As Canada marks Emancipation Day for the first time across the nation, four scholars of African descent say liberation is a work in progress.
In a panel hosted by the Halifax Public Libraries in collaboration with the Halifax Regional Municipality on Wednesday evening, the scholars reflected on what emancipation means and discussed the history of African liberation in the British Empire, including Canada.
Emancipation Day, which falls on Aug. 1, marks the day in 1834 that the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect across the British Empire. Enslaved people freed by this act were in British colonies, such as in the Caribbean, Guyana, South Africa, Mauritius, and Canada.
But the British promise of liberation was a “great lie,” said scholar and artist Afua Cooper.
“As Prof. Hilary Beckles notes, the abolition act was one of the most racist pieces of legislation to come out of the British parliament, as it recognized Africans as property and not human beings,” she said.
Enslaved Africans, Cooper said, were not compensated for the years of labour they performed for the British people and government. Instead, slave owners were paid to secure their agreement to the loss of “their property.”
The British parliament paid £20 million to slave owners in over 40,000 awards, but the money put Britain in public debt. Fifteen-million pounds were borrowed from two bankers, with £5 million taken from public funds.
In addition, only children aged six and under were freed by the act in 1834. Everyone else had to work without pay as apprentices for the next six years.
“The British parliament thought … we need to prepare the enslaved people for full freedom. So, let's put them in an apprenticeship program. … The conditions under apprenticeship were slave-like, there was tremendous abuse. It was … like slavery; it was slavery,” said Afua Cooper.
Enslaved Africans were to be fully liberated between 1838 and 1840.
Isaac Saney, director of the Transition Year Program at Dalhousie University, said the decision to create the act came as a reaction to the continuous resistance of Africans, such as the 1831 slave rebellion in Jamaica.
He said the British feared that if they “did not abolish slavery on their own terms, the Africans would do so.”
The British parliament did not pay off its debt until 2015. The British Treasury tweeted the fact in 2018, but has since deleted the tweet, according to the Guardian.
“Millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes,” the tweet said.
“Did you know? In 1833, Britain used £20 million, 40% of its national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”
Years after the so-called abolition of slavery, Black people in Nova Scotia were still not seen as free, said Barb Hamilton-Hinch.
“We had to be in the house, in our community before the sun came down. Or … you could be taken to jail; you could be punished. ... So we did our best as Black to avoid lynching and death,” said Hamilton-Hinch, assistant professor at the school of health and human performance at Dalhousie University.
People of African descent were in segregated schools until the 1960s, she added. Despite the numerous achievements people of African descent have made over the years, they still experience racial injustices to this day in the health care, education, justice, and employment systems.
Gregory Adolphe-Nazaire, finance professor at Dalhousie University, said people of African descent continue to be held back from achieving their potential.
One of the reasons is that the Slavery Abolition Act and the systems that ended slavery were not designed by Africans but were imposed on them. He added that without full equality and equity, emancipation can’t be achieved.
Education is also a big part of the journey to get to full liberation, said Hamilton-Hinch.
“That's part of what we need to move forward, is making sure that those who are coming behind us, those who are with us, and even those who are ahead of us know and understand their history.
“It's important to remind yourself that we did not start out as slaves. And for those of us that are educated in Nova Scotia, in North America, most of our history has a starting as being enslaved,” she said.
For enslaved Africans in 1834, Saney said, emancipation meant more than the release from legal shackles, “but involved a fundamental transformation of society where African reality would be recognized.”
However, movements such as Black Lives Matter are still demanding for this transformation in 2021, he added.
“Emancipation in the 21st century, is humanity's emancipation.
“If we do achieve African emancipation in 21st century … it necessarily will mean a fundamental reordering of the way the world is structured and that will benefit everyone on this planet.”
Nebal Snan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle Herald