Whatever Happened to August First?


Mr. Kerr-Ritchie is an Assistant Professor of Historyat Howard University. He is the author of Rites of August First: Emancipation Day in the Black Atlantic World (LSU Press).

Two weeks ago, hurricane dean swept Jamaica.   One hundred and seventy six years previously, a human hurricane hit the British colony in the form of a major slave rebellion resulting in the deaths of 14 whites, 544 slaves, and property damage worth over one million pounds sterling.  Soon thereafter, the British Parliament appointed an official investigation culminating in the legal abolition of colonial slavery on August 1, 1833 and triggering the final eradication of all forms of slave labor in the British Empire five years later in August 1838.  These laws not only ended a centuries-long system of British colonial slavery; they also contributed to the century of New World emancipation, a process begun by the Haitian Revolution in August 1791, and largely concluded by the passage of legal abolition in Brazil in May 1888. 

The ending of British colonial slavery had a tremendous impact upon the burgeoning antislavery movement in the United States.  American abolitionists visited the United Kingdom in search of funds, publications, and official support against domestic slavery; British abolitionists visited the United States to support their fellow activists.  During the 1830s, commemorations of West Indian emancipation or August First Day were organized by American abolitionists in public halls, meeting places, and local churches all over New England.  From the early 1840s onwards, these commemorations became more public through the take-off of the anti-slavery picnic, an annual celebration of British emancipation as well as mobilization against American slavery held in groves, parks, and large outdoor venues throughout the northern states.  This regular event meshed local and regional activities with the international antislavery movement.

August First had a particularly important impact upon people of African descent in the English-speaking Atlantic world.  Ex-slaves in Jamaica adapted the former Christmas ritual of Jonkonnu to commemorate emancipation, while those in Trinidad and elsewhere similarly transformed carnival and other cultural festivals like crop-over and canboulay into annual freedom celebrations.  In North America, the impact was different but no less significant.  In the northern United States, African Americans used August First Day to both commemorate past abolition as well as mobilize for future emancipation. 

During the 1830s these annual events were small affairs largely organized in schoolhouses, debating halls, and black churches.   Over subsequent decades, however, these annual meetings became much larger, more public, and communal affairs.  Thousands of people of African descent would congregate in villages, towns, and city squares during the opening days of August to celebrate the ending of slavery elsewhere and organize for its overthrow in the United States.  During the 1850s, these public meetings became breeding grounds for more militant opposition toward American slavery: through the attraction and participation of fugitive slaves; the parade of armed black militias; and, fiery speeches demanding the violent overthrow of American slavery.  In British Canada, an older generation of black people, along with fugitives and more recent emigrants, also adapted August First as an important expression of their antislavery actions and political identities.  In short, August First Day was to become the most important public commemorative event and popular form of mobilization among people of African descent in the English-speaking Atlantic world between the 1830s and the 1860s.

The changing temporal, spatial, and conceptual dimensions and connections concerning British colonial abolition in the Atlantic world are detailed in my Rites of August First.  Rather than repeat this work, I would like to take this opportunity to address some broader issues raised by slavery and emancipation, historical memory, and the international dimensions of history.  In other words, to provide History News Network readers with a more reflective piece on the theme of what happened to August First.

The easiest part is to historically explain what happened to the event itself.  From the 1830s through the 1850s, August First Day served as means to mobilize for the termination of American slavery.  This was accomplished through the transformation of a civil war over independence and unionism into a war over the future of slavery; the successful repudiation of the southern slaveholder’s bid for independence; and the constitutional outlawing of slavery in 1865.  The result was the emergence of alternative commemorative events such as January 1 (Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation), July Fourth, and Juneteenth, the date when slaves in Texas finally gained their freedom.  Although August First Day actually spread into the southern states and even Kansas through the 1880s, the war-forged manacles between nationalism and abolition ensured the lasting success of an alternative commemorative calendar among post-emancipation generations.  The last August First Day I have unearthed occurred in Detroit in 1927.  I would be interested to learn if any readers have come across more recent commemorations in the United States.

