The “Natives” and the English

George Liele, first Baptist missionary

As a Baptist Christian, I am intrigued to discover the African roots of my faith tradition.

Baptist work in Jamaica started in 1783 with the arrival of George Leile from Savannah, Georgia, in the United States. This made Leile the first Baptist missionary, not William Carey, an Englishman, as is the conventional claim.

Noel Erskine, professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, said that “with his migration to Jamaica in 1783, Leile became America’s first missionary, 33 years before Adoniram Judson sailed for Burma and 10 years before William Carey of England sailed for India.”

Leile was enslaved but was freed during the American Revolution. Facing the threat of re-enslavement after the revolutionary war, he moved with his family to Jamaica.

Prior to leaving the US, Leile was ordained in 1775, making him the first black person in the US to be ordained a Baptist pastor, and was likely the first ordained black Baptist pastor in the world. He planted churches in Savannah, Georgia.

His ministry in the US influenced others who went on to do significant Baptist work, including David George, baptized by Leile and who left Savannah for the Canadian Province of Nova Scotia and then later to Sierra Leone in Africa.

David George planted Baptist churches in both Canada and Sierra Leone. He founded the first Baptist church on the African continent, Regent Road Baptist Church in Freetown, the Sierra Leone capital, which celebrates its 225th anniversary this year.  I spoke at a special anniversary event at the church in early June.

Others who came out of Leile’s ministry included Andrew Bryan in Savannah, Jesse Peters in South Carolina, and Hannah Williams in England.

Upon arriving in Jamaica, Leile essentially continued where he left off in the US. He planted churches and developed local Baptist leadership.

An artist’s impression of Dona Beatriz (Beatrice) Kimpa Vita, leader of the Antonian Christian Movement in Kongo in present-day Angola, Africa

Stephen Jennings, Jamaica Baptist pastor and former president of the Jamaica Baptist Union, numbered Leile among descendants of the Antonian Christian Movement, led by Dona Beatriz (Beatrice) Kimpa Vita. Jennings contends that this movement was “present within Kongolese territorial space in 1684-1706.”

The Kongo (spelt with a K) is in what is now Angola, and should not be confused with either the Republic of Congo or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Jennings, whose doctoral dissertation examined the impact of the Antonian Christian Movement in the Americas, said, “Though it did not survive as an organized movement within Kongo, it (Antonian Christian Movement) continued in pockets across the region and across the Atlantic.” He elaborated:

Kongolese people and people from the entire Western Central African region, including Antonian Christians, were exported to Iberian Brazil, the eastern seaboard of the United States – from Maryland to Georgia – Louisiana, and the entire Caribbean – specifically through the British, French and Spanish regions, including Jamaica.

Jennings declared:

Dona Vita’s movement was incarnated by those Kongolese Christians who were scattered all over the so-called “New World.” There is evidence of such persons leading an uprising in British South Carolina in 1739. There are also clear linkages between the Antonian movement and the Haitian revolution, as a number of Haitians who participated in this revolt came from the Kongo as followers of Dona Vita. Enslaved Kongolose Antonians were also sent to Jamaica, but underwent a name change over time. … It can be seen that Kongolese Christians were among those who came to the British Protestant country of Jamaica, carrying their faith and more precisely, their theological, cultural, and political outlook.

According to Jennings, when Leile went to Jamaica in 1783, he encountered people like him who were descendants of the Antonian Christian Movement.

He claimed that:

African Americans who went as preachers and missionaries to Jamaica in the late 18th to mid-19th centuries were probably first and second generation Antonians who were seeking to escape racist hardships that were increasingly present in the revolutionary North American British colonies. As Kongolese Antonians, they would have also joined the struggle for self-determination of their fellow Kongolese Antonian Christians in Jamaica.

Jennings said Leile named his congregations “The Ethiopian Baptist Churches of Jamaica,” reflecting their ties to the African motherland.

Native Baptists

This explains a debate among Jamaican Baptist historians about a group referred to as Native Baptists in the historical records but whose identity remains uncertain.

According to Devon Dick, Jamaica Baptist pastor and current president of the Jamaica Baptist Union, the Native Baptists named in the historical records was distinct from the English Baptists. Perhaps these were the same Ethiopian Baptists mentioned by Jennings and others.

in his book, The Cross and the Machete, Dick indicated that the British referred to Leile’s movement as Native Baptists. However, Dick differentiated between Leile’s group that was nicknamed Native Baptists by the British, and the group that officially bore the name Native Baptists. As one can imagine, this creates confusion concerning the literature:

With the arrival of the English Baptists in 1814, the nineteenth century writings, in attempting to make a distinction between the European Baptists and Leile, started to retroactively refer to him as a Native Baptist, perhaps meaning nothing more than to claim that Leile was a non-European Baptist.

Horace Russell, a retired professor of historical theology at Palmer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and former president of the United Theological College of the West Indies in Jamaica, made the same distinction.

in Foundations and Anticipations, Russell referred to “the Native (Black) Baptists who were not organizationally attached to the Jamaica Baptist Union.”

Russell differed from Dick in claiming that the Native Baptists had grown into a parallel organization in 1860, several decades later than Dick’s own dating. Dick, in fact, suggests that Native Baptists were in perennial decline by that time.

Even if Dick is correct, some records suggest that Native Baptists continued to have presence, at least in the capital city, Kingston.  The May Pen Cemetery, Jamaica’s main cemetery in Kingston, was founded in 1851 and was divided into different burial grounds by an 1874 law. That law made a distinction between the burial ground for the Native Baptists and that for Baptists led by the British.

Dick asserted that Native Baptists even formed their own mission sending body, citing an 1841 report of the Jamaica Native Baptist Missionary Society.

What is not clear is how the Native Baptists came about. The sensible assumption is that churches founded under Leile’s movement and that of his disciple, Moses Baker, whose work concentrated in the west of the island while Leile focused on the east, formed the genesis of the Native Baptist movement. Some of these churches became identified with the English Baptists while others remained Native Baptist.

Arrival of the British

It is important to know how or why the British Baptists went to Jamaica. Baptist work on the island grew so rapidly that Leile appealed to the British for help. The first British missionary, John Rowe, arrived in Jamaica in 1814.  From then on, a series of Baptist missionaries from out of the UK arrived in the island.

Bethany Baptist Church in St. Ann is believed to be a successor to an earlier Native Baptist Church in the area

What is implied is that there was tension between Native Baptists on the one hand, and the British missionaries on the other.  Dick said “congregations became part of JNBMS (Jamaica Native Baptist Missionary Society) because of perceived maltreatment by the English Baptists” and “to redress the sidelining of male persons of African descent who could have augmented the pastoral ministry.” He said “these Africans also perceived educational snobbery towards them and took umbrage.”

After the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865 that implicated some Baptists, Horace Russell said that “in reaction the white missionary began to distance himself even more from the worship forms and patterns of the black (Native) pastors.”

English missionaries who went to Jamaica never made peace with the “Africanness” of their African-descended congregants, even though when they arrived, Baptist witness was already flourishing among the enslaved in the colony.

