Changing antiquated laws

In the 1980s, Morris Cargill, the late newspaper columnist in Jamaica, tells of his attempt to pay a traffic fine issued to him for a parking violation in Downtown Kingston, the island’s capital. Not being clear what to do, he went to a police station to inquire and possibly, to pay. The police officers, he said, laughed in his face, humorously mocking him for wasting his time and theirs in trying to settle the $4 ticket.

With that story by Morris Cargill in the back of my head, I too was issued a parking violation ticket in the Parade Area of Downton Kingston not very long after. The female officer told me I could avoid being ticketed if I gave her $20 for lunch. Averse to bribes, and knowing that this was far more than a traffic ticket that I may not even have to pay, I refused. Becoming highly irate, she wrote me up, threw the ticket at me, and, with a few choice, colorful Jamaican words, walked off in a huff.

In less than a decade, the government belatedly recognized what a goldmine traffic violations are and responded with a vengeance. The fines can be steep for certain traffic offences in Jamaica today, worse if it goes to court. The pretense that traffic fines are anything but a money-making scheme was exemplified by a police corporal in Water Square, Falmouth, some years ago. “I’m tryin’ to earn the government some money,” he shouted to a friend who had hailed him from a passing car, holding aloft the book of traffic tickets in his hand.

Up to when the government realized it was missing out on millions due to antiquated traffic fines, laws concerning road traffic violations had not changed much, if any, since Jamaica’s independence in 1962. Other antiquated laws remain on the books, while others were only changed in recent years.

For instance, some laws against flogging and whipping convicted persons were repealed or amended only in March 2013. Among the offences that no longer call for flogging and whipping are obeah (voodoo), larceny and “an offence against a female or a child.”

The 1898 Obeah Laws state that anyone found guilty of the practice of obeah “shall be liable to imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for a period not exceeding 12 months, and in addition thereto, or in lieu thereof, to whipping.” The 2013 change, while not legalizing or decriminalizing obeah, amended the Obeah Act to abolish whipping.

The 2013 Act to Amend the Larceny Act abolished “whipping as a penalty for certain criminal offences; and for connected matters.”

The infamous cat-o-nine-tails used on errant soldiers, seamen and convicted civilians

The Crime (Prevention Of) Act of 1942 distinguished between flogging and whipping. “‘Flogging’ means corporal punishment administered with a cat-o’-nine-tails,” while “‘whipping’ means corporal punishment administered with a tamarind switch.”

The “cat,” a plaited rope with nine strands or thongs, was used in the British navy and army to flog errant seamen and soldiers and became standard punishment for civilians who violated criminal or even civil law in British colonies. It was applied to the back. The tamarind (tambran) switch comprised three strands from the tamarind tree, and the whipping was applied to the naked behind.

Though flogging and whipping were still on the books, it appears they had long gone out of practice as judges did not pass such sentences, which were originally reserved for male offenders. The clause referred specifically to “any male person who, on or after the date of the coming into operation of this Act, is convicted before any court.”

Among the laws getting attention now are those related to ganja (marijuana). While Rastafarians and others have long lobbied for these laws to be repealed, it is the decisions of the Barack Obama Administration in the United States that, more than anything else, spurred action on the subject. The US Federal government under Obama made a formal decision to turn a blind eye to states that legalized the use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes. Enterprising Jamaicans are seeking to capitalize and the Jamaican government is following suit.

In March 2015, An Act to Amend the Dangerous Drugs Act was signed into law:

so as to provide for, among other things, the modification of penalties for the possession of ganja in specified small quantities and the smoking of ganja in specified circumstances, and for a scheme of licences, permits and other authorizations for medical, therapeutic or scientific purposes.

This changed a 1913 law making the cultivation, use or possession of ganja illegal. Persons caught with even a small quantity faced a lengthy prison sentence. Rastas may now utilize ganja in worship as the 2015 law allows its use for “religious purposes as a sacrament in adherence to the Rastafarian faith.” Its use is allowed for “medical or therapeutic purposes” and for “the purposes of scientific research.”

Ganja may even be grown “on lands designated by the Minister” and can be imported “from any jurisdiction where the exportation of such plant or part thereof to Jamaica is lawful under the laws of that jurisdiction.”

There are complaints that Jamaica needs to update, amend or repeal laws on obeah, rape, abortion, prostitution, rights of gays and lesbians, blasphemy, defamation, and land tenureship and ownership, among many others.

As an example, it is difficult for a man to be charged for marital rape if the following do not apply: they are separated, are undergoing divorce proceedings, a court injunction is held against him, or if he has a known sexual disease. If the law is interpreted strictly as written, he cannot be charged for rape if he forces himself on her otherwise. Leanne Levers echoes the law’s critics. “This reinforces the archaic, sexist view of women as the property of men and promulgates the acceptance of normalization of violence against women.”

Usually, government amends or changes laws only when its hands are forced, or when it sees opportunities to increase revenue. Otherwise, most laws, no matter how antiquated, outdated or irrelevant, may remain on the books. It is the responsibility of civil society to know what the laws are and to agitate for change.

Eron Henry’s article, Broadening the mind, freeing the spirit, is under consideration for the 2017 NUHA Foundation Blogging Prize. He is author of Reverend Mother, a novel.

Jamaica at war

The British Royal Navy Ship, HMS Jamaica, at anchor in 1943

Like they did during World War I, Jamaica and Jamaicans were full participants in the Second World War, including making significant monetary contributions. By 1941, the British colony had raised enough money from public donations to buy 12 light bomber aircrafts. One Royal Navy Ship was named after the island, the HMS Jamaica.

Britain agreed for the United States to establish two military bases on the island, Vernamfield Air Base in the parish of Clarendon and Goat Island Naval Base near Hellshire, St. Catherine. These two bases accommodated about 10,000 American troops.

Saba Igbe asserted that at both Vernamfield and Goat Island, there were “British, Canadian, and local forces—all mingling with European refugees, celebrities, and perhaps even a German spy or two.”

Indications are that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of American President Franklyn Delano Roosevelt, and entertainers Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., traveled to Jamaica to encourage and entertain the American troops.

Igbe said “German U-boats were active in the Caribbean, hunting ships crossing the Panama Canal.” She claimed, “there were a few instances of U-boat crews slipping onto the island for a bit of fun at Kingston’s famed nightspot, the Glass Bucket Club.”

What is now the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI) served as a refugee camp for Europeans from Gibraltar. Igbe, who attended classes at Mona years later, said:

In 1940, Britain feared that Spain would take over Gibraltar and decided to evacuate the entire civilian population. Most evacuees ended up in England; those destined for Jamaica began arriving in Kingston in October 1940. By the war’s end, Kingston’s Gibraltar Camp held nearly 2,000 civilians, including some refugees from Poland, Lithuania, and other parts of Europe. The evacuees were housed in wooden buildings that are still intact and functional. Today these buildings, contrasting starkly with the contemporary lecture rooms and offices, are exam rooms for students. I had taken tests in them myself, not knowing why a relatively new university maintained wooden structures from a bygone era.

Jews were also sent to Jamaica. David Regev discovered “the unknown rescue story of 260 Jews who were rescued from bleeding Europe in 1942, in the middle of World War II, and sent to a camp in Jamaica. They spent three years there.”

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) in January 1942 suggested that 180 of the 260 were Polish Jews stranded in Portugal. Their situation was dire. “By 1941 it was clear that, among the refugees, it was Jews who were exposed to the most severe danger, and yet no country outside of Europe was willing to issue visas to them and even Britain refused entry,” wrote Tomasz Potworowski.

JTA said their Jamaican rescue was “made possible through the collaboration of the Joint Distribution Committee with the British and Polish governments.” If Jamaica had not been accommodating, they “would have remained stranded if the JDC had not come to their help because all previous efforts to secure overseas visas for them had failed.”

Regev said that “at the end of the war the camp was dismantled, and its refugees were scattered all over…. Testimonies and documents found later on reveal that most of them immigrated to South American and to the United States and a small number of them reached Europe.”

In addition to the refugee camp up at Mona and elsewhere, there were internment camps as well. German Prisoners of War were held at what is now Independence Park – Jamaica’s National Stadium and National Arena – as well as at military bases at UP Park Camp in St. Andrew and Newcastle in the foothills of the Blue Mountains.

There is an interesting anecdote reported on Jamaican Family Search of one prisoner at Up Park Camp. “Amongst those prisoners was a Jewish doctor who was captured in North Africa. He was able to convince the authorities that he was not a Nazi and was allowed to practice medicine at the Kingston Public Hospital.”

