Resurrecting a dramatic past
Book: The History of Jamaica from 1498 to 1838
Author: Thibault Ehrengardt
Publisher: Dread Editions 2015
From his home in France, Thibault Ehrengardt has emerged as a marquee exponent of Caribbean literature with seminal offerings, such as Gangs of Jamaica and Jamaica Greats. Now the $64,000 question: Can Ehgrengardt breathe the excitement and intrigue into a worn narrative bearing a sterile title?
In The History of Jamaica from 1494 to 1838, he sparingly cites modern historians, preferring centuries-old archives. Culling data from manuscripts such as Historie Generalle des Indes Occidentales (Paris,1569); The General History of the Pyrates (London, 1724); The History of the Reign of Emperor V (Complete works, London, 1817); The History of the Maroons (London, 1803); and The Narrative of General Venables (New York, 1900), he adds another dimension to a historical, catalytic era that has shaped the political and socio-cultural contours of a Caribbean people.
To capture and hold our interest, he forgoes chronological predictability and deftly interweaves watershed periods in the island's history from colonisation to its transformative, epic struggle against slavery.
Ehrengardt is ever mindful that he risks redundancy - preaching to the choir - so to speak. He must offer more. And he does. With first-hand accounts we are riveted by the colourful, loud sentiments of colonisers and adventurists. On a transcendental level, we experience the stomping rhythm of a time that was.
With first-hand accounts of the islands' architects, we peer deep into the Jamaican archetype.
Long deemed heretical savages, the words of the infamous Edward Long offer a different narrative of the island's indigenous people. "The Spaniards looked with astonishment at a race of men who, in this sequestered part of the world, by mere dint of natural genius ... had attained such lengths towards perfection in contrivance, delicacy, elegance, and utility as appeared in their various fabrics, apparel, and ornaments ... so apt and lively were their faculties, that as soon as the Spaniards instructed them in the art of writing, they immediately wrote their prayers and traditional odes or songs."
And of Bartholomew de Las Casas, the purported benevolent advocate of Indians, Francisco Garay writes, "he was a man of honour and he possessed many Indians who served him and thus he earned a lot of riches ... . It is said that five thousand Indians raised his pigs."
Of the 150 years of Spanish colonisation, we learn of infrastructural growth, political jockeying, and internecine clashes among the emissaries of the Crown.
That the British showed interest in Jamaica as early as 1596 is evident. In History of Navigation, Thomas Lediard pens, "When they arrived in the bay of Jamaica on January 29 ... the inhabitants appeared on horses as if willing to stop them; but they never engaged our troops. As soon as the British took the place, and the whole island people submitted and brought provisions of smoked meat and cassava."
With the capture of Jamaica in 1655, Ehrengardt examines the attempt by the British to pit the 1,500 slaves on the island against the Spanish by granting them freedom. This quid pro quo floundered as the slaves incredulously sided with the insurgency against the new colonisers.
Jamaica emerged as a potential gem in the eyes of Oliver Cromwell "[forcing] Parliament to vote appropriations to sustain the new colony", while guaranteeing migrants the same rights of any British citizen.
But Providence never made it easy and the colony struggled. "The state of our Army is sad," Robert Sedgwick writes, "as God has visited us with a sore hand of sickness, tearing and snatching us away with much displeasure."
The British also encountered the wile and wrath of the Maroons, or wild Negroes as they were called. "Their mode of living and daily pursuits undoubtedly strengthened the frame, and served to exalt them to great bodily perfection ... . Their sight withal is wonderfully acute, and their hearing remarkably quick ..." we read.
A campaign to eradicate them followed. Captured Maroons "proved their loyalty by helping track down their former friends", as "the fatigue of climbing the precepts, and the very load of their arms was almost intolerable to European constitution".
The colonisers, we learn, turned to black troops from Surinam to eradicate this intractable resistance after the Mosquito Indians, at their behest, failed. Of these new arrivals, John Stedman, a young officer, piercingly writes, "What would men not do to be emancipated from so deplorable a state of subjection? Having thus once engaged in this service, it is evident they must be considered by the other part as apostates and traitors of the blackest dye."
The 1739 Treaty between the British and the Maroons is deemed by Ehrengardt as a rupture in the black struggle, echoing the words of Abbe Raynal (1782), "These coward Africans, unworthy of the liberty they had gained, were not ashamed of selling the blood of their own black brothers."
Later, Ehrengardt vividly chronicles the influx of Jewish life in Jamaica and the 1692 natural disaster of Port Royal. Of the latter, he shares eyewitness accounts captured in Le Voyageur Francois: "... the minister exhorted the people to pray, and some Jews were seen kneeling down with Christians, in the excess of their fear, they even invoked Jesus' name out loud ... . Others were looting the houses ... it is true that a second earthquake made them all perish."
As the psychological tremors of the Haitian Revolution reverberated through the hemisphere nearly a century later, Jamaica's colonists were concerned for obvious reasons.
The barbarity meted out against slaves and legal efforts to curb the bloodthirsty impulses of some planters were evident, as exemplified in this 1735 ruling: "No slaves are to be dismembered at the will or pleasure of his owner, master, or employer under penalty of 1001."
And African wizardry was believed to be invariably tied to slave insurrections. The law reflected such: "Obeah-men, pretended conjurors, or priests, upon conviction before two justices and three freeholders of their practicing as such, to suffer death, or transportation, at the discretion of the court."
Throughout, the History of Jamaica never fails to stir the imagination and senses.
Ehrengardt's revelatory exercise is clinically loaded with far-reaching implications. We are products of our historical DNA, he argues. And contemporary crises - national, regional, and personal - are only treatable with a genome-like therapy that is designed from an exhaustively nuanced study of our history.
Ratings: Highly recommended
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