Caribbean Independence Days
WHAT IS AN INDEPENDENCE DAY?
An Independence Day is an annual event where a nation celebrates its independence from another nation or state. For the Caribbean nations listed below, independence from the British colonial empire is celebrated. Independence Day celebrations can include nationwide events such as festivals, street dances, concerts, parades and fireworks. People often wear clothing and accessories that prominently feature the nation’s flag or traditional dress. Caribbean independence days are celebrated all over the world, for example in the UK people of Caribbean descent or from the Windrush Generation will celebrate their country’s independence with events, parties and displaying the nation’s flag.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CARIBBEAN - FROM COLONY TO INDEPENDENT
The Caribbean region was colonised by European nations in the 17th & 18th century. Using enslaved African labour, they introduced a plantation economy to the region, mainly based on sugar, but also rum, cotton, coffee and cocoa. Most Caribbean countries were under colonial rule even after the abolition of slavery. However, it must be noted that Haiti, a former French colony, was the first Caribbean nation to gain independence from a European power in 1803, even before the French abolition of slavery. This was after what is known as the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere from 1791 to 1803 (see the links at the end of this post to learn more about it). This is not to say enslaved people from other Caribbean nations did not revolt, there were constant revolts in British ruled nations until emancipation in 1834 including in 1760s Jamaica, 1790s Grenada and 1810s Barbados.
The British slave trade officially ended in 1807, so buying and selling of African people was made illegal. Slavery itself ended in the British Caribbean on 1 August 1834. After this date, a period of apprenticeship was introduced on some Caribbean islands where previously enslaved people were forced to work as apprentices for their old masters, so it can be argued that enslavement was not ended until 1838 when the apprenticeship system ended. Even after this time, life was hard for previously enslaved people as they received no compensation and their interests weren’t represented in the law. Indentured labourers from China and India were bought to the Caribbean region after slavery to fill in the labour void on plantations. The indentured labour system was grossly abused, and labourers were forced to endure long working days, heavy workload and poor housing. This system was not abolished until the early 20th century. After this, people of African, Indian and Chinese descent still continued to struggle to own land and build their communities.
In the earlier part of the 20th century, some Caribbean people served with British armed forces with other members of the British Empire in the First World War. At first, volunteers were rejected by the British authorities but as the war continued, the authorities began to accept them but gave them menial jobs. Caribbean men and women also responded from calls from Britain in the Second World War as many felt they had a patriotic duty to the ‘Mother Country’.
In 1958, after the end of WW2, several of the British controlled Caribbean territories were joined in the West Indies Federation to create political unity. The territories that were part of the West Indies Federation included Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, St Vincent, Antigua and Barbuda and St-Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla (also known as Saint Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla). During its brief existence, between 1958 and 1962, the federation faced many problems. The territories disagreed over the structure of the federation, specific policies and many of the territories were unwilling to give up control to the Federal Government.
The West Indies Federation collapsed in 1962, after the withdrawal of its biggest member Jamaica. After a national referendum in Jamaica which resulted in the decision to leave the federation, there began a movement in Jamaica to gain independence from Britain which it did in 1962. Trinidad and Tobago followed closely behind, also gaining independence in 1962. The other nations, as listed below, also gained independence throughout the following years until 1983, when St Kitts and Nevis gained independence. Today, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands still remains British overseas territories.
LIST OF CARIBBEAN INDEPENDENCE DAYS
The list below details the independence days from Caribbean nations (in alphabetical order) that were once part of the British colonial empire:
Antigua and Barbuda
Antigua and Barbuda gained independence on 1 November 1981, after more than 350 years of British rule.
Bahamian Independence Day is celebrated on July 10 each year. The Bahamas became a free and sovereign country on 10 July 1973, ending around 325 years of British rule.
November 30 is a national holiday in Barbados as it celebrates the nation achieving independence from Britain on 30 November 1966.
Although not usually included as part of the geographical West Indies (it is located in Central America) it is also considered a Caribbean country as it’s east coast faces the Caribbean Sea, and its history is very similar to that of other Caribbean Islands having been ruled by the British for over 200 years. Belize became an independent nation on 21 September 1981.
Dominica gained independence on 3 November 1978 as a republic within the Commonwealth. It is officially known as the Commonwealth of Dominica.
Grenada became fully independent on the 7 February 1974. An interesting fact about Grenada’s Independence Day is that it was celebrated by candlelight as employees of the local electricity company were on strike.
Guyana is located in the northern part of South America, however, it is considered part of the Caribbean due to its cultural and political ties with other Caribbean nations. Guyana was formerly known as British Guiana before independence. Guyana gained independence on 26 May 1966.
Jamaica was the first Caribbean nation to withdraw from the West Indies Federation. The Union Jack was ceremonially lowered and replaced by the Jamaican flag throughout the country on 6 August 1962, when Jamaica gained its independence. The 6 August is now a national holiday in Jamaica. The Cayman Islands, which was once a dependent of Jamaica, reverted to British rule upon Jamaica’s independence in 1962.
St Kitts and Nevis
St-Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla (also known as Saint Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla) was a British colony from around 1882 to 1983. It included the islands Nevis, St Kitts (St Christopher) and also the island of Anguilla until 1980. St Kitts and Nevis gained independence on 19 September 1983, whilst Anguilla remains a British overseas territory.
The island of St Lucia has been much fought over throughout history, especially by the French and British. But on 22 February 1979 St Lucia gained its independence from Britain. 22 February is now a national holiday in St Lucia.
St Vincent and the Grenadines
After the collapse of the West Indies Federation, some Eastern Caribbean nations attempted to set up a smaller federation, but this was unsuccessful. Following a referendum, St Vincent and the Grenadines became the last Windward Island to gain independence on 27 October 1979.
Trinidad & Tobago
The Trinidad and Tobago flag was raised for the first time on 31 August 1962 as they gained independence from Britain. Across the country, independence was celebrated with more than a week of festivities in 1962.
Sources and Further Reading:
1. The West Indies Federation - Read more
2. Haitian Revolution - Read more
3. Let’s stop erasing the history of Caribbean indentured labour - Read more
4. Caribbean Histories Revealed - Read more
5. How did the heroes of the Caribbean help win the war? - Read more
6. Independence in the Caribbean - Read more
7. Images from Unsplash - S Kelly, Anita Denunzio & Phil Hauser