On Guard Against Lagarde

img_53b00b821b2cdLast month, as I listened to Christine Lagarde lecture at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, I felt a rush of old-fashioned feminist pride. Here was a woman who had made it to the top of a decidedly patriarchal institution, the International Monetary Fund (IMF). And that wasn’t all.

Forbes magazine ranks Lagarde as the fifth most powerful woman in the world! I wondered how much clawing and scratching, or worse, she’d had to do. Or if men yielded gracefully once they recognised her commanding abilities.

novelettegrant_1Unfortunately, in some quarters, it’s still news that women are capable of leadership at the very highest levels of both public- and private-sector organisations. Like the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF). I certainly hope Assistant Commissioner Novelette Grant is on the list of possible replacements for Owen Ellington, who has retired so precipitously. It’s as if he just fell over a precipice.

ACP Grant has paid her dues and she’s ready for the top job. She can definitely do far more than just assist. She can take charge. That loaded word, ‘charge’, is of French origin, meaning ‘burden’. Women can assume the responsibilities of leadership if they are given the opportunity. But the JCF is, unquestionably, a male-dominated institution.

CLOSING GENDER GAP

UnknownIn 1999, the University of the West Indies Press published a book by Sergeant Gladys Brown-Campbell titled Patriarchy in the Jamaica Constabulary Force: Its Impact on Gender Equality. She’s the first policewoman to earn a law degree, building on the foundation of her bachelor’s degree in English. I had the pleasure of teaching her at UWI and I’m quite proud of her accomplishments.

In the ‘Introduction’ to the book, Brown-Campbell outlines her objectives: “To investigate the extent to which patriarchy informs women’s opportunities for career advancement and to discover the extent to which biology influences notions of (in)equality in the organisation.” She comes to an unsurprising conclusion: Men discriminate against women in the JCF. And, even worse, women often sell themselves short. Not wanting to antagonise their male colleagues, they settle for less than they’re worth.

A decade and a half after the publication of that book, some progress must have been made in closing the gender gap in the police force. But is it enough? Are we ready for a female commissioner? And if not, why not? Why can’t a talawa Jamaican woman lead the JCF? Queen Nanny has long been a compelling model of female military might. It’s not enough that she’s a national hero. Her true legacy is the value we place on women’s abilities today in all spheres.

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT

imf-logoI have to admit that the hot flash of pride in Lagarde did cool down quite quickly. Because of the IMF. An apparently powerful woman who leads a patriarchal organisation like that can only do so much to transform the culture of gender inequality. And we can’t assume that such a woman actually wants things to change. She can so easily get sucked into the politics of divide and rule. She can end up thinking she’s made it because she’s an ‘exceptional’ woman. But all women have the potential to be ‘exceptional’, given the right opportunities.

slavery_2849118bGender politics aside, what made me put my guard back up was Lagarde’s troubling message. After all, she’s the rather pleasant face of the heartless IMF. What we’re being told repeatedly is that one of the major planks of Jamaica’s economic recovery is devaluation of the dollar. I’m no economist. But as I understand it, here’s how the argument goes: A weak dollar will attract foreign investors who will make a killing. We’ll be so grateful for the jobs they bring, we’ll work for next to nothing. Been there and done that! So we’re not going back there if we can help it.

Furthermore, a weak dollar will make imported goods so expensive we’ll just have to do without them. We’ll be forced to produce more. But this is where it gets tricky. Production costs, such as imported energy, will continue to increase as the value of the dollar decreases. So businesses will collapse and jobs will disappear. And there will be less money in circulation. We’ll be right back to where we started. Pauperised.

imagesInstead of deliberately weakening the dollar and reducing the buying power of Jamaican consumers, we need to launch a public-education campaign to help us wisely spend the little money we do have. Why do we need so many foreign goods? And when are we going to start placing high value on our natural resources? In this stifling season of drought, we’ve all been feeling the power of the sun. Why have we taken so long to harness this free source of energy? Yes, the infrastructure is expensive, but it will quickly pay for itself.

images-1From the luxury of her job as managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde can tell us with great authority that more poverty is the route to economic security for us. We know better than that. Nutten no go so. Lagarde is the Fund’s guard. That’s what her name means. We had better watch over our lickle money.

