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

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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 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

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

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.

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.

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

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,, 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 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

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

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.

The depressing story of a country’s most famous burial ground


One is not sure how many countries have a cemetery that holds the level of notoriety as the May Pen Cemetery in Jamaica. Yes, the United States has Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, just outside Washington, DC; France has Père-Lachaise in Paris; there is Highgate Cemetery in London, England; and the cemetery at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

Some cemeteries resonate with deep meaning, including those mentioned above as the burial ground of the famous and the brave, as well as those associated with particularly tragic events such as the Jewish Holocaust. But the May Pen Cemetery in Jamaica is an enigma.

Back in the day, May Pen Cemetery was the main burial ground for citizens of Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, and a number of well-known and even famous Jamaicans are buried there. A source described it as “one of the oldest public cemeteries in the English speaking Caribbean in which persons of all nationality are interred.”

Notable personalities buried there include pioneering Jamaican musician and trombonist, Don Drummond. But as a Jamaican newspaper story stated a few years ago, “May Pen Cemetery, one of Jamaica’s largest and oldest, has fallen upon hard times.” The parlous state of the cemetery is demonstrated by reports that Drummond’s “exact grave site cannot be located.” Imagine, the grave of one of Jamaica’s most important musicians in its most famous cemetery is lost!

What is now May Pen Cemetery, in an area once known as Littleworth, was used, among other things, for horse racing. In about 1804, horse racing was taken to Knutsford Park, which was in turn replaced by Caymanas Park in the middle of the 20th century. Knutsford Park has since been transformed into Jamaica’s main business district, New Kingston.

According to the Jamaica History Weebly website, “horse racing was among a variety of sports authorised by Governor’s patent to be held every year at Littleworth as far back as 1718.” Other activities held at the venue included “Cockfighting, Bullbaiting, Cudgelling, Playing for hats. Dancing for Knots, Wrestling for Belts, Troll-Madam, Coits, Leaping, Pitching the Bar, the Raffling Plate.”

Early editions of the Handbook of Jamaica, first published in the late 19th century, stated that the “property was purchased in 1851 with a sum of money voted by the Legislature for the purpose of providing a new burial ground for the parish of Kingston.”

Law 21 of 1874 formalized the management of the cemetery and a board was created for that purpose, “subject to the power of the Governor to make regulations and special orders.” The Superintendent of Cemetery, who had operational responsibility for the burial ground, earned a handsome £120 per year.

The same 1874 law divided the cemetery among various Christian and other religious traditions, with the largest portion given to the Anglicans. “This law further provides for the assignment of portions of the burial ground to the several religious denominations,” the Handbook of Jamaica recorded.

Among the church groups were the Roman Catholics, Wesley, United Methodists, Congregationalists, United Presbyterians and the Salvation Army. Two Baptist congregations in the city, East Queen Street Baptist Church and the Native Baptists (Lyle’s Chapel) were accorded small portions.

There were the Burial Ground for the Parish (Anglican) Church, Gardner’s Ground for the London Missionary Society, Cow Pen Ground for the Wesleyan Methodist, Griffith’s Ground for the United Methodist Free Church, Pinnock’s Ground for the Wesleyan Society, Roach’s Ground for Baptists and the Native Baptist Chapel Ground.

The Spanish and Portuguese Jews Ground and the German Jews Ground were also designated.

Importantly, a section was the Pauper Ground, for the burial of the poor and indigent. There was even a section for victims of cholera, which affected Jamaica periodically back then, the largest outbreak occurring in the early 1850s.

By March 1905, figures show that 1,369 persons were buried at the May Pen Cemetery. The overwhelming majority, some 844, were paupers. The Church of England (Anglicans) had 422, Roman Catholics were next with 20, Baptists having 18, and the Presbyterian Church of Jamaica with 10. All the others had single digits. According to the records, there was one “Mahomedan.”

Apparently, your religion, your status and your class follow you in death!

Nowadays, May Pen Cemetery is a shadow of its former glorious self and not even paupers wish to be buried there. How and why this has come to pass is not much of a mystery. The rich, the elites, the well to do and most of the middleclass have long left Kingston for the higher climes of St. Andrew. Their departure left the parish of Kingston, the heart of the city, largely as the abode of the poor and the struggling. Once sought-after neighborhoods have since become synonymous with decay and crime. New residential areas arose as a result of land capture and squatting and the attendant social ills that often result.