Native Baptists and their influences were sidelined, and the British understanding and practices of ministry prevailed. This is so whether by Native Baptist we mean a separate, distinct group or simply a phenomenon within the English-led churches. Since then, Baptist worship, polity and organization has a distinctly British look and feel to it.

According to Dick, there were 38 Native Baptist congregations in 1841, but only about five in Kingston in 1859. He  suggested there were not many other “native” congregations on the island. The English-led Baptist churches, on the other hand, grew from 46 in 1841 to 69 in 1859.

Indigenization

Dick suggests that several Native Baptist churches became English Baptist congregations. I’m familiar with a significant number of the churches Dick named as originally Native Baptists that are now part of the Jamaica Baptist Union.

Could this explain why indigenization happened so early in Jamaica? That, though Native Baptists as a movement waned, their influence never died.

Calabar College, the first theological training institution for black Baptist pastors anywhere in the globe, opened in Jamaica in 1843. Its name, Calabar, derived from a region in Nigeria, a nod to the African heritage of its student body. Though its education and training were distinctly British, it could be that the genesis of Baptist work as an African movement in the island had some residual effect in the founding of the college.

Indigenization of Baptist work in Jamaica happened early compared to other countries. Not only were there highly trained Baptist pastors of African descent, they emerged into leadership of the Jamaica Baptist Union not very long after the JBU was formed in 1849.

And if Stephen Jennings is to be believed, some of these congregations emerged out of a longstanding African tradition that preceded the Baptist mission. 

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.

Islam in Jamaica

Though Islam has never taken deep roots in Jamaica, it has had a long-standing presence on the island.

With thousands of enslaved persons from Africa brought to Jamaica for more than three centuries, some, perhaps many, must have been Muslims.  Islam had had an early presence in West Africa, from where most enslaved persons in the Americas originated.

Estimates are that as many as 16 percent of indentured workers from India who came to Jamaica after full emancipation in 1838 were Muslims. It is possible too that, while most Lebanese who came here in the latter half of the 19th century were Christians, some of these Arabs may have been Muslims.

Muslim Hussay Festival in Westmoreland, Jamaica (Photo courtesy of the National Library of Jamaica)

While the evidence is not conclusive, there are traces suggesting Islamic presence in Jamaica from the time of the Spanish occupation of the island, which began in 1494 and ended in 1655 when the British took the island by force from Spanish control.

Jamaica’s official website for visitors states confidently:

Islam has been practiced in Jamaica since the 1500s, when African slaves brought the religion during the African Slave Trade. The religion was practiced more widely however after the abolition of slavery in 1834 with the arrival of Indian laborers.

In 2000, Sultana Afroz, a Muslim from Bangladesh and a lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, implied that at least some Jamaican maroons were Muslims. “‘As-Salamu-’alaikum,’ the Islamic greeting in Arabic, meaning ‘peace be upon you,’ continued to be the official greeting among the Maroon Council members in Mooretown, Portland, Jamaica.”

In 2001, Afroz wrote that “[c]ontemporaneous to the autonomous Muslim Maroon ummah, hundreds of thousands of Mu’minun (the Believers of the Islamic faith) of African descent worked as slaves on the plantations in Jamaica.”

She made the remarkable claim that Sam Sharpe was Muslim and the Rebellion he led was Islamic jihad:

Jihad became the religious and political ideology of these crypto-Muslims, who became members of the various denominational nonconformist churches since being sprinkled with the water by the rectors of the parishes. Despite the experience of the most cruel servitude and the likelihood of a swift and ruthless suppression of the rebellion, the spiritually inspired Mu’minun collectively responded to the call for an island-wide jihad in 1832. Commonly known as the Baptist Rebellion, the Jihad of 1832 wrought havoc of irreparable dimension to the plantation system and hastened the Emancipation Act of 1833.

She said, “the dhikir, ‘Allahu Akbar,’ declaring the Greatness of Allah, still throbbed in the hearts of many of the former Muslim slaves when the Indian indentured Muslims first landed in Jamaica in 1845.” She made reference to “the many freed African Muslim slaves in the midst of great social, economic and political uncertainties following emancipation.”

Afroz further asserted that “with the arrival of the indentured Muslims from India, the peaceful revival of Islam in Jamaica began.”

Gordon Mullings said Afroz’s claims rest on a “shaky historical and cultural foundation.” Furthermore:

[T]he overwhelming historical and anthropological evidence is that our “crypto-Muslim” African ancestors were in fact predominantly and very actively animistic, and that Islam first gained a significant institutionalized presence in the region with the settlement of Indian indentured laborers in the mid-nineteenth century.  As for the concept that the Maroons were Moorish/Islamic to the point of constituting an Islamic community under Islamic law (i.e. an ummah), one should start by considering the fact that they have been famous, from Spanish times, for Jerk Pork — a major Islamic no-no.

Maureen Warner-Lewis, a UWI professor, said Afroz was engaging in a revisionism of Jamaica’s history. Her assertions were bedeviled by “inaccuracies of data and faults of argumentation.” In addition:

There are glaring disjunctures between the sweeping claims advanced and the paucity of the evidence proffered, while logic is defied by extravagance of assertion, leaps in assumptions, and glib transitions from probability to dogmatism.

She said Afroz employed “doubtful logic to the production of questionable historiography.” Among other things, she inflates “the number of enslaved Muslims in Jamaica” and she “distorts comments made by some nineteenth-century commentators.”

Warner-Lewis did not dispute early or longstanding Muslim presence on the island. Rather, she accused Afroz of overstating the case and for misreading history.

Some of these enslaved Muslims were literate. Warner-Lewis declared:

The religious ideas of these Muslims as well as the writing skills in Arabic which several of them possessed had in fact caught the attention of European planters, among them Jamaican-based Bryan Edwards (1819). In fact their numeracy and writing skills allowed them to secure jobs as storekeepers and tally clerks on estates.

Furthermore, “Magistrate R. R. Madden of Jamaica alerted anti-slavery and Africa colonisation interests in London to the Arabic autobiography (1830s) of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, otherwise called Edward Donlan in Jamaica.”

Writing in 1922, Martha Warren Beckwith and Helen Heffron Roberts reported that descendants of Indian indentured workers in Jamaica observed the Hussay festival, which commemorates the martyrdom of Hasan and Hussain, sons of Ali. On the final day of this festival, a procession of mourners carried a tomb made from bamboo and colored paper:

As most Jamaica Indians are from Bombay (Mumbai), the Hussay follows closely the form of celebration described from that locality. It is regularly celebrated at different times in different parts of the island, the north side holding its Hussay in January or February, Vere in July or early August.

The two writers noted that the Jamaican government forbade Hussay processions in both Kingston and Savannah La Mar.

Mosque in Kingston, Jamaica

Currently, only about 5,000 Muslims are in Jamaica out of a population of 2.7 million. There are five mosques in Kingston, Spanish Town, Albany and Port Maria in St. Mary, and Three Miles in Westmoreland. Other places of worship (masjids) are at Santa Cruz, Morant Bay and Negril. They have two basic schools.

