By Peter Espeut
In 1995, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the first arrival in Jamaica of East Indians at Old Harbour Bay; and more or less every year on May 10 (the date of their first landing in 1845), there is a re-enactment in Old Harbour Bay of their arrival by boat.
In 2004, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the first arrival in Jamaica of the Chinese at Falmouth. Both these ethnic groups did not come to Jamaica as free people. They came as indentured labourers, to work in the cane fields under atrocious conditions; but we celebrated nonetheless.
In 1994, we celebrated with great fanfare the 500th anniversary of the arrival in Jamaica of the first Europeans, who came as explorers and conquistadores, and five years later (in Nov 1509) came as settlers and colonists. There were speeches about how two great civilisations - the European and the Amerindian - met in the Caribbean. The inequality in technology (the Europeans had guns) meant that one group exploited the other. But we celebrated nonetheless.
Here we are in (what the Americans have determined to be) Black History Month, and I have not heard a word about the fact that this year - 2013 - is the 500th anniversary of the arrival in Jamaica of the first Africans! I have not heard any plans to celebrate this momentous occasion, when a third great culture, a third great civilisation, first set foot in Jamaica.
WHERE IS CELEBRATION FOR BLACKS
There is no doubt that although the Indians and the Chinese have made a significant contribution to the cultural mix that is Jamaica (including curry goat, ganja and Peaka Pow), the contribution of Africa and Africans to Jamaican culture is even more substantial; therefore, even more worthy of celebration. Why no plans? Or even an announcement?
On Page 1 of Jamaica under the Spaniards by Frank Cundall and Joseph Pietersz, we read that in June 1513, King Ferdinand of Spain gave permission to Juan de Esquivel, governor of Jamaica, to import three African slaves who had, however, to be Christians (i.e., they could not be captured and brought directly from Africa). They were, in fact, brought from the Iberian Peninsula, after having been taken there from West Africa by the Spanish and the Portuguese several years before. They may even have been born there! The first Africans did not come as field labourers, but as personal servants to Governor Esquivel, and his wife and daughters. At that time, the Spanish Crown prohibited the wholesale importation of Africans to the New World (See Spanish Jamaica by Francisco Morales Padrón, p. 31).
The Africans brought to Jamaica may very well be the first Africans to come to the New World! Africans first went to Española (Hispaniola) in that same year, but since we don't know which month, we cannot make an indisputable claim to being the very first. But "if a nuh so, a nearly so!"
Only much later did numbers of Africans come to Jamaica as servants, cowboys, herders of cattle, pigs and horses, as well as hunters (sugar, although grown, was not yet king). When the English invaded Jamaica in 1655, General Robert Venables demanded to parlay a surrender with the Spanish governor's personal representative; a Catholic priest and a "negro major" negotiated the terms.
NO EASY SURRENDER
But the patriotic Jamaicans did not give up their country easily, and the English met resistance as they advanced westward. In the Battle of Rio Caobano (Black River) in August-September 1655, black troops - especially sharpshooter Diego Pimienta - killed scores of English soldiers. And bands of Maroons - some of them freed slaves - harried the English for decades (until the late 1730s).
In February 1656, English soldiers attempted to capture the Spanish settlement of Parottee. As they advanced, a mounted black man rode boldly up to them and said that he was living nearby on his own, and would remain there as long as he could find cattle to hunt; and that he would not fight the English unless they interfered with him. He then proudly rode away.
There is so much more to Jamaican black history than slavery!
Under the English, when sugar became king, the mass importation of slave labour from Africa took place, and it is from here that so many people begin their account of Jamaican black history.
It is not too late, I think, for us to mark the quincentennial of the arrival of Africans to Jamaica.
Jamaican culture is indeed unique. Derived from many sources, Jamaican culture is not simply the arithmetical sum of its many parts; we have become Jamaican, quite a separate brand from our European, African, Asian (or Amerindian) forebears. Yet it is proper for us to celebrate our Africanness. Lest we forget.
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.