West Indies Emancipation Day

West Indies Emancipation Day

Date Observed: August 1
Location: West Indies and U.S. cities

Slavery was abolished on Great Britain's island possessions in the West Indies on August 1, 1834, but slaves were not totally free until four years later, August 1, 1838. The day has been celebrated in the West Indies, South America, and some U.S. and Canadian communities. Emancipation Day is a public holiday in the former British colonies of Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana.

Historical Background

Like thousands of slaves in the North American colonies and states, most slaves in the British territories of the West Indies came from west African countries such as Nigeria. After decades of antislavery efforts in Great Britain, the nation banned the slave trade in 1807. But slaveholders within the British Empire still kept people in bondage. Public pressure to abolish slavery continued with more than 200 branches of the British AntiSlavery Society active by 1824. At the same time, proslavery planters in the British Caribbean and their supporters in Parliament fought to maintain the status quo. As was true in America, the controversy sometimes led to violence and slave rebellions.

In 1833, the British Slavery Abolition Act, which became effective August 1, 1834, abolished slavery throughout England and all British possessions. West Indian island governments were allowed to determine whether or not emancipation would occur immediately or gradually. Only Antigua and Bermuda released their slaves in 1834.

Other British West Indian colonies in the Caribbean followed the provisions of the Abolition Act. The law granted complete freedom to children under six years of age, but any slave older than six was required to serve an apprenticeship. The Act declared slaves were "entitled to be registered as apprenticed labourers and to acquire thereby all rights and privileges of freedom." Their so-called entitlement included working without pay for 45 hours each week for their former owners. In addition, ex-slaves were supposed to learn how to function in a free society. As apprentices, agricultural workers had to labor for a period of six years; domestics and other non-field workers had to apprentice for four years. Their compensation was no different from slave provisions: food, clothing, housing, and medical treatment. Former owners, on the other hand, were compensated for their loss of "property." The British government paid West Indian planters a total of 20 million pounds.

At first, when slaves in the British West Indies learned about their free status, they celebrated on August 1, 1834, by dancing in the streets, attending religious services, and expressing their happiness in many ways. But joy soon turned to anger and resentment when the new "apprentices" were forced the next day to go back to work for their former owners. People who had hoped for and anticipated freedom gathered in protests on the islands and in Guyana. Militia and special guards put down the protests and rebellions, and many "apprentices" were jailed and flogged in public squares. Some were hanged. Others ran away and found safety in maroon communities - settlements of escaped slaves in remote forest or mountainous areas.

During the next few years, island governments individually granted complete emancipation. All apprenticed laborers throughout the British West Indies were legally free by August 1, 1838. On that day, ex-slaves in the West Indies, as well as free African Americans and American abolitionists - black and white - celebrated. Americans marked the day with speeches and prayers expressing hope that West Indian emancipation would lead to freedom for slaves everywhere.

Creation of the Observance

A few American celebrations of West Indian Emancipation Day took place on August 1, 1834, when abolitionists and free blacks believed that slaves on the Caribbean islands were actually freed. For several years afterward, occasional anniversary commemorations took place, but the number of commemorations increased after August 1, 1838.

Some free West Indians left the Caribbean for the United States, settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts, known for its anti-slavery movement and stop on the Underground Railroad. West Indians who settled there made Emancipation Day an annual event, beginning about 1838 or 1839.

Free blacks and abolitionists in other U.S. and Canadian cities also initiated Emancipation Day celebrations. Providence, Rhode Island, for example, first commemorated the abolition of West Indian slavery in 1849, and after 1863, the annual Emancipation Day on August 1 recognized the freedom of some U.S. slaves (see also Emancipation Day). In Nicodemus, Kansas, an annual Emancipation Day on the last weekend in July originally celebrated the freeing of slaves in the West Indies. It is now also a homecoming celebration for descendants of African Americans who settled the town (see also Nicodemus Emancipation and Homecoming Celebration).

What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

In 1852, the Rochester (New York) Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society invited Frederick Douglass to deliver a speech about the Fourth of July. Douglass agreed, and appeared before the group on the 5th of July. He began what is now considered one of his most famous and eloquent speeches by recounting the colonists' fight to be free of British rule. Then he launched into the reasons why asking a slave to celebrate Independence was hypocritical. Speaking as an escaped slave and for enslaved African Americans, he asked his audience:

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. . . .

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. . . .


From the 1840s to the end of the Civil War, the First of August Emancipation Day, sometimes called Freedom Day, was celebrated in North America from the East to the West coasts, in Canadian provinces, and, of course, in the West Indies. Celebrations took place in churches, government buildings, or outdoors in plazas, public squares, or wooded picnic areas. These anniversary celebrations provided public forums for African Americans, black and white abolitionists, and others to demonstrate their belief in human liberty.

At first in America, celebrations were small, but by the 1840s they had grown and spread to a variety of locations. The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society reported that the 1844 festivities in Boston and other cities included processions, speeches, singing, and "elegant collations" (feasts). In its report, the Society noted that the First of August anniversary "was fast taking the place of the Fourth of July in the hearts of the true lovers of Liberty."

Indeed, for African Americans of the 1800s, July 4th had little meaning, as former slave, abolitionist leader, and orator Frederick Douglass pointed out in his 1852 speech "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" (see also Frederick Douglass Day). That holiday celebrated the nation's independence, but ignored the fact that thousands of black people did not have freedom and were still enslaved. The August 1st Emancipation Day, on the other hand, was an opportunity to bring African Americans together for a celebration they could call their own and to enjoy a sense of community. In addition, it was a way to seek public support for abolition and the larger cause of universal human rights.

After the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery in the United States in 1865, First of August commemorations were overshadowed by Emancipation Day, Juneteenth, and similar observances celebrating the end of slavery in the United States. However, in some U.S. locations, August 1st Emancipation Day observances continued or were restored.

There was an annual festival in Albion, Michigan, for example, into the early decades of the 20th century. In a 1927 celebration, more than 3,000 blacks from across the state gathered. They watched a parade, listened to speeches, enjoyed a barbecue lunch, attended a boxing match, and in the evening danced at an Emancipation Day Ball.

Further Reading

Anthony, Michael. "The First Emancipation Day." Trinidad Guardian, August 27, 1998. . Bowers, Detine L. "A Place to Stand: African-Americans and the First of August Platform." The Southern Communication Journal, Summer 1995. Douglass, Frederick. "The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro, Speech at Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852." In The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Volume II: Pre-Civil War Decade, 1850-1960, by Philip S. Foner. New York: International Publishers Co., 1950. Kachun, Mitch. Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Eman- cipation Celebrations, 1808-1915. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003. Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Thirteenth Annual Report of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society , January 22, 1845. In The Negro American: A Documentary History , edited Leslie H. Fishel Jr. and Benjamin Quarles. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman and Company, 1967. Price, Richard. "Maroons: Rebel Slaves in the Americas." Originally published in the 1992 Festival of American Folklife catalogue; reprinted with permission from the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage of the Smithsonian Institution. http://www .folklife.si.edu/resources/maroon/educational_guide/23.htm Roberts, David. "Forgotten American Observance: Remembering the First of August." Ex Post Facto Journal of the History Students at San Francisco State University , 2002. .
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007
References in periodicals archive ?
In contrast, free black communities in the North, acutely sensitive to the shortcomings of a war that left most African Americans still enslaved, instead observed Haitian Independence Day on 1 August and later British West Indies Emancipation Day on 1 January.

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