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Preserving Maidstone's heritage

Published:Wednesday | July 30, 2014 | 7:00 AM
A number of old graves lie in a section of the Maidstone cemetery. - photos by Paul H. Williams
Some of the slavery-days branding irons in the museum at Nazareth All-Age School, in Maidstone, Manchester.
Built in 1838 at Adam's Valley and relocated to Maidstone in 1888, the Nazareth Moravian Church received a Heritage in Architecture award from the Jamaica National Heritage Trust in 1987.
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Paul H. Williams, Gleaner Writer

Part and parcel of the brutal system of slavery, Maidstone in Manchester was a 349-acre coffee plantation originally owned by Thomas Frith. Operations ceased on the plantation after Emancipation in 1838. In 1840 the Nazareth Moravian Church, located at Adam's Valley, bought 341 acres of the estate and subdivided them into lots of one to 15 acres, establishing a free village for former enslaved Africans.

Maidstone is now a place, after all these years, that is in need of development at many levels, despite its history and heritage. And in of all it the Nazareth Moravian Church has withstood the vagaries of time. It was established at Adams Valley in 1838, but was re-established in Maidstone with the laying of foundation stones in 1888.

Nazareth Moravian Church was reopened in 1890 at Maidstone, and has been part of the lifeblood of Maidstone since.

Over the years, efforts have been made to preserve it and in 1987, it received a Heritage In Architecture Award from Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) for best-kept historical church.

Ten years later, when Emancipation Day was returned to the national calendar, Nazareth Moravian Church was the venue for the national church service. A major section of the roof was blown off in 2004 by Hurricane Ivan. With the help of JNHT and people like community stalwart Sergeant Major Enue Davey, the damaged sections were restored in 2006.

Apart from the church building and cemetery in which lie the remains of some of the once prominent residents and of those not so prominent, there are a few points of historical interest in Maidstone. Near the church are the ruins of a slave hospital, a stable and great house-cum- manse.

Nazareth All-Age School is very much part of the story of Maidstone though it has been downgraded to a primary school for a while now because of a dwindling population. It has a museum of sort which contains many pieces of important artefacts from the days of slavery and after.

Speaking with The Gleaner in the museum, recently, principal Ray Chambers said, among other things, "Being here in this setting has brought home how our forefathers suffered ... We have saved some of these historical artefacts so that others can learn the history and appreciate freedom much more."

Also in the museum is a billboard with the names of the first ex-slaves to have been granted plots of land. The descendants of some these ex-slaves are still residing in Maidstone. Their surnames speak for themselves. Smith is one of the popular surnames. Garth Smith, a former principal of the all-age school, said he is a descendant of Thomas Smith, one of the names on the billboard.

Garth Smith was born in Maidstone and attended the Moravian church, but left the community to seek education, and became an educator himself. He said he heard his grandparents talk about slave occupations in the Maidstone area, but he wasn't keen on the history of Maidstone until he returned as principal in 1998. It was through documents written by heritage historian Hugh Nash, he said, that he got an insight into the rich heritage of Maidstone.

Since then, he has been participating in heritage-preservation activities. Upon his return to Maidstone. he saw slavery artefacts at the school, and, with the help of the Reverend Daniel Thambo from South Africa and some residents, they unearthed more artefacts from slave sites. As principal, he said he made sure the history of Maidstone was infused in lessons.

"All the students should know where they are coming from, their history, and the richness of their culture, history and heritage," he said.

One of the activities used to preserve and highlight the heritage and history of Maidstone is the 'Fuss A August' celebrations on Emancipation Day. The Fuss A August event, first held in 1999, has a homecoming element. It is organised by the community council and held on the grounds of Nazareth All-Age School.

June Palmer, longest-serving teacher at Nazareth All-Age, said the Fuss A August celebrations need more exposure and sponsorship. She also bemoaned a general lack of interest in the heritage and history of Maidstone. She said it is heart-rending that some students are not interested in their culture.

Despite this nonchalance, Smith said Maidstone "has potential", and he is "very proud" of the community of his birth and to be a descendant of the free villagers of northwest Manchester.