Several factors have been put forward as to why the presence of Islam on the Caribbean island is negligible, despite its long history there. In Islam Outside the Arab World, Ingvar Svanberg and David Westerlund asserted:

After the abolition of slavery, Muslims either converted to Christianity, or went back to Africa or to other places in Latin America where there were Muslims, or hid the fact that they were Muslims. Until the last quarter of the present [20th] century, Islam was almost unknown in Jamaica outside the small indentured East Indian Muslim community.

The Islamic Council of Jamaica, formed in 1981, seeks to unite Jamaican Muslims, comprising mainly persons of African and Indian ancestry, and some Arabs.

Among the more well-known Jamaican Muslims are musical artistes Jimmy Cliff and the late Prince Buster, who died in 2016.

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.

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
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.

negril-donkey-races-and-fun-day-2013
Donkey race in Negril, 2013. Photo courtesy of my-island-jamaica.com.

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

Having Cuba as a friend

Cuba is Jamaica’s nearest neighbor, at just about 90 miles or 140 kilometers at the closest point between both islands. Each is the largest and third largest island, respectively, in the Caribbean.

Despite the discordant intervention of the Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries, Jamaica and Cuba have maintained, for much of the two islands’ histories, cordial relationships. The arrival of the Europeans negatively affected this bond, but it has not been undone, despite their and the United States’ best efforts.

maypole dancing in Cuba
Jamaican descendants do maypole dancing in Cuba

To maintain relations, Jamaicans and Cubans have had to defy international politics. As colonies of erstwhile rival powers England and Spain in the 16th century, and with the Tainos displaced, replaced and finally, wiped out, there have been deep fissures, compounded by differences in language and culture. As Cold War politics determined international alliances for much of the second half of the 20th century, pressure was put on Jamaica to sever its relationship with its Spanish-speaking neighbor.

But, as both islands have had such strong historical links, beginning with the Tainos and perhaps with whoever came before, Jamaica and Cuba found ways to communicate with and be in touch with each other, in the same way close friends with rival patrons defy their patrons to maintain a relationship, to the extent they can.

The two island nations were especially close in the 1970s, with formal diplomatic relations established in 1972, at the height of the Cold War. In that decade, Cuba gifted Jamaica three high schools and a college that trains teachers in physical education, as well as a few health clinics in rural areas. The college has played a significant role in Jamaica’s current dominance in regional track and field, netball and other sports.  There were also Cuban technical, economic, and medical personnel in Jamaica while Jamaicans studied medicine, science and engineering in Cuba.

Initial migration to Cuba
Jamaican migration to Cuba seemed to have begun in earnest early in the 20th century. Tracey Graham, in a 2013 doctoral dissertation for the University of Chicago, wrote that before turning to Cuba, Jamaicans had previously sought opportunities in Central America:

Increasing population pressure on the land, a series of natural disasters, few economic opportunities, and ineligibility for political participation prompted Jamaicans to look outside of their homeland for socioeconomic improvement by the late 1800s. Travelers emigrated in significant numbers to Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.

Graham pointed out that “as work on the Panama Canal ended by the 1910s, Jamaicans turned their sights back to the Caribbean,” including Cuba:

The seasonal sugar cane harvest attracted foreign workers from Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean seeking better wages than what they could find at home; between 1912 and 1920, thousands of British West Indians traveled to Cuba to labor in the agricultural industry or to occupy niches in the service industry.

The first set of Jamaican workers, about 300 skilled in various trades, were hired in 1907 by the United Fruit Company to work in sugar production and in the construction of railroads, aqueducts and other facilities in Cuba. Many of these workers were already in the employ of the company, which had sugar and banana plantations in Jamaica.

Kofi Boukman Barima of the University of Tennessee, writing in The Journal of Pan African Studies in 2013, said “Afro-Jamaicans typically went to Cuba in search of employment in a number of U.S. enterprises ranging from cane cutters to tobacco workers, others worked as carpenters, independent shop keepers, and farmers.”

José Eloy Richards, Jamaican descendant and a journalist with the Cuban Television Information System, asserted that the United Fruit Company reneged on its promise that, “as soon as the Jamaicans should fulfill their commitments in the future sugar production crop and its requirements, they were to be sent back to their country.” This did not happen as “that agreement was violated time and time again. … There was a constant movement of Jamaican workers (illegally) between the two islands, due to their proximity.”

Between 1912 and 1925, more than 110,000 Jamaicans left the island to work on United Fruit Company plantations. Barima reported that the Commission on Cuban Affairs put “the estimated number of Jamaicans that arrived legally into Cuba between 1921 and 1933 … at 38,856.” A University of the West Indies investigation suggests that 150,000 English-speaking Caribbean islanders had traveled to Cuba around this era.

The Jamaicans tried to make life normal. Labor leader, William Stoute, who did advocacy work among English speaking Caribbean workers in Panama as well, helped to form the Social Club to, among other things, promote cultural activities and to put in place formal educational programs for the English-speaking immigrants.

The Jamaicans established places of worship. For example, in one of the areas they settled, a Salvation Army church as well as a Christian Mission congregation were founded in 1917, an Episcopal in 1921, a Pentecostal in 1923 and a Seventh Day Adventist in 1932.

Graham noted that the Jamaicans who went to Cuba did not fare well:

However, Cubans scrutinized and discriminated against them for being black, for being foreign, for driving down wages, or some combination thereof. Though Cubans claimed to live in a color-blind society, racial discrimination persisted and the white elite supported a policy of “whitening” the island through selective immigration from Spain and miscegenation; these racial and cultural prejudices were particularly divisive given that a significant percentage of Cubans were of African descent. Furthermore, the general population was frustrated by the lack of Cuban sovereignty and saw foreign workers as complicit in the US intervention. As a result, calls for nationalism tended to veer into xenophobia and racism during economic downturns in the early 1920s and 1930s.

Graham’s explanation helps me understand a hazy fact in my own family history. My maternal grandfather, Robert Brown, migrated to Cuba in the 1920s and was never heard from again.

Most Jamaicans eventually returned home. Repatriation of Jamaicans began and accelerated during the depression era in the 1930s when United Fruit Company’s sugar output and export from Cuba experienced steep decline.

Well known and accomplished Jamaicans such as Rita Marley (Bob Marley’s widow) and author and dramatist, Sylvia Wynter, were born in Cuba.

The remaining Jamaican community in Cuba is estimated to be some 5,000. Very few, if any, are first generation as those who went to Cuba from Jamaica have largely died out. The Jamaican and other English-speaking descendants live in places such as Pueblo Nuevo in La Guira, Las Tunas in the east, Guantanamo, right on the very eastern tip, and Baragua, on the central south coast of the island. The Jamaican Quarter in Baragua also includes descendants from the Caribbean islands of Barbados, Grenada, Antigua, Saint Vincent and Nevis.

A 2012 BBC report states that cricket is commonly played in these towns and is a passion of younger English-Caribbean-descendant residents. Maypole dancing, brought over by their ancestors, is also practiced.

Celebrations were held on August 1 to mark Jamaican emancipation. Christmastime was very special with Jamaican Good Night running from noon on December 25, Christmas Day, until dawn the next.

In more recent times, attempts by Jamaican descendants to organize themselves have been thwarted. One such effort began in 1998 but did not last, allegedly due to government action.