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If Men Could Get Pregnant …

UnknownMinister Lisa Hanna is absolutely right. It’s high time for us to review the backward law that turns women into criminals because they choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The law also criminalises medical doctors and unlicensed practitioners of various sorts who assist women in getting abortions.

It’s a highly emotional issue, especially in a fundamentalist Christian society like ours. After all, the Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.” And abortion is murder. But is it? A foetus is not a human being, in much the same way that an egg is not a chicken. The egg does, indeed, have the potential to become a chicken. But if it’s eaten for breakfast, that’s that. It’s a pity some of us aren’t rational enough to see the difference between a foetus and an actual child.

hard_labour_by_rotwang1979-d5ay0v4According to the 1864 Offences Against the Person Act, a pregnant woman who tries to abort the foetus in her own body is guilty of a felony and, if convicted, is liable to be imprisoned for life, with or without hard labour. No pun intended, I suppose. If anyone attempts to help her with the abortion, that person is also guilty of a felony and is liable to be similarly sentenced. The ‘druggist’ who supplies any ‘noxious thing’ to be used for the abortion, or even the bearer of the thing to facilitate the process, is also liable to be imprisoned.

This piece of legislation is truly remarkable, especially bearing in mind the history of our country. The act was passed a mere 30 years after the abolition of slavery. All of a sudden, a foetus (not a ‘child’) was much more valuable than millions of enslaved Africans who were seen as beasts of burden and, therefore, entirely fit subjects for protracted abuse. Their lives needed no protection. An unborn ‘person’ now had more rights than actual persons, many of whom still had vivid memories of being brutalised by enslavement. Did this act have any moral authority? Or was it intended to ensure the availability of an unending supply of cheap labour?

THE UGLY ISSUE OF CLASS

7374820-oppression-just-ahead-green-road-sign-with-dramatic-storm-clouds-and-sky-300x200It took more than a century for Jamaica’s oppressive abortion law to be modified. In 1975, the Ministry of Health, in a Statement of Policy on abortion, declared that it was now “lawful for a registered medical practitioner, acting in good faith to take steps to terminate the pregnancy of any woman if … he forms the opinion that the continuation of the pregnancy would be likely to constitute a threat to the life of the woman or inure [work] to the detriment of her mental and physical health”. Note the gendered language: the medical practitioner is presumed to be male.

The Statement of Policy called for amendment of the Offences Against the Person Act (1864) in order to clarify the circumstances in which abortion could be deemed lawful in Jamaica – such as in cases of rape, carnal abuse and incest. Thirty-eight years later, the antiquated act has still not been amended. And what about much broader reproductive rights?

choice-300x300-1Lisa Hanna must be congratulated for boldly daring to put on the agenda the contentious matter of decriminalising abortion. And she raises the ugly issue of class. As she perceptively observes, “Abortion is still illegal in this country, and a woman’s right to choose whether or not to keep her pregnancy is, in effect, exercised only by those who can afford a private doctor.”

Quite early in my career at the University of the West Indies, a student fearfully confided that she was pregnant. One of the challenges of being a teacher, even at the tertiary level, is that students expect advice quite unrelated to academic matters. I immediately asked the distraught young woman if she had told her mother. She said she was afraid to tell her. I reassured her that her mother would certainly understand. In two twos, she had an abortion and hardly missed any classes.

ECONOMICS, NOT MORALITY

0e2cbec33784484476_ram6b5siaIf all the middle-class women in Jamaica who have had abortions would speak out on behalf of their poorer sisters who have limited access to safe terminations, the law would have to be changed. But so often in these matters, there is one standard for the rich and another for the poor. If you can afford to pay for a safe abortion, this somehow makes you superior to women who can’t. It’s no longer a matter of morality; it’s all about economics.

