"FREE AT LAST, FREE AT LAST, THANK GOD WE ARE FREE AT LAST!"
As the clock counted down to midnight on July 31st. 183 years ago, thousands of enslaved Africans waited patiently in British Honduras and the British Commonwealth as the planet turned slowly and midnight swept through the Americas moving West one British protectorate at a time. For the enslaved Africans in British Honduras, they would have to wait the longest since British Honduras was the farthest West of the Caribbean British Commonwealth. As they sat patiently waiting, they must have thought about what had transpired 114 years since the first enslaved Africans were brought to British Honduras. For them, the future was uncertain, but they must have been happy to finally be in control of their destiny once and for all.
On 1 August 1834, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. As a condition, enslavers were compensated for their loss of "property". On the other hand, nothing was given to the enslaved population, roughly 1,923 persons in Belize at the time. Instead, the new law stated that all previously enslaved persons were to work for free as apprentices for their former enslavers. The apprenticeship period was initially to last six years but was later shortened to four years, ending in 1838.
Alexander Henderson, a Baptist Pastor describes the Eve of Emancipation on 31 July 1838: "A little before twelve, I went down and found the place filled with people and a greater proportion of slaves. I laid my watch on the table, sitting down silently till twelve when I rose telling them that slavery was no more with them. Then we all fell on our knees and afterwards rose to sing...Gladness dwelt on every countenance." On 1 August 1838, full emancipation was in effect in British Honduras.
Most relevant for these times, excerpt from: A SHORT HISTORY OF BAPTIST MISSIONARY WORK IN BRITISH HONDURAS 1822-1939 BY ROBERT CLEGHORN, O.B.E., J.PAN EVER-MEMORIAL EVENT
Before dwelling on the story of Native Agency, or how God in His providence raised up men right in Belize, “who should be able to teach others,” we shall in this chapter refer to an ever-memorial event – the emancipation of the much injured slaves, on the first of August, 1838. We must not forget that the Baptist in Belize, like the Baptist in Jamaica, were ever loud in their denunciation of slavery.
The writer has frequently heard it said by some of the older inhabitants of the Colony that the slaves in British Honduras had fared better than the slaves in the West Indies, that they were treated more like servants. Perhaps so, and for the following reason, explained in a letter written by George Hyde, Esq., a leading merchant, mahogany cutter and slave owner of Belize, dated as far back as 1825. He says, “As for punishments or ill-usage, you are aware (if ever so desired) we dare not inflict it, so easy is their escape beyond British limits.”
While they were rejoicing in Jamaica and other west India Island, the great event was not unheeded in Belize. Mr. Henderson wrote the Home Committee as follows: “While the ungodly Negroes were celebrating the day in riotous mirth, though without violence, and the late slave-holder was solacing himself with thoughts of compensation, the Mission Church had its method of noticing this important victory of right over might, and of principles over covetousness. The Liberated Christians desired to recognize the hand of God in their deliverance. At the quiet hour of midnight the wide folding doors of our place of worship sent fort their blaze of illumination, and as the last particles were dropping from slavery’s glass the victims of injustice sought the house of God, to render praise and to spend the first hour of freedom in His worship. Oh, it was a solemn season! A little before twelve, I went down and found the place filled with people and the greater proportion slaves. I laid my watch on the table, sitting down quietly till twelve, when I rose, telling them that slavery was no more with them. Then we all fell on our knees and afterwards rose to sing. Oh, what hearty singing! A member, lately a slave, prayed. Again we sang. Another prayed, and again we sang, and continued till after one. Gladness dwelt on every countenance.”
In the afternoon of that auspicious day the scholars were regaled with tea and cakes by the liberated slaves, who alone contributed to the expense. More than 200 children were assembled, feasting and suitably addressed. In the evening there was a meeting for worship which was numerously attended. Mr. Henderson preached an appropriate sermon, and afterwards entertained he teachers and many of he friends of the Mission at his own house.
Thus ended the ever-memorable day of the first of August, 1838.