Monday, October 3, 2011

Preserving All Of Our History

Many Jamaicans have a romantic notion of life in old colonial Jamaica, somehow they feel that life was better for all under British colonial rule and I sometimes wonder just where they got this idea from. Yes life was very good for a chosen few, the colonial class. Yes it was a simpler time but back then the vast majority of Jamaicans lived in poverty the only difference is back then they accepted their lot in life. Just before independence one quarter of the adult population could not read or write, one quarter of the total workforce had no jobs and the distribution of land ownership and the means of production represented gross and growing inequalities and at that time pre-independence Jamaica had a very small middle class.

  • During colonial Jamaica, just before independence only 30% of the population could read and write 
  • During colonial Jamaica the unemployment and underemployment rate was as high as 45% to 50% of the population. 
  • During colonial Jamaica there were very little investment in infrastructure, very little investment in housing for the people. There was no distribution of water or electricity, most of the population lived in darkness and had to travel miles for water.
  • During colonial Jamaica disease ran rampant with regular outbreak epidemics across the island due to poor sanitation and water supply. There were regular widespread outbreak of malnutrition, such was the state of British controlled Jamaica.
  • What Investments the British made was done for the purpose of efficiently extracting wealth and for the white ruling class to live comfortably while the vast majority of Jamaicans lived way below the poverty line. 
  • The Colonial office commissioned Lord Moyne to investigate the reasons for the discontent and riots, the result was the Moyne Commission Report that outlined the disgusting, impoverished state of the Colonies especially Jamaica with several recommendations for change but instead of implementing the recommendations the British Colonial Office did not like what they were reading and buried/hide the report.

If you ask some old-timers about life back then they would go into great details about how wonderful it was when they were a child, what they use to do, it was a fun simpler time. But they were children, with not a care in the world, most not responsible for putting food on the table. However when you sit down and do the research into the lives of the people, read the social and economic historical archives, you get a completely different picture of life in colonial Jamaica. Yes it was safer but harder times and most seems to be contented with the hard life they lived, no light, running water, horrible living conditions and very little hope of progress.

I think people were very simple back then and accepted and enjoyed simpler things, I think they accepted their status, position and station in life and did not question it. A lot of times the life they described was not their own but the life of the British colonial class. A life they could not take part in but could only observe and they seemed happy that the colonial class was able to live so well, usually at their expense. I love to interrogate the older generation about life back then, I once spoke to an old friend of the family who loved to talk a lot about the glory days but only in terms of the big house she use to work in, not the house she lived in, how great the lady of the house was, how stylish and upper class, they were, a fine white Lady and gentleman who belong to the upper echelons of Jamaican and British society and even though these people lived in Jamaica most did not consider themselves Jamaicans. Jamaica was not an option for them after independence, the gravy train had ended and so they packed up their belongings and returned to the mother country with the country's wealth.

The words Jamaicans used to describe colonial Jamaica was taken from the British, the idea that Jamaica was the pearl of the Caribbean or the jewel in the British crown was a British concept based purely on the benefits Britain received at the expense of the native population and not its development. Britain cared very little about how the native population lived, cared very little about their education and well-being and more about pacifying the people so that they would continue to work hard and support the British economy.

Sometime ago I joined a Facebook group called the Jamaica Colonial Heritage Society created by Brett Ashmeade-Hawkins, who is a passionate historian with a wealth of knowledge, he presents historical artifacts with detail descriptions of names, dates and places.  The Jamaica Colonial Heritage Society’s group love of history excites me and I support their desire to preserve our colonial past. I love the artifacts they have on display and I understand why each time they see another colonial artifact from our past being destroyed they get very upset. I too get very upset that we as a people have not taken advantage of our history, we see it as something to forget, to be pushed aside, as we set out to destroy everything colonial.

Unlike some members of the group I will not lash out against the Jamaican people in a very stereotypical way, painting all with the same ignorant brush. Somehow some of these people believed that the British had created a perfect society, instilled the perfect values in us but for whatever reason we are incapable of retaining values, thus reverting to our savage dark nature destroying the perfect society that was created and given to us.
Rose Hall Great House

One thing I most admire about the Jewish community is how they set out to preserve various Holocaust sites and Jewish artifacts because they realized that these sites have value and needed to be preserved even though they represented great suffering and hardship for their people. The sites are preserved so that future generations will not forget what had happened to their ancestors.
I view the plantations and the great houses as a Holocaust sites that should be preserved for future generation to understand what had happened to our ancestors, how they suffered, to see how the ruling class lived at the expense of the slave class. It is amazing that in almost all the plantations the slave section of these estates have almost vanished leaving behind the majestic mansions of the white colonial class, which makes it difficult for our young people to imagine the human suffering that took place. Out of sight out of mind, as everyone involved push the greatness and sing praises to the people who lived in these massive Great Houses.