Data from the Ministry of Health confirm that approximately 1,200 women are treated each year for complications arising from unsafe abortions. And those are just the official figures. In the 21st century, poor women in Jamaica are still risking their lives in order to claim reproductive rights that middle-class women simply take for granted.

Lisa Hanna has been viciously attacked, particularly by men who seem to presume that they are divinely ordained to exercise control over the bodies of women. Last Wednesday, The Gleaner published a letter by a cowardly writer, most likely a man, hiding under the false name, ‘Oxy Moron’. Headlined ‘Let’s kill every poor pickney’, the truly moronic load of drivel was elevated to the status of Letter of the Day.

Distorting Ms Hanna’s plea for reform, the moron pretends that the minister is proposing mass murder: “Go and fetch every woman and every girl who is pregnant, but lacks parenting skills, and exterminate their babies, even the pretty ones who could become Miss World!” Of course, the reproductive rights of women are not about killing ‘poor pickney’, pretty or not. In Jamaica, it’s ‘rich pickney’ who are aborted.

Florynce_Kennedy_publicity_pic

Florynce Kennedy

The African-American lawyer, civil-rights activist and feminist Florynce Kennedy famously declared, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” What is now a badge of shame for women would become a sacred rite of passage marking the transition from childhood to adulthood. But since it’s women who do get pregnant, we have to turn shame into pride as we claim the right to control our own bodies.

Paying For Emancipation

images-7Britain’s Black Debt is the intriguing title of a provocative book launched to much fanfare earlier this month by the University of the West Indies Press. The Nyahbinghi House drummers and chanters set the tone of the occasion. ‘Black Liberation Day’, ‘Open de Gate Mek We Repatriate’, ‘Four Hundred Million Black Man’ and ‘Every Time We Chant Nyahbinghi I an I Waan Trod Home a Yaad’ were some of the ‘heartical’ chants that heralded the launch.

The book’s author is Prof Sir Hilary Beckles, distinguished Barbadian historian and principal of the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies. In Britain’s Black Debt, Beckles tackles the contentious issue of reparations for both the genocide of the indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans in the so-called West Indies. Christopher Columbus lost his way to the ‘East Indies’ and our region is now stuck with a name that perpetuates the great discoverer’s error!

viewer-1The cover of the book brilliantly illustrates its theme. The main image is a 1966 photograph of Queen Elizabeth II with her cousin, George Henry Hubert Lascelles, the 7th Earl of Harewood, on his sugar plantation in Barbados. The property was bought by one of the earl’s relatives in 1780, along with 232 slaves. In the background, at a respectful distance, is a large group of well-dressed, carefully choreographed spectators, mostly white, whose body language suggests decorous delight at finding themselves in the presence of royalty.

TAINTED WEALTH

Beneath the photograph, there’s a row of shackled Africans: three children; three women, each with a baby wrapped on her back; and seven men. Two black overseers with guns are keeping them all in line. The enslaved humans are the literal subtext of the main story about colonial masters and their loyal subjects. Beckles compellingly argues that forced labour in the Caribbean is the foundation of much of the wealth of Britain, including that of the Royal Family.

images-2Beckles pays tribute to Eric Williams’ revolutionary book, Capitalism and Slavery, first published in 1944. There, Beckles argues, Williams “constructed the framework for the reparations case”. Beckles does concede that Williams “stopped short of making an explicit call for reparations”. But, he asserts, the book “still represents the most persuasive articulation of evidence” that “Britain’s magnificent, enviable industrial civilisation emerged from the foul waters of colonial slavery”.

