Enrique Okenve |Time for a new Jamaica-Maroon Treaty?
THE EVENTS of the last few days, involving the Accompong Maroons, under the leadership of their elected chief, Richard Currie, have reminded us that the Maroon-Jamaica relationship continues to be a festering topic. This unspoken truth became...
THE EVENTS of the last few days, involving the Accompong Maroons, under the leadership of their elected chief, Richard Currie, have reminded us that the Maroon-Jamaica relationship continues to be a festering topic. This unspoken truth became evident to me, a non-Jamaican citizen with no prior knowledge of this complicated relationship, when I worked at the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica 15 years ago. To put it simply, distrust and disdain seemed to define a difficult relationship, the grievances of which are rooted in the deep history of this island state, but which also have much to do with the inequities that continue to afflict this nation almost 60 years since its independence from British colonial rule.
In 1962, Jamaica adopted the ‘Out of many, one people’ motto as one of the pillars to build the new-born nation. This choice was very calculated, probably necessary, and not without problems. The motto implicitly hid a historical reality in its aspiration to foster a cohesive national identity. Jamaica’s “many” were African in origin or black. A minority were people of mixed ancestry, including African ancestry, the so-called brown. And a very small minority were people of European and Asian ancestries. In other words, this ‘melting pot’ was disproportionately made up of people of African ancestry who, at the time of independence, continued to endure the legacy and stigma created by centuries of brutality, exploitation and exclusion. Rather than being put at the forefront of the new nation’s agenda to undo the evils of the past and prioritise their socio-economic development, the motto created the semblance of a clean slate in which all Jamaican citizens, regardless of their origin and historical experiences, were on the same level, ready to embrace a single Jamaican identity in pursuit of the dreams and aspirations of independence.
As a historian of Africa, I realise that this problematic motto was probably necessary to consolidate a nation-building project, which has resulted in relative social and institutional stability since the 1980s. In 2022, however, one realises that the motto has also resulted in some aversion to diversity, as if anyone who deviates from the one-people norm is dangerous and should be ostracised. The Maroons are probably the clearest reminder of modern Jamaicans’ discomfort with diversity at a time in which people and civil societies in other parts of the world are pushing for the recognition of previously silenced historical experiences and the value of social and cultural diversity.
INEQUITIES OF THE PAST
In some ways, Jamaica’s nation-building project prevented the nation from properly tackling the grievances and inequities of the past. By failing to do so, it has contributed to their continuity in the present. It is not by chance, for example, that land is at the centre of much of the defiance by the Accompong Maroons. Control over land and the wealth produced in it by enslaved people first, and underpaid workers later, is crucial to explain the economic, political and social history of Jamaica and other formerly colonised countries across the Americas. The decline of the sugar plantation system from the late 1800s or the end of British colonial rule in 1962 did not serve to amend ill-obtained land property rights and, above all, to grant access to land for people who lacked the resources to purchase land or to formalise their property rights. Limited access to land affected ordinary Jamaicans in rural areas, not the Maroons whose rights and access were guaranteed or, at the very least, not challenged, on the basis of their historical relationship with the territory that they live in.
The feud of the past few months with the Accompong Maroons must have caught Mr Holness’ administration by surprise, as his Government has grown increasingly used to pushing its political agenda with little or no challenge. Accompong defiance is rooted in Maroon historical tradition but also on something very concrete that, over 200 years later, threatens their existence again. The Maroon will vanish as a people if they become uprooted from their ancestral land or if they are not able to maintain the contested legal status of their territory. Today, Maroon rights over their ancestral land are not being infringed by European colonisers or powerful private individuals, but the Jamaican state. The Government of Jamaica seeks to assert its authority over one of the Maroon enclaves through the expansion of bauxite mining operations in the name of the so-called common good. Not surprisingly, the Accompong Maroons are challenging such advances. This time, however, they have also found the support of non-Maroon inhabitants of the Cockpit Country, who also feel that their well-being and interests are being sacrificed by the Kingston-based authorities. We would be very mistaken if we saw this as a Maroon conflict alone.
Let us not fool ourselves, the most evident legacy of colonialism is not the presence of historical inequities, but the nature of the independent Jamaican state. The Jamaican state’s claim over land and its management is deeply rooted in the past, when the colonial state declared itself the ultimate holder of land property rights, giving itself the power to decide over land use even when this conflicted with the interests of the people who lived and worked on that land. Just like the Maroons and non-Maroons in the Cockpit Country seek to stop state actions that infringe on both their land and environmental rights, Jamaican citizens should not rush to the defence of the same state whose mining policy disregards its obligation to protect the “land of wood and water” for present and future citizens. Let us remember that it was only last August that the UN published an extensive and rigorous climate change report that declared a ‘code red for humanity and unequivocally pointed at human action for the rapid and dangerous change of our planet’s climates.
As Jamaica approaches its 60th anniversary of independence, the latest Maroon ‘defiance’ creates a timely opportunity to rethink the Jamaican state relationship with its citizens, land and environment. The nation-building project that consolidated this nation-state probably needs to be revised to better reflect present demands, the challenges of the future and, perhaps more importantly, to include the needs and aspirations of traditionally under-represented citizens and groups, while embodying Jamaica’s past and present diversity. In so doing, we should all acknowledge that democracy is never a finished project. The effective work of democracy requires the constant push for growing inclusion and representation of citizens in the decision-making of the state, so the ills of the past can be properly tackled and new grievances can be promptly resolved before festering.
Enrique Okenve, PhD, is head of Department of History and Archaeology, University of the West Indies, Mona. Email feedback to email@example.com .