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Paul Bogle and historical memory

Published:Sunday | June 10, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Kevin O'Brien Chang, Contributor

In his June 7, 2012 article 'Wrong picture of Paul Bogle?', columnist Devon Dick mentions that he was sent "a February 2012 issue of
BET magazine in which the identical picture and pose most Jamaicans identify with National Hero Paul Bogle was ascribed to Thomas L. Jennings".

Jennings, who invented dry-cleaning and was the first African-American to receive a patent in the United States, was born in 1791. However, Louis Daguerre took the first-ever photo of a person in 1837 - when Jennings would have been 46 - and it probably took a good number of additional years for the technology to produce photos as 'clean' as the one in question.

The 'Bogle' photo in question shows a man of maybe 25-35, and definitely much younger than 46. So it is a virtual certainty that it is not an actual depiction of Thomas L. Jennings.

Whether the person in the photo was Paul Bogle is another question.

Devon Dick says, "In the file of Bogle at the National Library, there is this intriguing comment: 'W.G. Ogilvie, a member of the Jamaica Historical Society, has discovered a photograph which, although it has not been absolutely authenticated, appears genuine.'"

Storm in a teacup

Some will say all this is a meaningless tempest in a teapot. Yet, official historical narratives can have real-life effects, as argued in this excerpt from my book Jamaica Fi Real: Beauty, Vibes and Culture:

"In a young country like Jamaica it's almost possible to see historical memory being shaped in real time. Take the famous Edna Manley statue of 'Paul Bogle' erected in front of the Morant Bay courthouse in 1965, and which was taken up for restoration in 2009.

'When remounting plans were announced a year later, town residents demanded that the statue, supposedly based on a grandson of Bogle, be replaced by his 'true image'."

According to Dorette Abrahams, president of the African Heritage Development Association, "Paul Bogle was described by newspapers as a tall man with a dominant personality and the imperious character of an African chief. He was born in slavery times, but came to own 500 acres, and out of a total island population of 440,000 in 1864, was one of only 1,903 who could vote. So he was a man of means.

"Give us the real Paul Bogle, possibly mounted on the white horse that he rode, and dressed in his waistcoat, so that when parents or teachers take their black children to look at this black man, they look at his true likeness and feel the energy emanating from him and the children can be inspired to believe that by dint of hard work and natural ability, they, too, can achieve great things in their lives and in this country."

What most Jamaicans think of as a true-to-life depiction of Bogle is the widely disseminated photograph that was put first on a $2 note and then on the 10 cent coin. But David Boxer's monograph on Edna Manley says she rejected this increasingly controversial photo that portrays a smooth-faced man aged about 25 to 30. Bogle was 45 at the time of the Morant Bay Rebellion, and the October 18, 1865, Colonial Standard, which carried a reward of £2,000 for his capture gave this description:

"A very black man, with shining skin, bearing heavy marks of smallpox on his face, and more especially on his nose; teeth good, large mouth with red, thick lips; about five feet, eight inches in height, broad across the shoulders, carries himself indolently, and has no whiskers."

Bogle reviled

Can it really matter how a man who died nearly 150 years ago is depicted today? Well, before Bogle was made a national hero, some St Thomas residents blamed him for the repression by the militia that put down the rebellion, and even for the resulting underdevelopment of the parish.

His descendants suffered a good deal of persecution, and many were forced to flee the parish or change their names years after the 1865 rebellion. Zedekiah Inglington remembered that "as a child growing up, the Bogle name was a disgrace because people used to claim that them kill white people and so nuff people never want to say dem is a Bogle".

But after the granting of national hero status, the Bogle name became a badge of pride and an association with greatness - vivid proof that official historical narratives can have real effects even centuries after actual events.

Sources: Jamaica Observer March 21, 2010, 'Bogle statue model was hero's grandson', 'Bogle name was mud after Morant Bay Rebellion', 'Statue should reflect real Bogle', 'Bogle statue debate taking unfortunate turn'. Gleaner, March 25, 2010, 'That unacceptable statue of Paul Bogle: Devon Dick'.

Kevin O'Brien Chang is a businessman and author of the books 'Jamaica Fi Real: Beauty, Vibes and Culture' and 'Reggae Routes: the Story of Jamaican Music'. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and kobchang365@gmail.com.