One uncertain piece of evidence suggests there may have been an internment camp for women. Thomas Foster reports:

The evidence presented by one letter from Jamaica to the U.S.A., where it was received on June 19th, 1941, suggests that a camp existed but its whereabouts cannot be traced and servicemen in the island at that time have no recollection of its existence. The letter is inscribed on the reverse with a return address at the “Women’s Internment Camp” and carries a strike of the postal censor hand-stamp type M-PC2 in violet ink.

jamaican women- WWII
Jamaican women who served in the Second World War

Thousands of Jamaicans served directly as servicemen and women during the war (at least 100 Jamaican women), many fighting in Europe and the Middle East while others provided support services. Jamaicans were linked to the No. 139 Royal Air Force Squadron and provided the bulk of the 16,000 West Indians who volunteered to serve directly under the British, while upwards of 40,000 West Indians helped the war effort in the United States. According to the Memorial Gates Trust, these persons from the British Caribbean served in a variety of roles:

Around 6,000 West Indians served with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force, in roles from fighter pilots to bomb aimers, air gunners to ground staff and administration. Thousands of West Indian seamen made their contributions in one of the Second World War’s most dangerous services, the Merchant Navy – one-third of all merchant seamen were to die during the war. One thousand volunteers for army service were formed into the Caribbean Regiment, which went overseas in 1944 and saw service in the Middle East and Italy. In addition, West Indians served in the Royal Engineers as highly skilled technicians. Upwards of 40,000 West Indians opted to join the various branches of the civilian war effort in the United States.

Compared to the First World War, the Second was less traumatic in loss of life and injury. About 15,600 from the Caribbean joined the armed forces during WWI and a similar number, about 16,000, enlisted in the Second. Roughly 1,200 were reportedly killed in WWI while 236 were reported killed or missing in Two. About 2,500 were wounded in the First and 265 in the Second. At the end of WWI, the British government refused recognition to those who fought; 103 received decorations after WWII.

Yet, consistent with the experiences of Jamaicans who served during WWI, there was dissatisfaction with the treatment received during and after the Second World War. “They fought against Hitler and helped rebuild Britain – yet the contributions of thousands of men and women from Caribbean colonies during World War Two have been largely forgotten,” wrote Claire Brennan of BBC News. Those who stayed in Britain after the war “struggled to adapt to Britain’s cold climate and had to fend off racial prejudice… Despite their countless sacrifices, some veterans feel their war time experiences have been forgotten and have spent their lifetimes fighting for equality.”

Soldiers who returned to the Caribbean added to the fervor for self-government and self-determination, adding to the fuel already lit by older military veterans resentful of their treatment after WWI ended.

Among those radicalized upon returning to Jamaica was Rhodes Scholar, Dudley Thompson, an RAF pilot during the war who became a lawyer, minister of government and ambassador. These military veterans found their way into the  fledgling labor movement and the nascent political parties where their experiences proved useful and their resentment spilled over into policies and actions.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Jamaica’s great war

West India Regiment
The West India Regiment at the outbreak of World War I. Photo courtesy of the West India Committee

Jamaica, like other British colonies, could not escape the effects of war whenever the English, as was their wont, got caught up in conflicts.

Not only did Jamaicans provide support and served during World War I, referred to as the Great War and which raged 1914-1918, there was a prisoner of war camp on the island as well. British historian, Jeffrey Green, alleged that German officers captured during the war “were shipped to Jamaica where, with German and Austrian businessmen who had settled on the island, they were interned at the army camp at Up Park Camp near Kingston.”

Green recounted the following related directly to him by Leslie Thompson, a junior bandsman in the British West India Regiment stationed at Up Park Camp barracks, about German and Austrian prisoners of war on the island:

He recalled that there were eight or nine officers there, and they had a piano and a violin. One named Straumann was “a fine violinist” and he helped the Jamaican musicians. “Time was nothing to him.” One or two of the others helped too, surely only too pleased to spend time constructively.

Jamaicans made direct and indirect contributions to the war effort. “A sum of £10,000 was voted for defence purposes and a gift of 1,300 tons or £50,000 worth of sugar was shipped to England in 1915. Jamaica also supplied England with cash to purchase airplanes and motor ambulances,” wrote Dalea Bean of the University of the West Indies. “Through the work of Jamaican women, gifts of cash and kind were shipped to England throughout the war, including more than £80,000 in cash, walking sticks, cigarettes, cases of homemade woollen clothing and bedding and non-perishable food items.”

Thousands of Jamaicans served in the BWIR. Chris Baker indicated that “a total of 397 officers and 15,204 men, representing all Caribbean colonies, served in the BWIR. Of the total, 10,280 (66%) came from Jamaica.” They served both in the Middle East and in Europe.

These soldiers experienced deep racism. In Tracing Your Caribbean Ancestors: A National Archives Guide, Guy Grannum recounted:

Following the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 many West Indians left the colonies to enlist in the army in the UK and were recruited into British regiments. However, the War Office was concerned with the number of black soldiers in the army and tried to prevent any people from the West Indies enlisting. Indeed, the War Office threatened to repatriate any who arrived. Eventually, after much discussion between the Colonial Office and the War Office, and the intervention of King George V, approval to raise a West Indian contingent was given on 19 May 1915. On 26 October 1915 the British West Indies Regiment was established.

According to Andreas Persson, there was great discontent among British forces as the war wore on. “Mutiny was widespread during the final years of the war as the conflict dragged on and then as demobilisation was sluggishly executed.”

Members of the BWIR mutinied as well. Persson said “the war for the Caribbean lasted for three years, and while the home front was sheltered from the worst effects of the conflict, the men on the ground in Europe and the Middle East experienced hardship and injustice. In 1918 the soldiers of the BWIR mutinied.”

James Ferguson, writing in Caribbean Beat, explained that an incident in Italy was pivotal. “Resentment came to a head in a mutiny after Armistice Day in 1918, when eight BWIR battalions in Taranto, Italy, were ordered to unload ships and perform other heavy work. When they refused, fighting broke out, and sixty men were eventually tried for mutiny, with one shot by firing squad.”

Persson said BWIR service men received harsher treatment than white soldiers who also mutinied:

The great difference between the BWIR mutiny and others rest with the repercussions, the actions of the government were drastic. The authorities decided that as an extra punishment, the men would be excluded from the Victory Parade in London and were not allowed to be publicly welcomed on their return to the Colonies. No commemorations at home or abroad, they were to return to the West Indies and back to colonial life.

West India Regiment 2
Jamaican members of the West India Regiment. Photo courtesy of the West India Committee

Caribbean soldiers had paid a heavy price fighting in the war and they felt they did not receive the respect, and more, that they deserved. “Although precise figures are hard to come by, it is thought that about one thousand men from the Caribbean died in the war, with a further three thousand wounded,” Ferguson said.

It was especially galling because Jamaican and other Caribbean young men signed on to serve with great enthusiasm. Simon Rogers asserted that “enthusiasm for the battle was widespread across the Caribbean. While some declared it a white man’s war, leaders and thinkers such as the Jamaican Marcus Garvey said young men from the islands should fight in order to prove their loyalty and to be treated as equals.”

Persson implied that the treatment meted out to Jamaicans and their peers from the Caribbean laid the groundwork for Caribbean struggle for self-determination:

Such a harsh psychological chastisement was indeed severe but so was the resentment that grew in reaction. The mutiny was the culmination of years of mismanagement and mistreatment, but was also the beginning of Caribbean anti-colonial sentiment. The authorities were fearful of the potential destabilisation that emboldened soldiers could bring to the status quo in the region. It was an act of preservation: the stability of the British Empire was paramount.

Ferguson agreed with Persson’s assertion on the longer-term consequences of mistreatment of Caribbean soldiers during the war. “Many returned to the Caribbean, disillusioned and sometimes wounded, thwarted in their attempt to start a new life and escape poverty. This sense of injustice would be a major factor in the growing radicalisation that eventually led to self-rule and independence.”

After expending much blood and sweat, Caribbean soldiers who returned after the war were left stranded with no means of support. Glenford Howe said:

In Jamaica the men were usually given a few shillings, a cheap suit of clothes and free railway transport to their home, but because of transportation problems some had to remain in Kingston for several days. This exhausted their money even before they actually left for home. The situation created major dissatisfaction because many had no other form of support. Having relinquished their jobs to fight for King and Country these men were left to experience destitution and poverty.

The treatment of Caribbean soldiers who fought on the behalf of and in the name of Britain is testament to what neglect does. Not for the first or last time, such neglect and abuse led to resentment, which in turn led to revolution, planting the seed for throwing off imperialistic dominance.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Ganja, banks and partner plans

Depiction  of an early family in Sligoville, St. Catherine, the first Free Village established in Jamaica in 1835.

