Emancipation Day in Guyana comes every August 1st and commemorates the abolition of slavery in Guyana in 1834.
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Actually, Guyana shares Emancipation Day with other Caribbean nations that were formerly British colonies. In reality, it was a matter of slavery being abolished within the British Empire, of which Guyana a part at the time, through the efforts of such men as William Wilberforce. Originally, the name of this holiday was “Freedom Day,” but today, the name “Emancipation Day” is usually preferred.
Guyana sits on the northern coast of South America, sandwiched between Suriname and Venezuela and bordering Brazil on the south. It was originally the home of various Indian tribes, but the Dutch started a colony there in the 1500’s. The colony passed back and forth among the Dutch, British, and French several times but finally remained in British hands after they captured it in 1814. It did not become an independent nation until 1966.
Much of Guyana’s colonial population was made up of African slaves brought over to work coastal plantations across some 250 years. There were several major slave revolts in Guyana, but none of them ultimately succeeded.
Once slavery was finally abolished in 1834, Guyana’s economy and social structure underwent radical changes. Many former slaves left the plantations and populated villages outside of Georgetown and the main cities or even ply inland to settle the frontier.
Indentured servants were then brought in from India, China, and Portugal to fill in the labour gap on the plantations. Eventually, however, these new ethnic groups also gained their freedom and moved on to other things. The economy diversified to include gold mining, logging, and a more diverse agricultural sector. Trade with other countries also became freer and more profitable.
Thus, while those of African descent were immediately and most directly impacted by the abolition of slavery, in reality, it touched everyone. The event sent the whole nation in a whole new direction and led to greater cultural diversity as well. This diversity has led Guyana to adopt as its national motto: “One People, One Nation, and One Destiny.”
Those who choose to travel to Guyana for Emancipation Day on August 1st may wish to take part in any of the following activities:
- Listen to the official Emancipation Day speeches delivered by government officials, including the prime minister, as well as at many private organizations. If you cannot attend an event in person, you can still find one on radio or television, and you can also look for programming on the history of Guyana and of the emancipation event.
- Peruse the numerous public exhibits on Emancipation Day themes that are set up in late July until after August 1st. You can also expect to see people dressed up in traditional African attire, which is no longer worn by the vast majority of the population. Those of African descent, and others as well, take the opportunity to dress in clothing from the period of the emancipation, including highly ornate female head wraps that are sure to catch your eye.
- Attend Guyana’s largest Emancipation Day festival, which is held at the National Park in Georgetown, the capital. All day long, you will see the party roll on, hear traditional music played, and see various exhibits of African cultural customs. There are folk games to take part in, crafts for sale, artwork put on display, singing, dancing, and drumming, and delicious African-style food and drink to enjoy.
Being in Guyana for Emancipation Day will expose you to a diverse culture that is not quite like any other found on Earth. There will be an emphasis on African roots and on the history of the emancipation event, but the whole community will be involved in celebrating a turning point in their nation’s history.
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