August 1st is a national holiday in Saint Lucia to commemorate Emancipation Day. In 1998, UNESCO designated 23 August as International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its abolition. These are not occasions for celebration but for reflection.

The islands of the West Indies were inhabited before the slave trade affected their population but the number of souls brought to the Caribbean from West and Central Africa had a major impact on the demographics of the region.

Slavery had been practiced in some parts of Africa for centuries before the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade. Africans captured people from neighbouring ethnic groups, by kidnapping and in warfare, and exported them to other African states, to Europe and to Asia.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to ply the Transatlantic slave trade triangle, in 1526, with the British, French, Spanish and Dutch following suit. These nations had established outposts on the African coast where they purchased slaves from local African kings and merchants. Shipowners regarded the slaves as cargo to be transported to the New World as quickly and cheaply as possible. The slaves who survived the tough crossing were sold at markets as labour for the plantations growing coffee, tobacco, cocoa, sugar and cotton, and to work in mines, construction and as domestic servants. The numbers will never be known for sure but it is believed that some 12 million Africans were sold as slaves in the New World.

From the West Indies the main export cargoes were sugar, molasses, rum and cotton. These were sold in Europe and the profits used to purchase manufactured items, cloth and guns which were transported down to Africa where the cycle of bartering and sale recommenced.

Whilst some merchants made huge profits from the slave trade, many citizens were repulsed by the practice of dealing in human lives. In Britain and America, opposition to the trade was led by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), by Women’s Groups and Societies, and by Evangelicals such as William Wilberforce in England who campaigned vociferously in the late 18th century.

In 1778, the state of Virginia, under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, became one of the first jurisdictions anywhere to stop the importation of slaves for sale. In 1807 the United States Congress outlawed the importation of slaves (but not its internal slave trade). In the UK, the Slave Trade Act 1807 abolished the slave trade throughout most of the British Colonies but did not abolish slavery itself; that was achieved with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 which came into effect on 1st August, 1834. This provided for a transition period of four years during which slaves continued to work for their former owners but as apprentices. Full emancipation was attained on 1st August, 1838.

The last country to ban the Atlantic slave trade was Brazil in 1831 although illegal trade continued. Slavery persisted within Brazil until 1888, making it the last country in the Americas to end involuntary servitude.

On 1 August 1985 Trinidad and Tobago became the first country in the world to declare a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery. Various islands in the Caribbean observe Emancipation Day early in August; Saint Lucia has chosen 1st August. In 2008, the Province of Ontario in Canada dedicated 1st August as “Emancipation Day” and, on different dates, it is recognised in a number of US States and countries around the world.