Cubans in Jamaica

Cuban teachers in Jamaica - 2016
Cuban teachers in Jamaica in 2016

There’s also a Cuban community in Jamaica. “Cultural differences…have not prevented Cubans from regularly migrating to Jamaica and managing to establish themselves,” wrote Maria Sanchez and Iris Mútiz of Jamaica’s Northern Caribbean University.

Cubans fled to Jamaica during the island’s three Wars for Independence, the first from 1868-1878, the second from 1879-1880 and the third from 1895-1898. The first known ship arrived in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, from Santiago de Cuba, on November 5, 1868, with some 100 passengers onboard fleeing disturbances on the island.

Even though most returned to Cuba after 1898, one of the legacies of these exiles, says Howard Johnson in a 2011 paper, was the Cubans’ role in the modernization of the Jamaica sugar industry and establishing tobacco as a viable export crop. Among the families that remained prominent in Jamaica’s tobacco industry for decades were the Palomino, the Machado and Chacon families.

“The regular publication of advertisements indicates that several companies established by Cuban nationals were conducting business in Kingston, Jamaica,” said Sanchez and Mútiz. Jean Stubbs, in a 1995 Cuban Studies journal article, suggested that Cuban exiles in Jamaica who established economic enterprises provided financial support to the Cuban independence movement.

A few Cubans went to Jamaica in the wake of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Some may have fled the communist takeover, but others migrated simply to work, as there was concord between the then self-governing government of the Peoples National Party (PNP) in Jamaica and the new Cuban revolutionary government.

Travel between the two continues into the 21st century. Jamaican immigration authorities reported that more than 400 Cuban immigrants and their descendants sought Jamaican citizenship in 2016, the third highest of all immigrant groups. More than 230 Cuban nationals, including some 150 health workers, about 32 of them doctors, as well as several dozen school teachers, worked in the country in that year. This is the continuation of a longstanding arrangement between both countries.

There is the Association of Cuban Residents in Jamaica, aimed at “preserving the culture, values and national identity” of Cubans living in Jamaica so that “its members may project a better image in the eyes of Jamaican society.” Among the association’s initiatives is a partnership with the José Martí Technical School, one of the schools built by Cubans in the 1970s and named after one of Cuba’s national heroes.

Since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the state of relationship between both Jamaica and Cuba depended much on which Jamaican political party was in power. The Peoples National Party has been on far friendlier terms while the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) oscillated between hostility and testiness. There were periods of closeness and times of estrangement.

The height of the relationship between the neighboring islands was in the 1970s when the PNP was in power. When the JLP (which was strongly pro-American at the time) won the 1980 General Elections, it immediately declared Cuba’s ambassador, Ulises Estrada, persona non grata, expelling him without ceremony and cutting off ties with the communist country. Frosty relations continued until the PNP returned to power in 1989.

Another less well known, sometimes forgotten issue that tested relations occurred in 1996 when about 60 Cubans sought asylum upon arriving in Jamaica. The issue divided the country and exercised much public debate. The PNP government, based on the recommendation of a committee it established to examine the matter, made the controversial decision to return 57 of the Cubans to their country.

In more recent times, things have calmed down somewhat, and even the JLP, which now governs the country, has been less strident in its rhetoric and posture.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

 

Where women make progress

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Rita Humphries-Lewin, founder of Barita Investments, Jamaica’s oldest stockbroking company

A 2014 study by the international Labour Organization (ILO) indicated that Jamaica has the highest percentage of women managers globally. In Women in Business and Management, the ILO reported that just under 60 percent of managers in the country are women.

The status of women on the island is relatively high in politics as well. Portia Simpson Miller was Prime Minister from 2012-2016 after serving a brief stint from 2006-2007. Women have held other senior government cabinet positions in foreign affairs, health, education, labor, social services and sports, among others.

Several factors may account for this high percentage of women in business, the professions and politics. Since 2000, Jamaica has ranked in the top five in global indexes for college and university gender parity. In a 2014/2015 statistical review by the University of the West Indies, of the 14,846 Jamaicans enrolled at the three main campuses in Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados, 9,945 or 67 percent were females. At the Jamaica campus at Mona, of the 4,999 students enrolled in the social sciences, which include management programs, 3,281 or 66 percent were women; of the 3,663 in the medical sciences, 2,669 or 73 percent were women; of the 512 in law, 377 or 74 percent were females.

All this is added to traditional professional caring roles such as nursing, teaching and social work, which are dominated by women.

That Jamaican women are well represented in business management did not happen by chance. At least three key decisions in the 1970s laid the foundation for the advancement of women in education, in management and the professions. In 1974, Prime Minister Michael Manley first proposed and began the process of providing free education to all Jamaicans, from primary school through to college and university. This opened college and university education to swaths of the population previously excluded.

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Jacqueline Sharp, CEO of Scotiabank Jamaica, the country’s second largest bank

The Employment (Equal Pay For Men And Women) Act of 1975 stipulates that all persons, regardless of gender, should get equal pay for equal work. Furthermore, “no employer shall dismiss or otherwise discriminate against any person because that person has made a complaint or given evidence or assisted in any way in respect of the initiation or prosecution of a complaint or other proceeding under this Act.” In other words, clear provisions are made to enforce the law.

The Maternity Leave Act of 1979 provides for women to be paid, for at least eight weeks, “the normal wages earned in respect of the last normal working week during which she worked” prior to going off on maternity leave. She may take an extra four weeks no-pay leave without fear of losing her position or benefits upon returning to her job. Strict enforcement is provided in case of violations.

The combination of increased access to education, equality in pay and other forms of compensation, and the security of keeping one’s job after pregnancy, helped women to advance.

Long journey
It took Jamaican women a long while to get where they are. Women have always had to work, but the jobs they did were mainly menial. Someone once said the discussion about women working is a white woman’s discussion, because black women always worked outside their homes. In slave societies in the Americas – North, Central and South America, including the Caribbean – women were forced to work in the fields, factories, and in the masters’ and mistresses’ homes, without compensation and at the abuse of their bodies.

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From Through Jamaica With a Kodak, published in 1907

Jamaican women blanch at the very idea of going back to that dark past. In April 1981, one minister of government in Jamaica proposed, as a solution to unemployment in the country, the hiring of women breaking rocks. The country’s women, middle class women in particular, were outraged. The proposal was quickly withdrawn and died a natural death. That unfortunate minister of government, who had gone on to create a monstrosity of a chaotic transportation system in the country, was harking back to the days when breaking rocks was indeed a source of employment for Jamaican rural women.

Alfred Leader, who published Through Jamaica with a Kodak in 1907 after visiting the island, wrote:

In all directions here are to be seen native women, engaged in the hard, rough work of the island. Women repair the public roads, break stones on the roadside, and in other ways are employed for work which (as it seems to an Englishman) ought to be done by men only.

He referred to “seeing so many women engaged in coaling steamers, loading them with bunches of bananas, breaking stones on the roads, and other similar employment.” He observed:

One constantly meets the native women bearing heavy loads (garden produce, logwood, etc.), in baskets or bundles upon their heads. They run these huge weights mile after mile along the country roads at a great pace, their swinging skirts and upright carriage (the latter due to this practice of weight-carrying upon their heads from early childhood) being quite remarkable. Some of these burden-bearers are tall, graceful women, almost queenly in their bearing.