I am particular interested in our colonial architecture but most Jamaicans seem to see these old buildings as something to knock down and rebuild into something awful. It is correct to say that most Jamaicans do not see any value in preserving historical artifacts from our colonial history because they were never educated to see any value in it. Our past Colonial Masters did not set out to create an educated society with values or else we would not be in the situation we are currently in since values are normally passed down from generation to generation and our current Home Grown Colonial leaders learned from the very best. They too are not too concerned about values within our society. My estimate is that if we have 100 historical sites 85 percent of them are almost gone, turning into dust.

Greenwood Great House 
Built by the Barretts of Wimpole Street London in 1800

The shocking thing is, we expect poor, uneducated, ignorant, low income, materialistic people to acquire a sense of value and historical perspective as if people are genetically engineered with values or acquire them through osmosis. The fact is not even our foreign minded, foreign educated, middle and upper-class have these values. At least the poor have an excuse, what is the excuse of the educated class? A well traveled educated Jamaican will tell you about the old historical ruins in Greece, England and France with joy while totally ignoring those at home.

I am a huge admirer of Jamaica’s Environmental Groups, they play an active role in preserving the natural eco-system. They organize lectures and various events such as beach cleaning days, they are environmental activists/warriors as they protest and fight to force our government to put in place measures to protect environmentally sensitive areas, they create petitions so the world wide community can assist them in their fight, they go out to schools and communities, they reach out to explain the importance of the environment to young, old, rich and poor alike, they try to make uneducated low income people understand the importance of the environment to their existence.

There is a need to duplicate this effort with regards to historical sites and artifacts, there needs to be a more pro-active group that is interested in the complete history of our people, not just trying to glorify Colonialism and Slavery as if they wish to return to the good old glory days. It is not suppose to be about which plantation Slave owner you are related to, like any association you can draw elevates your status in life, the nostalgia of a life you did not live but now try to live by proxy, as they praise how great their ancestors were, how big their plantation was, how massive the Great House was and how many heads of slave they had at their disposal, I cannot imagine descendants of Nazi Germany boasting the same way about getting rich at the expense of Jewish suffering. This is not the way to get the Black population on-board, when they read things like this, they then want nothing to do with preservation of these sites. History is suppose to be inclusive, the story of everyone involved must be told, lay bare for all to see and read.

One of my favorite author and Historian is Niall Ferguson even though I do not agree with some of his conclusions on British Colonial History, the fact is he is a brilliant writer and historian and have the ability to describe history in details and take me back in time. In a part of his book Empire “The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power” Ferguson states “If not the British then who?”  As if to say, who would you rather to enslave you, use you and abuse you, beat you and rape you, the French would have made your life 10 times worst and the Germans would put you against the wall and have you shot, so count your blessing it was the British. That is what I dislike about his writings but his writings are so much more than this.

For the average Jamaican, colonialism was not pretty, life was not easy and the British for all its 350 years of rule did not invest out of love for Jamaicans, they did not invest in Jamaican minds, They were never interested in building a nation, they just did not create a society capable of valuing, understanding  or embracing history.  History can be a very profitable business, if we take the time to invest in our past, we could have a very bright future, a revitalized Downtown Kingston to recapture 17 Century architecture, how it use to be, centuries old quaint villages across the island rebuilt to capture historical life, Spanish Town the 16 century capital of the Island, in any other country would be a major tourist attraction with the ability to transport its occupants back to the 16 Century, to see and feel history.

Now I agree that people who know better should do better, it is not enough to just curse poor people because they do not share your superior sense of value, you the materialistic educated class is a waste of space if you do not attempt to use your education, wealth, position in society, your proximity to power to mold our society for the greater good, to build a nation state with values to appreciate our history and historical artifacts, so that everyone can get a better understanding of their future. Today’s educated middle and upper-class have no excuse for not pushing values unless they are truly bankrupt of it , by not doing so you are behaving like the British Colonial Masters of the past but this time with an American outlook on life, if its old… bulldoze it.......

I am a huge fan of shows that trace people’s heritage like “Who Do You Think You Are?” on the BBC. It is fascinating to see how far back these people can go, finding relatives that are spread across the globe.  The British Government seems to keep records of everything and everyone and all has been computerized, just by entering your name in the search engine and you can track your family roots going back centuries, even with pictures in some cases, now how cool is that? My mother died when I was 9 months old and I have no idea how she looked as the family have no pictures of her, it seems strange in this day and age but back them people had more important things to do than to stand around taking pictures it seems, so I cannot even connect her face to mine.

I know my last name, is my last name but not really my last name, I know it was given to me based mainly on which plantation my ancestors was sold to. I know name assignment was a simple process, for example, there goes Stewart’s slave and before you know it an entire generation of people with the last name Stewart started spreading all over Jamaica and Stewart could be the owner of the plantation or the overseer, so tracing my heritage is not as easy as I would like but it does not stop me from wondering who my ancestors were, what were they like, what did they do? Are there people in other countries who are related to me, separated only by which ship went left or right, do they look like me, it boggles the mind. I remember going to England for a little family reunion and was shocked to see people who look like me, my father, my sisters and my grandmother so just imagine how many extended family I may have in others countries.

