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Peter Espeut | Heritage as a revenue earner

Published:Thursday | May 25, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Philip Sherlock, as a young history teacher at Calabar High School, recounted this conversation with his headmaster, the Rev Ernest Price: "'Couldn't we teach some West Indian history, some Jamaican history?' I will never get over the fact that he looked at me with a rather pitying smile and said: 'My boy, you have no history.' And this was something he wasn't saying in a cruel way. It was something that was accepted. We have no history. I began to question it." Sherlock went on to author several books on Jamaican and Caribbean history used in schools.

The purpose of the education system developed by our British colonial masters was to fill our heads with the glory of empire and monarchy and the superiority of British culture. We were a subjugated people, living on conquered territory. It was, therefore, somewhat subversive to suggest that Jamaica might have a history and heritage of her own, worthy of serious study and display.

During my school days in the 1950s and 1960s, the history we studied was of Great Britain - about the Picts and the Celts, the Angles and the Saxons; and about the Plantagenets, the Stuarts, the Hanoverians, and the Windsors. It was only in third form that we studied Jamaican history, using Clinton Black's still-useful text. And then there was GCE O'Level Caribbean history using texts by Parry & Sherlock and Augier & Gordon.




The ideology underpinning Jamaica's movement towards political Independence was that we had a history and a pre-history all our own, and, therefore, a future that we could build. In no doubt was the world the slave-masters made; what was to be uncovered was the world that the slaves made, despite their 'down-pression'; and the period leading up to Independence was the heyday of amateur historians and archaeologists unearthing previously unknown Taino villages, Spanish settlements, British plantations with their slave quarters, and the stories around them. As a very famous Jamaican once said, "A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots."

Jamaica's tourism product is heavily biased towards sun, sea, sand, sex, and sensimilia, in which we have some comparative advantage. But our wealth of historical and cultural sites (as well as our natural resources) is an underutilised source of interesting attractions of interest to foreigners and locals alike. Before we even think of foreign tourists, in my experience, Jamaicans - young and old - are profoundly interested in visiting places of historical interest, both in our towns and in the countryside.

As we drive through the streets of Kingston, we pass - unaware - former residences of our national heroes and other important persons, slave markets, and places of torture. In other countries, they erect plaques and storyboards to explicate their history. In 2017, some behave as if we have no history worth knowing about.

I was pleased to see that Labour Day, celebrated earlier this week, focused on places of heritage interest. The Ward Theatre - the fourth performing arts venue to be built at that site - has been the locus of school graduations and plays, pantomimes, and political meetings for more than a century. It was the gift of a plantation owner to the city and people of Kingston and deserves to be kept in good repair and used to stage theatrical productions.




The Central Police Station (CPS) - incorporating the old Sutton Street Police Barracks from where, in 1937, Inspector Orrett led his squad of policemen to arrest Bustamante orating from atop Queen Victoria's statue in Victoria Park - was the other National Labour Day Project. The CPS also incorporates the former Catholic Church of St Patrick and St Martin, whose cornerstone was laid by Governor Sligo in 1836. The CPS, for many years, was the headquarters of the Special Branch of the constabulary. What stories its walls could tell!

Speaking on Labour Day at these sites, Prime Minister Andrew Holness noted: "Preserving our culture is important - culture is a store of value. We see wealth sometimes mostly in monetary terms. We see wealth exclusively in economic terms - what we can trade and what we can sell - but it is very rare that we see wealth in culture.

"If Jamaica is going to be measured by its cultural wealth, it would be a very wealthy country. But because culture is sidelined by all sorts of social issues, we have not embraced everything that comes from our culture."

I look forward to a new commitment by the Government to preserve our historical sites and to convert them into revenue-generating enterprises for local people and the national economy. We have barely scratched the surface.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist, and is vice-president of the Jamaica Historical Society. Email feedback to