The Emancipation from Slavery on Corn Islands

August 27 is significant for the people of Great Corn Island and Little Corn Island; it’s the day islanders, near and far from home, remember the liberation of their ancestors, who were enslaved until 1841.

The Corn Islands were first inhabited by the Kukra Indians, who came from the surroundings of the Kukra River and Kukra Hill. Just like other Amerindians, their main source for fishing was harpoons made from wild cane to catch green turtles, crustaceans and other marine animals; they would also plant the grounds to supply their needs. William Dampier, an English privateer, wrote in 1681 that he spotted the Kukra’s after leaving San Andrés and arriving in the Corn Islands in the hope of finding corn. Dampier described the Kukra’s as people who were bare-footed, copper-coloured and naked—except for a loin cloth tied around their waist.

The first Europeans to settle on the Corn Islands during the first demi-decade of the 1700s were of British and Scottish origin, most of them came from other settlements of the United Kingdom in the Caribbean like Jamaica, San Andrés, and Providence. These first settlers, according to historical records, were the Quinn, Downs, Forbes, Nansanks, Brown, Hodgson, Bowden, and Cottrell families. They brought enslaved Africans and people of African origin to the islands to work their plantations and serve in their homes.

Most enslaved tried to escape the lifestyle that was imposed on them, but many failed due to it being impossible to leave the islands. Others were kept working until dying, and some were exchanged for other enslaved people, especially younger ones. Most enslaved females were molested by their so-called masters, giving birth to a child that was later enslaved or kept close to the master—depending on his or her complexion.

The Corn Islands back then were part of the Mosquito Coast, a protectorate that was under British influence, so all English law applied to this region that was later distributed between Honduras, Nicaragua, and Colombia in 1894. On August 1, 1834, Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act, outlawing the owning, buying, and selling of humans as property throughout its colonies and unofficial territories around the world. This news didn’t arrive at the Mosquito Coast until 7 years later.

Early in the morning, on the 27th of August 1841, a military vessel flying the Union Jack anchored at Insurance Harbor, off the shores of Southwest Bay, Great Corn Island. Arriving at the beach was Colonel Alexander McDonald, Superintendent of the United Kingdom in British Honduras—known today as Belize. McDonald, who was accompanied by military men, asked to see all the slave owners on that same beach a few hours later.

In the presence of slave owners and some enslaved people, McDonald read the Proclamation of Emancipation, declaring freedom to 98 men and women on Great Corn Island and Little Corn Island in the name of Queen Victoria I of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Robert Charles Frederick, King of the Mosquito Coast. A document was signed by McDonald, the Mosquito King and slave owners, where the names of each slave and their owners were written. This document also stated that all owners were to receive 25 pounds sterling for each freed slave. This was never fulfilled.

After being announced their freedom, the men and women went to the swamps to catch land crabs and to the fields for breadkind to prepare, later that day, crab soup. They celebrated that evening their liberation, invoking the souls of their ancestors and those that died in these inhuman conditions. They sang and danced that night to the sound of rustic instruments until dawn. Most slaves later left the islands in search of their lost relatives, while others remained and later occupied the properties of who were their masters after they left the islands.

11 years after the emancipation, Reverend Edward Kelly, from British Honduras, arrived at Great Corn Island to establish the Ebenezer Baptist Church and School. He was the son of former slaves and was who instructed the islanders to continue celebrating the freedom of their parents and grandparents. For many years, the emancipation celebration was held by the Ebenezer Baptist Church in North End, and other churches started to do the same.

Since 1980, Emancipation Day has been a public holiday on the Corn Islands, and organized by the local government, where the community takes part in different events such as parades, traditional games and the coronation of Miss Corn Islands.

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