The Earl of Harewood died on July 10, 2011 at the age of 88. His obituary in the London Telegraph substantiates Beckles’ case: “The Lascelles family had made their fortune in the West Indies. An 18th-century ancestor, Edwin Lascelles, had built the magnificent Harewood House in the family estates in the West Riding of Yorkshire”.   Harewood House is not a house. It is a palatial monument to capitalist greed.

images-3

Harewood House

And its owners have no shame about the source of their tainted wealth. The Harewood House website states quite matter-of-factly that, “[b]y 1787, the Lascelles family had interests in 47 plantations and owned thousands of slaves in Barbados and across the West Indies. The Lascelles weren’t unique – most merchants of the period were involved in the slave trade”.  And Harewood House is now a tourist attraction. It costs £14 for adults to tour the ‘house’, including staterooms, and £10 to visit just the grounds and below stairs. Class privilege comes at a price.

LUNATIC PROPOSITION

The most startling fact I learnt at the launch of Britain’s Black Debt is that the British government had wanted emancipated slaves to pay reparations to their former masters for the loss of their service. A lunatic proposition! Where was the money supposed to come from? The Haitian people had been forced to borrow money to pay reparations to France for claiming their freedom. In the case of the British, it was they who were claiming freedom from us. True, rebellious slaves across the British colonies had fought for freedom. But, in effect, Emancipation was designed to free the British government of all legal and moral obligations to the formerly enslaved.

Sir Thomas Buxton

Sir Thomas Buxton

The abolitionist, Sir Thomas Buxton, had urged his fellow parliamentarians to pay reparations to emancipated Africans. But, as Beckles notes, “[T]he British Parliament, densely populated with slaveholders and other beneficiaries of slave investments, did not take Buxton’s suggestion seriously”.   Eventually, the British government decided to pay reparations to slave owners on behalf of the enslaved. But no reparations were to be paid to the primary victims of this demonic crime against humanity.

It’s bad enough that some British MPs still don’t take reparations seriously. But why do most of us, the descendants of enslaved Africans, act as if the idea of reparations is a big joke? Is it because we believe the lie that slavery was good for us, taking us from ‘savagery’ to ‘civilisation’? Have we not read Walter Rodney’s brilliant book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa?

AFRICAN RENAISSANCE

The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was established on May 25, 1963 in Addis Ababa. A primary mission of the organisation was to end colonial rule on the African continent. On May 26, 2001, the OAU was rebranded as the African Union (AU). May 25 has come to be known as African Liberation Day. It is an occasion to reflect on the protracted struggle of Africans on the continent and in the diaspora to reclaim the right to determine our own destiny.

PrintThe theme for the 50th anniversary celebrations is ‘Panfricanism & African Renaissance’. If we are serious about the rebirth of the continent, reparations must be put on the agenda of the AU. And if we are to escape recolonisation by the International Monetary Fund, reparations must be put on the CARICOM agenda.

Reparations is the urgent message Professor Beckles took to Ethiopia last week, where he addressed a conference that was convened ahead of the 21st African Union Summit. Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller is there. I hope she knows she must speak out on behalf of Rastafari and all those heroic Jamaicans like Paul Bogle and Sam Sharpe who have long been fighting for reparative justice.

Persistent Perversity On Jews and Slavery

Ainsley Henriques

Ainsley Henriques, honorary secretary of the United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica, ought to know the African-Jamaican proverb, ‘Cock mouth kill cock’. If he doesn’t, I’d be very surprised.  After all, we’re one people.  We all know each other’s cultures intimately.  In any case, there must be a Jewish equivalent of this proverbial warning.  It’s not only black people in Jamaica who know that sometimes words have to be eaten. And they can be very, very bitter, even toxic.

 In a Gleaner article headlined, “Jews The Victims of Slavery, Too”, published on Friday, August 3, Ainsley gives a most peculiar response to my column, “Jews and Plantation Slavery in the Caribbean”, published on July 8. In his opening sentences, Ainsley launches a childish attack on the messenger, not the message:

 “Your columnist Professor Carolyn Cooper reminds me of the lines often given to recalcitrant school boys. I quote, ‘Persistent perversity provokes patient pedagogue producing particularly painful punishment’”.  Once you get past the tongue-twisting alliteration, what Ainsley seems to be saying is this:  my insistence that Jews played a major role in plantation slavery in Jamaica is ‘persistent perversity’.  Apparently, I’m a recalcitrant schoolgirl who doesn’t know how to behave.