All this had its own impact on important landmarks of Kingston such as May Pen Cemetery. Maintenance and upkeep ended. Churches and the city’s government reneged on their responsibilities. Couples often do unmentionable things on its tombs. It is the home of the homeless, where it is a convenient if haunting refuge. Thieves smash tombs and steal their contents; apparently, major targets for these thieves being gold and items for the illegal scrap metal trade.

In March 2016, the Jamaican government announced plans to renovate the old burial ground “to encourage and facilitate increased use of the more than 200-acre property, of which 130 acres have been utilised for burials.” There is hope for the “restoration of graves which have been vandalized.” A special committee “has been established to spearhead development of the plans.”

More persons, in different parts of the world, are expressing greater interest in their ancestry. Burial grounds are an important source of information and are being embraced as sacred elements of that legacy. May Pen Cemetery is among the most significant artifacts of Kingston and the nation’s history. It is a massive shame it has become what it has.

Slave cemeteries: Where did all the dead go?

slave cemetery - papine
Evidence of a slavery-era burial ground in Jamaica, discovered at a University of the West Indies construction site (photo courtesy of UWI, Mona)

Reports in March this year that a slavery-era cemetery was discovered in the parish of St. Elizabeth in Jamaica with the grave of a Manley progenitor (the Manleys have been the leading political family in Jamaica) begs the question: Whatever happened to all those graves where the enslaved were buried?

Since at least the 18th century, Jamaica had far more black enslaved persons than any other group. Yet there are precious few known burial grounds for the enslaved. The answer is simple. Enslaved persons were interred in unmarked graves, and many of those sites remain unknown.

Matters were compounded by high mortality rates of enslaved children, whose small graves would be easily lost and missed. Kenneth Kiple in The Caribbean Slave: A Biological History, cited H. Orlando Patterson’s finding that “Jamaican slave mortality in the under four-year-old age group [was] excessive.”

It’s a pity these gravesites are unaccounted for, because they are part of the history of a people. They are a rich source of information and an eye into the past.

We occasionally get hints here and there as to the location of these cemeteries.

The most well-known enslaved burial site in Jamaica is at Seville in St. Ann, the first Spanish capital on the island. In the January 2003 edition of the International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Douglas Armstrong and Mark Fleischman wrote:

Four burials were excavated from discrete house-yard compounds in an eighteenth century African Jamaican slave settlement at Seville plantation. Though only four in number, these individuals provide significant information on burial practices and physical conditions within a clearly defined African Jamaican community. The analysis of material remains illuminate living conditions and social relations within the African Jamaican community. Each individual was interred within a separate house-yard and with a unique set of artifacts that yield information about their unique identities and positions within the Seville community.

One of the more interesting stories was connected with one of the “Spanish hotels” built a few years ago in St. Ann. The hotel experienced various setbacks, including injury and death of workmen on the construction site. Reports were that the hotel was being built on an old burial ground for slaves and the spirits were making their displeasure known. It was alleged that assistance was sought from the parish of St. Thomas to quell the spirits, and when that failed, further help was sought from Haiti. Chickens and goats were sacrificed and blood sprinkled. Whether that helped is not clear, though other incidents occurred.

Linton Gordon wrote an article in the North Coast Times that made my breath come up short:

There is, in Walkerswood, Saint Ann, a burial site where slaves were buried. The site is known as “Niggerhouse” …. During slavery, the plantation owners in Walkerswood would bury the slaves who died by whatever cause at this location…this is where the slave masters “tassed weh” the bodies of slaves.

I grew up on the Mount Plenty property in St. Ann, which had Walkerswood as its official district. On the property, in between the great house and the house where the headman’s family lived, was a large plot that everybody called Nigger House. It never occurred to us what the name referred to. None of us ever queried as to why it had the name. No one in Orange Hall, the adjoining village, as far as I’m aware, questioned it. Our lack of curiosity then boggles me now.

Based on Gordon’s reference to this Niggerhouse (that’s his spelling) in Walkerswood, it appears that this piece of ground at Mount Plenty with the same name was either the location where the enslaved lived, where they were buried, or both. I estimate it to be much too large for a burial ground. It was unlikely the owners would have given such a large piece of land just to bury slaves. Besides, the plot is strategically placed so that those at the great house, which sits on top of a hill, could easily see what was going on below. It was next to the headman’s house, likely the house of the overseer in the past, who would be in close touch with anything happening. So my guess is that it consisted mainly of dwellings with a burial spot included. It is chilling that I may have been walking over graves for those many years as a child without knowing it.

Researching slave cemeteries
The likely locations of other slave burial grounds are on estates and plantations, just like Mount Plenty and Seville. Many of these properties no longer exist as they have long been broken up and sold off. For even those still intact, current owners are likely ignorant of the existence or whereabouts of these burial grounds, and if they do, they have no incentive to preserve such locations.