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From Through Jamaica with a Kodak

He saw “a native woman, trampling along, with a single heavy bunch upon her head, having brought her burden from her half acre many miles away.”

Women worked on the shipping docks just as men did. He saw that, “immediately on arrival of the steamer, the fruit is run by negroes (women chiefly) into large boats built for the purpose, and conveyed by these to the vessel lying at anchor in the harbor,” a phenomenon he witnessed in Kingston, Port Antonio and Port Morant.

It is clear. Women in Jamaica have made significant progress. The ground was laid in the 1970s, the fruits began to be seen in the 1980s, and the pace took off at a fast clip in the 1990s.

Despite such advances however, one could argue that the percentage of women in leadership is lagging.  Management figures are 6 percent to 14 percent lower than the number of women with university degrees in the broader population.

And if tertiary education is important in the preparation for political leadership, there should be far more women in the nation’s parliament and in the government cabinet. Of the 21 senators, only five or 24 percent are women. Only 11 or 17 percent of the 63 members of parliament are women.  Ministers of government, which number 21, includes only four or 19 percent who are women.

While there is much to celebrate, there is yet need for even greater equity. For instance, in the UWI Statistical Review For The Academic Year 2009/2010, only about 28 percent of fully tenured professors and 31 percent of senior lecturers were women. Women lecturers outnumbered men at 52 percent and assistant lecturers at 57 percent. At the highest levels in the university system, the number of women trail men by a long way. It is only in the middle where women predominate.

Anecdotal evidence suggests similar realities prevail at the highest levels of management in private companies and corporations.  Few women are at the very top, even fewer are appointed to sit on boards. They populate middle and junior management posts.

The conclusion is difficult to escape. Women carry out instructions given by boards and chief executives, but it is only rare that they set policy, determine governance and direct operations. In other words, they are shielded from holding, or wielding, real power and authority.

Considering that women in Jamaica achieve levels of education and other attainments at two or three times the rate of men, this is an imbalance that needs redress.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

A Visitors paradise

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The rolling hills of the Jamaica Blue Mountain range

Jamaica led the way in the development of Caribbean tourism. Blessed with lush forests, breathtaking mountains, indigenous species of birds, insects and plants, and beautiful white sand beaches, Jamaica, from very early, became a magnet for travelers.

Sibbald David Scott, writing in 1875 on his trip to Jamaica, described what he saw upon approaching Kingston Harbor while on the ship’s deck. “The aspect of the island is beautiful—almost everything looks beautiful under a powerful sunlight…. On looking upwards there are such hills, or rather mountains, clothed to their summits in luxuriant verdure.”

In the foothills of the Blue Mountains, just below Gordon Town, Scott said “nature was in full luxuriance here: so rich a prospect my eyes had never feasted on before.” As they traveled on, “the air feels purer and cooler as we ascend.” The treacherous but spellbinding journey through small, winding paths and close to steep precipices had him declaring, “It is in truth a garden of Eden run wild.”

Edith Blake, in her article, “The Highlands of Jamaica” for the North American Review in 1892, opened her account by declaring, “What most surprised me after a residence in Jamaica long enough to enable me to form an opinion of the climate all the year round, was its comparative coolness.” Speaking of the higher elevations, she said, “The climate of these uplands is perfect, resembling the most lovely English summer weather, with a fresh, exhilarating feeling in the air that recalls Switzerland and the Alps.”

Alfred Leader, who published Through Jamaica with a Kodak in 1907, echoed Blake’s sentiments. He called Bog Walk “a little Switzerland,” described it as “entrancing,” and declared “it the most attractive place in the Island, and a photographer’s paradise.” Of the famous Bog Walk Gorge, he said, “the river enters a magnificent gorge—its massive fern-decked rock walls rising on the right almost perpendicularly about nine hundred feet, the water rushing along the rocky bed below.”

Jamaica International Exhibition

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Jamaica International Exhibit, January-May 1891

The Jamaica International Exhibition from January 27 to May 2 in 1891, was an important contributor to Jamaica becoming a tourism destination.  Jamaica’s governor, Henry Blake, said the exhibition would be “an event of very great importance for the West Indies generally, and one that must have a singular interest for the United States, with its many millions of colored citizens.” England’s Prince of Wales attended the opening.

Conceived in 1889, the exhibition was planned in part to mark the 50th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, though that occurred in 1838; and to increase and improve the marketability of Jamaica’s products.

Governor Blake said the original intention was to hold a local exhibition in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, and then to make it part of the Colonial Exhibit in London in May 1891. The Jamaican support was so great however, and the enthusiasm level so high, that the Jamaican event itself became an international exhibition.

Significantly, while the government gave its backing, it offered no guarantees. There was no paid staff. The work was done entirely by volunteers. “Architects and engineers came forward, designed the buildings free of charge, and undertook to carry out their erection,” Governor Blake said. “Everybody with technical knowledge on any subject freely offered his services to the committee.”

Support came from local donors with three providing guarantees of £15,000, or about £1.74 million in today’s money. In all, £30,000 worth of guarantees were received or £3.48 million in current money. Much of the PR work was done through the churches and schools to get the involvement of small farmers and rural folk.

Parts of the island underwent an overhaul. Bridges were built in St. Thomas and Portland. The Public Works Department took charge of and upgraded various roads. The Railway Company expanded its fleet and tracks. Hotel construction was encouraged through the Jamaica Hotels Law, passed in 1890. According to the Jamaica Tourist Board:

The Government offered to guarantee the capital at 3 percent interest, for all approved hotel construction and maintenance of approved hotels and also that all building materials and furniture required for such hotels be admitted into the island duty free.  As a result several hotels were built not only for the Exhibition, but for those who, having been introduced to Jamaica, would come again and bring others.

Among the hotels built because of government incentives was the majestic Myrtle Bank Hotel, the Queens, Hotel Rio Cobre, the Moneague Hotel, the Titchfield Hotel and the Mandeville Hotel.

The Exhibit venue itself was on what is now the Wolmer’s Girls School.

Different forms of agricultural products, farm animals such as horses, cattle, sheep, goats and bees, and items made by artisans, silversmiths, craftsmen and craftswomen, were on display. “There is nothing which you grow or make which will not find a place in the exhibition,” the governor said in his invitation sent around the island. Some 90,000 copies of his message were distributed island wide.

More than 300,000 persons attended the exhibition, with between 13,000 and 14,000 present at the closing session that ended with fireworks. The Jamaica International Exhibition brought a boom to the Jamaican economy. The financial year, March 31, 1891, ended with a handsome surplus of £172,000.

Government incentives
The next phase of Jamaican and Caribbean tourism development occurred in the 1920s when the industry became more formally organized. The government established the Tourist Trade Development Board in 1922, which was merged with the Tourist Trade Development Board in 1926. Government spent annual sums to promote the country as a tourism destination, collaborating with hotels and shipping companies. This led to a sharp rise in the number of rooms available, and Montego Bay on the northwest coast of the island became a favored destination.