       Having been provoked, Ainsley, the ‘patient pedagogue’, threatens to produce ‘particularly painful punishment’. It all sounds rather sadomasochistic.  Telling the whole story of Jewish history in Jamaica is a dangerous business. Truth doesn’t always set you free.  It sometimes imprisons you in other people’s fictions. Next thing you know, I’m going to be labelled as ‘anti-Semitic’.

It’s not kosher

Oddly enough, having tried to use schoolboy tactics to discredit the messenger, Ainsley does concede the truth of the message. He admits that I’m “correct” in asserting that the Museum of Jewish Jamaican History gives “an incomplete history of the Jews of Jamaica”.  Surprisingly, Ainsley justifies the gaps in the story with the bogus argument that “no history is ever complete”.

It is true that many histories are partial – in both senses of the word:  incomplete and one-sided. But some histories are more complete than others.  There is a lot of historical evidence to support the claim that Jews played a major role in plantation slavery in the Caribbean.  In the case of the incomplete history in the Museum of Jamaican Jewish History, it seems as if the truth has been deliberately concealed.  To what end?

      Ainsley serves up a big red herring in an attempt to explain why “no mention is made of the role of the Jews in Jamaica in the horror of enslavement”.  And it’s not kosher:  “this is because their history with enslavement is much more than just that – too much for a poster board”.  But how is this history different from the other long stories that are compressed and told on those same poster boards?

Furthermore, Ainsley shamelessly switches the topic from the role of Jews as agents in the enslavement of African people.  Instead, he rehearses the story of Jews as victims of slavery, as if that was ever in question.   And, again, Ainsley resorts to attacking the messenger.  He dismisses my call for the whole story to be told on the specious basis that I am ignorant of the history of Jews in Jamaica and I need to read the “eminent historians at places like the University of the West Indians”.  The same scholars, I suppose, who all fail to write ‘complete’ histories.

Setting the Record Straight?

I’m quite sure there are Jamaican Jews who are prepared to admit the truth about their history of participation in the slave trade.  I got an email from one of them.  He sent me looking for Eli Faber’s book Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade:  Setting the Record Straight which was published in 2000 by the New York University Press.  I haven’t read the book as yet.  But I’ve seen a most intriguing summary of its thesis posted on Amazon:

“Focusing on the British empire, Faber assesses the extent to which Jews participated in the institution of slavery through investment in slave trading companies, ownership of slave ships, commercial activity as merchants who sold slaves upon their arrival from Africa, and direct ownership of slaves. His unprecedented original research utilizing shipping and tax records, stock-transfer ledgers, censuses, slave registers, and synagogue records reveals, once and for all, the minimal nature of Jews’ involvement in the subjugation of Africans in the Americas”.

How, in Jehovah’s name, could the word ‘minimal’ be appropriate in this context? Having sold their human ‘cargo’ and counted the profit, Jewish traders simply washed their hands of the whole sordid affair, just like Pontius Pilate.  And then there were those Jews who did own slave plantations.

‘Playing Fool Fi Ketch Wise’

The final paragraph of Ainsley Henriques’ response to my column is rather disturbing.  Its smugness suggests a complete failure to acknowledge the complexity of our history on this rock: “We must not wring our hands in despair nor hang our heads in shame, but hold them high and rejoice in the chance that we have been given in this life to redeem ourselves in the present and create a future for the generations to come”.

Who is the “we” for whom Ainsley speaks with such rhetorical flourish?  The enslaved or the enslavers?  The naked mad people in Emancipation Park?  Or the distinguished panel of judges, clothed in their right mind, who selected that bestial image to brand black people? And how can we really ‘redeem ourselves in the present and create a future for the generations to come’ if we can’t manage to speak the truth about our past?

‘Cock mouth kill cock’.   Ainsley’s own words produce ‘persistent perversity’.  Like the Jewish trickster Joha, a distant relative of Anansi, Ainsley is desperately ‘playing fool fi ketch wise’.  It would be so much easier for him to just speak the plain truth about Jews and plantation slavery in the Caribbean.

