When the clock struck midnight on August 1, 1838, Reverend William Knibb declared “The
negro is free”. In a letter to a confidant, Knibb recalls: “Never did I hear such a sound. The
winds of freedom appeared to have been let loose. The very building shook at the strange
yet sacred joy”. In Jamaica, like other British colonies, black persons would gather at town
squares and other public areas to celebrate the end of one of the most brutal acts of
mankind. This celebration of the end of enslavement, on paper anyway, continued
throughout the years.
According to Falmouth Post, from as early as 1860, August 1 saw many Jamaicans
march through the streets, playing music and waving flags with biblical scriptures
written on them. Led by clergymen who called themselves ‘Apostles of Liberty’,
children were given cake and lemonade in decorated classrooms. In the afternoon,
persons would gather at public meetings where sums of money were collected and
used for charitable causes.
Still, after the Morant Bay Rebellion, there came rumours that another black uprising
would take place on Emancipation Day in 1866. With these fears, many missionaries
did not organise around the event anniversary, and due to this, public observance
dwindled in the decade. However, come the 1870s, persons started to
commemorate the day once more. This effort was led by black persons of lighter
According to the historians Brian L. Moore and Michele A. Johnson in the book They
Do As They Please: The Jamaica Struggle for Cultural Freedom After Morant
Bay, these lighter-skinned black Jamaicans wanted to forget the shame of their
ancestral enslavement while some among them hoped that by supporting the
celebration of freedom, they would call attention to how much progress had been
made by them as a class. Many had been elevated in society, both in terms of their
class and complexion and saw themselves as advocates for those not in the same
position. Thus, throughout the 1870s, tradesmen would march through the streets –
beginning in Parade and eventually find themselves in Spanish Town for a picnic.
This effort kickstarted other remembrance activities in other parts of the island.
By the 1880s, August 1 was unofficially restored as a public holiday. Popular stores
in Kingston would close on that day, while church services, lectures, and picnics
were happening throughout the island. In 1893, the holiday was added to the list of
mandatory public holidays when C. S. Farquharson introduced the Public General
Holidays bill. The bill increased the number of public holidays from nine to 10 and to
include the new addition, Emancipation Day. From then onwards, other events such
as athletic competitions, cricket matches, concerts, etc, were added to Emancipation
Day celebratory activities. Throughout the years to come, the holiday would have
special events held on that day. The Jamaica Patriotic League held their annual
meetings on the day. In 1894, the People’s Convention, organised by the black
journalist and politician Dr Robert Love was held on August 1. A July 27, 1901,
article published in his newspaper Jamaica Advocate stated: “It is the intention of
the People’s Convention to celebrate the day in a manner befitting the event and the
obligation of the children of the emancipated … . It is a day on which to recall the
history of our Fathers, and to contemplate the destinies of our children”.
Still, the holiday faced opposition throughout the rest of the decade and the 1900s.
Some were of the view that labourers would lose 10 working days each year while
others argued that the remembrance of Emancipation would revive old animosity
and hate between white and black people in Jamaica. Others were of the view that
the celebration of Emancipation did nothing for the Black people. The Daily
Gleaner, in an August 14, 1918 editorial, titled ‘Observe Or Not’, stated that the
holiday was not celebrated in any other country where slavery existed, so why
should it be a holiday in Jamaica. This was untrue as, by this time, Emancipation
Day was celebrated in other British colonies in the region. Nevertheless, the editorial
piece sums up their argument with: “But as we have said, August 1st has no sort of
religious significance today, and after eighty years can have none. There is therefore
no reason in the world why anyone should endeavour to observe it as of special and
of particular significance.” During the 300th Celebrations in 1955, which saw
Jamaica commemorate 300 years of English colonisation, many supported that
celebration and called for an end to the Emancipation holiday. In her scholastic
paper, ‘Commemorations in Jamaica: A Brief History of Conflicts’, Veronica M.