The 1930s saw further growth. A travel tax was imposed to help finance promotion. Political problems in nearby Cuba led visitors to choose Jamaica as an alternative vacation destination. Airlines such as Pan Am expanded and improved international air travel, which increased even further after the end of World War II.

With tourism now big business, the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) was formed in 1955, displacing the Tourist Trade Development Board. JTB offices were opened in major cities such as New York, Miami, Chicago and London. The Jamaica Hotels Aids Law of 1963 allowed duty free importation of materials for the construction of new and the expansion of existing hotels.

Some wealthy and well-known personalities, such as the Hollywood actor Errol Flynn and British author, Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond franchise, bought property in Jamaica and lived at least part time on the island. Flynn, who owned the Titchfield Hotel in Portland in eastern Jamaica, helped to develop the tourism industry in that part of the island. It was he who popularized river rafting on the Rio Grande as an attraction for visitors after witnessing banana farmers transporting their products on bamboo rafts from their farms down river to the port.

negril-beach
Negril Beach in western Jamaica

Today, tourism is Jamaica’s largest single business. More than 50 percent of the country’s income is earned from tourism, which employs some 25 percent of workers. Massive hotels now grace the north coast from Negril in the west to Ocho Rios in the east. Other large properties are slated for development, with the largest yet, Harmony Cove in Trelawny to be built on 1,400 acres, still on the drawing board. A mega resort and casino, Harmony Cove is projected to have as many as 5,000 rooms.

It could be argued that though Jamaica gets some three million overseas visitors per year, more than the country’s population, the majority do not get to see the most beautiful parts. Restricting their stays to the coasts where they laze on the beaches, they do not see or experience what so enthralled Sibbald David Scott, Edith Blake, Alfred Leader and others in the early days: the lush forests, the breathtaking mountains, meandering rivers and invigorating mineral springs.  Perhaps that is just as well. Massive crowds at such venues and locations may just water down the experience.

Personal accounts of 1907 quake

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Destroyed rail system and other structures in Kingston, Jamaica, after the January 1907 earthquake. Photo courtesy of www.tramz.com

Each January, seismologists never fail to remind us that Jamaica is overdue for another massive earthquake, perhaps bigger than those of 1692, which destroyed Port Royal, and at approximately 3:30 p.m. on January 14, 1907, which devastated Kingston. Essentially, we are told that Jamaica is living on borrowed time with respect to another earthquake hitting the island.

While there were personal testimonies coming out of the 1692 event, there is a rich storehouse of individual accounts in the wake of the 1907 devastation. In a previous blog post, I wrote that “the 1907 fire and quake left an indelible mark on Jamaica’s capital for years, accounting for the death of about 800 persons.”

I further noted:

J.F. Wilson, writing in 1910, reported that “ten minutes after the first [earthquake] shock, flames burst out in the ruins and raged for three hours before any efforts were made to check them.”

He said “among the distressing features of the entire disaster was the burning of the Military hospital in which 40 soldiers were burned to death before any effort could be made to save them.”

It appeared aftershocks and fire happened simultaneously:

A second, third, fourth and fifth shock followed in close succession. By this time flames had broken out in six different sections of the town and began eating their way through the ruins, and many people were roasted alive. Their cries could be heard above the roar of the flames. Pandemonium reigned supreme.

Another account shortly after the earthquake gave slightly different details:

On the afternoon of January 14 Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, a city of about 80,000 inhabitants, was practically destroyed by earthquake and fire. The deaths number over 1,000. There were about 10,000 houses in the city and parish of Kingston, of which about 96 percent were wholly or partly of brick. Not one hundred of these buildings was in a habitable condition after the calamity.

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A bird’s eye view of Kingston after the 1907 earthquake

In Through Jamaica with a Kodak, Alfred Leader, writing several months after the earthquake, declared, “recent troubles arising from the hurricane of 1903 and the earthquake of 1907 have undoubtedly caused distress, difficulty, and anxiety, and have hindered the progress and prosperity that had begun to develop.”

Myron Fuller of the United States Geological Survey toured the island, starting in March 1907. He reported on eyewitness accounts he received:

The earthquake was accompanied by a loud noise, described as a deep crushing sound, somewhat suggesting distant thunder but with less boom and more of a roar. Intermixed with the natural sounds proceeding from the earth was the crashing of the buildings and the cries of the people, the two together being described as almost deafening.

According to Fuller, darkness caused by dust followed the quake:

One of the phenomena described by all eye-witnesses was the notable darkness following the shock. The local mortar, rather poor at the best, which was used in most of the buildings, pulverized quickly, and was projected into the air together with other dust in immense quantities as the buildings fell, saturating the atmosphere until it was almost impenetrable to the sun’s rays. After the cessation of the shock it slowly settled, covering everything with a thick white mantle of fine calcareous silt.

Fuller noted something peculiar:

One of the striking features of the earthquake was the few windows which were broken. In many instances the window frames, without a single pane broken, were seen where the brick walls surrounding them had crumbled and fallen. This immunity seems to indicate that while there was much shaking there was relatively little tortional or crushing movements in the walls.

1907-earthquake-race-course
Many Kingstonians took refuge at Knutsford Park Race Course after the 1907 earthquake. The park has since been transformed into what is now New Kingston, Jamaica’s main business district. 

Horace Russell, in Much to Live On, recounts the experiences of Terrence Haddon Duncanson, who was to become a longstanding Baptist missionary to Panama several years later:

He had just returned to the workshop from the Savings Bank where he had deposited a shilling when the earthquake struck. At the first shock he took to his heels and was able to make it outside the building before the aftershocks. Others were not as fortunate and he later discovered that several of his workmates died when the workshop collapsed on them. Panic stricken, he kept on running, trying to make it to the Kinkeade‘s Drug Store where his brother worked. As he ran it seemed to him that the whole city was in ruins around him and he could hear the groans and cries of people trapped, injured and dying in the collapsed buildings and rubble. For a while he lost his bearings because the usual landmarks were gone but he knew he had to run towards the east and he knew where the east was. He eventually found his brother and together they made their way to the Kingston Race Course on the edge of the city.

The Kingston Race Course is now New Kingston. Those who know the city are aware that this was a fairly long trek, going north toward Cross Roads before reaching the racetrack.

Russell, who is perhaps the leading church historian from the English-speaking Caribbean, wrote:

Those who could instinctively made their way to the Racecourse since it was the largest available open space. The earthquake was followed by a fire and what the earthquake did not destroy the fire did. Added to which there was also great fear of a tidal wave as the sea had retreated well beyond the Palisadoes during the shocks and was expected to rush back at any moment. It was awful.

The events of that fateful day left an awesome imprint on Terrence’s mind. In recalling the happenings of the time he would often say that there were two things he would never forget. The first was how he did not remember that there was choir practice that evening at church and the second was a line he had repeated involuntarily as he ran to save himself. He had learned it in elementary school and it had remained a constant reminder of the power of Nature and the helplessness of Humankind before its terrors.

One touch of Nature makes all the world kin.

…. For the next two weeks his brother and he with hundreds more lived in tents at the Kingston Race Course. They were destitute and had to depend on handouts of food from the government, the churches and the goodwill of the more fortunate.