Pontius Pilate

Who is Jamaica?

The morning after Emancipation Day, August 1st, I took out my prized Independence commemorative plate from the hand-carved mahogany cabinet in which it’s kept.  It was a gift from the mother of a long-ago boyfriend who, incomprehensibly, complained constantly that she loved me more than him.  Needless to say, he didn’t last.  Gender politics in Jamaica can be quite complicated.

The plate does have a little chip, but it really doesn’t matter.  It’s the spirit of the thing that counts: a little bit of tactile history.  The decorated plate features the Jamaican coat of arms.  On February 3, 1661, Jamaica became the first British colony to receive its own arms.  The Latin motto grandly declaimed: ‘Indus uterque serviet uni’ (Both Indies will serve one).  From East to mythic West, colonial relations of domination were inscribed in heraldry.

1661 Coat of arms

The coat of arms memorializes the Amerindian people of Jamaica.  There is a woman bearing a basket of pineapples and a man holding a bow.  At school we were taught that they were Arawak.  These days, they are Taino.  But the subtle distinction is purely academic.  The native people of Xaymaca, as the island was once called, are extinct. In their culture, the pineapple symbolized hospitality.  Genocide was their reward for the naïve welcome they gave Christopher Columbus.   They survive only in the coat of arms and in the modest museum that is dedicated to their history.

Perched above the Taino man and woman is a crocodile.  This reptile has fared much better than the indigenous people.  Its descendants are still alive.  A popular tourist attraction is the Black River safari which allows foolhardy explorers to get up close and personal with crocodiles.  An ad for the safari promises:  “A smiling crocodile right alongside the boat.  You can touch him if you are brave”.

At Independence in 1962, the national motto, enshrined in the coat of arms, was changed to “Out of many, one people”.  Though this might at first appear to be a vast improvement on the servile Indies, both East and West, the new motto does encode problematic contradictions.  It marginalizes the nation’s black majority by asserting compulsively that the idealized face of the Jamaican nation is multiracial.  In actuality, approximately 90% of the population is of African origin; 7% is mixed-race; 3% is European, Chinese and East Indian combined.

It was my high school English teacher, Miss Julie Thorne, who, for me, first interrogated the racial politics of the supposedly unifying motto.  She had come from the United Kingdom to teach on an international   development program much like the Peace Corps.  As an outsider, she could immediately detect the fraudulence of the homogenizing racial myth.  She asked us students a rather cynical question.  “Out of many, one people?  Which one?”

The classic Jamaican film, The Harder They Come, released in 1972, documents the mood of the earlier decade.  Optimistic rural youth migrated to Kingston and the smaller towns, looking for fulfillment of the promise of Independence.

On my commemorative plate, there’s a map of Jamaica which highlights Kingston, Spanish Town, Mandeville, Montego Bay and Port Antonio.  These were the centres of commerce to which ambitious youth gravitated.   Jimmy Cliff, the star of The Harder They Come, sang their hopes:

‘You can get it if you really want,

But you must try, try and try, try and try

You’ll succeed at last’.

Cliff’s lyrics echo a famous 19th century exhortation that has been much spoofed:  “‘Tis a lesson you should heed, try, try again.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”.  Schoolchildren in Jamaica memorized that gem.  It motivated us to excel.  But ‘it’ often proved elusive, especially for the underclass who had no sustained access to formal education even after Independence.

The Jamaican sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote an empathetic novel The Children of Sisyphus, published in 1965, which skillfully recounts the uphill battle of those who tried to make it in Kingston, or ‘Killsome’, as Peter Tosh wittily dubbed the city.  The crushing boulders of oppression kept rolling back down.  Trapped in a cycle of repetitive failure, pauperised people struggled, nevertheless, to make meaning out of despair.

