Making Emancipation alive for Ziya

Dr Gabrielle Hosein
Dr Gabrielle Hosein


AT 11, Ziya still didn’t understand the reason for celebrating Emancipation Day. She learned about national holidays in school, we often discuss both slavery and indenture (as well as capitalism and patriarchy), and she’s attended Emancipation Day commemorations and visited Emancipation Village many times.

Yet, with children, you have to say things many times in many ways for their little minds to grasp big ideas.

I think she wondered what it had to do with her nearly-teenage life, so far removed from the almost two centuries ago. I don’t think this is unusual for children. Unless we connect to how historical events shape our own lives, those moments can feel distant and done.

I see it with my students, many born after 2000, who are disconnected from even more recent moments, whether the labour resistances of the 1930s, the beginning of adult suffrage, independence in 1962, or the Black Power movement of the 1970s. And in the multicultural politics of TT, our history often gets reduced to what we wear on a particular day or what we cook, as well as cultural arts. Or it becomes another family day at the beach.

Activists talk about these as important because culture is how ancestral practices are remembered, but unless you are already ideologically invested, it may take more to make the past seem relevant to a little girl’s present.

I think I used a lot of words, maybe too many, and I’m not sure they landed. August 1, 1834, is one of the most important dates in the history of colonisation and in the Caribbean, I said. It is also one of the most significant dates in all of Western history. It’s also important regardless of whether you are African, Indian, Chinese, dougla or Syrian.

This is because it marks the last time that human beings could legally be defined as property. This directly affected Ziya’s ancestors, but it also changed all our lives, and was a major milestone of human-rights discourse, or the idea that every human being is a person and is equal to any other.

In this way, the legacy of African history in the Americas, particularly enslaved Africans’ resistances, is one which we have all inherited and from which we have benefited, for it has led the way to the modern legal world we now take for granted.

Even all of this was a lot to break down because it’s hard to fathom what the words “end of slavery” mean, particularly to a tween, when its horrors appear so unimaginable now. As an Indian mother of a dougla daughter, I wanted her also to understand why Indians should commemorate this day, not just ethnicising it as for Africans, as many do, not simply recognising it as national because we should all celebrate the end of African slavery, but also seeing how it constituted the reality of all who also came after emancipation, establishing a foundation for rights today. We often highlight our differences, but should also teach how we are connected to each other’s pasts.

Indenture was a system of exploitation, inequality, extraction and violence, but because of emancipation it was not a system of slavery. Contractually bound labourers had rights. These were systematically violated and denied, but they existed for plantation workers from then on.

The Slavery Abolition Act was passed in the British parliament in 1833, but came into force on August 1, 1834, abolishing slavery throughout most of the British Empire (excluding some colonies held by the East India Company). However, only slaves below the age of six were freed (another fact important for a child to contemplate).

For all others, unwaged, forced labour continued for 40 hours per week for four years to compensate slave owners for loss of their “property,” meaning human beings. Although originally it was to continue for six years, this system of “apprenticeship” was ended at midnight on July 31, 1838, because of a broad range of resistance to it.

Lots of big words for an 11-year-old, but I wanted her to connect to these dates not because she is told she should, not as a result of her obedience, and not because she absorbs what she should value unquestioningly.

Rather, I wanted to try to have it matter to her own contemporary world. This is how historians do it. They walk around with the past as alive to them as the present.

Parenting is about finding ways to make such connections also come alive for our children.

Diary of a mothering worker

Entry 470


"Making Emancipation alive for Ziya"

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