The month of August is a special time of remembering and commemorating for many Africans. Whether on the African continent or in the Diaspora, we remember and commemorate August 1 (Emancipation Day) when enslaved Africans in the former British Empire, which included Canada, the Caribbean and South Africa, were freed from chattel slavery.
Africans in the United States of America who lived in free states (including Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania) also commemorated August 1. British historian J.R. Kerr-Ritchie in his book Rites of August First: Emancipation Day in the Black Atlantic World: Antislavery, Abolition, and the Atlantic World, lists more than 30 annual August First commemorations in African-American churches in northern states, including Delaware, New Hampshire and Ohio, that took place between 1834 and 1842.
Not all the August Firsts were commemorated in African-American churches, some were public celebrations. Kerr-Ritchie lists several of these celebrations that happened as late as 1861 (start of the American Civil War) noting that: “The public August First usually consisted of “picnics, parades, public meetings and abundant speeches.”
In her recent book, Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada, Natasha Henry writes: “The creators of August First celebrations were African-Americans who had migrated to Canada during the first part of the 19th Century in their quest for a free life.” Henry also documents instances of African-Americans crossing the border to attend Emancipation Day celebrations well into the 20th Century.
She writes about some famous African-Americans who attended August First celebrations: “World famous boxer Joe Louis fought in a friendly match. Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games, demonstrated his track and field abilities. A young Diana Ross competed in a talent contest. Musical acts like the Temptations, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Sammy Davis Jr., and numerous gospel choirs performed over the years.”
Apart from August First celebrations to commemorate Emancipation Day, Africans celebrate the birthday of the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey, who was born on August 17, 1887 in St Ann’s, Jamaica. He is that country’s first national hero. His philosophy of Africa for Africans at home and abroad is immortalized in Bob Marley’s ‘Africa Unite’ which was released in 1979 on the Survival album.
Garvey’s philosophies spurred the modern Pan-African movement, which inspired Africans to fight for their independence from European colonizers. He inspired many African leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Kambarage Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah.
On August 20, Africans internationally will recognize a “World Day of Reconciliation & Healing from the Legacy of Enslavement”. With locations in Richmond, Virginia; Liverpool, England and Benin, West Africa, Reconciliation Statues will serve as gathering places to pray for reconciliation and healing from the legacy of enslavement throughout the world.
The Reconciliation Statues were part of the Reconciliation Triangle project, linking Europe, America and Africa. August 20 was chosen because, on that date in 1619, the first group of kidnapped Africans was taken to the colony of Jamestown in Virginia. Historians have determined that the Africans were taken to Jamestown on two British pirate ships, the Treasurer and the White Lion (which was flying a Dutch flag).
The kidnapped Africans were part of the cargo on a Portuguese slave ship, the San Juan Bautista, which was en route to Veracruz, on the east coast of modern-day Mexico, when the ship was robbed of its human cargo by two pirate ships, just off the coast of Mexico. The group of approximately 60 Africans (of the estimated 350 held on the San Juan Bautista) who the British pirates traded for food in Jamestown, had been taken from the kingdoms of Ndongo and Kongo, modern-day Angola and coastal regions of Congo.
This group of Africans speaking Kimbundu and Kikongo were able to communicate with each other and were able to negotiate their freedom after working as indentured labourers. The records show that in 1640 three indentured labourers (two Europeans and an African named John Punch) ran away from their master and were eventually caught. The African was sentenced to slavery for life while the two Europeans had their indentureship extended four more years.
John Punch’s sentence ensured that he would “serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere”. Following the Punch case, various laws were enacted to ensure that Africans would be enslaved for their entire lives. By the turn of the following century the enactment of the Slave Codes of 1705 had sealed the fate of every African in what would eventually become the United States of America.
Many historians date the beginning of the Haitian Revolution with the uprising of enslaved Africans on the night of August 21, 1791. In every territory where Africans were enslaved there was resistance, but the enslaved Africans of Haiti were the only group which successfully overthrew their enslavers.
With the success of the Africans of Haiti in seizing their freedom in spite of Napoleon’s mighty army which made many European nations tremble, fear of similar uprisings struck terror in the hearts of other European nations whose livelihood depended on the coerced, unpaid labour of the Africans they held in slavery.
On January 1, 1804, Haitians declared their independence from European domination, making Haiti the first independent nation in this part of the world led by Africans and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful revolution of enslaved people.
Three years later in 1807, Britain became the first European nation to abolish the slave trade although they did not abolish slavery until August 1, 1834 in Antigua, Canada and South Africa and elsewhere on August 1, 1838 after a four year apprenticeship period.
Forty years after Boukman officiated at the Bois Cayman ceremony which began the Haitian Revolution, and just three years before the British abolished chattel slavery, on August 21, 1831, an enslaved African named Nat Turner led a group of enslaved Africans in an attempt to free themselves from slavery.
This revolt ironically took place in Virginia, the same state where the first group of kidnapped Africans had been traded for food by British pirates in Jamestown on August 20, 1619. Nat Turner and his followers were not successful in gaining their freedom but his name will never be forgotten.
We have much to commemorate and remember during this month which could very well be counted African Heritage Month of the summer.