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Black Jamaican history
published: Wednesday | February 27, 2008

You can understand why persons of African descent in the United States of America would want a Black History Month; they are so far outnumbered by other ethnic groups that their history in mainly white America might be reduced to a mere footnote. But do we in predominantly black Jamaica need a Black History Month? Is there any part of our Jamaican history (except for the Taino and very early Spanish periods) that is not black history?

It will be hard to write Jamaican history and leave out black people altogether, so that is not our problem; our real problem is a matter of perspective. The truth is that a lot of Jamaican history that is written down - certainly in years gone by - is not the history of the majority, but the history of those who ruled the society. In fact, most of our early historians were planters and slaveowners; e.g. Edward Long (1734-1813), who published in 1774 the famous three-volume The History of Jamaica, or General Survey of the Antient (sic) and Modern State of that Island: With Reflections on its Situations, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws and Government; he owned the 1,915-acre Lucky Valley estate in Clarendon with 260 slaves. Bryan Edwards (1743-1800), who published in 1793 History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies, owned Bryan Castle, Brampton Bryan and Arcadia in Trelawny, as well as Eltham Park in St Catherine and Nonsuch, St Mary, among other properties with many hundreds of slaves. Matthew Gregory (Monk) Lewis (1775-1813), who published in 1834 Journal of a West India Proprietor: Kept during a Residence in the Island of Jamaica, owned Cornwall Estate in Westmoreland and Hordley in St Thomas, with over 500 slaves.

White-planter perspective

It is not difficult to see how later historians could adopt the white-planter perspective in their writing, even, perhaps, without being conscious of it. Modern historians were conscious of the problem: that the characters and viewpoints of the planters were well-developed and explored, while the black slaves were present but 'invisible'. In his 1978 book Searching for the Invisible Man: Slaves and Plantation Life in Jamaica, Michael Craton tries to redress the balance. Conscious of the problem, in the introduction to their The Story of the Jamaican People, Sir Philip Sherlock and Hazel Bennett write: "In this book, the authors tell the story of the Jamaican people from an African-Jamaican, not a European, point of view".

I have in my possession a book entitled Jamaica in 1928: A Handbook of Information for Visitors and Intending Residents with some Account of the Colony's History, published for the Institute of Jamaica by The West India Committee, London. How is this for black history: "The negro race has at present gone but a short way on the path of civilisation. The individuals are still as children, childlike in belief and faith. Once gain their confidence and they will trust implicitly. Their sense of rhythm is extraordinarily developed. This, no doubt, is owing to their fondness for the drum, an instrument which for its effect depends entirely upon rhythmic variation.

Syncopated rhythms

They have a special predilection for syncopated rhythms, and appear to count in a way altogether opposed to ours, viz. between the beats instead of upon beats. Is this perhaps a key to their mentality, which differs so strikingly from ours? To the stranger the Jamaican is no problem; nearer acquaintance reveals remarkable and unaccountable differences. A planter, as intimately acquainted with them as it is possible for a European to be, expressed himself thus: 'When I had been here twenty years I thought I understood them; now that I have been here over thirty I am sure I don't understand them at all'."

This book makes interesting reading, written during my father's lifetime, reflecting 'informed' views about Jamaican black people. Sometimes I wonder seriously whether these benighted views do not still reside in the minds of some of our politicians, and others in positions of governance.

Although perspective is the main problem with our history, we have content problems too. We know more about Governor Eyre than about Paul Bogle or George William Gordon. We know so very little about famous black persons in our history, such as Cudjoe, Johnson, Gardner and Dove.

If it was the task of the last generation to point out the fact of the invisible man and woman, maybe it is the task of this present generation to bring him/her out of the shadows and into the light. For a people who do not know their history may be destined to repeat it.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and is executive director of an environment and development NGO.
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