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.