I remember the exact day and time when I read the following text, I will never forget it, certain things can mark you for life and this is one of them, not out of anger but shock and disappointment with humanity, it is my firm belief that no one should get angry over history, upset yes, disappointed why not but anger no. History represents how we use to be, not who we are today, not where we are going, we must use it to shape our future.. 

Cecil Rhodes embarked on war with Lobengula in Matebele, his troops used a new "secret weapon:" the Maxim which could fire 500 rounds a minute. In 1893, in the battle of Shangani River, 1,500 Matebele warriors were killed while only four British died. The English Liberals penned a bitter satire on the victory, which Rhodes' men --- the Chartered Company Volunteers --- then cynically adopted as their anthem (below):

The Rise and Demise of The British World Order and The Lessons for Global Power
Niall Ferguson

Onward Chartered Soldiers, on to heathen lands,
Prayer books in your pockets, rifles in your hands.
Take the florious tidings where trade can be done,
Spread the peaceful gospel --- with a Maxim gun.

Tell the wretched natives, sinful are their hearts,
Turn their heathen temples into spirit marts.
And if to your teaching they will not succumb,
Give them another sermon with the Maxim gun...

When the Ten Commandments they quite understand,
You their Chief must hocus, and annex their land;
And if they misguided call you to account,
Give them another sermon --- with a Maxim from the Mount.

I remember when my Primary school teacher had us repeat the following over and over until we got it right. The words did something to me that day, I began to question myself, who am I and where am I going, and how I am going to get there.. It was then that I realized that my principles and my word is all I really have to go by, it is what defines me as a person, I will not turn my back on my principles and my word is my bond.

If We Must Die :
Claude McKay (1890–1948)

IF we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.

If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!

Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us still be brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but—fighting back!

The following week she had us do the same thing to Mango Time...
Mi Gone!


  1. I happened upon this blog through a string of links while researching some "lost" portraits of colonial-era island officials - these, over 60 of them dating from the 17th to 19th Century were formerly in the collection of the Institute of Jamaica, but seem to have since disappeared, like so much evidence of Jamaica's early history.

    It was very good, however, to read your finely-written, and often moving essay on the need to balance a healthy interest in the past with an appreciation of its often grim realities: as the 18th Century statesman-philospher Edmund Burke said (and George Santayana later paraphrased), "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."

  2. I agree with you. We have all sorts of World War II sites preserved. In Amsterdam we have 'Ann Frank House' and the 'Jewish National Museum'. Once a year on May 4 we remember the war victims (first just for World War I and II, now for all Wars) and we do so with a ceremony on Dam square and a broad cast from 'Waalsdorper Vlakte' ( On that day at 8 pm we keep a two minutes’ silence for those who have lost their lives during the war(s) and in general the Netherlands comes to a standstill for those 2 minutes, Trams stop, cars stop, people are quite and remember those who gave their lives for our freedom. I have been to the remainders of a concentration camp. There were pictures of what the people in those camps looked like. There were teeth, glasses and other belongings of concentration camp victims. I saw the gas chambers. It was horrific, but it was also a reminder of what happened, of what we must never forget and of what we must never allow to happen again. I have been to Normandy with my grand parents where there are still some attributes on the beach from the Normandy invasion and we visited the grave yards with hundreds of 'unnamed soldiers'. The countless, nameless white crosses on the graves were horrific, but they were also a reminder of what happened, of what we must never forget and of what we must never allow to happen again.
    Now for slavery, an even darker period in our history. We all know about the 6 million Jews, but do we know there were 12 million slaves taken from Africa and brought to 'the new world'? Do we remember? Do we stand still? Yes in Amsterdam we have 'Keti Koti Festival' ( It is part remembrance, part festive. But not the whole of the Netherlands comes to a standstill. Maybe because we'd rather forget. Because we’d rather not think about our role in all of this. Yet it too is part of our history. I watched a series on slavery, in which the presenters went to Ghana. They visited the slave forts and walked the slave trail, but our history books do not reflect as much on that period as they do on WWII. I have been to Jamaica and visited the Maroons. They tell the story of the ‘runaway slaves’ who fled to the Blue Mountains and fought off the occupier. But it is so small scale, compared to our WWII sites. And it is just the ‘success story’ that is being told there, the story of the ones that ‘got away’. The big 'plantation houses' in Jamaica should not be destroyed and they should not just show the grandeur of those times. They should be sites that show all of what is part of all of our history. And we should all visit them and keep a two minutes’ silence to remember the horror, the pain and suffering, the injustice. And after those two minutes promise to ourselves and the world, that we will make this world a better place. Even if it is just one step at a time.

  3. The caption that reads 'Greenwood Great House' is incorrect. I think that is Rose Hall Great House in St James

  4. A great article. I agree with almost every word of it (not quite so keen on Niall Ferguson though). I do feel humbled though, being solidly British, knowing my family history way back. Can one feel guilty about one's country's historical acts? I think I do.