One eminent Jamaican intellectual, long since deceased, made the case as to why the growing and exporting of ganja (marijuana) took off in Jamaica in the 1970s. While the greed of growers and exporters was an obvious factor, the incestuous relationship between Jamaican banks (most of them local operations of foreign corporations) and local business elites was also a driving force.

According to this university professor, the same people who formed and led Jamaican large companies and conglomerates were the same ones who sat on the boards of local banks. Their self-interest was a deterrent to new entrants not only in the markets they operated, but into other, highly lucrative areas as well.

Stories circulated of branch bank managers turning down business loan applications because they knew managing directors and general managers at headquarters, who must answer to their boards, would not approve. Accusations were thrown about that after denying business loan applications, the bank managers and leaders themselves, or their cohorts, established businesses based on the very proposals they denied.

Having been shut out of the formal credit sector, enterprising Jamaican businessmen (and a few women) looked elsewhere. Ganja became the source of choice to obtain funding for business. It is alleged that several respectable companies in Jamaica today, big and small, were started with ganja money.

To the extent the above account is true, it demonstrates the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Jamaicans to “beat the system” and get ahead. Indeed, beating the system became a Jamaican virtue, for the system was seen as both corrupt and oppressive against those who were of the “lower classes” who had no “connections” and no wealth.

Most Jamaicans would not walk into a commercial bank to ask for a loan. Some fear debt, but for others, it was a perception that formal credit from the commercial banking sector was not meant for them, that their requests or applications would not be taken seriously and would ultimately be denied.

The government of the 1970s began to make it easier for ordinary Jamaicans to access loans. It established the Workers Savings and Loan Bank in 1973. British-operated Barclays Bank was nationalized and became National Commercial Bank in 1977. National Housing Trust was founded in 1976 specifically for house and land purchase.

Before then, it was left to enterprising individuals, groups and churches to enable Jamaicans to obtain credit. Among the first to establish the semblance of a credit system were the churches in the wake of full emancipation in 1838. Led by the Baptists and the Moravians, Free Villages were established in rural Jamaica. Pastors and churches bought estates and portions thereof, cut these into smaller lots, and sold them at heavily discounted rates to the newly released slaves. Towns and communities such as Sligoville and Kitson Town in St. Catherine, Albert Town, Granville and Refuge in Trelawny, Goodwill, Mount Carey and Salters Hill in St. James, and Buxton, Clarksonville and Sturge Town in St. Ann, all began as Free Villages.

Devon Dick in his book, Rebellion to Riot, points out that “The Reverend W.G. Gardner founded the first building society, Kingston Benefit Building Society, in 1834.” According to the 1875 Jamaica Almanac, the society was formed “to provide freehold houses for its members and improved dwellings for the working classes.” Similarly, the Almanac reported that the Westmoreland Building Society was established in January 1874 at the instigation of the Rev. Henry Clarke “for the purpose of Providing, Repairing, or Improving freehold houses for its members.” Building societies were formed in other parishes including St. James, Trelawny and St. Ann. Most have since been folded into what is now the Jamaica National Building Society, the largest of its kind on the island.

Peoples cooperative banks, among other things, provided loans and credit to the agricultural sector.  According to a paper for the Bank of Jamaica by Gail Lue Lim, “the first People’s Cooperative bank was established in Christiana, Manchester (rural Jamaica) on 19 April 1905.”

barclays bank note - Jamaica
A ten pound bank note, issued by Barclays Bank in Jamaica in 1937.

About a century after the formation of the first building society, the credit union movement began in Jamaica in 1941. According to Devon Dick, credit unions helped “ensure financial security for workers, and provide a source from which they might borrow money at a low interest rate.” As in the case of Free Villages and building societies, the church pioneered the founding of credit unions in Jamaica. Inspired by Father John Peter Sullivan, the Jamaica Cooperative Credit Union League was created in July 1942 and by 1944, “the Roman Catholics had 178 Credit Union Study Groups and Savings Unions in Jamaica.”

Perhaps the most ingenious initiative by Jamaicans to obtain credit is the “partner,” following on an ancient West African tradition known as Susu that has various iterations elsewhere in the Caribbean such as in Trinidad, Barbados and Guyana. Based on a system of trust, participants, which may be family members, friends or coworkers, “throw a hand” on a regular basis – weekly, biweekly or even monthly. On each rotation, one member gets to “draw a hand.” Through this means, Jamaicans have bought furniture and other household items, pay school fees and tuition, and have even purchased land and property or conducted house construction and repairs.

Because the partner (pardna) system is deeply cultural, several financial institutions, banks and credit unions among them, have tried to mimic these informal arrangements. The National People’s Co-operative Bank of Jamaica’s Partner Account “allows you to throw daily, fortnightly, weekly, monthly” and to “earn bonus on your draw.”

The Community and Workers of Jamaica Cooperative Credit Union has a Partner Savings Plan for members. First Heritage Cooperative Credit Union operates Hand to Hand Partner Plans, stating explicitly it is “a savings account boasting features of the traditional Partner Plan.” Instead of interest, it pays to the saver one eighth of a hand after 16 weeks, quarter of a hand after 24 weeks, two thirds of a hand after 36 weeks, and a full hand after 48 weeks.

When times are hard and funds are scarce, Jamaicans use their ingenuity by forging alliances of cooperation. Such initiatives include ways to finance household needs and business ventures. Those values helped to keep families afloat and communities going.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel


The French connection

Shotover, in the parish of Portland, is believed to be a corruption of the French, Chateau Vert

“The Road to France” or simply, “France 98,” is indelibly etched in Jamaica’s collective memory. The Reggae Boyz, the country’s senior football (soccer) team, became the first English speaking Caribbean nation to play in the prestigious FIFA World Cup tournament. Held every four years, Jamaica participated in the 1998 edition in France. From then on, every Jamaican football team has been measured against the performance of the squad that went through a series of qualifying stages to appear in the 32-nation showcase event.

Outside of the 1998 FIFA World Cup, little is known of any contact or association between the European country that some regard as the epitome of class, sophistication and style, and the Caribbean island, reputed as one of the most beautiful and culturally attractive and mesmerizing places on earth.

To the extent there’s European influence on Jamaica, it is mostly British, what with both islands’ joint colonial past. There are vestiges of Spanish influence in Jamaica as well, also because of an earlier colonial past. It is only here and there we find tidbits of French influence. But it is there nonetheless.

With Jamaica being England’s largest, and at one point, its most important possession in the Caribbean, France sought to hurt the British by hurting Jamaica. “France would displace Spain as England’s primary enemy,” wrote Stephen Luscombe. “This was felt on the island of Jamaica in 1694 when the French landed men on the North and East coastlines of Jamaica intending to hurt the economic capabilities of England to wage war.”

As many as 1,500 French troops landed at Carlisle Bay in the parish of Clarendon in the south of Jamaica. The French attacked plantations and seized enslaved Africans. “The local militia was called out to meet the raiding force and, together with slaves, helped repulse the French who fled in their ships.”

The French, though, did not leave empty handed, taking some 2,000 enslaved persons with them after having sacked more than four dozen plantations and estates. These were troubling times. Jamaica was still recovering from the devastating earthquake that almost wiped out Port Royal, the capital, two years before the French invasion, in 1692.

Jamaica was profoundly affected by the revolution in St. Domingue (Haiti), the French-occupied territory, which is just about 200 miles or 320 kilometers away. “When the slaves and free coloureds of Saint Domingue rebelled in the autumn of 1791, Jamaican society faced the greatest challenge of its history,” wrote David Geggus. In Geggus’ view, the impact of the Haitian Revolution on Jamaica was potentially more devastating than the earthquake and the French invasion a century earlier.  “To the Jamaican planters, the garish images of revolt that filtered through that autumn from Cap Francias (in northern Haiti) must have seemed an enactment of their very worst nightmares.” As a precaution, “the island militia was immediately called out.”

It was to Jamaica that the commander of the French forces in Haiti fled after the French were defeated by the revolutionary fighters led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, an army general who was formerly enslaved and who became president of the newly independent Haiti.

European countries fought over the island of Hispaniola, which includes Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They were at constant loggerheads – The French, controlling Haiti in the west, the Spanish, who ruled the Dominican Republic in the eastern portion of the island, as well as the English, who jealously guarded Jamaica.

In 1809, the Spanish, the English and the Haitians, the latter having won the revolution against France and declared independence in 1804, combined efforts to expel the French from Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, after the French laid siege to the city. After they surrendered, more than 1,000 French soldiers and civilians were transported to Louisiana or France via Jamaica. As told by Elena Chardon Adolphsen, “on 8 July 1809 the soldiers of the Legion Du Cap, as well as all of the evacuees from Santo Domingo, left the fort and boarded ships that were to transport them to Jamaica.”

