Slavery has existed in all societies across the world. It has taken different forms throughout history. The most extreme form of historical slavery was the infamous transatlantic slave trade, which lasted over 400 years and saw millions of Africans captured, sold and transported to the Americas and the Caribbean.
July 31st marked the arrival of the first slave ship in Jamestown, Virginia from Ghana 400 years ago. Countless millions caught their last glimpse of Africa as they were processed through the 'Door of No Return', before they were shipped to a life of enslavement.
The Ghanaian parliament recently marked the four hundredth anniversary of the first shipment of enslaved Africans to America. Northern Ireland saw a commemoration of a similar kind when members of the African-Caribbean community came together for an emancipation service on Sunday August 4th. The joint service, together with Kilwarlin Moravian Church, was held at University Road Moravian Church and was led by Reverend Dr Livingstone Thompson.
Emancipation Day, generally commemorated on August 1st each year, is a time of celebration for those in the Caribbean, marking the day that the Act of Abolition of Slavery was passed in 1833, outlawing the slave trade from the British Empire. Traditionally people would keep a vigil on July 31st and at midnight ring church bells and play drums in parks and public squares to re-enact the first moments of freedom for enslaved Africans.
The Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Peter McReynolds, welcomed everyone, together with the Queen's Representative, Walter Rader, and Mrs Rader and members of the Diplomatic Corps. Guest speaker was HE Dr Kevin Isaac, High Commissioner (Ambassador) for St Kitts and Nevis. A popular figure, the diplomat brought both tears and joy to the service along with some thought-provoking insights as some of his published poems were read.
In his address Dr Isaac emphasised the need for a “serious conversation” about how to move beyond ‘Emancipation’ as an event to a more empowering position, emancipation as an orientation of control of one's destiny. The fear of having to consider the cost implications of admitting the injustice keeps descendants of those who benefitted from the system of slavery from having a serious conversation.
While slavery is now illegal, it is estimated that 21 million people worldwide are living as slaves today. Unesco marks August 23rd each year as International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. However, since 1949, the United Nations has marked International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on December 2nd. The commemorations aim to remind people that slavery violates basic human rights and to raise awareness of modern forms of slavery.