In the British Caribbean, August First Day lasted a lot longer because of its colonial connections.   The British government used the centenary of abolition in 1934 to trumpet the nation’s beneficent and glorious imperial past.  Meanwhile, those less impressed with the glories of British colonialism organized alternative demonstrations amidst a growing working class revolt by agricultural laborers, oil field workers, dock workers, and trade unionists throughout the region during the 1930s.  Once independence was finally won from the British in the early 1960s, past emancipation and recent nationhood were joined in annual commemorative events every August.  In Canada, Emancipation Day also had a long run.  Between the 1930s and 1960s, there were regular annual commemorations among people of African descent, especially in southwest Ontario around Windsor, a stone’s throw across the Detroit River.  (Perhaps this explains the Detroit event?)  More recent generations of Afro-Caribbean emigrants have brought carnival, or Caribana carnival, to Toronto every August.  I attended this street festival in 2006 and had a great time, although I saw little evidence of historical engagement with slavery, abolition, and contemporary challenges facing people of African descent in Canada.

A harder question is what to do with an historical event that was evidently cross-national in nature?  There are several layers here that can only be touched upon because of limited space.  On the one hand, much of the history we read, research, and write is nation-centered, so that events like August First Day get pushed into such categories when they clearly transcended them.  Numerous scholars have argued that August First Day was Afro-America’s July Fourth.  Yet, my own research suggests that the event constantly pushed beyond such boundaries in terms of traveling black abolitionists, fugitives crossing continental and oceanic borders, and alternative commemorations of another nation-state’s beneficent actions.  Also, numerous comparative and cross-national studies have successfully demonstrated the centrality of slavery and abolition to the nineteenth century Atlantic world.  We should, furthermore, beware of an America-centered approach that reduces the complicated past of people of African descent to a teleological liberal integration.  On the other hand, one could celebrate these three decades as an important moment in cross-national black Atlantic identity, and regret their tapering into national expressions.  But this would be to ignore the not insignificant point that the political objective of August First Day had been successfully accomplished, namely the destruction of American slavery.  And that the meshing of emancipation and nationhood during the Civil War was to become a defining point in subsequent African-American political identity.

Moreover, how do we rethink the ways in which some of these events are reduced to celebrations of the local and the nation-state?  Take the local.  It is clear that Massachusetts is proud of its pioneering role in the abolitionist movement.  Indeed, this was the subject of a recent History-Net Slavery debate.  But what to do with all those activists who did not fit so easily into state celebrations: visiting speakers; black sailors; fugitive slaves, etc?  Or what to do about political expressions that were clearly critical of the American Republic i.e.: the waving of French flags and the singing of the Marseilles on August First Day?  Or antislavery speakers who regretted American independence since continued rule by the British would have meant (as it did in Canada) the legal abolition of slavery in the 1830s and the subsequent freedom of all enslaved people in the United States? 

Take nation-state commemorations.  This year, Britain commemorates the bicentennial of the abolition of its slave trade in 1807.  The official narrative is that this act was a consequence of the well-meaning actions of British political leaders who thought that the slave trade was immoral and gave their money, energies, and lives to its abolition.  (One has little reason to expect that official commemorations of the bicentennial of the abolition of the U.S. slave trade in 2008 will prove much different.)  Far less attention has been given to Britain’s first great social movement that played so critical a role in stopping the slave trade as well as the contributions of prominent black activists like Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano, and Robert Wedderburn.  Furthermore, such activists transcend national categories; it makes little sense to interpret them as African-American or black British since their lives and works made them more labile.  In addition, the glorious national narrative makes no room for the possibility that the trade ended when it did because of the impact of external events, such as the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 and the fear of slave revolts breaking out in the British colonies.  Such a link was evident between the outbreak of the largest slave revolt in the history of British colonial slavery and the abolition of colonial slavery during the early 1830s.  Finally, what to do with the continued role of the British state in supporting colonial slavery after 1807 as well as colonialism after 1834?  What to do with the state’s support of Asian indentured labor after British abolition from the 1840s through 1917?  What to do with Britain’s leading role in sponsoring African colonization after the conclusion of New World emancipation from the 1880s onwards?  This is the international dimension behind one wag’s comment that the reason why the sun never set on the British Empire was because God did not trust the British in the dark.  