In a previous blog post, I noted that the hundreds of exiles (some say thousands) who fled the Haitian Revolution to Jamaica led to the revival of the Roman Catholic Church, which lay dormant on the island for some 100 years. Haitian immigrants played a role in the growth of several industries, such as custom brokerage, distillery and coffee cultivation. The Desnoes name of Red Stripe beer fame are likely descendants of Haitian exiles to Jamaica.

Jamaica was a refuge for others. Jews, for instance, fled discrimination and persecution from France and elsewhere. “Jews flocked to Jamaica from throughout the Old and New Worlds, arriving from France and Britain, as well as Spanish and Portuguese colonies,” said Yvette Alt Miller.

Vestiges of French influence can be found in some place names. The strangely named Save Rent in Westmoreland in western Jamaica is believed to be a corruption of M. Saverent, a French colonist who once lived there. Similarly, Shotover in Portland, in the east, is said to be a corruption of the French, Château Vert, which means Castle Green or Green Castle. Lawrence Tavern in rural St. Andrew, was previously named Oberlin Station, in honor of French pastor, John Frederic Oberlin, who died in 1826. Oberlin High School in the town retains his name.

It is possible that Alexandria in St. Ann was named to celebrate the victory of British forces over those of the French in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1801, where the British took possession of the famed Rosetta Stone. Rosetta, also in St. Ann, was named to commemorate that victory. The Rosetta Stone, housed in the British Museum, helps in the understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

There is room for growth in the collaboration between both Jamaica and France. Not many Jamaicans are known to be there, just about 200 or so.  Jaminfrance, the Association of Jamaican Nationals in France, provides opportunities for Jamaicans in the Western European country to meet and greet, observe special occasions such as Jamaica’s independence, and engage in various activities.

With Jamaica being a major vacation destination, not many French visit there, just a little more than 5,200 in 2016. This was way behind the United Kingdom with more than 200,000, and less than other European countries such as Germany with roughly 20,000, Italy at just under 13,000, Sweden with 10,600 and Netherlands at 6,600.

The potential is there for the two countries to become closer. Reggae music has taken root in France. French performers and groups such as Billy Ze Kick, The Jouby’s and Raggasonic include reggae in their repertoire. An exhibition on the history and impact of Jamaican music was held in Paris in April this year. Artists such as Danny Coxson, Alecia McKenzie, Hanniffa Patterson and Constance Wood have exhibited their works in Paris.

Alliance Française de la Jamaïque, the Jamaican branch of a France-based nonprofit, promotes the teaching of French, French and Francophone cultures, and the reinforcing of ties between Jamaica and France.

Wigton Wind Farm in Manchester, Jamaica
Wigton Wind Farm in Manchester in southern Jamaica utilizes French technology

French companies have won major contracts in Jamaica. In a transaction worth €600 million, one of the largest in the Caribbean, the French shipping company CMA CGM signed a 30-year concession agreement in April 2015 with the Port Authority of Jamaica to operate the container terminal at the Port of Kingston. This arrangement makes Kingston a major regional hub. The French company, Bouygues, built major infrastructures such as highways and toll roads, VINCI was engaged in water processing, and Vergnet provides wind turbines for the Jamaica Public Service, the island’s major electricity supplier.

Language, culture, size and distance are deterrents, but Jamaica and France have had contacts over the centuries that provide room for further development and nurture.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Island frenemies

Jamaica and Haiti are about 200 miles apart. This in a region where islands run a long swath, from as far north as Bermuda, lying just off the coast of North Carolina in the United States and going way south to Trinidad, just a few miles from Venezuela in South America.

Though neighbors in the northern Caribbean, Jamaica and Haiti have never been cordially close. While there has never been the outbreak of open hostilities, there have been tensions.

Language, culture and history make relations difficult. Haiti is a former French colony while Jamaica was owned and ruled by the British. The British and French are forever at loggerheads. As the French are as different from the British, Haitians are as different from Jamaicans. Haiti has in fact been a constant source of worry to its smaller neighbor just further west.


After it launched a revolution for independence from France in 1791, Haiti, known at the time as St. Domingue, became an international inconvenience and threat to Jamaica’s British overlords and other European powers with colonies in the Caribbean. The constant fear, which never died, was that Haiti would inspire revolutionary and insurrectionist ideas in Caribbean colonies. This gained urgency when Haiti won the revolution and attained actual independence in 1804.

In policy, Jamaican colonial authorities exhibited ambivalence toward the Haitian Revolution and those who fled to its shores. While some Jamaica government actions embraced white Haitian emigres, other efforts sought to limit their numbers or even to deport Haitians. Writing to the Earl of Balcarres in May 1795, Marquis Cadusch expressed gratitude for Jamaican hospitality and assistance:

I have the honor to lay before your lordship an [account of] the unfortunate French Families who are now existing in Kingston and who would have perished thro’ misery had it not been for the generosity of the Government which has condescended to tender to them its assistance both kind and gracious.

Yet Haitians – black, mulatto and even white – were deported from Jamaica and immigration restrictions were imposed as part of a broader effort to prevent Jamaica and other Caribbean colonies from following Haiti’s example. The French Revolution, which coincided with the Haitian Revolution, was also at issue. “Several French planters, French free coloured and slaves were sent away from Jamaica,” Patrick Bryan wrote in The Haitian Revolution and its Effects. Bryan continued:

While the greatest danger seemed to arise from the presence of gens de couleur (mulattoes) and blacks from Saint-Domingue, the white emigres were also suspected of being bearers of French revolutionary ideas. In the fevered imagination of the Jamaican planters, the French slaves from Saint-Domingue would rouse the creole slaves to rebellion, while the radical gens de couleur would strengthen the struggle of the Jamaican mulattoes for civil rights and equality with the whites.

The British adopted a series of measures to block or minimize Haiti’s influence and that of its revolutionary leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture. The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported:

In 1793, fearful that L’Ouverture’s revolt would spread to the neighbouring British slave colony of Jamaica, and hoping to add the island to his own Caribbean possessions, King George III sent 27,000 troops to Haiti. The ensuing occupation turned out to be one of the greatest (if still least known) catastrophes of British imperial history.

This tactic having failed disastrously, the British tried another approach. The Encyclopedia Britannica indicated that “the British offered to recognize him (L’Ouverture) as king of an independent Haiti.” This failed as well. “Scornful of pompous titles and distrustful of the British because they maintained slavery, he refused.”

Finally, in 1798 into 1799, they negotiated with L’Ouverture to not invade Jamaica or the American south. He was induced to sign “a secret treaty which lifted the British blockade on Saint-Domingue in exchange for a promise that Toussaint would not export the black revolution to Jamaica.”

The British, Spanish and other colonialists had good reasons to be fearful. “In 1795, revolts broke out in Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Dominica and Jamaica,” the February 1988 issue of Workers Vanguard noted. The Workers Vanguard gave an extensive account as to what transpired:

The first big rebellion was that led by the mulatto French planter Julien Fédon in Grenada. The mulattos, chafing under British colonial discrimination, sent delegates to Hugues in Guadeloupe who supplied them with arms and ammunition. They gathered an army of several thousand slaves which defeated successive British reinforcements. By the beginning of 1796, Grenada was effectively a black republic with the British hanging on only in the capital of St. George’s.

Simultaneously Black Caribs in St. Vincent rose up together with French-speaking mulattos and likewise had bottled the British up in that island’s capital. Meanwhile, the largest British Caribbean possession, Jamaica, was racked by the last of several maroon wars. As a result of the revolt in Trelawney Town in July 1795, the British were forced to withdraw to Jamaica troops just dispatched to bolster the expeditionary force in Saint-Domingue being pounded by Toussaint’s black army. Even then, it took eight months to force the surrender of the last of the several hundred Jamaican insurgents led by Leonard Parkinson.

While L’Ouverture led the St. Domingue Revolution, its real instigator was said to be a Jamaican obeah man (voodoo priest).  Kona Shen at Brown University in the United States reported that on either August 14 or 22, 1791, a voodoo ceremony took “place in a thickly wooded area where the slaves solemnize their pact in a voodoo ritual. The ceremony is officiated by Boukman, a maroon leader and voodoo priest from Jamaica, and a voodoo high priestess.”

Boukman led the first revolutionary onslaught. On the night of August 22:

The slaves launch their insurrection in the North. That night Boukman and his forces march throughout the region, taking prisoners and killing whites. By midnight, plantations are in flames and the revolt has begun. Armed with torches, guns, sabers, and makeshift weapons the rebels continue their devastation as they go from plantation to plantation. By six the next morning, only a few slaves in the area have yet to join Boukman, and scores of plantations and their owners are destroyed.

