Many of Britain’s former colonies in the Caribbean as well as Canada celebrate Emancipation Day on August 1. The 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act became effective on August 1, 1834, marking the end of slavery in the British Empire.
During the slave trade, more than two million slaves were in Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean, working on sugar plantations. Over time, enslaved people started rejecting slavery through massive slave revolts including Bussa’s Rebellion in Barbados. This helped pave the way for emancipation in the 1800s but the Caribbean was not free.
When Emancipation Day was officially declared on August 1, 1834, it took nearly five more years for people in the Caribbean to be really free. Slaves that were newly freed after emancipation were forced into apprenticeship, where they had to continue to work uncompensated for their former slavers. Some accounts state that they were given a small stipend but still went through similar slavery working conditions.
And that is why perhaps August 1 is not as big a day for many Caribbean people as August 23. August 23, 1791, marks the start of the uprising in Haiti that ultimately led to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in the territories under European colonial powers. Indeed, August 23 is a significant event in the history of the Caribbean, the Western Hemisphere, and the world. It did not only start the process that led to the end of the transatlantic slave trade but also resulted in the establishment of the world’s first Black Republic — Haiti. The nation showed the world that freedom is possible no matter what.
It is against this background that the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition is observed on August 23 every year to remember the tragedy of the transatlantic slave trade including the people who suffered because of it. The day, designated by UNESCO, was first observed on August 23, 1998, particularly in Haiti and Goree in Senegal in 1999.
What really happened on August 23?
Haiti is the result of the first successful slave uprising that resulted in an independent state in 1804. Prior to the revolt, the island that is modern Haiti was known as Saint-Domingue. Then a sugar island, the French largely depended on it for economic growth. But on the night of August 22 and 23, 1791, enslaved people rose against their French enslavers and they began the biggest and bloodiest slave revolt in history.
When Haiti declared its independence from France on January 1, 1804, after a 13-year campaign led by military leader General Toussaint Louverture, it became the “first modern state to abolish slavery, the first state in the world to be formed from a successful revolt of the lower classes (in this case slaves), and the second republic in the Western Hemisphere, only twenty-eight years behind the United States,” according to one account.
But the country would suffer greatly because of this feat as European powers, as well as the United States, immediately took steps to marginalize Haiti. For refusing to be owned by white people, Haiti had to pay over $20 billion in present-day money to free itself from France.
Today, Haiti is one of the world’s poorest with one in four people unable to afford $1.25 a day. Still, its Haitian Revolution on August 23 led by Blacks and mixed race people proved to be a watershed moment in human history. It is the Revolution that started off a process of change in connection to slavery throughout America.
The UN chose August 23 and adopted the resolution 29 C/40 in the 29th session of the General Conference of UNESCO. A circular from the Director-General was sent on July 29, 1998 to invite Ministers of Culture to promote this day.
Besides spreading awareness of the history of the slave trade, UNESCO also believes the day should be observed to remind people “to continue to analyse and criticise such practices that may transform into modern forms of slavery and exploitation”.