Perhaps the hardest question to answer is how should we commemorate August First.  There should be two levels.  One is educational.  Public schools in Canada, the United States, the English-speaking Caribbean, and the United Kingdom should be encouraged by the state to teach, discuss, and provoke young minds concerning slavery and colonialism and emancipation in history and social studies curricular.  This should not be about “knocking” the past, but opening young minds to the past’s complexity.  The university is the key place where much of this important work is already being done (courses, publications, conferences etc.), but there are few links with pre- and post- collegiate generations as well as the general public.  Public history (museums, plantation houses, cemeteries etc.) has great potential, but its educational mission must take precedence over commercial considerations.   The web is also useful; although its individual privatization prevents collective learning and discussion; and we are all familiar with problems of accountability and authenticity in cyber-space.

The other level is political.  There must be an ideological component to this commemorative work.  August First Day was always about past and present.  It seems only right that its commemoration should be similar.  In the subjects of slavery, abolition, and post-emancipation, the most striking example of this fusion is the movement for reparations.  At its worst, it is a cry for help and a complaint about the past.  To most of its advocates, however, it represents a complicated mix of historical memory work, the redress of long-term social iniquities, and making the world a more just and humane place.  It is also diasporic, drawing in people and organizations and struggles from Britain, the Caribbean, and North America.  The key point here is that this type of mobilization occurs despite rather than because of endless academic discussions about historical memory.  Part of the passion fueling Rites of August Firstis disdain for the glaring disconnect between the ruling class of scholarly work and the messiness of contemporary peoples’ struggles.  To paraphrase 1930s British Parliamentarian Duff Cooper, what do we need with a lot of professors, out of touch with realities, thinking brilliantly about slavery and abolition in an academic void?

In 1833, the legal abolition of colonial slavery in the British Empire inspired a cross-national antislavery movement that contributed to the eventual overthrow of the most powerful and entrenched slave system in the modern world.  One hundred years later, the event had been virtually forgotten in one area (the United States), commercialized in another (Canada), and protested in another (the British Caribbean).  In 2034, what should the commemoration of August First Day look like?  One reasonable expectation is that younger and older generations would debate the significance of enslaved and free people of African descent in the making of the modern world in our schools, universities, public spaces, and electronically.  Narratives of national progress emanating from Washington, Ottawa, London and Kingston would have been seriously compromised through true comprehension of the words by black abolitionist William J. Watkins in his 1854 August First Day speech that slavery was the “blackened scroll of this nation’s history.”  Another expectation is that, unlike today, people of African descent whether in the Caribbean, North America, or Europe will no longer bear the disproportionate burdens of poverty, poor health, and institutional racism.  The century of emancipation, much like the hurricane season, remains unfinished.

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More Comments:

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/27/2007

No, it's not white history, it is politically incorrect history. I merely supplied accurate background to the Jamaican emancipation story--because too many people do not know this true history--and you went ballistic.

James W Loewen - 8/27/2007

It's funny how ex-slaves and their descendants never join in wishing for the return of slavery so that GDP might increase. Or, to put this another way, could it be that Lawrence Brooks Hughes is white, and his comment is white history, rather than, say, history?

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/27/2007

I believe it took the British government over a decade to free all the slaves in all their colonies, because they did so by paying the owners a substantial portion of what had been the market price for each slave, and it took awhile to find enough money.

In Jamaica all the plantation owners took the manumission money, abandoned their plantations, and returned home to England. This promptly resulted in overgrown, neglected fields, and a disastrous decline in the quantities of all commodities grown. Accurate records in bushels, etc., were kept before the emancipation, and now we know the former production levels of different crops were not equalled again for well over a century--until about 1960. The island also burst into a bloody civil war, generally between blacks of lighter and darker skin, as soon as the whites left.

In view of this irrefutable history, it should never be thought that the extirpation of slavery from Jamaica was an unalloyed blessing for her people.