Richard Dunn, in reference to the old Mesopotamia Estate in the parish of Westmoreland, said “it would take a team of archeologists many months to uncover the site of the slave village and the slave cemetery.” Yet he pointed out that there was much evidence of life and activities on the estate as records were meticulously kept, including a count of the number of enslaved persons on the estate.

A team of archeologists conducted geophysical tests at a slave cemetery at Marshall’s Pen in Mandeville.  “Marshall’s Pen preserves the remnants of a slave village including house foundations, refuse pits and a cemetery,” says a joint paper by several scholars in the United States. The team sought “to determine the approximate locations of subsurface graves,” and “the parameters of the burial grounds (marked and unmarked) so that they may be studied and preserved.”

While some of the results were inconclusive, “several graves in the cemetery are covered with cut limestone blocks, others are covered by piles of uncut rock, and there may still be others that are unmarked.” The study, which included researchers from Colorado College, Pomona College in California, University of Texas-El Paso and University of Minnesota-Morris, detected evidence of water in the graves, which affected accurate readings.

A cemetery was discovered in 2012 at Mona, in St. Andrew, “on lands once associated with the Papine estate.” An article on the unexpected discovery by a construction supervisor for the University of the West Indies (UWI) showed uncertainty of the type of cemetery it was:

[W]hile the bones may belong to enslaved persons who lived and worked on the Papine estate, one also has to bear in mind that they could very well be those of free labourers who continued to live on the property in the decades following the abolition of slavery, or the occupants of the Overseer’s house, which is known to have been located close to the area of the find.

The Marshall Pen archeological tests and the discovery at Mona demonstrate how difficult it is to identify and verify burial grounds of enslaved persons, making it likely these will forever be lost to history. In the case of UWI, the 2012 discovery suggests that part of the institution, like so many others, is built over the resting place of the dead.

African American burial grounds

african american cemetery-alexandria
Entrance to the Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia in the United States

Similar neglect of slavery-era and post-slavery cemeteries also occur in the United States, but some efforts are being made to have these preserved. In Alexandria, Virginia, where I live, we drove past an overgrown lot for a number of years until, in 2014, we saw work being done on the site. Thinking it was a new building construction project, we were surprised, when the work was done, to learn it was a 19th century cemetery for African Americans, with the unusual name, Contrabands & Freedmen Cemetery. We see no headstones on this site, just the newly built memorial, while on the other side of the road, directly opposite, is another cemetery kept in pristine condition and populated by majestic headstones. We didn’t have to ask who was buried there.

In January this year, the New York Public Library reported on the discovery of “The Harlem Burial Ground,” a previously unknown cemetery where African Americans were likely buried centuries ago. This was in addition to another such burial ground that was found several months earlier:

Another African Burial Ground was officially “discovered” in New York City a few days ago. Over 140 bones, bone fragments and a skull were recovered last summer at the 126th Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus depot in East Harlem, and preliminary analysis announced on January 20 shows that the skull most likely belonged to a woman of African descent.

The article went on to state:

The story of the Harlem Burial Ground began in 1658 when Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered enslaved Africans to build a nine-mile road from lower Manhattan to the city known then as Nieuw Haarlem. Seven years later the residents erected the First Reformed Low Dutch Church of Harlem (future Elmendorf Reformed Church) at First Avenue and 127th Street and a quarter acre of land was reserved for a “Negro Burying Ground.”

Free and enslaved African Americans were buried there through the mid-19th century; however, in 1853, the land was offered to the highest bidder and sold for $3,000. A casino, and later film studios, were erected on the site before it was ceded to the MTA.

In “Black Deaths Matter,” an October 2015 article in The Nation magazine, Seth Freed Wessler pointed out that Jim Crow laws in the US affected not just the living, but the dead as well. Not only were there enforced racial boundaries in towns and cities between black and white residents, there were enforced boundaries between the dead. Even though Jim Crow is supposedly dead, African American cemeteries, both those used during and after slavery are, for the most part, in bad condition due to a differential in resources to preserve these burial sites. In many parts of the US, “the white one (cemetery) is in fine shape—the black one is not,” a concerned African American told Wessler. This is primarily because “memorials to white lives are left in trust, padded with private and public wealth [while] collective memorials to black lives fall into the red financially and slip from view.”

It is similarly so in Jamaica with regard to the graves of the enslaved. They were never meant to be a memorial in the first instance, and so it has remained.