In addition to the secret treaty with the British, a split in the ranks of the Haitian revolutionaries played a part in L’Ouverture helping to squelch the export of revolutionary ideology and fervor from Haiti to Jamaica. Tom Holmberg wrote, “When Philippe Roume, a French Republican commissioner in Saint-Domingue, planned to bring about a slave revolt in Jamaica, L’Ouverture secretly warned the British in exchange for British support against André Rigaud, a rival for power.”

After Haiti won its independence in 1804, it pledged, constitutionally, not to export revolution. Its 1805 constitution promised not to “disturb the peace and the interior administration of foreign colonies.” Samuel Farber indicated that Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Haiti’s president at the time, “acting in the interests of the Haitian state, proclaimed that anti-slavery would remain a solely domestic policy.” At the same time, however, article 44 of the constitution granted freedom and citizenship to any enslaved persons who landed on Haiti’s shores.

Haiti’s impact on Jamaica
The Haitian revolution had an impact on Jamaica in various ways. In the 1790s, Jamaica benefitted from the fallout in Haitian production and exports as its goods and produce were in greater demand. “The destruction of Saint-Domingue proved a boon to Jamaica, which profited from the economic vacuum created by the Haitian Revolution,” observed Trevor Burnard and John Garrigus in The Plantation Machine.

The island, along with Cuba and Louisiana in the US, received the bulk of Haitian exiles and refugees fleeing the fighting and the birth of the young republic ruled by blacks. Some notable family names in Jamaica, such as Desnoes, Duquesnay, Espeut and Malabre, comprise descendants of Haitian exiles and refugees from that era. They engaged in merchandising, distillery, coffee cultivation, custom brokerage and other businesses. Perhaps the most well-known gift these Haitians have given to Jamaica is Red Strip Beer, a product of the Desnoes and Geddes company that is widely exported and distributed.

The Haitian immigrants, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, contributed to a revival of the Catholic faith in predominantly Protestant Jamaica. According to the Jamaican family search website, “When more refugees arrived in 1792, a Roman Catholic Chapel was opened in Kingston, for the first time in about 100 years. The refugees became the main core of that church, which also included Spaniards, Irish and English congregants.”

Peter Espeut, a newspaper columnist, Roman Catholic deacon and quite likely a scion of the Espeut family that escaped Haiti to Jamaica in the 1790s, wrote:

In 1791, Spanish Catholics resident in Jamaica asked the government to allow a priest to come to Jamaica to minister to their spiritual needs. At the same time in 1791, slaves in what today is called Haiti rose up in a successful rebellion against their masters. Almost immediately there was an exodus of French planters and their families – almost exclusively Catholics – to Kingston; some brought their loyal slaves with them. The Catholic church officially returned to Jamaica in 1792 when the first Catholic priest was sent to Jamaica from London; other priests came as refugees from Haiti.

Fabre Nicholas Geffrard
Fabre Nicholas Geffrard, president of Haiti from 1859-1867, died in exile in Kingston, Jamaica, on December 31, 1878

Strikingly, since it gained independence, Haitian leaders lived as exiles in Jamaica as the nation lurched through turmoil after political turmoil. “In the period 1818-1902, Haiti had fifteen heads of state, eleven of whom spent time in Jamaica as exiles,” said Matthew Smith in Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora. Two of these presidents died in Jamaican exile. Fabre Nicholas Geffrard, president of Haiti from 1859-1867, died in Kingston on December 31, 1878; and Michele Domingue, president for less than three months, December 27, 1869 to March 16, 1870, died in Kingston on March 24, 1877.

The tradition of housing Haitian leaders in exile continued into the 21st century. Former Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide lived for several months in Jamaica after he was overthrown in a coup in 2004, before settling in South Africa. He has since returned to Haiti.

Jamaica, then, has been both a reservoir and a conduit for Haitians fleeing instability in their country. These Haitians have been grudgingly admitted into the island paradise. In the more recent political upheavals in the 1980s into the 21st century, a series of Haitian landings occurred on Jamaica’s shores.

Jamaican ambivalence toward Haitians continue much as it did more than 200 years earlier. “Many studies have brought forward the fact that the Jamaican government has appeared to be favorable toward Haitian refugees but their policies have left much to be desired,” Sharon Clarke wrote in Refugee Rights in the Caribbean. “Research…has revealed that refugee policies have been dominated by two contradictory forces. One refers to international legal instruments meant for protecting refugees and the other refers to legal instruments aimed at getting rid of them.”

In 2004, nearly 150 unwanted Haitians were housed in a former military training camp at Montpelier in St. James in Western Jamaica. Jamaica marshaled government and private agencies to offer help, but Haitians suffered much from the ordeal. Aristide supporters and opponents shared space in the camp and engaged in frequent fights, resulting in serious injuries. Significant numbers became psychiatric patients needing mental health services.  My wife, a government-employed psychiatric social worker at the time, had Haitian clients housed at Montpelier on her roster and visited the camp several times.  Some were admitted to the psychiatric ward at the Cornwall Regional Hospital in Montego Bay. Few attempts were made to integrate these displaced Haitians into the Jamaican community, including having the children attend schools.

Efforts to attain refugee status were not granted. “None of the Haitian applicants for refugee status in Jamaica meets the criteria, and accordingly their applications for the granting of refugee status have been denied,” the government announced. Unemployment, mental illness, stress and frustration marked their daily lives until their removal from the country back to Haiti.

As the first black republic, wresting itself from European domination, some historians regard Haiti as a historical beacon that its Caribbean neighbors refuse to properly acknowledge. From Napoleon Bonaparte onwards, obstacles were created to prevent it becoming an inspiration.

“Haiti’s current economic crisis and political turmoil have their roots in the ‘odious debt’ of 150 million gold francs (later reduced to 90 million) which France imposed on the newborn republic with gunboats in 1825,” wrote Kim Ives. “The sum was supposed to compensate French planters for their losses of slaves and property during Haiti’s 1791-1804 revolution…. It took Haiti 122 years, until 1947, to pay off both the original ransom to France and the tens of millions more in interest payments borrowed from French banks to meet the deadlines.”

Haiti’s travails never seem to end. Other than political turmoil and economic ruin, it has faced devastating natural disasters, including multiple hurricanes. The massive 7.0 earthquake on January 12, 2010, killed more than 160,000 and leveled parts of the capital, Port au Prince, and other towns. The extent of the widespread devastation was still evident when I visited Port Au Prince, Delmas, Saint-Marc, Cap-Haïtien and other towns in 2011. Despite massive aid rebuilding efforts were minimal due, in part, to a weak and flailing central government, poor coordination, and competition among relief agencies.

Trinidadian musical artiste, David Rudder, captures the apology historians believe Jamaicans and others owe the Haitian people, when he sang:

Haiti, I’m sorry
We misunderstood you
But one day we’ll turn our heads
And look inside you
Haiti, I’m sorry. Haiti, I’m sorry
One day we’ll turn our heads
Restore your glory.



Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Back to Africa

The most well-known movement for Africans in the diaspora to return to the continent was led and inspired by Jamaican National Hero and Pan Africanist, Marcus Garvey. Though his own plans to organize such a mass movement in the first two and a half decades of the 20th century largely failed, his message and philosophy inspired millions of blacks in North America, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

Garvey and others who preached a return to Africa held to a philosophy that Africa is the home of black people. Most of those living outside the continent were descendants of those forcibly removed by white slavers who enriched themselves and their countries by raiding Africa of its people and resources. The message to return to Africa gained urgency because the Americas were inhospitable due, mostly, to deliberate policies on the part of white slavers and imperialists to make life miserable for the African.

Sierra Leone and Liberia
The movement back to the motherland started more than a century before Garvey began his back to Africa movement. Two countries, Sierra Leone and Liberia, were carved out of West Africa to receive those previously enslaved in the Americas to return to the continent. The Europeans in Europe and North America, who had by then planted themselves in Africa, played a hand in the creation of these two countries.

The first group settled in what is now Granville Town in Sierra Leone in 1787 when the British sought to get rid of a “problem” resulting from a court decision. In Somerset v Stewart (1772) the presiding judge, Lord Mansfield, issued a judgment that reads in part:

The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political…. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it…. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.

The court’s decision mandated the freedom of blacks, but colonialists chose to apply the law only to those physically present in England. The few hundred newly freed blacks in England were now a problem requiring a solution. Having free blacks on English soil was apparently intolerable to the British. Hence, according to an article in The Baptist Quarterly:

The Colony (Sierra Leone) was founded on April 8th, 1787, with 460 African destitute ex-slaves brought to England as house and personal servants, and abandoned by their masters after the Mansfield Judgment of 1772 that slaves setting foot on British soil became free men.

