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Emancipation Day - 175 Years since the End of "Official" Slavery in the British Empire

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

There is a bit of extra celebrating in some African Nova Scotian communities this August long weekend.

The weekend – which holds no particular significance in much of Canada, except to give Canadians a holiday in mid-summer – falls on August 1st this year, the date on which the British Parliament officially abolished slavery throughout the British Empire in 1834.

In Nova Scotia, then claimed by Great Britain (despite thousands of years of continuous Mi’kmaq settlement) there were “very few slaves…who had not already obtained their legal freedom” by this date, according to the Black Cultural Centre of Nova Scotia (BCCNS), as the result of a series of legal decisions in Great Britain as well as “a combination of factors that made slavery uneconomic.”

In many Caribbean countries the date is celebrated as Emancipation Day, often as part of Caribbean carnival, which takes place in August.

In Halifax, as part of Natal Day* festivities, there is a concert at Queen’s Landing on the Halifax Waterfront featuring a number of prominent and up-and-coming African Nova Scotian artists, including Gary Beals, Hellafactz, Asia and Nu Gruv, and U-Soul.

Partial victory?

Although the Slavery Abolition Act was no doubt significant – 781,000 slaves were freed throughout the Empire, says the BCCNS – it’s worth noting the many caveats that went along with this legislation.

All slaves except those under the age of six (!) did not gain substantive freedom; rather, they were forced to work as unpaid “apprentices” to their masters, doing the same work under the same conditions, for up to six years.

As well, while freed slaves did not receive any compensation for their hardships, slaveowners were entitled under the law to compensation for loss of their “property”. In all, the British government awarded 20 million pounds to slave owners as a result of the Act.

Remnants of the past

Still, the Black Cultural Centre notes that surviving slavery made African Nova Scotians a “strong people, empowered to rise above racism.”

Interestingly, this past week also saw initial run of the “Slavery Tour” at the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton, acknowledging the 358 slaves who served French officers and their families in 18th-century Nova Scotia.

*Ostensibly to celebrate the "birth" of Halifax and Nova Scotia.

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