Tue | Sep 19, 2017

The First Jamaican Hero: Lessons from the past

Published:Sunday | January 31, 2016 | 1:00 AM

Title: Huareo: Story of a Jamaican Cacique

Author: Fred W. Kennedy, PhD

Publisher: Ian Randle Publishers

"When our people first saw the bearded white men, they thought they were creatures from the turey. They called their leader, Guamikeni, Cacique of the Earth and Sky. But we know that these creatures are not born of the Spirit of Spirits, they did not come to us from the sky, but from another land, a place of darkness we do not know." (P.179)

In this groundbreaking historiography, author Fred W. Kennedy recaptures an existential era that shaped the destiny of multiple peoples. Written with flawless colour and tone, Kennedy offers the best in narration. Huareo brims with culture and academic relevance Here, 15th century culture and history breathe in concert. It presents a measured, judicious look at a tradition that speaks to us. Interestingly, Kennedy does not fold under the pull of romanticism, oftentimes the Achilles heel of writers enchanted by everything indigenous.

Well researched, and annotated with illustrations and photographs of artefacts, Kennedy interlaces several plots glued by a common theme. And notable is a glossary that ably responds to the many Amerindian terminologies that litter these pages. This exhaustive undertaking can make for laboured reading at times.

ORAL TRADITION

Kennedy, though, will have it no other way. He submerges us into the past and never lets up. Every nuance of Taino custom - marriage, kinship, religion, spirituality, funerary rites, political structure, and economic sustenance is explored. In the end, our awareness and identification with the first peoples of the Caribbean are heightened. In an idyllic way, we are all Taino.

Ancestral t eachings and the deterministic role of the gods are conveyed through oral tradition. And spirits roam, ever poised to exact a pound of flesh from errant villagers. We must accord nature its due. Ritualistic obeisance is the only armour against the fretful, unsatisfied impulses of these powers.

Providence can be unyielding and the role of shamans to divine and placate these cosmic forces takes on a disturbing urgency.

Huareo assumes the leadership of a robustly impressive kingdom. Immediately, we respect and admire the decision of the gods. "A natural teacher," he is called. "His mental poise, patience, and overall leadership skills during a fishing expedition are prophetic. When hunting in the dead of the night, [he] showed no fear. If the opia greeted him, he would forbid them to touch him because they were spirits of the night. The Great Spirit was present to give him courage."

He is taught the arieto (narratives and songs of the ancestors), painting, herbalism, and how to make cemi (sculpture inhabited by deity), from where originate power and strength. He absorbs the energy of the spirits and the ancestors and moldedinto a leader of men. He is destined to inherit the cacicazgo of Majagua.

And he eyes Caona, an attractive dame. There is a definitive maturity to his amorous pursuits.

But, a damning oracle interrupts Taino life. "The Great Spirit always tells the truth," Majagua, the cacique, is told. "The Taino will enjoy their dominion for but a brief time because a clothed people would come to their land who would overcome them and kill them, and they would die of hunger."

INSATIABLE GREED

And when messengers travel to Yamaje (Jamaica) from as far as Lucayos and Haiti to deliver the unsettling news of settlers, "taller than any man we know, and their faces as white as the flesh of the barracuda," the stage is set for a cataclysmic clash of cultures.

The insatiable greed of the Europeans is immediately evident. One messenger relates, "We offered them gifts of cotton, we gave them water, the iguana and casabe [bread], but they were not satisfied. They wanted the guanine [an alloy of gold silver and copper]."

In the first encounter, Huareo calls upon the spirit of Guabancex, Lady of the Winds, to cast her spell on the strangers, to destroy them in her path with forces of wind and water.

Kennedy captures the array of emotions - trepidation, anxiety, and determination. The Taino lack the notorious ferocity of the Caribs but are steadfast, prepared to stand their ground. But their will succumb to the might and violence of the enemy. "Huraeo shuddered from the howls of the wounded men and vomited at the bloody savagery that unfolded before his eyes."

The Taino cave in, reluctantly appeasing the settlers, praying that they will depart upon learning that (Yamaje) did not offer gold or other precious metals. But the visitation of evil that befalls other Taino land is imminent. Huraeo listens to portentous narratives: "They capture our caciques and kill them. They imprison our people by the thousands and take them as slaves if the gold they trap is not sufficient. They tie men on together with ropes and load them on their boats and we never see them again."

The incorrigible, untrustworthy arijuana (strangers) tax the will and wits of the unwilling hosts. What will Diego Mendez, Cristobal Colon, Don Juan de Esquivel, and others ultimately bring to Yamaje, "the sacred land of many springs?" Powered by the Church and royal decrees, the colonisation of the island marked by the construction of the town Sevilla is a death knell to the indigenous people. "They are now subjects of a king and their new ruler will not ask them to work for free," [and that] "their finest rewards will be the salvation of their souls," Huareo is told.

And although the clerics would much prefer a "benign subjugation," an ominous threat lurks. Huraeo leads the resistance against genocide, growing division, and the crushing reality that his very son has joined the enemy. As quislings (collaborators) arise within the ranks, the nail is driven deeper into the coffin of the Taino.

Huareo speaks on multiple levels. The impermanence, vicissitudes and unpredictability of life are underscored. And today, we grapple with the very forces that collided centuries ago. Occupation, migration, nationalism, identity, culture wars, forced conversions, and xenophobia still wrestle with our conscience. Huareo does not offer a template towards conflict resolution. It is not meant to. But as we replay the drama of this regrettable era, hindsight is our only safeguard against the persuasive evils of greed.

Rating: Essential

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