A version of the actual earthquake was given by Fuller, whom we mentioned earlier, in his report published on October 1, 1907. It was based on observations he made and “upon interviews with government officials and others who were present in the city at the time of the disaster.”

“The principal shock, which was the only one producing any, serious damage, took place at 33 minutes and 6 seconds past 3 o’clock in the afternoon of January 14, 1907, and lasted about 30 seconds,” Fuller wrote. “The vibrations were not of uniform strength, but were marked, according to descriptions, by at least three recurrent pulsations of alternating low and high intensities.” The weather, he said, was clear.

Another explanation, also written in 1907, gave reasons for the devastation of Kingston:

Mr. Charles Davison, formerly Secretary of the British Association’s Earth Tremors Committee, calls attention in the London Times (weekly edition, January 25, 1907) to the fact that the foundation of Kingston consists of beds of sand and gravel, brought down from the northern mountains. It is on ground of this kind that earthquake shocks attain their maximum intensity.

It further states:

He urges that, if Kingston is rebuilt on its present site, it may again be visited by great earthquakes, and that their effects will be all the more serious on account of the low-lying position of the town and the loose and friable nature of its foundation. There is no other harbour in the island to compare with the extensive haven between Kingston and Port Royal, and the new town will certainly not be far distant from its shores.

Was this making a case for Kingston not to be rebuilt on its current site? I’m curious as to what seismologists say.

A quasi-scientific reason was offered by Fuller with obvious reservation as to its veracity. “The shock occurred near the date of the new moon at which period, it is claimed by some, the Jamaica earthquakes are particularly likely to occur, owing to the supplementary attraction due to the conjunction of sun and moon.”

Kingston was, however, rebuilt. H.G De Lisser in his 1913 book, Twentieth Century Jamaica, made the interesting observation that “Kingston has had the advantage (my emphasis) of being destroyed by fire two or three times, and of being shaken down by an earthquake in January, 1907. Except for that little matter of the corrugated iron roofing, it has benefited much by these catastrophies (sic), having improved itself on each occasion as far as the means, tastes, and ambitions of its inhabitants would allow it to do so.”

For instance, De Lisser said in reference to King Street in downtown Kingston:

Since that year (1907) the city has got at least one street of which it has good reason to be proud, a street which as a business and commercial centre is the finest in all the West Indies. It is well paved, well served by electric cars, taxi-motors, and horsecabs; the buildings on either side are strong, earthquake proof, and sufficiently commodious for the purposes they are intended to serve; in this thoroughfare, too, are the new public gardens, and the colonnades in front of the stores enable the pedestrian to walk nearly the whole length of lower King Street without being roasted by the sun.

Kingston did bounce back, but while Jamaica waits for the next big quake, one hopes lessons learned from 1907 are being applied.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Small country, big punch

Bob-Marley
Jamaican Bob Marley, an internationally recognized global super star

Jamaica punches way above its weight. An island of about 2.8 million people, its name and influence reaches far and deep.

There are the well-known facts. Jamaica gifted the world with reggae music and before that, ska; the Rastafarian name and culture is widely known, largely due to the intertwining of Rastafarianism and reggae music, a global phenomenon; Jamaica is a track and field sprinting powerhouse and, next to the United States, has the highest number of sprinting medals, of all colors, among Olympians; Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee is among the most prized, and expensive, in the world, fetching upwards of US$30 a pound.

There are the lesser known facts. Jamaica was the first country to impose economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa; Jamaica was the first country in the tropics to enter the IOC Winter Olympics; Jamaica was the first colony England acquired by conquest rather than settlement; Ian Fleming wrote 10 of his James Bond novels in Jamaica, where he had taken up residence; Jamaica has the highest percentage of women managers globally; Jamaicans are the largest group of American immigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean; during the 1970s and early 1980s about 15 percent of the population left the country.

There are the facts that are almost never known: Jamaica has more multiple (two or more) live births than anywhere else in the world (lots of twins and quite a few triplets); Jamaica is the first country to sign a Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria grant agreement; Jamaica was the first British colonial territory to establish a postal service, in the year 1688; Jamaica and Mauritania are the only countries whose flags do not share any of the colors of the American flag; it was the first country in the Caribbean to have a website, www.jamaicatravel.com, launched in 1994; chocolate milk was invented in Jamaica; 200 species of wild orchids grow in Jamaica, 73 of which are unique to the country; it is claimed that AT&T, the American company, copied Jamaica’s telephone system.

And there are the facts that are mostly forgotten. Jamaica was the first country in the Western world to construct a railway, even before the United States; Jamaica was the first commercial producer of bananas in the Western hemisphere; Jamaica gave birth to Caribbean tourism; the Manchester Golf Club in Jamaica, established in 1868, is the oldest in the western hemisphere; Jamaica, it is alleged, had electricity and running water before the United States.

Bob Marley
I never knew how big a deal Bob Marley was until my graduate studies in the US in the 1990s. Upon learning I’m Jamaican, students would invariably mention Bob as the one identifying feature of the country they know. His name and fame has not diminished. At a global event in Hawaii a few years ago, I and a Bangladeshi, in our quest to find a food court, solicited the help of a kind young woman whom we met during the search. Recognizing we were not Hawaiians, and likely not Americans, she asked us where we were from. “Bangladesh,” my companion said. She puzzled a look, “Where is that?” After he informed her that Bangladesh is in Asia, I said to her, “Well I’m sure you’ve never heard of my country, Jamaica.” She expressed surprise at my ignorance. “Of course, Bob Marley.”

Bangladesh has a population of almost 170 million people, the eighth most populous country in the world. Jamaica, with 2.8 million, is ranked at 139.

That Marley has made a significant, unique, and decisive contribution has been supported by scholarship. Masa-Hide Kato, in a doctoral dissertation done at the University of Hawaii, found Marley to be a revolutionary figure “in the age of global transnational capitalism.” Marley’s music and message, he argues, was part of the “trans-popular culture” that was part of the decolonization process that challenged “the age of global transnational capitalism.”

Harold Preston Coleman’s 1998 PhD dissertation at the University of Iowa finds Marley to be a charismatic authority “within the social and cultural milieu of the period during which (he) was recording and performing 1973-1981,” and even after his death.

And Grant Aubrey Farred’s 1997 Princeton University PhD dissertation declares Marley on “Organic and vernacular intellectual” in the struggle for “black liberation and political independence.” Farred’s claim that Marley made an important contribution to the struggle for “black liberation and political independence” is of course not related solely to Jamaica. It is well known that Marley’s music and message served as an inspiration to various independent movements in Africa in the 1970s, most notably in Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, as well as struggles in Mozambique and Angola.

Marcus_Garvey_1924-08-05
Marcus Garvey heavily influenced Africans in Africa and the Diaspora

It need not be said that Marcus Garvey is deeply revered by Africans and elements in the African American community. A Ghanaian immigrant in the US felt, upon meeting me, that he was in the presence of someone special, not because of me of course, but because of Garvey. “Africa would be very different today if we had followed Garvey,” he said in reverential tones.