Not only did the British create Sierra Leone to deal with their “free black people problem” on home soil, they used the opportunity to get rid of another irritant, so-called “disreputable women.” Along with the freed Africans, “62 white women [were] taken off the streets of London, Portsmouth and Bristol and put aboard the transport Venus in the stupor of intoxication.”

The group did not fare well. In Sierra Leone, they suffered devastation from diseases and war with indigenous inhabitants, who resisted the encroachment.

cotton tree - Freetown , Sierra Leone
The famous cotton tree in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where the roughly 1,200 African Americans rested in 1792  to give thanks to God for safe passage across the Atlantic

They were followed by a second and larger group, mainly freed African Americans who, after taking the side of the British in the American war for independence, had initially settled in Nova Scotia, Canada. Harsh climate, failed promises by the British and racism in Canada took their toll and 1,200 made the trek to Sierra Leone, arriving in March 1792. This second set of arrivals formed the core group that founded Freetown, which eventually became capital of the West African country.

A third group, comprising some 500-600 maroons from Jamaica, arrived in Freetown in September 1800. These Trelawny Maroons, most from modern day Flagstaff in St. James in the Cockpit Country in western Jamaica, were deported from the island by the British colonialists into Nova Scotia in July 1796, after they lost the most recent in a series of Maroon uprisings against the British. Like their African American counterparts, these Jamaican maroons found life in Nova Scotia inhospitable, and like the African Americans, headed to Freetown in Sierra Leone.

Freetown, eventually, became a kind of catchment area. After the British abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in the 1830s, British naval forces would take Africans found aboard American and European ships violating the new laws, dispatch them to Freetown, and leave them there.

In Sierra Leone, the settlers from the United States and the Caribbean (via Nova Scotia) and those liberated from ships violating the slave trade ban, became collectively known as Creole or Krio, as distinct from indigenous Africans already living in the area.

Beginning in January 1822, blacks from the United States and the Caribbean sailed to what has become Liberia to escape racism and slavery. An estimated 15,000 free and freed Americans took the trip over a 40-year period, up until the start of the American Civil War in the 1860s.

Among the more than 3,000 people from the Caribbean who settled in Liberia during that same period was John Brown Russwurm from Port Antonio in eastern Jamaica, who entered the territory by way of the United States. He helped found Freedom’s Journal in New York, the first African American owned and operated newspaper published in the US. Russwurm became governor of a territory named Maryland that was annexed to Liberia in 1857.

Religion played a leading role in the return of blacks to Africa and the founding of new settlements. The 1792 group that founded Freetown included Baptists, Methodists and adherents of the Countess of Huntingdon Connexion, a Calvinist group.

Earlier this month (June 2017), I participated in a brief ceremony under the large cotton tree in the heart of Freetown where the group of newly arrived settlers gathered in 1792 to give thanks for safe passage across the Atlantic. While in Sierra Leone, I spoke at the 225th anniversary worship service of Regent Road Baptist Church, the oldest Baptist church on the African continent, which counts its beginning to the year of the settlers’ arrival.

st johns maroon methodist church - sierra leone
St. John’s Maroon Methodist Church in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Built by Jamaican maroons in 1822, it is  the oldest  standing religious structure in the West African country.

Within walking distance of the large cotton tree in Freetown is St. John’s Maroon Methodist Church, built in 1822 by the maroons of Jamaica. The original building, which still stands, is the oldest standing religious structure in Sierra Leone and is a protected heritage site.

Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, is the second oldest Baptist congregation on the African continent.  Founded in January 1822, it was where the country’s declaration of independence was signed in July 1847. Notable numbers of its members and leaders as well as Baptists from other congregations, served in the Liberian senate and held the offices of president, vice president and ministers of government.

Providence’s William Tolbert was simultaneously vice president of Liberia and president of the Baptist World Alliance, the international umbrella organization for Baptists, from 1965-1970. He was Liberian president from 1971 until he was overthrown and assassinated in a military coup in 1980, the year Liberia started on a downward spiral of war, conflict and poverty.

The coup grew partly out of longstanding resentments between indigenous groups and descendants of settlers, which were never fully resolved despite nearly two centuries of co-existence.

Rastafari, inspired by Marcus Garvey whom it regards as a prophet, explicitly advocates repatriation, or the return to Africa, the Promised Land. As a fulfillment of this basic tenet, a small community of about 600-800 Rastafarians live in Ethiopia, most in Shashemane, about 150 miles or so outside Addis Ababa, the country’s capital. Shashemane was part of an original gift of land granted by Emperor Haile Selassie to diaspora Africans in the Caribbean who wished to settle in his country.

The West African country of Ghana leads the way in encouraging members of the African diaspora to settle there. The nation’s founding father, Kwame Nkrumah, worked closely with members of the African diaspora during the movement for Ghanaian independence. Among his eminent coterie was W. E. B. DuBois, the leading African American intellectual, who moved to Ghana in his last years, died, and was buried there.

As of the year 2000, Ghana’s “Right of Abode” program allows people of African descent to gain permanent residency. Rita Marley, widow of reggae superstar Bob Marley and herself a notable musical performer, lives in Ghana under this program.

Two operative slogans sought to capture the correct posture persons in the African diaspora should take toward Africa. Garvey’s “Africa for the Africans” emphasized physical return and claiming of territory. An alternative Pan Africanist retort, “Africans for Africa,” placed emphasis on Africans in Africa and the diaspora working toward better solutions for Africa, rather than on migration/return to the homeland. It is yet unclear which slogan best captures the mood of and resonates with the children of Africa who live outside the continent.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

An ass of a story

Of all animals, the donkey is perhaps the most important in rural Jamaica, certainly for small farmers in the interior for whom the donkey is an indispensable means of transport to and from their small plots in the hills and mountains.

I first realized how significant the lowly donkey is when I lived and served in hilly, rural Clarendon in the late 1980s into the early 1990s. On the weekend, two dozen or more donkeys would be “parked” in the Rock River town square as the farmers descend from the hills to make purchases at Mr. Alty’s shop and other outlets, and to enjoy some good Jamaican “whites” at the bars.

Evan Jones’ poem, Banana Man, captures well the importance of the donkey to the Jamaican rural farmer:

Banana day is my special day,
I cut my stems an I’m on m’way,
Load up de donkey, leave de lan
Head down de hill to banana stan

Donkey and owners - Kingston -1900 - Library of Congress Online Catalog
A donkey and its owners in Jamaica, 1900. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Online Catalog

The Christian Work and the Evangelist: Volume 76, published in January 1904, made declarations steeped in the prejudices of the times, but depicted accurately, how important the donkey was:

…in the beautiful island of Jamaica, the donkey is the chosen companion of the black and colored people, for it is nearly four hundred years since his first asinine ancestor was introduced there, a short period in advance of the African himself. Without the ass, indeed, the black man in the tropics would feel himself lost, unable perhaps to transact the humble business which fills the measure of his days. Living in the hills and mountains, far distant from the markets of town and city, he could not so well transport the products of his gardens and provision grounds as he now does with the assistance of his four-footed friend.

The same January 1904 issue of The Christian Work and the Evangelist noted:

One of the most interesting sights in Kingston, the capital of the island of Jamaica, is that of the long procession of black and colored women coming in from the country districts with the donkey-loads of charcoal, bananas and sweet potatoes…. They live far distant, in some valley of the Blue Mountain range, usually at least ten hours’ travel out on the northern coast; but they start at midnight, or even at dusk of the day previous to market-day, and always reach the city just as the sun begins to come up from the sea.

The donkey is so deeply etched in the psyche in rural Jamaica that donkey folktales are not that uncommon. There is, for instance, the Anansi story of The Donkey, the Cat and the Lion’s Head as well as The Race Between Toad and Donkey, which begins thus, “One day, Master King decided to have a race and he would give a big prize to whoever won. Both Toad and Donkey decided to enter, but Toad got Donkey angry with all his boasting about how he’d win…”

In common parlance, in Jamaica and elsewhere, the donkey stands for both stubbornness and stupidity, and is referred to or seen as “the beast of burden.” These ideas are reflected in some Jamaican proverbs and sayings, which use the donkey to convey words of wisdom and advice: Donkey bray say dis world no level; Every day yu goad donkey, some day he will kick yu; Every donkey hab im sankey; Every jackass t’ink im pickney a racehorse; Every man no dribe dem donkey same way; Every time donkey bray im member something; When yu go a donkey house don’t talk about ears; Patient man ride donkey; Mek wan jackass bray; No mek wan donkey choke you; Donkey gallop soon over.

While Jamaica city and towns people think, know or care little about the donkey, there appears to be a mini-crisis as there is a scarcity of donkeys on the island. “It’s the hardest things these days to get donkeys,” one person told the Jamaica Star in August 2016. The donkey shortage is affecting rural small farmers.

