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

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.

The Jamaica-Irish connection

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Famous Jamaicans Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey and Claude McKay were all of African-Irish descent

It is said that, next to persons of African descent, the largest racial/ethnic group in Jamaica are those of Irish descent. This was a surprise to me as I thought the next largest group were East Indians.

Of course, it is doubtful whether many persons in Jamaica are of any single racial or ethnic background as it is long known there have been much mixing along racial lines since the Europeans came in the late 15th century. As this is so, it is likely the count of any particular racial or ethnic group is grossly under estimated. Unlike other countries, such as the United States, Jamaica does not pay keen attention to race and ethnicity and certainly, one is not expected to provide one’s racial background or heritage in any official document. One is either Jamaican or isn’t.

My own maternal grandmother, who was born in the 1880s and died in the 1990s at well over 100 years old, said her grandfather was a “Scotsman,” a Jamaican term that can refer to any white Jamaican regardless of ethnic background. It is easy to believe, for Granny and all her children, including my mother, were light skinned. Whether my great-great-grandfather was English, Irish or actually a Scot is not really known.

Irish slaves
What is not well known is that Irish slaves were brought to the Caribbean by the British. According to Herbert Byrd Jr. in his book, Proclamation 1625: America’s Enslavement of the Irish, Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew the British king Charles I, “placed tens of thousands of Irish in slavery and transported some to the mainland (North America) plantations; others were shipped to plantations in the West Indies.”

It appears enslaved Irish were part of the force used to wrest Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. Byrd said the expedition that took Jamaica “included many Irish slaves” from Barbados and St. Kitts (St. Christopher at the time). After the British took full control of Jamaica, “Cromwell, with his new island, had Irish slaves sent from Barbados and St. Christopher to work the new land.”

Others were brought directly from Ireland. As early as 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2,000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers. Apart from these, Elliott O’Donnell in The Irish Abroad, said “that 6,000 boys and girls were transported as slaves from Ireland to Jamaica, and that the total number transported there and to Virginia amounted to 10,000.”

Byrd mentioned an early British practice in the North American colonies, where “slave owners bred the African males with the Irish women and girls.” One reason was that African-Irish enslaved persons fetched a higher sale price than those who were purely African or Irish.

Ray Cavanaugh in his article, “Sláinte Mon – The Irish of Jamaica,” claimed this was also practiced in Jamaica for a similar but slightly different reason. “Rather than spending money on new slaves, the Jamaican plantation owners began mating Irish females with African men to create a new breed of slave that, in the Caribbean climate, was a more apt labourer, and thus commanded a higher value than full-blooded ‘Irish livestock.’”

Jamaica-Irish solidarity
Irish oppression under the English gave rise to feelings of affinity between Irish and persons of African descent. Irishman Richard Robert Madden, “who left his profitable career as a doctor in London…was appointed a Special Magistrate in Jamaica where he oversaw the abolition of slavery in 1834,” wrote librarian and historian, Liam Hogan. “He was hated by the planters there (now former slaveowners) as he doggedly defended the emancipated slaves new rights by making site inspections and ensuring that they were treated as equals in his court. After much intimidation, threats and eventually a violent assault in the street, he had to resign his position.”

Madden, in fact, discovered he had black enslaved relatives in Jamaica who, based on his own account, had very close family resemblances, which confirmed to him the information they gave of their ancestral heritage. “Undoubtedly, the unforeseen encounter with his Jamaican relatives had a profound impact on Madden, infusing him with an even greater desire to eradicate slavery in all its forms,” said Hogan.

The Madden name is well known in Jamaica as a branch of the family owns and runs one of the oldest and largest funeral businesses in the country.

One very important personality to be so affected by the similarities in Irish and Jamaican colonial history was Marcus Garvey who, it is believed, also had Irish ancestry. The Irish Rising of 1916, in particular, seemed to have had a profound impact on, and influenced Garvey, who had founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Jamaica in August 1914.

The Rising, occurring on Easter in April 1916, is one of the pivotal events in Irish history. This event, the 100th anniversary of which is marked this year, led to the partition of Ireland, the creation of the independent Irish republic, the continued colonization of the rest of the island and the long struggle for independence and reunification by those who live in what became Northern Ireland.

Brian Dooley in Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland & Black America, said “Garvey was one of several black nationalists who studied and admired the Irish Republican approach. Garvey’s Irish influences had begun as early as 1910, when he was assistant secretary of the National Club of Jamaica, whose founder, S.A.G. Cox, had admired the Sinn Fein movement while studying in the early years of the century.”

Dooley contended that “Garvey based many of his black nationalist ideas on the Irish model.” Noted Garvey scholar Robert Hill said as much in The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. “Far more than any other nationalist struggle, the Irish revolutionary struggle assisted in focusing Garvey’s political perspective.” Hill indicated that “even the slogan made famous by Garvey, ‘Africa for the Africans at home and abroad,’ echoed the oft-repeated Irish slogan, ‘the Irish race at home and abroad.’”

Irish influences
Irish last names are common in Jamaica – Burke, Clarke, Collins, Lynch, Murphy, Walsh, and any name with the prefixes “Mc” – McKenzie, McDonald, McCall, Morris, McMillan, etc.; and “O’” – O’Brien, O’Connor, O’Hara, O’Meally, etc.

Other than Garvey, another famous Jamaican of Irish extract is Bob Marley, whose father was white and his mother black, both Jamaicans. Jamaica’s first prime minister, Alexander Bustamante, who changed his last name from Clarke, was of Irish ancestry. So was the island’s most famous poet of the early 20th century, Claude McKay, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance in New York during the 1920s.

The strong Irish influence is seen in place names. Irish Town and Dublin Castle in St. Andrew; Irish Pen and Sligoville in St. Catherine; Athenry and Bangor Ridge in Portland; Clonmel and Kildare in St. Mary; Belfast and Middleton in St. Thomas; and Ulster Spring in Trelawny.

At least one major Jamaican institution, the Jamaica Constabulary Force, formed in 1866, is said to have been modeled off the Irish force, down to the “red seam” that runs down the side of the trousers.

Jamaican and other Caribbean citizens as well as Irish with a keen ear have noted similarities in accents and words. As one Irish noted, “Jamaicans always sound like they’re from Cork to me!” Cork is a university city in southwest Ireland. The United Kingdom comedian and actor, Lenny Henry, who has Jamaican parents, is said to have described Ireland as “Jamaica in the cold.”

And it is strongly suggested that the Irish gave Jamaicans their most favorite and highly colorful curse words, those of the different “cloth” varieties. If true, this is indeed an enduring legacy bequeathed by the Emerald Isle to Jamaica. The Irish, it appears, taught Jamaicans how to curse.