Reclaiming ancestral traditions of resistance, the urban poor fashioned new languages of survival.  Reggae music became the heartbeat of a people who refused extinction. In the words of Bob Marley’s “One Drop”:

“Feel it in the one drop

And we still find time to rap

We making a one stop

The generation gap

So feel this drumbeat as it beats within

Playing a rhythm resisting against the system”.

Reggae music filled the gap between reality and expectations. It articulated the philosophy and opinions of pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.  The reggae drumbeat evoked Rastafari philosophy and livity, a coinage that is the decided antithesis of levity. With biblical authority, Rastafari claimed the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 as fulfillment of the prophecy recorded in Psalm 68:31:  “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God”.

Marley’s conception of reggae as a rhythm of resistance brilliantly traces the lineage of ‘word, sound and power’ that connects African Jamaicans across several generations and to the continent.  The deployment of music as a therapeutic weapon of resistance is a long- established tradition in African Jamaican culture.

The abeng, a wind instrument of West African origin made from cow horn, is preserved in Jamaica by the legendary Maroons who emancipated themselves from enslavement.  In highly tactical wars of resistance, they defeated the British, asserting their right to self-government. The abeng sounded the alarm, protecting the Maroon strongholds from sudden attack.

The relationship of the Maroons to the wider community of African-Jamaicans is complex.  They signed a treaty with the British which demanded that they return belated runaways to plantation slavery.  Betrayal of other blacks was the price of their own freedom.  It is a familiar tale – divide and rule.

But even on the plantations, maroon traditions of resistance took root.  Forced to survive in the very belly of the beast, enslaved

Africans perfected weapons of war from within.  Silent poisoning of their supposed masters was a deadly tool.   And music, the drumbeat of resistance, was a potent language of communication through which those who were forced to simulate accommodation to servitude were empowered to exercise agency.

The word ‘abeng’ is of Twi origin.  This language provided much of the African-derived lexicon of the Jamaican Creole language that is now the mother tongue of most Jamaicans.  Devalued by the elite, the language of the majority speaks to the marginality of African culture in the construction of the nation state.

Conversely, cultural icon Louise Bennett, affectionately known as Miss Lou, has used her heart language to affirm Jamaican identity.  In her humorous poem “Independance”, [sic], which satirizes the song and dance of the elitist project of constitutional decolonization, Bennett creates a vociferous working-class persona, Miss Mattie, who has a rather grand vision of Jamaica’s geopolitical location:

Jamaican

She hope dem caution worl-map

Fi stop draw Jamaica small.

For de lickle speck cyaan show

We independantness at all!

Moresomever we must tell map dat

We don’t like we position –

Please kindly tek we out a sea

An draw we in de ocean

English 

She hopes they’ve warned the mapmakers

To stop drawing Jamaica so small

Because that little speck

Can’t show our greatness at all!

Moreover we must tell the mapmakers

That we don’t like our position –

Would they be kind enough to take us out of the sea

And relocate us in the ocean

Jamaicans are island people with a continental consciousness.  We remember our origins across oceans of history.  For us, Independence is not just about constitutional rearrangements.  It’s in our blood.  From Miss Mattie’s perspective:

Jamaican

Independence is we nature

Born an bred in all we do

And she glad fi see dat Government

Tun independent to

English

We are independent by nature

That’s how we’ve been born and bred

And she’s happy to see

That the government has now become independent

Elitist and popular conceptions of the Jamaican character finally converge.  Independent is who Jamaica is.

African Explorers Came Before Columbus

Several years ago, on a visit to the magnificent National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, I had a little catch-up with our tour guide.  We were in the Gulf of Mexico Hall, looking at Olmec artefacts.  The most famous works of the Olmecs are gigantic stone heads, some of which weigh 40 tons and are over two and half metres tall.

In 1862, the first Olmec head was unearthed in the state of Tabasco.  Almost a century later, the American archaeologist Matthew Stirling began excavations in 1942 in the ancient city of La Venta.  He discovered even more Olmec heads and found evidence of a civilization much older than the Mayan, Incan or Aztec, dating from about 1200 BC to 400 BC.