The plight of the donkey seems to be global. “Some are ill-treated through the ignorance of their owners, some are mistreated through cruelty, and others are simply ignored and forgotten about,” notes Robin Marshall, writing for Horse Talk out of New Zealand.

There is a Donkey Sanctuary in the United Kingdom to rescue these animals as well as the International Donkey Protection Trust (IDT), which estimates some 57 million donkeys worldwide. The IDT, founded in 1976, seeks “to transform the quality of life for donkeys, mules and people worldwide through greater understanding, collaboration and support, and by promoting lasting, mutually life-enhancing relationships.”

Among other things, IDT works “to reduce the suffering of sick and injured donkeys and mules” and to provide “welfare and care” for donkeys. It built a clinic for donkeys in Ethiopia. “One of the worst problems in the country are saddle sores, and donkeys dropping from exhaustion at the markets,” Marshall of Horse Talk states. Mobile units for donkeys have been set up in Mexico, India and Kenya.

Donkeys are useful animals in various ways. Marshall writes:

Farmers have found that having a donkey among a herd of stroppy bulls settles the bovines down. Donkeys tend to “rule the roost” when they run with young bulls.

Donkeys also make kind and gentle pets for children – and adults — and have been many a horse rider’s first mount.

Many children have had their first experience of farm animals while taking a donkey ride on seaside visits in England.

Donkey race in Negril, 2013. Photo courtesy of

In Jamaica, donkeys are sometimes used for comic relief on a sports or fun day, such as the annual Negril Rotary Donkey Races in Westmoreland and the Donkey Races Festival in Top Hill, St. Catherine. At the Jamaica Zoo in Lacovia, St. Elizabeth, visitors can take donkey rides.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

The trains no longer run

Jamaican railway has had a long and troubled history. Launched in 1845, it was the “first railroad outside of Europe and North America,” making it one of the oldest in the world.

Neither government nor private operators have found the formula to make the Jamaica rail system economically viable. Throughout its roughly 150-year history, railway operations in Jamaica changed hands several times and underwent other changes until, finally, everybody just gave up. Except for bauxite companies that began running their own private rail service to transport ore, trains in Jamaica ceased operating in 1992.

There are those who claim that politics is at the heart of Jamaica’s railway problems. That some of those placed in charge of Jamaica’s transportation sector have no incentive to see a vibrant and healthy rail system in the country. It is alleged that some at the highest levels owned haulage contracting companies and viewed trains, which move cargo as well as passengers, as unwelcome competition.

Comparisons are made with the argument used to disband the Jamaica Omnibus Service (JOS), the main transportation system in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, and nearby towns. Both JOS and the Jamaica Railway Corporation (JRC), it is claimed, were a strain and a drain on government resources. Thus, JOS buses were removed from off the roads in 1983. It is alleged that those who presided over the death of the JOS were owners of private passenger buses eager to replace the JOS, resulting in a chaotic transportation sector.

It is stated that the same people, some of whom owned fleets of tractor trailers, wanted the demise of the railway, and so they killed the railroad system. The JRC essentially became a holder of the assets of the defunct system, overseeing the upkeep and maintenance (of sorts) of lands and the lines and the buildings and stations, all mostly disused, that still belonged to the corporation.

Several attempts have been made to revive the Jamaica railway. Someone who was in a position to know told me that the deal struck with an Indian company in the early years of the 21st century to resume rail operations was a good one. Too good in fact, and so those who feared the competition killed the deal after they regained charge of the system.

It is heartening to see that another attempt is being made to restart rail operations in Jamaica, this time with American investors. The government-run Jamaica Information Service announced in December 2016 that “a sum of US$250 million will be invested in the resuscitation of the country’s cargo and passenger rail service by the Government and several investors, including United States (US) company Herzog International.”

We wait to see if those who have much to lose will allow it to see the light of day.

While some of its history is checkered, railroads were a vital part of the Jamaican landscape, especially to the interior of the island. It was the most efficient means of moving cargo and people over longer distances and it had relatively limited impact on the environment. After the rails closed, increasing numbers of giant 18-wheelers started traversing Jamaica’s narrow, hilly roads. Who has not encountered an 18-wheel monster jackknifing on Mount Rosser, blocking traffic going both ways? Or causing chaos on the Junction Road?

When the railroads were closed in 1992, inland (as against coastal) towns such as Balaclava in St. Elizabeth, Porus in Manchester and Bog Walk in St. Catherine, were never the same again. The railway brought life and vitality to these and other towns in terms of trade and commerce but they experienced marked decline after rail operations ceased.

Railway launch
Jamaica was among the first places to get a railroad when, in 1843, “The Assembly of Jamaica approves a 12-mile track between Kingston and Spanish Town and a 2½ mile branch line to a sugar estate in Angels.”

Construction on the track, stations and other facilities ended in November 1845. “The completion of a line of Railway from Kingston to Spanish Town, in Jamaica, is a most gratifying instance of colonial enterprise,” The Illustrated London News reported on January 31, 1846.

The opening took place on Friday, the 21st of November last. The event had been long and anxiously anticipated; and, in order to invest it with the just degree of importance, his Excellency the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the several heads of departments civil and military, the hon. Members of the Council and Assembly, and a large number of the more wealthy and influential members of the community, were invited to attend the ceremony; and a most propitious day rendered this attendance very general and numerous. An enormous crowd of spectators was collected all around the stations, and several very extensive booths were filled with well-dressed females.

Led by the governor, a large retinue took their first ride in a celebratory atmosphere. According to The Illustrated London News, “the train, consisting of some eight or ten well filled carriages, started on the first railway excursion in the British West Indies; the excellent band of the 1st West India Regiment taking its stand in the last, third class, carriage, and playing lively airs.”

It drew curious onlookers who “were densely thronged on both sides with crowds of wondering citizens, who loudly cheered the novel exhibition as it passed before them. These crowds were more or less to be seen along the whole line of railway.”

Economic importance
Economic factors drove railway expansion on the island. Sugar, mainstay of the Jamaican economy, was no longer king. At least two developments led to increase in the cost of and hence decline in sugar exports. The British government raised duties on imports of sugar from its colonies, including Jamaica, in 1846, and the end of enslavement in 1838 raised labor costs. With costs rising and income decreasing, the railway became the least expensive form of transporting goods and produce on the island.

Recognizing the importance of rail to the Jamaican economy, the colonial government nationalized the company in 1879, buying out the interests of its private investors and owners. Almost 200,000 British pound sterling were spent on both purchase (just under £94,000) and upgrade (about £100,000). This amounts to approximately £18 million or just about US$24 million in today’s money.

jamaica railway - Porus opening -1896
Launch of the railway station and line in Porus, Manchester, in 1896

In the first half of the 1880s, increased investments in and improved markets for sugar and banana led to the expansion of the railway from Old Harbour in St. Catherine to Porus in Manchester, and from Spanish Town, the capital of St. Catherine, to Ewarton and Bog Walk in the same parish. By the end of the 1880s, work began on the lines to Montego Bay, St. James, in the west, completed in 1894, and Port Antonio in the parish of Portland in the east, finished in 1896.

By this time, banana had overtaken sugar as Jamaica’s major export crop. Railway expansion benefited entities such as the American corporation, United Fruit Company, which had its biggest footprint in the parish of Portland, the hub of Jamaica’s banana production and export.

In the 1950s, another boost to Jamaican rail occurred with the mining of bauxite ore in the interior of the island. Transporting bauxite ore became the railway’s biggest cargo business up until the time of its demise.

There have been many setbacks along the way. The West India Improvement Company, which bought the government’s stake in 1890, went bankrupt by the end of the decade and the government had to step back in to retake control 10 years later, in 1900. Hurricanes in 1951 (Hurricane Charlie) and 1988 (Hurricane Gilbert) caused extensive damage.

In some sense, Jamaican independence in 1962 was a mixed blessing for the railway corporation. As several entities with failing economic health came under the control of the young nation, funds earmarked for rail maintenance were diverted to help keep these other entities alive. By 1974 the May Pen to Frankfield line, and in 1975 the Bog Walk to Port Antonio line, were closed due to lack of maintenance.

Scene at the railway crash on September 1, 1957, in Kendal, Manchester. One of the deadliest rail crashes in the world up to that time, it claimed the lives of almost 200 and injured upwards of 700 more.

By far the biggest tragedy to affect the railway was the crash at Kendal in the parish of Manchester on September 1, 1957. The Jamaica National Heritage Trust said:

The worst railway disaster in Jamaica’s history, happened close to this spot on September 1, 1957. At around 11:30 p.m. a train carrying some 1,600 passengers derailed its tracks. Close to 200 persons lost their lives. Varying accounts indicate that between 400 and 700 persons sustained injuries in what was described as the worst transportation system tragedy in Jamaica’s history, and the second worst rail disaster in the world at the time.

