emancipated. If you ask me emancipate, emancipated from what and emancipated from who? Right back to Independence. Independent of what and independent of who? How can we have independent people and we still have the slave master pickney as head of our constitution?" he questioned.
"Look how little Barbados moves the Queen; Jamaica is the first out of the British West Indies to get so-called independence. Trinidad move the Queen from when, Guyana move The Queen from when, Barbados move the Queen. Why are we taking so long to move The Queen as head of Jamaica?"
He said the day set aside to mark the freedom of the black ancestors from slavery is relevant, however, more should be done to ensure that the populace who are predominantly offspring of the former enslaved Africans are provided with more opportunities to formally occupy lands.
Defined as the illegal occupation of land and/or buildings, it is estimated that approximately 20 per cent of Jamaica's population resides in squatter settlements. The matter of informal settlements has remained a perennial problem for decades.
"We still have a level of poverty and landlessness among our people, while the slave master pickneys still have thousands and thousands and thousands of acres of land in their possession.
"A lot of these lands lay idle, nothing is being done with them but at the same time of the three million people who they say are in Jamaica, one million is considered squatters. Why, because they don't have a house spot. So where is the justice to know that slave master pickney has acres of land and feh wi pickney little or none. Where is the compensation for all these years of enslavement?" he queried.
Ras Iyah V is calling on Government to make the subject of history compulsory in the school syllabus in a move to guarantee that youths have a knowledge of their past.
"What is good about Emancipation is that the first of August is recognised throughout the former colonies of England, as far as Ghana. Even in Cuba you have black people who celebrate Emancipation. So that is something we have in common," he remarked.
The Rastafarians were speaking to the Jamaica Observer on Monday, following the end of a nearly two-week Nyabinghi celebration at the Pitfour Nyabinghi Centre in St James. The celebrations also included the birth date of former Ethiopian ruler, His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie, the Rastafarian deity.
A large number of members of the Rastafarian faith and others gathered at the UDC field where two football games were played. There were also art and culinary displays complemented by roots-rock reggae music booming around the ground from speaker boxes connected to a sound system.