A few years ago, contestants on TVJ’s Schools’ Challenge Quiz were asked to name a famous prophet from August Town. Their answer was ‘Sizzla’. These students should have known Alexander Bedward’s story. But, as Peter Tosh sang, “You can’t blame the youth.”
It’s the school system that’s to blame. In his song, Tosh mocks the way in which Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, Pirate Hawkins and Pirate Morgan are portrayed in history books as heroes. He emphatically asserts, “All these great man were doing/ Robbing, raping, kidnapping and killing.”
Tosh overstates the case with that double meaning on ‘all’. That’s not all that all of them were doing. But Tosh was dramatically teaching an important lesson. We keep telling the youth stories of ‘great’ men whose deeds are actually criminal. Even worse, we fail to tell the youth stories of our home-grown heroes.
And, sometimes, the stories we do tell are so distorted that the heroism is completely lost. All that remains is a ghostly presence, a fleeting sense of grandeur. But none of the substance of the men and women whose vision of full freedom forced them to rebel against systems of oppression!
‘AN INDESCRIBABLE SCENE’
Alexander Bedward is a classic example of a haunting Jamaican hero. Depending on who is telling the story, he was either visionary or lunatic. Or both. Or much more! Take, for instance, the melodramatic account of Bedwardism given by the American Jesuit priest, Abraham Emerick, who was a missionary in Jamaica in the late 19th century:
“Its founder was a lunatic, named Bedward, who was suffering from religious monomania. He claimed that he had visions from God, and that the spirit of God had descended upon him and that in him the prophets were reincarnated, at one time Jonas, at another Moses, then John the Baptist. He declared that in a vision God had made known to him that the water of Hope River cleansed from diseases and sin.
“It was rumoured that a sick woman was cured by partaking of this water. Belief in Bedward’s miraculous powers gradually grew until persons from all over the island came to get the healing waters from him and stories of wondrous cures by him were spread about. The craze grew until as many as twenty and thirty thousand Negroes used to gather every Wednesday morning along the riverbank at a place called August Town, on the Hope River.
“In the great throng were hundreds of the crippled, the deformed, lepers, the blind, consumptives and sufferers from every form of disease. At a few moments of nine, the so-called prophet would appear in flowing white robes, and with a wand in his hand, with elaborate and majestic ceremonies, he would bless the water, whereupon, these thousands of men, women and children of all ages would strip naked and jump into the water. An indescribable scene followed.”
It seems unlikely that Father Abraham Emerick would have been able to see any similarities between his own priesthood and that of Bedward. The words he uses to describe Bedward and his movement are ‘lunatic’, ‘monomania’, ‘rumour’, ‘craze’, ‘wand’. Bedward is a lunatic magician who waves his wand to attract equally crazy followers.
But all religions are ‘irrational’ to varying degrees. Dreams and visions are standard requirements. Miraculous powers come with the territory. Ask any successful televangelist. And divine haute couture is essential. No self-respecting religious leader wears ordinary clothes. Priestly garments must make a spectacular fashion statement. Flowing white robes are basic.
Bedward’s supposed lunacy cannot be measured by the religious revival he led. His Native Baptist church was normal as religions go. The real test of Bedward’s (in)sanity was that he believed in the power of black people to determine their fate.
Like many Caribbean migrants, Bedward went to Panama in 1883 to make a living. There, I believe, he became politically conscious. He returned to Jamaica in 1885 and worked on the Mona estate. In 1889, he became an elder in the Native Baptist church and, by October 1891, he gave up his job to become a full-time preacher.
The subtle account of Bedward’s life given on encyclopedia.com suggests that he was very much aware of the oppressive social and economic forces that were amassed against black Jamaicans: “Bedward assailed ministers and physicians as mercenaries for charging fees, and he prophesied the imminent end of the world. Jamaica’s privileged class feared Bedward’s heated sermons, and in 1895 the press and police framed him, accusing him of advocating insurrection.”
Though Bedward ended up in a lunatic asylum, he was perfectly lucid about racial politics in Jamaica. He’s alleged to have said, “There is a white wall and a black wall. And the white wall has been closing around the black wall: but now the black wall has become bigger than the white.”
The Jamaican elite could not tolerate a powerful leader with the huge following that Bedward attracted. His religious movement could easily have been transformed into a political force. He had to be stopped. So he was declared a lunatic.
On Emancipation Day, I visited the ruins of Bedward’s magnificent church for the unveiling of a storyboard about the site. That’s not enough. We have to teach the youth the whole story. In detail! We must emancipate Bedward from the lie of lunacy.