Eight of the 12 wooden cars were wrecked. There were:

Dead and injured inside, underneath and on top, and bodies and body parts strewn over a wide area. Some persons died on impact, many died from being spiked by splinters from the wooden coaches, and various other injuries. Many of the dead were buried in a mass grave behind the crash site.

The tragedy led to the replacement of “all wooden coaches with metal coaches, and the Jamaica Government Railways, was reconstituted and renamed the Jamaica Railway Corporation.”

The long-term troubles of attaining economic viability in the face of tragedy, competition and political ineptitude and interference, led to what some regard as its inevitable demise. However, some argue not only the importance of Jamaica having a rail service, but that Jamaica’s success may depend on having a well-run railway transportation system for passengers and cargo. In a study conducted on the Jamaica railway and published in 1985, John Due, professor of economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in the United States, wrote:

The railroad has consistently operated at a deficit. But it makes substantial contribution to the bauxite industry, and its passenger service is much cheaper and satisfactory than the mini-bus type otherwise available. Externalities in terms of road congestion and costs of road improvement and encouragement to economic development warrant continuation of and improvement to the railway.

While more than 30 years have passed, the conclusions of that study may still be valid.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

How two families, one black, one white, built a town

One of the side effects (hazards?) of being an amateur historian (I’m neither an academic nor professional historian but I have a deep love for history) is that one becomes interested in one’s own heritage. No less in my case. I’m still in the course of discovery and have come across information that frankly, startled me. There was a time, going back 150 years or more, when for one small town in Jamaica, my paternal ancestors were a big deal.

A jerk center in Walkerswood

Walkerswood in St. Ann in northern Jamaica, not far from Ocho Rios, is most famous for its jerk sauce. As someone declared, “Walkerswood is the Jamaican Jerk sauce by which all others are measured.”

Walkerswood Caribbean Foods grew out of a community cooperative that took shape in the 1970s. Residents in the town and a few from surrounding communities began creating craft and other items.

Christine, my mom, became a member of the cooperative. She would take raw wool home and deputize the children in the house to help her to wash, dry and then weave the wool. She would dye the yarn and knitted these into hats, sweaters, table mats and other items. The cooperative diversified into food items. Mama would take home large quantities of crude cornflakes, oftentimes more than we could consume. It was nowhere close to the quality of imported brands sold in supermarkets. The first forays into jerk sauce occurred in about 1976.

From those humble beginnings, Walkerswood Caribbean Foods, with about 80 employees, is now an important niche exporter of about 20 varieties of spices and associated products such as pepper sauce, curry paste, barbecue sauce and various iterations of jerk seasoning. Its products are sold in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Teetering on bankruptcy several times, it was eventually bought and was transformed from the cooperative to a corporate model. It is a lesson in how community-based businesses struggle to remain true to their identity while trying to be profitable. The community link remains through the Walkerswood Co-operative Pepper Farmers Association, one of the company’s chief suppliers.

The town, Walkerswood, owes its existence and relative affluence to two families – the Pringles/Simsons and the Harveys/Henrys.

The Harvey/Henry story is not well known and it is something I knew nothing about while growing up. My older siblings were not familiar with it. Much of what follows is due to information gleaned by a brother by way of a much older cousin, in addition to further digging on my part. It is a story that needs further research.

The Harveys, a black family, came into hundreds of acres of land sometime in the 1800s. As to how and exactly when they did so is not yet clear. What is undisputed is that they owned the land before the 1880s. It was not common for black Jamaicans to own that much land at that time in Jamaica’s history so soon after the end of enslavement in 1838. While it is conjecture at this point, it seems that the Harveys may have come into the land as early as the 1840s or 1850s, and likely by the 1860s.

In March 1882, one of the Harvey girls, Matilda, 24, married Thomas Henry, 26. They are my great-grandparents. In March 1881, exactly a year earlier, Thomas’ older brother, Richard, 37, had married Elizabeth, 31, a widow who seemed to have previously been married to a Harvey. It was the second marriage as well for Richard, a widower.

Most of the land appeared to have fallen under Thomas and Matilda’s control. For reasons not yet clear to us, my great-grandparents sold off most of the land while giving some of it away. The schools, community center and several churches, such as the old Baptist church (that I attended as a child) , the newer Baptist church, and the Methodist church, were all built on Harvey land, likely given freely to the community and churches. Some of the land was later acquired by Reynolds, a bauxite mining company. Most were bought by residents who built their homes. One guess is that more than 50 percent of Walkerswood residential homes are built on land once owned by Harvey/Henry.

An uncle, Alton Henry, whose family and ours traveled to church together while I was a child, played a role in the early movement that was the precursor to the 1970s Walkerswood cooperative. This is the official story as told by Walkerswood Caribbean Foods:

The initiative that launched Walkerswood Caribbean Foods is rooted in the rich history of community action, which has characterized Walkerswood village from the 1930s.

Following the nationwide riots of 1938 for better working conditions, a partnership emerged between Alton Henry, Peter Hinds and other village farm workers, Thom and Rita Girvan, engaged in the Government’s Social Welfare programme and Minnie and Fiona Simson of the Bromley Great House. Together they formed the “Pioneer Club” in 1940 on three acres of land. Out of this grew the Lucky Hill Co-operative Farm, the first registered co-operative farm in Jamaica.

Martin Henry (no relation to us) passed on the story as told to him by Norman Girvan, a leading university professor and researcher in Jamaica and the son of Thom and Rita Girvan. Minnie Simson and her daughter, Fiona, owners of Bromley estate

had come in contact with moral rearmament (MRA) out of England. Bromley became a centre for MRA meetings, for development activism and for devotion…. There were these two men from the village, Peter Hinds and Alton Henry…[who] used to come to Mrs. Simson’s every Sunday morning for prayers, and right after prayers Thom [Girvan] would start talking to them and asking them what were their greatest needs. Out of that he formed the Walkerswood Pioneer Club with the two men as leaders.

Though the club was founded in Walkerswood in St. Ann, the decision was made to establish the first cooperative farm in Lucky Hill in the parish of St. Mary, less than ten miles away. Alton, my father’s oldest brother, moved to New Pen in Lucky Hill and oversaw the cooperative farm there.

Uncle Alton inherited much of the land not sold off or given away that were still in Henry hands in Walkerswood. He was “head cook” and “bottle washer” in the Baptist church of my childhood – organist, choirmaster, church secretary and deacon. Little did I know that he was scion of large tracts of land near to the church and on which the church was built, and in the Cottage area of Walkerswood.

The Pringles were an unusual Jamaican white family, possibly the wealthiest family on the island. A Scottish doctor, John Pringle, moved to Jamaica in the 1870s, married into wealth and privilege on the island, and gradually took ownership of several large properties, including Roaring River, Laughing Waters and Bromley, all in St. Ann, as well as Manor Park in St. Andrew.

bromley great house 2
Bromley Great House, Walkerswood

According to Martin Henry, “John Pringle brought with him to Jamaica, from his own experiences on the fringes of British society in the Outer Hebrides, a working social conscience which members of his family inherited.”

Toward the end of his life, Pringle was instrumental in the formation of the Jamaica Banana Producers’ Association (JBPA) in 1927, a cooperative and a forerunner to what has since become one of the country’s largest groups of companies, Jamaica Producers Group. Martin Henry said “the JBPA was a cooperative of big and small private banana farmers, formed to challenge the unfair dominance of the banana trade by the banana companies, particularly the American United Fruit Company and the British Elders and Fyffes.”

The Pringles, close friends of Norman Manley, one of the country’s political fathers, were involved in Manley’s creation of Jamaica Welfare, which has evolved into the Social Development Commission, one of the government’s most vital social agencies. They were, apparently, strong supporters and backers of black nationalist, pan Africanist and Jamaica National Hero, Marcus Garvey.

[Another John Pringle, grandson of the original John Pringle, quite possibly played the most decisive role in the development of Jamaica’s tourism industry. He was the island’s first director of tourism and laid the foundation to make it the country’s most important economic engine.]

Minnie Simson inherited the Bromley property from her father, the elder John Pringle and, along with her daughter, Fiona, was instrumental in the formation of the Pioneer Club in Walkerswood and the cooperative farm at New Pen in Lucky Hill.

The Simsons also helped to form the Walkerswood Community Council. Among the initiatives of the council was the creation of Cottage Industries, which later grew into what is now Walkerswood Caribbean Foods, currently located on land that was previously part of the Bromley property.

It appears Walkerswood would not be what it is today without the generosity of these two families, one black, one white, who acted independently of each other but whose lives also converged in unexpected ways to make Walkerswood a growing, thriving and prosperous community.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel