Bastille Day

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Before the reader reaches the end of this article he/she will probably take issue with the title. I’ve decided to headline this week’s article Bastille Day to highlight the importance of national landmarks in the history and lives of a people.

Bastille Day is a French National Day, which celebrates the French Revolution of 1789. The Bastille was a castle where political and ordinary prisoners were kept – often without trial or conviction.

It was the institution managed by King Louis XVI to safeguard his rule by putting his critics out of circulation. The Bastille was one of the instruments of the unfair political system over which King Louis presided, secure that he was ruling France by Divine Right and that nothing he did was wrong.

Many of his people – the educated and the illiterate – found that under King Louis everything in France was wrong. Even the nobles felt that things were wrong they felt the king had too much power and did not like how he used it to exact taxes from them.

The middle class or the Third Estate felt that they did not have a sufficient say in how the country was run.

The lower classes felt that everything was wrong. Food was scarce and they could not get sufficient bread to eat because the price was too high.

King Louis was a kind of stupid fellow. His palace was grand and his young wife Marie Antoinette was beautiful but also stupid and they both were used by the smart courtiers who virtually ran their lives.

To explain how stupid Queen Antoinette was: One day as she journeyed through Paris in her lavish chariot she witnessed an angry mob demonstrating and making all kinds of threatening and obscene gestures.

It was an ugly scene and she dared to ask one of her assistants what was wrong. The assistant replied that the people wanted bread and could not get any. To which she allegedly replied, shrugging her lovely shoulders, “Let them eat cake.”

It was shortly after this that the angry mob, egged on by the educated middle class, vented their rage on  French high society starting with the Bastille. Hundreds of Parisians stormed the fortress. Many of them died but they prevailed, captured the custodian and his deputies and killed them in the street.

The storming of the Bastille and its fall in July 1789 is credited with providing fuel to the French Revolution which, after it had passed through its inevitable birth pains, established a classless and democratic society in France to replace the ancient feudal system.

Now Bastille Day is a proud day in the history of France, and French citizens naturally celebrate it as the important basic block in the construction of French society. Wherever in the world French citizens find themselves, they proudly find the way to celebrate this great day in their nation’s history.

Even in St. Kitts-Nevis where the total French population is less than 20, a great fuss was made last week about the day. It was celebrated in grand style with the participation of local students of French. Even our deputy prime minister and minister of education participated.

The sustained excitement which the French display over an historical event which happened as long ago as 1789 should give us an idea of the level of excitement which we Kittitians and Nevisians should display over an equally important historical event which happened in our islands in 1834.

On August 1, 1834 the African slaves throughout the Caribbean were freed from plantation slavery. If the French people of 1789 had grievances, the African people of the Caribbean had multiple grievances. For one, they were not free and if we can imagine the state of not being free we would realize that it is a terrible situation to be in.

Most of the Africans who were emancipated on August 1, 1834 were born in the Caribbean. In 1807 the British government had abolished the slave trade in its empire and so not many, if any, Africans were brought across the Middle Passage to the British islands for 27 years.

So the Caribbean Africans who were enslaved on the sugar plantations had never known anything but captivity. They were born on the sugar estate; the estate owner claimed them from birth, and waited impatiently for them to reach seven eight or nine to work in the small gang.

The estate owners also carefully monitored the growth and development of the little girls, and as soon as their chests began to bulge and their hips began to widen, he made them his bed maids.

I believe that one of the greatest treasures to the estate owners from slavery on the plantation was the young African girls to which they had unrestricted access. And I also believe that the acutest pain which the African male suffered in his life on the plantation was not the forced labour or the whips on his back, but the mental agony which he had to have felt as he saw his black sisters submit reluctantly to the white rapists’ abuses.

There were of course the regular public insults to the African. He was called Sambo, Jimbo, Bobo and given demeaning names which the white people believed were fitting to his black colour. He was taught through formal and informal ways that in every possible area of his existence he was inferior to anybody who was white.

This psychological and physical regimen produced very conforming and acquiescing labourers on the sugar plantations. They had to be submissive to their extreme physical and mental pain because they knew if they tried to fight against the system they would end up on a hangman’s rope or with a hand, foot or ear severed from their bodies.

Just imagine the excitement which ran from estate to estate the length of the island when the news filtered through the grapevine that Queen Victoria was offering them freedom.

It must have taken some time for the news to sink into their systems. These black people who had never known anything but slights and brutality would henceforth have equality with the white people who used to torment and abuse them. This must have been a truly overwhelming experience for these black people on the plantations. And as they watched their children, (pickney) what kind of hopes and anticipations must have flooded their minds when they realized that henceforth the Africans on this part of the Earth would be born free.

I am sure that one or two perceptive ones might have looked into the future one hundred, a hundred and fifty years, and envisioned that the black majority would take responsibility for the running of the land.

I wonder if they also had any visions about the black majority owning the land on which they and their parents had suffered centuries of oppression and indignity.

When Emancipation came, it ended a dreadful night and ushered in a brilliant morning. And yet, after all these years, there is no suitable memorial of this great event.

Throughout my boyhood the First Monday in August was a public holiday. At no time in my schooling at the Basseterre Boys’ was there even an attempt by any of my teachers to link the public holiday to the fact of Emancipation. What we knew about the first Monday of August was that it was the day for the white and off-white rich people to race their horses at Pond Pasture.

I don’t think it was our teachers’ fault. It was the way of the colonial rulers. They felt that it was inexpedient for black boys and girls in my generation to know that our foreparents were slaves on their estate.

Of course, the white landowners had every reason to observe the day in celebration of the £20 million pounds which they shared up between them as an inducement to free the African slaves.

The time is long overdue when the black majority which our ancestors presaged should have a fitting celebration of that great day, the first of August, Emancipation Day.

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