Gregg states, “Emancipation Day, it was asserted, was racial and included only
black people, the celebration of the English conquest of Jamaica was multiracial or
nonracial and inclusive and therefore more national and more representative of
Despite the opposition, though, there was no amendment to the Public General
Holidays and Jamaicans continue to observe Emancipation Day as an official
holiday. Organisations would also have their own celebrations. In 1934, the
Universal Negro Improvement Association organised one of the largest events to
acknowledge Emancipation Day. In 1959, the African Reformed Church celebrated
the Emancipation Jubilee with their own organised event. However, by the early
1960s with Jamaican Independence Day being August 6, many in government had
concerns over the two holidays being so close to each other. As such, in 1962, the
commemoration of Emancipation Day was suspended and replaced with
Independence Day – to be celebrated on the first Monday of August.
NETTLEFORD’S. PATTERSON’S EFFORTS
Emancipation Day would return on the Jamaica national calendar in the 1990s,
thanks in part to the late Professor Rex Nettleford and former prime minister P.J.
Patterson. Nettleford, in numerous of his publications and speeches on the black
race in Jamaica, saw Emancipation not as a singular event but an ongoing struggle
focus on black people liberating themselves from the past and contemporary
bondage of colonisation. As Patterson shared in a 2021 interview with The Jamaica
Observer, he shared a committee (the National Symbols Committee), headed by
Nettleford, to look at how the “country’s national symbol and observance could
contribute to sustaining our cultural unity”. The report produced, stated that there
was a vast confusion of the momentous events among young persons in Jamaica,
and as such, Jamaica, “deserves, in the case of Emancipation Day, a
commemoration, and in the case of Independence Day, a celebration”.
As such, in 1997, a bill for a double holiday where Emancipation Day would be
August 1 and Independence Day, August 6, was introduced in Parliament. However,
amendments to the Public Holiday Act faced opposition. Opposition Leader Edward
Seaga was of the view that the double holiday would lessen the importance of the
country’s Independence and questioned if the commemoration of Emancipation
would achieve anything important in the country. Bruce Golding, then president of
the National Democratic Movement, proposed that the two days be merged into one.
Despite the blowback, Patterson stood his ground and defended the
recommendation of the double holiday. Thus, the act was successfully amended,
and Emancipation Day was reinstituted as a national holiday in 1997. Ever since,
Jamaica has been celebrating both Emancipation Day and Independence Day as
two public holidays.
In recent years, there have been calls by those in the private sector that the double
holiday lessens productivity in the workplace. In 2020, news came out that the
Government was considering merging both Emancipation and Independence Day.
Also in that year, was the Don Anderson Poll where 62 per cent of those surveyed
were in favour of the Government merging both holidays. Still, as of today, there
seems to be no move by the Government to suspend Emancipation Day
celebrations or merge both holidays.
With 2023 marking the 185th anniversary of the full emancipation of black enslaved
people in British colonies, the national commemoration of Emancipation in Jamaica
continues to survive … for now.
Part I of II – Documentary on Jamaican National Heroine to Screen at the 24th Annual Pan African Film & Arts Festival.
New York, January 15, 2016 – The legendary Nanny of the Maroons is Jamaica’s only female National Heroine. She was an eighteenth-century, African warrior Queen who led a band of former enslaved Africans in the mountains of Jamaica to a decisive victory over the mighty British army. Despite all this acclaim, Queen Nanny remains a mystery. Her name is mentioned only four times in textbooks. And so most of what we know about her comes through oral tales and legends.
Conceived by veteran movie stuntman and award-winning filmmaker, Roy T. Anderson and History Professor Harcourt T. Fuller, PhD, this landmark, one-hour, documentary film will unearth and examine this mysterious figure that is Queen Nanny: Legendary Maroon Chieftainess.
