Sun | Jul 22, 2018

After the 150th, what then?

Published:Thursday | October 22, 2015 | 12:00 AMMel Cooke
Paul Bogle’s statue in front of the Morant Bay Courthouse, St Thomas.
Peter Tosh
Third World in concert.

Anniversaries can be dangerous things. For one, there tends to be an emphasis on the time that has elapsed rather than on the worth of what has transpired over the period. A few years ago, we were celebrating Jamaica's 50th anniversary of political Independence with very little thought on the official national agenda to how far we have come - or not - during half a century in charge of our own affairs.

It was a lot of fireworks without analysis, and lo and behold, here we are, three years later, intent on passing International Monetary Fund (IMF) tests.

Another weakness of anniversaries is that there is an orgy of output at the selected date, but often, precious little permanent record of the artifacts created in celebration of that historical moment.

On January 1, 2004, the bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution was all the rage. Notwithstanding that it conveniently coincided with the removal of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and was followed in all too short order by the earthquake six years and a few days afterwards, the unique Haitian Revolution quickly faded from the public radar.

Before, and a little after, we knew Haiti mostly as a place from which boatloads of persons drifted on to Jamaican beaches. Now, it is the point of origin for boats of a different kind - boats laden with guns.

A striking example is Peter Tosh, musically brilliant original member of The Wailers who has not been accorded his just dues. In 2012, he was awarded the Order of Merit posthumously, the National Heroes Day ceremony lining up nicely with Tosh's 68th birthday on October 19. There were all sorts of promises from the family about making the award the basis of a renaissance in the Stepping Razor's music, but three years later, nothing has changed.

Now we are in the throes of marking the anniversary of yet another attempt by the underclass to change the balance of power in Jamaica, which took place in St Thomas in October 1865.

The Morant Bay Courthouse was the focal point of what is termed a war, massacre, uprising, and rebellion from various (and varying) perspectives.

There has been a lot of artistic output around the 150th anniversary of what took place in St Thomas, the hanging of National Heroes Paul Bogle and George William Gordon being the most widely known outcome. In the summer, the University Singers presented the opera 1865 which, by all accounts, was very well written and delivered. On Sunday, Governor Edward Eyre, who was responsible for the state's brutality towards black Jamaicans in 1865, will be posthumously put on trial in the Morant Bay Courthouse. The dramatic production is titled Trial of Governor Eyre.

In March, secretary manager of the St Thomas Parish Council Errol Greene outlined a number of activities in St Thomas to commemorate the 150th anniversary, including "a prayer breakfast, construction of a monument in memory of the martyrs, East Fest, a street dance in Morant Bay, an exhibition at the St Thomas Parish Library, a symposium, a panel discussion, lectures, a gospel concert, a speech/essay competition, a 5K run/walk, a vigil at Stony Gut, a breadfruit festival, a re-enactment of the march from Stony Gut to Morant Bay, Kumina, and fireworks displays."

And yesterday evening, the book Colour for Colour, Skin for Skin: Marching With the Ancestors into War Oh at Morant by Dr Clinton Hutton of the University of the West Indies (UWI) was launched at that institution. That came ahead of the Morant Bay Rebellion Conference, hosted by the UWI, Mona, Department of History and Archaeology, which starts today and continues until Sunday.

By their nature, Hutton's book and the papers presented at the conference are enduring analytical records and are part of ongoing work, which comes to the forefront at this time but is not necessarily specific to the anniversary. However, in other cases, I wonder how much is being done to make the activity around the 150th anniversary of Morant Bay more than a blip on the historical radar.

I say this as someone from St Thomas who attended 'Ms Ffyfe's school' (Summit Prep) and then Lyssons All-Age, although I did not go to high school in the parish.

I grew up a few miles below the village of Wilmington, with Spring Garden across the valley. Down the hill from Spring Garden was Stony Gut, but I never went to the almost bare site of what was once that village until about five years ago. Paul Bogle's statue was something I saw after driving up 'Fire Station Hill' and entering the square or, with a glance to the right while walking along the main street, the Jamaica National (JN) building on the corner.

A bit closer, the statue was something I could hang around while doing the pickney thing and waiting on the parents. Sure, I read the inscription, but there was a lot more text on the nearby memorial to those who gave their lives in World War I. The cannons at the back of the courthouse were impressive to a kid.

However, despite all this, 1865 was not made real to me as a child. It was not taught to me in school at the primary level. I cannot remember a field trip to the courthouse (much less Stony Gut). So even when the Morant Bay Rebellion came to me in the pages of a literature book in the early high school years, there was no established chord in me for it to resonate with.

I believe that was the general experience for persons across the parish in my age group. Now I wonder if residents of the parish currently at the primary- and secondary-education levels will look back at the 150th anniversary observations as an anomaly in their life experience or the beginning of a continuous engagement with a nationally and internationally

significant period.

And in the meantime, we dance to Third World's 1865 (96 Degrees in the Shade) without context.