Emancipating Bedward From the Madhouse

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!


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.

home 3

Hope River

“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.”



“The Prophet Bedward and his Church”

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.

‘I Have Outlived My Penis’

Ralph Thompson on the Calabash stage

That’s the far-from-flaccid opening line of the poem Ralph Thompson performed on the open mike at the Calabash International Literary Festival, held two weekends ago in Treasure Beach. The calabash was full to the brim and running over with all sorts of literary delicacies. And some delightfully indelicate offerings as well.

Rigor mortis of the penis is not exactly the kind of stiffness the average Jamaican man advertises. Most men who can’t stand firmly on their third leg tend to cunningly conceal that fact. By the time the deceit is uncovered, it’s usually too late for the disappointed partner to withdraw strategically. Some pretense at resuscitation must be made, however futile.

But, of course, Ralph is no ordinary man. He’s a poet. And he’s licensed to form the fool. The poet often wears a mask and speaks out of both sides of the mouth. You can’t assume that he or she is speaking autobiographically. No self-respecting Jamaican man, poet or not, would publicly declare, especially in front of a huge audience, that he, personally, is suffering from penile failure. Fun is fun and joke is joke. A confession of that delicate nature would definitely be taking a limp joke too far.

No lead in the pencil

My suspicion that Ralph was putting us on was confirmed when one of his friends (who must remain nameless) gleefully told me that it was he who had given Ralph that potent opening line. That may be true. But Ralph turned the single sentence into a witty poem. His punchline was deadly: writing had become a substitute for sex. The penis as pencil – with or without lead! Retooling becomes high art.

Willie Nelson

As it turns out, the confession of the death of the member is a clear case of ‘thief from thief, Massa God laugh’. A quick Google search revealed that the joke is a Willie Nelson original:

My nookie days are over

My pilot light is out

What used to be my sex appeal

Is now my waterspout.

With a name like Willie, Nelson must have taken firm measures all his life to ensure that his namesake remained lively. But, alas, not all ends come good. So even if it’s only tongue in cheek, inevitably it’s time for true confession. All the same, Nelson’s willie cannot be taken at face value. Like Ralph’s, it seems to be just lying low, waiting to spring poetically to life.

‘Di world no level’

What’s good for the poet should be good for the DJ too. But ‘jackass seh di world no level’. And it’s true. Every ‘chune’ a DJ chants is interpreted as a literal statement of fact by dim-witted cynics. Unlike the poet, the DJ is not allowed to wear a mask and play roles. So Buju Banton sings a humorous song about sending a driver to ‘drop this arizona round a Albamarle’. And it becomes a true confession of the artiste’s involvement in drug trafficking!

Bruce Golding

Bruce Golding, the driver whose licence has now been revoked, chose to ride the ‘riddim’ of Buju’s hit. It became a very popular Jamaica Labour Party campaign song. Nobody in the party seemed to be bothered by the song’s ‘criminal’ message. Driver was taken for what it was: a clever song about the trade in ganja, a widely used recreational drug. Admittedly, for Rastafari, ganja is ‘creational’, infusing them with divine energy.

Peter Tosh, like many reggae artistes such as Toots Hibbert and Bunny Wailer who have been imprisoned for possession of ganja, made a lifelong plea for decriminalisation:

Doctors smoke it, nurses smoke it

Judges smoke it, even the lawyer too.

So you’ve got to legalise it,

And don’t criticise it

Legalise it, yeah, yeah,

And I will advertise it.


The high point of the Calabash festival for me was hearing Ronnie Kasrils reflect on his extremely risky work as a member of the African National Congress (ANC), which he joined in 1960. In his memoir, Armed and Dangerous, published in 1993, he writes about what it meant for him, as a white South African, to participate in the freedom struggles of black people. He also wrote a biography of his wife, Eleanor, who shared his lifelong commitment to social justice. He called it The Unlikely Secret Agent.

Kasrils also talked about the role of reggae artistes like Peter Tosh in chanting down apartheid. We sometimes forget the global impact of our artistes who are often dismissed at home as mere criminals.

That’s precisely why Justine Henzell, who has inherited the film-making genes of her father, Perry, is producing a documentary for Jamaica 50 in which she includes coverage of reggae across the world, in the spirit of the iconic movie The Harder They Come.


It was the Jamaican High Commission in South Africa that put Justine in touch with the hugely popular selector, Admiral, whose African Storm sound system plays every Thursday in Soweto. He was invited to clash with a local Treasure Beach selector, Andrew, at Cala-Clash  which is always a big hit at the literary festival.  ‘Admiral mash up di place.’  The week after Calabash, he was a guest selector at Stone Love.

This really is a small world. Kwame Dawes went to a conference in South Africa where he met Ronnie Kasrils. He was completely absorbed by the life story of this remarkable man. When Ronnie heard of Kwame’s Jamaican roots, he told him that his son, Andy, had been invited to Jamaica for a literary festival.  It was Admiral. Kwame immediately invited Ronnie to come as well.

Andy Kasrils grew up in exile in London and discovered reggae through his Jamaican friends. In 1987, following in his father’s footsteps, he joined the ANC liberation army ‘MK’ in Angola. On his return to South Africa, he started a dancehall show on the Voice of Soweto community radio and has not looked back. By the time I got around to buying Ronnie’s book on his wife, he’d left the festival. So I asked Admiral to sign it for me. He was most amused when I explained the meaning of our proverb, ‘If you can’t catch Kwaku, yu catch him shirt.’