Afua Cooper | Highway of Bones: Jamaican graves desecrated by Chinese construction workers
They call it the Highway of Bones. I am speaking of the road between Ferris and Mackfield in Westmoreland, currently under reconstruction by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC).
This particular stretch of road is littered with the bones of the dead that have been dug up by Chinese construction workers, as they engage in road expansion in this particular area of central Westmoreland.
From what happened to my family, I know these bones have been wantonly thrown into the roadway, buried under the marl, and then run over by tractors and passing traffic.
It is known that country people still bury their dead in family plots within the confines of the family yard. Therefore, as roadwork progresses, it is understood that graves, especially those that are close to the roadside, could interfere with the expansion.
One would have thought that the National Works Agency, and the Government of Jamaica, who have engaged CHEC, would enter into a proper arrangement with the construction company and the families whose ancestors’ graves would have to be removed.
But that is not what has been happening in the Whithorn-Haddo stretch of the road. In this particular area, many residents have had their family gravesites bulldozed and the bones flung in any which way.
This happened to my family in late 2018. From the 1930s to the ‘80s, a burial spot in a place called Mantowza (Montosa) Foothill (the old slavery property of Mt Tirza) housed the remains of eight members of the Gallimore branch of my family, including that of family patriarch Tata Prince Albert Gallimore.
My cousin Lawrence, on coming from work one day, was told by neighbours that the Gallimore family plot with its eight graves were dug up, and many of the bones were seen flying in the air and some dumped on the roadway, with the tractors and passing traffic crushing them.
We were told of one of the skeletons wearing a ‘maroon jacket’ flying through the air. Family members identified that particular skeleton as that of my grand-uncle, Joseph Gallimore, aka ‘Uncle Joe’. Uncle Joe was buried in 1968, so his skeleton was more or less intact. But he, too, had the experience of his bones crushed beneath the wheels of tractors and traffic.
Lawrence, after hearing of this atrocity, ran to the gravesite but beheld only eight gaping holes. The dead were gone. When he asked the construction workers what happened to the skeletons, they did not provide a satisfactory answer. He was told by the workers to make his inquiry to Doyle Funeral Home in Savanna-la-Mar.
Apparently, the Government made arrangements with Doyle to acquire the bones from the construction workers and rebury them. Doyle claimed to have only received the remains of one of the dead. The remains of seven deceased have disappeared, with no explanation to the family.
Many other families in the Whithorn-Haddo stretch also do not know where the bones of their dead are.
The impact of this on our family has been crushing (no pun intended).
The Chinese come from a culture in which they have maximum respect for the dead. In fact, some aspects of their cosmological tradition could be described as ancestor worship. So why is it that these workers choose to wantonly disrespect the Jamaican dead? And also the Jamaican living?
But blame must also be laid at the feet of the Jamaican Government. What directive did they give the construction workers as they bulldozed their way through central Westmoreland, destroying the environment and littering the bones of our dead on the reconstructed road?
Historian Hilary Beckles has identified 10,000 ways in which slave owners murdered enslaved Africans whose labour was robbed to build up Britain.
After slavery ended, the newly freed people, with no help from the colonial or metropolitan government, pooled their resources and bought property and established farms, created a market network, built road, hospitals, schools, mutual aid societies, lodges, and churches. In fact, they created modern Jamaica.
One of the motivations that they had was to bury their dead in sanctified grounds, and with the respect and dignity that were not afforded to either the living or the deceased during slavery.
The desecration of my family ancestors by Chinese construction workers is another form of anti-Black murder!
My family is bereft. We are traumatised. We are shocked. We are astounded. We have never seen anything like this before. We always knew that in a Black-majority country such as Jamaica, Black people have been the recipients of disrespect. But we never envisioned that this disrespect could have sunk to such levels.
The gravesite is far from the roadside, tucked away on the side of a hill. The road expansion did not include the digging down of this particular hill. Therefore, why did the construction workers go so far up the hill in their road building?
Local residents claim that these construction workers are going outside the bounds of their contract and are enthusiastically digging down hillsides and then appropriating the marl.
People come home from work to discover their land dug up, only to find out, upon inquiry, that the appropriated land was not part of the original road design. Persons are claiming that the workers are selling the marl.
Another curious thing is that the member of parliament for Central Westmoreland – of which Mantowza Foothill is a part – Mr Dwayne Vaz, is silent on these issues, notwithstanding the fact that there have been numerous complaints by residents. It is as if the people in the Mantowza area have no representative. Mr Vaz, where are you?
Additionally, where is the Jamaica Labour Party caretaker for the constituency? Why is the local councillor also silent? To whom do the people of Haddo-Whithorn speak as they witness the desecration of their dead? Who has given the Chinese construction workers the authority to destroy Jamaican burial sites?
THE DEAD CRY OUT FOR JUSTICE
No amount of money will ever compensate for this crime. Our ancestors were stolen from Africa, and the bones of millions still line the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. Hundreds of thousands were murdered on slave plantations in one of the 10,000 ways, and jancrow nyam dem up.
Now, to realise that this atrocity is still happening 186 years after so-called Emancipation is more than tongue can tell. We still have not yet repaired the historical injustices of slavery but yet, here we are dealing with another violent injustice.
We want specific information as to what happened to the bones of our dead. I shudder each time when I think of those bones lining the road from Whithorn to Mackfield. The dead cry out for justice. The dead cry out for reburial. The dead cry out in anger. They will not rest until this matter is settled.
Give us back the bones of our dead so we can rebury them with dignity. Give us back the bones of our dead so we can mourn once again for them.
Some questions to ask: are Whithorn-Haddo people Jamaican citizens/subjects, or are they objects to be pushed around like chess pieces, for political purposes? Is the Black dead of less importance than the Chinese or White dead? Are Jamaicans witnessing a new kind of colonialism? Is Jamaica a sovereign country?
Born in Whithorn, Westmoreland, and descended from the Gallimore and Cooper families, Dr Afua Cooper is a professor of history at Dalhousie University, Canada. She is the Poet Laureate of Halifax and a widely acclaimed scholar-activist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.