I knew a bit about the Olmec heads but I wanted to hear the official story. I asked the tour guide how he accounted for the African appearance of the heads.  It’s a long time ago so I can’t recall his exact words.  But it was something to this effect:  “Oh no!  It’s not African; it’s a jaguar”.  “A jaguar?” I asked in amazement.  “It looks much more like me than any jaguar.  Don’t you know that Africans were in the Americas long before Columbus?”

‘Jaguar’

The tour guide caved in:  “Yes, yes the lady is right”.  It was the only sensible thing to do.  If you look at head number 6 from San Lorenzo, Veracruz, there is no way you could mistake this decidedly human face for a jaguar.  But since it’s so obviously African, it had to mutate supernaturally into a non-human form.  The Mexican fairy tale of origins apparently could not accommodate an African genesis.

GAPS IN THE STORY

Sculptures from the Parthenon sold in 1816 to the British Museum

Museums are peculiar places, full of art and politics.  Their curators lock up pieces of the past in pretty cages and tell stories about them that are true or false to varying degrees. Many of these objects are stolen goods.  But that’s a whole other story.  Let’s just say that if the Greeks, for example, were to be properly paid for their cultural artefacts now imprisoned in the museums of their far more affluent neighbours, the proceeds would go a long way to help balance the national budget.

Acropolis museum

Better yet, if the artefacts were liberated and repatriated, the Greeks could make even bigger bucks in heritage tourism.  Museums are an essential component of the creative/cultural industries across the globe.  In non-Olympic years, one of London’s biggest attractions is the city’s network of museums and art galleries, some of which were funded, ultimately, from the bloody proceeds of plantation slavery.

Tate Gallery

Henry Tate, who made his millions in sugar refining, founded the Tate Gallery in 1897.  Tate started off rather modestly as a grocer’s apprentice in Liverpool in 1832 when he was only 13 years old.  True, slavery was abolished two years later in the British colonies in the Caribbean.  But Liverpool had been a major slaving port and, according to the website of the International Slavery Museum, “its ships and merchants dominated the transatlantic slave trade in the second half of the 18th century.  The town and its inhabitants derived great civic and personal wealth from the trade”.

On a related note, I ran into Ainsley Henriques, leader of the Jewish community in Jamaica, at the elegant launch of Diana McCaulay’s new novel, Huracan, two Fridays ago.

huracantrailer.htm

Ainsley and I  had a nice chat and he told me that several people had asked if he wasn’t going to respond to my column, published two weeks ago, on “Jews and Plantation Slavery in the Caribbean”.  He’d decided not to.  Like my Mexican tour guide, Ainsley seems to have conceded the accuracy of my account of the gaps in the story told by the Museum of Jamaican Jewish History.

AFRICA IN ANCIENT AMERICA

I discovered the Olmec civilisation in a book by the Guyanese linguist and anthropologist, Ivan Van Sertima, published in 1976.  The title makes a startling claim:  They Came Before Columbus:  The African Presence in Ancient America.  In addition to the spectacular Olmec heads, there was more evidence.

Peruvian portrait vessel

Von Wuthenau, an art historian and archaeologist at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, had unearthed many terracotta sculptures of ‘Negroid’ heads in clay, gold, copper and copal.  Van Sertima notes that the layers of soil in which these African sculptures were found “ranged from the earliest American civilizations right through to the Columbian contact period”.

Then Leo Wiener, a linguist at Harvard University, had earlier “stumbled upon a body of linguistic phenomena that indicated clearly to him the presence of an African and Arabic influence on some medieval Mexican and South American languages before the European contact period”.

Traditional pirogue

There was also the evidence of the boat-building skills and seafaring knowledge of Africans.  Small open boats could, in fact, cross the Atlantic, particularly with the assistance of the fast-flowing Guinea and Canaries currents. And the evidence kept piling up.  You just have to read Van Sertima’s book to get the whole story.  Closer to home, it makes you wonder who really discovered Discovery Bay and who had to run away from Runaway Bay.