Sponsored by the Jamaica Cultural Alliance (JCA), a Los Angeles 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, Queen Nanny will have its West Coast Premiere as an official selection of the 24th Annual Pan African Film & Arts Festival on Saturday, February 6, 2016 @ 7 pm, at the Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza 15 in Los Angeles, CA. A private, invitation-only reception will precede the film’s showing. Queen Nanny had a very successful World Premiere screening on October 19, 2015 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, as part of the 2015 Remember Slavery Programme of Activities along with screenings of such films as Selma and Book of Negroes (BET). The World Premiere also drew attention to the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). The United Nations is also is considering the film as part of their educational outreach for Slavery Remembrance Day, to be observed Friday, March 25, 2016.
Queen Nanny was filmed in Jamaica, Ghana, Canada, and the United States over the course of two years, and include interviews with Maroons and scholars who are experts in Caribbean history and the study of slavery. As we seek to uncover the history and legacy of Queen Nanny, her intriguing story is told through songs, performances, and a series of reenactments.
This film also looks at Queen Nanny’s legacy and impact on contemporary women in general, with interviews featuring, among others: Jamaica’s current Prime Minister, The Most Hon. Portia Simpson-Miller; double Olympic and World Champion sprinter Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce; the “Queen of Reggae” Rita Marley; U.S. Congresswoman Yvette Clarke; University Professors Verene Shepherd and Linda Heywood. View YouTube teaser at https://www.youtube.com/embed/nF_Os_yW-D4.
On May 23 each year, unless it falls on a Saturday or Sunday, Jamaicans celebrate Labour Day by volunteering their time and energy towards the beautification and enhancement of communities across the island.A national holiday, Labour Day has been officially recognised in Jamaica since 1960. However, it was the events of 1938 which opened a new era in the life of the working man of all classes and brought about a fundamental change in the relationship between the workers and their employers in Jamaica. From this change emerged a new order of effective trade unionism which would eventually lead to the formation of Jamaica’s two main political parties and ultimately to its Independence from colonial rule. Ever since 1939, Jamaica has paused on May 23 to recognise the value of work and the immense contribution of the workers to the development of the country.
The three main objectives of Labour Day are:
- enhancing the dignity of labour by improving the environment
- inspiring the spirit of community development, and
- encouraging the principle of solidarity; Jamaicans working, building and
The Origins Of Labour Day
Up to 1960, May 24 was observed annually in Jamaica as Empire Day, the birthday of Queen Victoria, who was deeply concerned about human liberty and has been credited with granting slaves in Jamaica and the rest of the British Empire their freedom. Instituted in the United Kingdom in 1904, Empire Day extended throughout the countries of the Commonwealth. It gave the Queen’s people a chance to show their pride in being part of the British Empire. School children were required to attend school on the morning of the holiday to participate in flag-raising ceremonies and in the singing of ‘Rule Britannia’, the British national anthem, ‘God Save the King’ and other British patriotic songs.
The Auxiliary Territorial Service in Jamaica put on a
display on Empire Day in 1944.
(Photo courtesy of iwm.org.uk)
By the 1950s however, the British Empire had started to decline and Britain’s relationship with countries that formed the Empire such as Jamaica, had also changed as they began to celebrate their own identity. In 1958, Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day, in agreement with the new post-colonial relationship between the nations of the former empire. In Jamaica, by then, May 24th was already being celebrated informally as Labour Day, in commemoration of the labour upheavals which took place between May 23 and June 6 of 1938.
A National Holiday Appeal
In 1960, the then Premier, the late Right Excellent Norman Washington Manley, presented a bill in Parliament which finally abolished Empire Day. On June 15th, a law to amend the Holiday (Public General) Law received unanimous support in the Legislative Council. May 23 was now to be known as “National Labour Day” and officially marked the anniversary of the first wave of working class strikes which took place in 1938.
In 1960, the then Premier, the late Right
Excellent Norman Washington Manley abolished
Empire Day in favour of “National Labour Day”.
The labour movement in Jamaica has its origins in the struggles of the workers in 1938 for better working conditions. After fatal riots in Frome, Westmoreland and the arrest of labour leader Sir Alexander Bustamante along with Garveyite Sergeant William Grant, the time was ripe in Jamaica for political change. It is from this movement that Jamaica’s two major political parties emerged and the journey to Independence began. The focus of Labour Day had now shifted from the tradition of gratitude to colonial masters, to political Independence and the importance of trade unions.
