Emancipation Day

Emancipation Day is a national public holiday in Jamaica, celebrated on August 1.

Emancipation is the process of giving people social or political freedom and rights.   For the British Colonies in the 1800’s emancipation related to the abolishment of slavery, with the government granting of freedom to slaves. It is said that slavery as an institution has affected every country in the world.  Do you remember stories that the Israelites got a bad time from their Egyptian masters and that the ancient Greeks did not treat their slaves well?    

In Slavery

Slavery in Jamaica started with the island’s “discovery” on May 5, 1494 by Columbus on behalf of Spain.  The Spanish enslaved many of the Tainos, the Jamaican natives, some escaped, but most died from European diseases and overwork.  The Spaniards then introduced African slaves to Jamaica, first arriving in 1513 to cultivate the newly introduced sugar cane plantations. 

The sugar industry grew so rapidly that the 57 Jamaican sugar cane estates in 1673 grew to nearly 430 by 1739.  This growth was supported by the ongoing slave trade and transport route called the ‘Middle Passage’.  This 3-sided voyage started with England trading goods (especially ammunition) with Africa where these were exchanged for slaves.  Then the journey continued to the Caribbean where the slaves were landed and sugar, rum and molasses taken aboard for the final leg of the journey back to England. 

Morant Bay Rebellion

The Royal African Company was re-formed in 1672 creating an English slave trade monopoly that branded its initials on the slaves’ chests.  Jamaica became one of the world’s busiest slave markets with a thriving smuggling trade to Spanish America.  Jamaica’s sugar production peaked in the 18th century, dominating the local economy and depending increasingly on the slave trade as a cheap labour source. 

A slave’s life was brutal and short, because of high incidences of tropical and imported diseases and harsh working conditions.  This brutality meant the number of slave deaths was consistently larger than the number of births.  Europeans fared much better but were also susceptible to tropical diseases, such as yellow fever and malaria. 

Slaves rebelled whenever they could, with many successful in running away from the plantations to join the Maroons in the almost inaccessible mountains.  Maroons intermittently used guerrilla tactics against the Jamaican militia and English troops, who had destroyed many Maroon settlements in 1686. 

There were many slave rebellions of note in Jamaica, including the Easter Rebellion of 1760 led by Tacky.  Jamaica’s slave population swelled to 300,000, despite mounting civil unrest and unstable food supplies.  During the period 1780–87 about 15,000 slaves starved to death.

Depiction of Rebellion – Burning the Great House

The abolition of the slave trade and slavery was not only achieved by frequent slave uprisings and rebellions in the Caribbean but also by the work of humanitarians who were concerned about the slaves’ well-being.  Humanitarian groups such as the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) publicly protested against slavery and the slave trade.  Quaker colonists began questioning slavery in Barbados in the 1670s, but first openly denounced it in 1688.  William Wilberforce, an Evangelical Christian and parliamentarian, spear headed the campaign against the British slave trade for 18 years, finally witnessing passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.

Plaque Commemorating Emancipation

The Slave Trade Act of 1807 made the purchase or ownership of slaves illegal within the British Empire, with the exception of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Saint Helena.  The legislation imposed fines that did little to deter slave trade participants, so it acted to outlaw the slave trade but not slavery itself.  In 1811 the British Parliament introduced the Slave Trade Felony Act, making slavery a felony act through the British Empire.  The Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron to suppress the Atlantic slave trade by patrolling the coast of West Africa. 

The British were, by the late eighteenth century, the biggest proponents of the abolition of slavery worldwide, having previously been the world’s largest slave dealers.  Britain used its influence to coerce other countries to agree to treaties to end their slave trade and allow the Royal Navy to seize their slave ships.  The West Africa Squadron did suppress the slave trade but did not stop it entirely.  Between 1808 and 1860 the West Africa Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans.  Many of these freed captives were resettled in Jamaica and the Bahamas. 


During the Christmas holiday of 1831 a large-scale slave revolt in Jamaica, known as the Baptist War, broke out.  What was organised originally as a peaceful strike by the educated Baptist minister Samuel Sharpe ended up mobilising some 60,000 enslaved persons throughout the island.  The colonial government used the armed Jamaican military forces and Maroon warriors to put down the rebellion by early 1832. 

Because of the loss of property and life in the 1831 rebellion, the British Parliament held two inquiries.  The results of these inquiries and the declining British economy contributed greatly to the abolition of slavery with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.  This Act had two major parts: (1) the emancipation of all slaves throughout the British colonial empire except those held on the islands of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Saint Helena; and (2) compensating slave owners for the loss of the slaves. 

Emancipation Statue

On 1 August 1834 the Emancipation Declaration was read from the steps of the Old Kings House in Spanish Town, St Catherine, Jamaica’s then capital.  Emancipation was decreed in stages, first with the freeing of all children under six.  The other stage required that slaves work a period of six years as unpaid apprentices for their former masters.  Continuing peaceful protests resulted in full emancipation for all being legally granted ahead of schedule on 1 August 1838.  Needless to say the masters continued to ill-treat and exploit the enslaved people in the British Caribbean until they finally gained their freedom at midnight on 31 July 1838.

In 1893 Jamaica officially introduced celebration of Emancipation Day with a public holiday on August 1.  In 1962 Emancipation Day was replaced by Independence Day, then observed on the first Monday in August.  However, in 1997 Emancipation Day was re-instituted as a national holiday celebrated on August 1 while the Independence Day public holiday was celebrated on August 6.

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery … none but ourselves can free our minds!” Marcus Garvey.

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