Jamaicans are everywhere. It is an arresting experience, a very pleasant one, to deplane at an airport in Dubai or in Singapore and one of the first things you see in the arrival terminal is a huge photograph of Usain Bolt.

A group of us Jamaicans were walking in Amsterdam when we saw a fellow, on his cell phone, speaking, in not very soft tones, in clear Jamaican lingo. We all walked up to him. “Whey yah do yah so?” We asked. Ending his call, he recalled for us his family’s journey from St. Thomas in Jamaica to Coventry in England to Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

At an event in Jordan, (Jordan!) I noticed a woman on the outskirts of the audience, trying to get the best camera angle of my Jamaican colleague, the main speaker. Accompanied by her daughter, she made sure to find us at the end of the ceremony. Having not a clue who the speaker was, she discerned, upon hearing his voice, that it must be a Jamaican. She had been living in Jordan for more than 20 years, where her daughter was born.

We attended meetings in Panama whereupon one of the Ecuadorian delegates made it a point to introduce herself. Her grandfather, she said, got converted, many decades earlier, under the preaching of a Jamaican at a railway station in Ecuador, a Spanish speaking South American country. That fateful encounter changed the course of her family’s trajectory and history.

We were at an event in Havana, Cuba. Our translator had a very English maiden name, “Lawrence,” whereupon we made known our curiosity. “My father’s family is from Jamaica,” she said, explaining that she still has relatives in St. Mary.

We likkle but we tallawah. We small but we big. We are a dot in the ocean that has sent ripples across the globe. In boxing parlance, we are of featherweight size but punch like a super middleweight.

A very special Christmas

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Pitchy Patchy, one of the Jamaica Junkanoo characters

For enslaved persons in the Caribbean, Christmas was about the only respite they had in the calendar year. For that reason alone, Christmas has always been a big deal in Jamaica, going back centuries.

Christmas was the occasion of Jamaica’s most consequential protest movement, the Sam Sharpe Rebellion, otherwise known as the Baptist War.

Sam Sharpe, it is alleged, was convinced the queen of England had given freedom to the enslaved but it was being withheld by the Jamaican colonialists. He led a sit-down strike during Christmas 1831, which turned violent after the planter class responded with brutal force. By May 1832 more than 500 of the enslaved, including Sharpe, were executed, but the entire affair hastened the end of slavery, which was abolished by law in 1834 and overturned by 1838.

So, Christmas has been etched deep into the psyche of Jamaicans – the only period of real respite and break they had during slavery, and the beginning of the most important protest that led to freedom from slavery.

No wonder, therefore, that Jamaicans take Christmas very seriously. The celebration begins at least a week before December 25, and really ends only after January 1. Never, ever, seek to conduct any serious business between these dates. Other than financial institutions and retail stores, shops, markets and street side vendors, not much happens otherwise. It is time to let one’s hair down and let loose. It is perhaps rightly termed “silly season,” for persons do crazy stuff. They drive faster and more recklessly, drink far more and much earlier in the day, and spend what they do not have. That is the time of year Jamaicans go into debt, and it is the time of year that you would want to get your “partner draw” to get spending money.

And this is actively encouraged. As a young man, just shortly out of high school, I worked in the bank for a short while. At Christmastime, I carried home far more liquor than I knew what to do with, all offered by bank clients. And I was a mere bank clerk! What was a teetotaler 19-year-old, newly baptized into the church and not knowing much about drinking, to do with seven bottles of expensive liquor (expensive for me at least), including Jonnie Walker Black and some well-aged, Appleton Reserve Blend?

My father told us this story, which I’m sure is apocryphal. He saw an acquaintance after the new year and asked him, “How was the Christmas?” The man said it was the best Christmas he had ever had. “I was drunk from Christmas Eve right through to New Year’s Day.”

Loving Christmas

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A Jamaica Christmas Grand Market scene

But I must confess. Like the typical Jamaican, I absolutely love Christmas. The colors, the sounds, the vibes. Nothing beats Christmas in Jamaica. To really know it, feel it, experience it, one must attend Grand Market on Christmas Eve night. In most towns and cities, shoppers (revelers?) walk the streets in their hundreds and in their thousands, vendors spread their wares bazaar-style in the open on sidewalks and on pavements, and people come out in their funniest, or nicest, or sexiest casual outfits. It is at Grand Market you will meet persons you have not seen in years, in decades, and you catch up on old times. You walk a hundred paces and you meet up on another old friend, or classmate, or former coworker.

A Jamaica Gleaner report in 1866 reported on one such market scene in Kingston. “The market this year was numerously attended, by the beauty and fashion of the city. Long before dawn it was thronged with persons felicitating each other on the happy return of the season.”

Christmas is family time. When your relatives who have moved away and live overseas or in other Jamaican towns and cities visit, bringing gifts and goodies, and when the most sumptuous and expensive meal of the year is cooked and served at home. People who live in rural areas raised goats and pigs and prized chickens to be slaughtered and cooked at Christmastime. A virtual feast. In many homes, it is the only occasion when certain china and silverware are used during the year. It was the one time in the year when my mother and Mrs. Small would bake, whipping up more than half a dozen Christmas cakes, with us children helping to mix the batter. The prize? Being able to lick the spoons and the basins and the buckets in which the batter was mixed.

A revered tradition has lost popularity, but I gather is still practiced in some communities – caroling. Early in the morning, from as early as 5:00 or 5:30, church folk walk the community and sing carols, stopping before various residences and singing in loud and exuberant cadences, sometimes provocatively so, knowing that the occupants were not particularly welcoming of the predawn intrusion. A tradition that continues, especially in the older, mainline, more traditional churches, is Christmas morning worship service.

And of course, there were the Junkanoo bands of various colorful characters that would parade through the streets, playing musical instruments, dancing and prancing. According to Nadya-Kaye Phillips, “this band of comical, and sometimes scary, characters dates back to the days of slavery, when it was one of the few festivities that was allowed on plantations.” While there is dispute as to the origin, some researchers credit Junkanoo to the Igbo people from out of West Africa, a view given credence by the practice of Junkanoo in Jamaica, Bahamas and parts of Virginia in the United States, where there were significant presence of Igbo people and their descendants.

Children were deathly scared of these Junkanoo characters. Pitchy Patchy, Police Man, Belly Woman, and especially Horse Head with his lance. Some Junkanoo bands included the Royal Court, caricatures of the British Royal family.

 Michael Scott, writing in the early 1800s, said of the Junkanoo:

Their character hovers somewhere between that of a harlequin and a clown, as they dance about, and thread through the negro groups, quizzing the women and slapping the men; and at Christmas time, the grand negro carnival, they don’t confine their practical jokes to their own colour, but take all manner of comical liberties with the whites equally with their fellow bondsmen.

Jamaica’s Christmas has always been special. This is neither new nor novel. In the Falmouth Gazette in January 1882, a visitor to the island made the following observation of Jamaica at Christmastime:

I was most agreeably surprised to see, instead of a crowd of roughs, an immense gathering of people of all classes and hues, such as I had never in all my travels in many countries seen before. It was, in truth, a real Carnival, eclipsing, for splendour and order, and kindly displays of earnest good feelings, any similar gathering I had met in dear England, or in France, Italy, Germany, or America.