Trade Unions Clashes
In 1938, under the patronage of Sir Alexander Bustamante, the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) was formed and set out on the dedicated task of taking care of the welfare of Jamaica’s workers. Despite minor setbacks, the union, which bears the name of one of Jamaica’s greatest labour leaders, contributed to the rise in the wage structure in the island as well the consequent increase in the standard of living. The benefits of annual vacation as well as sick leave with pay were also introduced to Jamaica by the BITU.
The path to self-government, which was paved since the great 1938 awakening, saw the formation of not only the BITU, which was affiliated with the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), but also the National Worker’s Union (NWU) which had its connections with the Manley-led People’s National Party (PNP). For ten years Labour Day was mainly celebrated in the Corporate Area by the trade unions, in
collaboration with their political parties, in the form of public rally meetings and marches. There were occasions, however, when the marches of the opposing major trade unions and the political parties clashed. In 1962, a JLP-BITU and PNP-NWU clash during the Labour Day march resulted in the death of a woman and the injury of over a dozen police officers who had to resort to tear gas to quell the disturbance. This was contrary to the original concept of Mr. Manley that the day should be a demonstration of unity among workers in Jamaica.
In 1966 the Labour Day marches were banned in the Corporate Area as a result of disturbances which took place in early May of that year. Since then, the police refused to grant permission for marches to either trade union. The following year, workers and employers from every field of activity in Jamaica convened in an atmosphere of conviviality as the then Prime Minister, the Hon. Hugh Shearer, on behalf of the Government of Jamaica hosted a glittering reception at Jamaica House in celebration of Labour Day. Without the grandiose marches which saw the opposing trade unions meeting in the streets of Kingston, Labour Day was marked by services, public meetings and protest rallies and minimal incidents for the next few years.
Putting Work Into Labour Day
The mantra ‘Put Work into Labour Day’ was both an expression of thanksgiving and a call for national unity. In 1972, the then Prime Minister, the Hon. Michael Manley, infused the national holiday with a new dimension by expressing to all Jamaicans the importance of labour to nation-building through voluntary community work. It was the first time Jamaicans were asked to give up a part or all of their public holidays to work on a community project. The Palisadoes Road (now known as the Norman Manley Highway) was selected as the first site where the Prime Minister was seen clearing land and planting trees to beautify the area. His invitation to the nation resulted in a tremendous national response and 600 projects, mainly of a beautification nature, were identified across the island.
When asked about the first Labour Day project, Mr. Manley remarked, “I think…it was probably the first time in all of Jamaica’s history when the people of this country felt a unity, a oneness in working together for the good of the country.” While the new concept enacted by Michael Manley in 1972 revolved around the central theme of
work, it also contained other ideas. It identified and stressed a part of the future policy of the Government – that of appealing to the national pride, interest and dignity of the people and mobilising them on an island-wide basis. Groups and individuals around the island followed the Prime Minister’s lead and planned projects of their own, such as the refurbishing of schools, community centres, state institutions and other public and private buildings.
Since then, Labour Day has not only been a public holiday but also a day of mass community involvement around the country. It has evolved out of the struggle to free workers from the extreme conditions of repression, exploitation and racism. In 1989, after an eight year absence of wide scale island-wide Labour Day projects, the Jamaican government introduced themes as a guide for persons to assist in Labour Day activities. The identification of a theme was meant to foster wider national involvement and solidarity but did not compel citizens to be bound by the theme. These themes have included a wide range of issues such as health and the environment, youth and the community, respect for the elderly and vulnerable, road safety, and the planting of trees. While still managing to maintain its original connection to the trade union movement, Labour Day exemplifies the dignity of labour and the importance of volunteerism towards community development as Jamaicans join together to invest their energies towards the cultivation of a prosperous country.