Emancipation Celebrations In Guyana

Story by Al Creigton

Like all the other English speaking countries in the Caribbean Guyana celebrates the Anniversary of freedom from slavery on Emancipation Day, the first of August, each year. This commemoration of Emancipation is extremely important, not just as a calendar event, but as a factor in the history that meant the beginning of the Guyanese nation. It contributed to several elements of social, political and cultural developments and was responsible for the arrival of the other racial groups who were brought in as indentured immigrants from India, China, Portugal (Madeira), other parts of Europe and Africa to replace the formerly enslaved Africans as the labour force on sugar plantations.

Marking the anniversary also holds significance because of the meaning it has for the people of the region as the end of the institution of slavery and what it stood for in the colonies. It closed an era of dehumanization, retrogressive socialisation, and cultural erosion. On the other hand Emancipation Day has meaning as the outcome of struggle, resistance and sacrifice; standing for freedom, liberation and the resilience of a people. It means the triumph of the African spirit and created the opportunity for the development of the Village Movement which was responsible for the communities and village structure within which the majority of Guyanese live in the modern society.

All these factors come into reckoning during the events surrounding Emancipation Day celebrations in Guyana each year. But Emancipation also meant the triumph of the African spirit and the significance of its anniversary takes on a distinctly African identity. It is an occasion for recalling the significance of all the factors mentioned above, but the people take the opportunity to highlight whatever they can of African cultural vestiges. Several of the African cultural survivals have weakened considerably, disappeared, or are no longer practiced in their original forms, but others are still alive in communities or in normal Guyanese life, and these are colourfully revived or exhibited on the first of August.

There are many public and highly visible exhibitions which mark the celebrations from the end of July. There is a custom in some of the commercial banks, most noticeably, the Republic Bank, and other public offices, for the staff to outfit themselves in African wear on the Eve of Emancipation Day or the last working day before August 1. African fashion, or forms of clothing have not survived in normal life in Guyana and are worn by a very few people, but these garments may be seen being exhibited by large sections of the population during the anniversary period. These include a variety of elaborate female head wraps and African prints.

This is the chosen manner of dress for the majority of persons attending the largest single national event on the day itself, which is the Emancipation Festival at the National Park. This is an all-day affair, starting early in the morning and continuing through the day until nightfall when it transforms itself into an open air party driven by popular music. But the festival is meant to revive, exhibit and highlight African life, culture and customs in a concentrated public space, which is the large expanse of the National Park in Georgetown.

The activities in this festival include demonstrations of folk and village games, the exhibitions and sale of craftwork using African motifs and styles, craftwork and artifacts made out of indigenous material, artwork, drawings and paintings, food with an emphasis on “African” cuisine, indigenous, “local” and “creole” food items and drinks, booths displaying posters, photographs, books and other printed material providing information on history and African affairs. On the main stage in the Park there is an endless series of performances with emphasis on African forms and influences. There is drumming by groups of drummers and solo performers, dances by different groups including the National School of Dance and the National Dance Company performing African and indigenous dance forms, dramatic poetry and dramatisations. While these are done by various Guyanese performers it has become a practice to have indigenous drummers and dancers from neighbouring Surinam appearing as well.

Other events which attempt to recapture past customs include the “Vigils” and “Libation ceremonies” on the night before Emancipation Day. This is usually a very busy night for activities. There is a main central Vigil staged on the forecourt of the National Parliament Buildings during which there are dance performances, drumming, speeches and other presentations which proceed very late into the night. Similar events are held at several other locations around the country, particularly in villages which were bought by freed Africans after emancipation and communities which were part of the post-emancipation Village Movement.

These may be found anywhere, but especially in places with a reputation for the retention of cultural practices surviving since Emancipation such as Queenstown and Dartmouth on the Essequibo Coast, Sandvoort outside of New Amsterdam, Hope Town and Litchfield in West Berbice, Victoria on the East Coast Demerara, Bagotville and Stanleytown on the West Bank Demerara. In these locations the Vigils are often all-night affairs or go on till very late in the night with a continuing series of performances. They are also followed up on Emancipation Day with fun events including traditional games.
An important highlight of the Vigil is the Libation Ceremony which is performed at midnight as a ritual of passage into the first of August. It is also a surviving or revived African ritual of ceremonial offerings, tributes and prayers to the spirits of the ancestors. The details of the ceremony vary from place to place, but it is essentially the pouring of libation, often alcoholic spirits (white rum, but different symbolic liquids may be used by different people) as an offering to the deities for their blessing, protection and guidance, or as thanksgiving for safe passage in the affairs of men. The kind of spirits used is significant because the ritual seeks to invoke the spirits or otherwise communicate with them. It is an old African ritual belonging to the principles of ancestor worship.

On the night of July 31, as well, or some other night close to it, there is a tradition of the holding of “soirees”. This derives from the French soir / soiree and describes an evening or an evening entertainment or fete. Although Guyana is not historically a Francophone country a few French terms exist in common use and “soiree” is one of them, but there has been no known investigation into how it came to be used. Two Guyanese villages in West Berbice are known for the soiree tradition : Hope Town and Litchfield. Here there is a grand street party with drumming, recorded music, sometimes some other performances and recorded music. Festivities proceed through the night, terminating at no specific time in the wee hours of the morning. There is much dancing and drinking.

These are the main public activities through which Guyana commemorates the anniversary of Emancipation each year. Although Emancipation is of defined universal significance and is of interest to the entire nation of Guyana, it is an occasion for the celebration of the country’s African heritage and includes a fair amount of tradition, spectacle, exhibits and performance.