Last Friday saw the coming together of Antigua and Barbuda citizens, friends and well-wishers for a most special occasion, the formal fundraising book launch of Troubling Freedom: Antigua and the aftermath of British Emancipation.
Presided over by newly installed Antigua and Barbuda High Commissioner Dr Karen-Mae Hill who is an attorney and former General Manager at Trium Bank Ltd., the event sought to do two things: first; to shed light on the adverse and generally inhumane conditions suffered by Black slaves in Antigua and Barbuda just prior to emancipation, perpetrated by British colonial land owners; and secondly to raise much needed funds for the All Saints Secondary School Restoration Fund. The All Saints Secondary School was gutted by fire last February.
Introduced by Mrs. Dawn Thomas, youth and development officer for the Antigua and Barbuda National Association for the welcoming remarks, Dr Karen-Mae Hill, Antigua and Barbuda’s only Rhodes Scholar to date, said it was an honour for the Antigua and Barbuda High Commission to partner with the Antigua and Barbuda National Association and Waltham Forest, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica Twinning Association. She said, “the importance of history cannot be over-stated…it is however what we do with the facts of history that determine the real worth of that history to our present existence.” High Commissioner Hill who is a former student of the Foundation Mixed and Antigua Girls’ High schools said, “it is also important to engage the facts of history in such a way that they awaken the social consciousness to contextualize lessons from the past which enable us to avoid present day pitfalls.”
The High Commissioner who is also an accomplished pianist, fluent in French and has a working knowledge of Spanish stressed the event was not only a celebration of scholarship but an opportunity for us to improve economic opportunities for others, more particularly the All Saints Secondary School. She urged attendees to not trivialize the struggles of the past by betraying the freedoms we enjoy today as these freedoms were fought for through the blood sweat and tears of our forefathers and should be preserved at all cost.
Also present were newly installed High Commissioner for Mauritius in London, Mr Girish Nunkoo who assumed the post in London last August 2015; Ms Caribbean UK, Ms Amy Harris-Willock, Minister Counselor for Antigua and Barbuda, Mrs Althea Banahene-Vanderpoole, Ms Tracy Brown, President of the Antigua and Barbuda National Association, Mr Everton George, Chairman of the Waltham Forest, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica Twinning Association, Reverend Les Isaac, OBE, and last but not least Dr. Natasha Lightfoot an associate professor who specializes in slavery and emancipation studies, and black identities, politics, and cultures in the fields of Caribbean, Atlantic World, and African Diaspora History, keynote speaker and author of Troubling Freedom: Antigua and the Aftermath of British Emancipation.
After the national anthem was recited by Ms Linda Carriere and a prayer lead by Reverend Les Isaac there was a rather refreshing interlude of music by Ms. Aurnshel Richards followed by a short address by Mr Everton George, Chairman of the Waltham Forest, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica Twinning Association who gave a brief account of the organization’s work in Antigua and Barbuda while urging the audience to dig deep in support of the fundraising effort to restore the All Saints Secondary School in the twin island state.
The keynote speaker Dr. Natasha Lightfoot was introduced by Antigua and Barbuda National Association PRO Ms. Maxine Isaac. Dr Lightfoot who was born in New York, USA of Antiguan parents thanked the Antigua and Barbuda High Commission for their remarkable hospitality and support and confessed that she could have thought of nowhere ‘more fitting’ to launch the book.
She claimed her many trips to Antigua and Barbuda over the years coupled with her regular interaction with Antiguans in New York were a considerable asset when she entered the PhD program where she specialized in researching ‘African Diaspora in the Americas – the nature and effects of the transatlantic slave trade’. Her research took her to Saint Augustine Campus at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago where she stumbled across an entry in an almanac for the West Indies for the 19th Century in the university’s library archives. The entry alluded to a riot on the island that was supposedly ‘nothing of any political significance’.
This immediately raised alarm bells for Natasha, a career academic with an analytical mind who suspected the entry was a euphemism for what actually happened which she attributes to the ‘incompleteness of freedom’ for the slaves at the time. Her suspicion that there was more, much more to the entry which continued, ‘ jails all over the island were full…and the rioters were causing trouble as a rabble in the streets without having any thoughtful agenda for what caused the situation in the first place‘. Dr Lightfoot said that the way the entry was written convinced her that there was indeed significant political unrest throughout the island and that aroused her curiosity to keep digging.
Dr Lightfoot contends the ‘incompleteness of freedom’ which she suggests was a combination of the British government’s narrow and troubling concept of freedom which demanded free slaves’ strict adherence and obedience to all laws and willingness to return to the plantation for very low wages; juxtaposed with the ex-slaves’ constant troubling internal conflict about whether the British government’s idea of freedom can be expanded to make their lives better including better working conditions, sparked the riots. The dichotomy of these two ‘troubling’ scenarios is, in essence, the basis on which the title of the book was chosen.
In focusing the study on Antigua and Barbuda Dr Lightfoot recognised the uniqueness of the island relative to the size of the Greater Antilles islands (Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Puerto Rico and so on) that benefit from scholarship grants for post emancipation countries of the Americas. She asserts that given the tiny size of the island and the fact that the former colony was not agriculturally diversified with all available land carved out for production, large numbers of former slaves were hard-pressed to unhinge themselves from sugar estates in an effort to pursue a new and fulfilling life 25 years after emancipation. Natasha pointed out that these constraints prevented free slaves of Antigua and Barbuda from what she described as ‘the big things associated with freedom,’ such as opportunities to be a part of the political process (vote), own land and aspire to obtain a decent education. This reduced mobility and lack of opportunity would have inadvertently forced the new freed population to look forward to and cherish the small things associated with new found freedom such as engaging in social groups, story telling, community gatherings and so on.
Dr Lightfoot spoke of the unfair decision of the British government to compensate the slave owners for the economic loss they would incur to the cumulative tune of £20,000,000.00 and render NOT a penny to the slaves for their suffering through enslavement. She mentioned how the British government was adamant to suppress and continually exploit the now freed Black population on Antigua and Barbuda by introducing the ‘Contract Act’ enacted months after emancipation in 1832 and governed the lives and activities of free slaves for the next 100 years.
She said violence is critical to the fabric of life of a slave on the plantation and that violence is the language of power. Natasha believes, slaves must have felt, the ability to enact violence was a large part of what it meant to be free.
Dr Lightfoot ends her presentation by establishing that the 1858 riot in Antigua was an essential part of a huge continuum of post slavery societies across the Caribbean from 1834 to the end of the 19th century where ex-slaves were very unhappy with freedom and waged riots, uprisings or strikes on every single British territory in the Caribbean. She reminds the gathering that the story she tells from her research is not triumphant in any way as the account of Antigua’s working class people after slavery gets worse before it gets better. But she believes it is important for the world to know the richness of this history of struggle to show how far the people of Antigua and Barbuda and the wider Caribbean of former British colonies have come.
Musical selections were done throughout the presentation by Maxine Sparkles and Launee Richards. The vote of thanks was delivered by reigning Ms Caribbean UK, Ms Amy Harris-Willock which was followed by music by Nite Blues Steelband, networking and refreshments. The vote of thanks was delivered by reigning Ms Caribbean UK, Ms Amy Harris-Willock which was followed by music by Nite Blues Steelband, networking and refreshments.
See Dr Lightfoot’s profile and awards:
Natasha Lightfoot, associate professor, specializes in slavery and emancipation studies, and black identities, politics, and cultures in the fields of Caribbean, Atlantic World, and African Diaspora History. Her book Troubling Freedom: Antigua and the Aftermath of British Emancipation focuses on black working class people’s everyday forms of freedom in Antigua after emancipation.
- Scholar in Residence, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, Spring 2013
- Ford Foundation/National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship, 2012-2013
- Society for Caribbean Studies UK Postdoctoral Essay Prize, “Their Coats Were Tied Up Like Men,” July 2009
- Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Abolition and Resistance Post-Doctoral Fellowship, Yale University, 2008 [in residence May 2009]
- Kate B. and Hall J. Peterson Fellowship, The American Antiquarian Society, 2006
- Henry Mitchell MacCracken Fellowship, New York University, 2000-2005
- Dean’s Fellowship, New York University, 2000-2005
- Tinker Grant for Caribbean Field Research, New York University, 2002. Source: Colombia University
In 1834 Antigua became the only British colony in the Caribbean to move directly from slavery to full emancipation. Immediate freedom, however, did not live up to its promise, as it did not guarantee any level of stability or autonomy, and the implementation of new forms of coercion and control made it, in many ways, indistinguishable from slavery. In Troubling Freedom Natasha Lightfoot tells the story of how Antigua’s newly freed black working people struggled to realize freedom in their everyday lives, prior to and in the decades following emancipation. She presents freedpeople’s efforts to form an efficient workforce, acquire property, secure housing, worship, and build independent communities in response to elite prescriptions for acceptable behavior and oppression. Despite its continued efforts, Antigua’s black population failed to convince whites that its members were worthy of full economic and political inclusion. By highlighting the diverse ways freedpeople defined and created freedom through quotidian acts of survival and occasional uprisings, Lightfoot complicates conceptions of freedom and the general narrative that landlessness was the primary constraint for newly emancipated slaves in the Caribbean. Source: Amazon Article and photography by David F. Roberts