Mr. Speaker, Members of this Honourable House, Ladies and Gentlemen, Good afternoon.
M. Speaker, Today must go down in the annals of this Honourable House as a day of historic proportions, the value and substance of which must never be diminished. Today, we the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of our forebears unite around an honourable act – the tabling of a Bill whose objective is to redeem and restore the dignity and integrity of those who suffered much, even to the point of giving their lives, so that we would be free – free to be who we want to be, free to aspire to the best we can be, free to make them proud by the various actions we put in place to assure them that we their children will one day rid our land of persistent poverty and self-destruction, and carve out for our beloved country a destiny moulded in sustainable prosperity.
Mr. Speaker, Words from Jamaican poet Vera Bell come to mind as we contemplate this important activity on behalf of our ancestors:
Ancestor on the auction block
Across the years your eyes seek mine
Compelling me to look
I see you sweating, toiling, suffering
Within your loins I see the seed
From your labour
Grow roads, aqueducts, civilization.
Yours was the task to clear the ground
(Ours) be the task to build.
Mr. Speaker, Today we are compelled to look back through the course of our history, a glorious history of resistance and resilience, of indomitable spirit and heroic stance. And we do so in order to put this activity into its correct perspective.
Mr. Speaker, the past we reflect on today was the worst of times. It was a time of hardship and oppression for people of African descent who were taken forcibly from their families and homes in Africa and brought to serve in chattel slavery on plantations across Jamaica, the Caribbean and the Americas. In this most demeaning process, the colonizers sought to take from these Africans all the vestiges of their humanity – their names, their identity, their dignity. Their lot was to enrich the enslavers and planters, to bring fortunes to the crown even as they lost contact with everything they knew and loved in their native Africa. Guyanese Caribbean historian and political activist, Walter Rodney, in reflecting on this period of world history, described it as How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
Mr. Speaker, our ancestors arrived in Jamaica over three centuries of the Trans-Atlantic Trade in Africans. But we must pause to remember also the many who did not arrive, like those who chose the waters of the Atlantic over chattel slavery. And there were those, as in the Zong incident off the coast of Jamaica, in the vicinity of Black River, who were tossed overboard into the Caribbean Sea to lighten the ship and claim insurance money.
Mr. Speaker, Those who arrived, landed at various ports (Kingston Harbour/Falmouth/Lucea/etc.) and were placed on auction blocks, later to be branded like animals, given new names, and led to the various plantations across the country. There they toiled and laboured in every kind of weather to fill the coffers of Europe, even as Africa and the so-called New World became impoverished.
Mr. Speaker, our ancestors were of an ancestral pedigree that was not daunted by challenges, no matter how great they may be or how seemingly unsurmountable the obstacles. They came to Jamaica shackled and belaboured, but within their fertile minds dwelt the militant cultures they had fashioned back home in the various tribal forces of the Continent. Mr. Speaker, they soon became freedom fighters, “buffalo soldiers, stolen from Africa, fighting on arrival, fighting for survival”. In this prolific and prolonged campaign, they wreaked mayhem and holy war against the oppressors. They made life difficult for those who would try to rule them, making them realize that though they would enslave the body, they could not enslave their mind. Their fertile mind was in a state of constant preparation for the time when they or their children would be free.
And so, Mr. Speaker, Tacky struck for freedom for the enslaved Africans. He led one of the most serious and solid campaigns against the oppressors, in the parish of St. Mary, between May and July 1760. The fierceness and determination of its campaign as well as the level of militancy and skill demonstrated by the leader, caused the Tacky War or St. Mary Rebellion to be considered as the “most significant slave rebellion in the Caribbean between the 1733 slave insurrection in St. John and the 1791 Haitian Revolution”.
And then, there was Right Excellent Sam Sharpe, National Hero. His campaign was one of the most remarkable in organization, meticulous planning and effective implementation. Determined to end the tyranny of slavery, this Baptist deacon held meetings at nights in various sections of St. James, from Catadupa to Kensington, as part of his campaign. His was the determination to “rather die on yonder gallows than to live one more day of slavery”. And, as the record shows, he did die at the hands of the executioner on May 23, 1832 after succeeding in staging the first organized labour resistance in Jamaica.
Mr. Speaker, the most significant achievement of the Christmas Rebellion was that it caused the British crown to abolish slavery. But, emancipation, wrought in 1834, did not end the rule of tyranny of the European mercenaries. It also did not reduce the militancy of the African people. And so as the oppression reached high levels, by 1865 it was the turn of Right Excellent George William Gordon, a legislator, and Right Excellent Paul Bogle, a Baptist deacon, to lead a multitude of followers in another determined effort to put an end to the tyranny.
And then, finally, there was in modern Jamaica, a recognition that slavery had infiltrated the minds of the enslaved who had by then showed signs of what could be seen as an inferiority complex. Armed with insight from the books he read, Right Excellent Marcus Garvey became the voice of black consciousness as he promoted a philosophy of black business and political acumen. Garvey’s philosophy was supported by an activism that saw him engaging in business and politics, which soon brought him into conflict with the modern version of the imperial power. Garvey’s militancy was in the force of his words, his unwavering stance in the face of opposition and his belief in the power of the black man to become master of his own destiny. This, invariably, placed him in a posture of collision with the colonial rulers which led to his imprisonment.
It must also be noted, Mr. Speaker, that in saluting the leaders cited in this presentation, our Bill recognizes those who supported these movements. These were the rank and file African people who believed in the leadership, saw the need to battle against the forces of oppression, and, cognizant of the type of punishment that would result, were willing and determined to become participants in the cause, even unto death. We salute these rank and file persons in this Bill today, whom we treat in the same manner as the leaders they supported, in another most blatant demonstration of complicity. In other words, we the generation that has taken up this task of absolving our forebears are, by this action, complicit with them in their various campaigns and endeavours, and treat with the supporters, sympathizers and participants by association in like manner as we do their leaders. Mr. Speaker, let the record show!
Mr. Speaker, in those worst of times of colonial oppression and slavery, those who would dare to stand up against man’s inhumanity to man, to strike out against all forms of tyranny, to promote a militant campaign to restore the dignity of an entire people, were seen by the organs of said tyranny as conspirators, enemies and even criminals. These oppressors, with authority given to them by egregious laws, created labels of terror and oppression as they determined that the freedom fighters be deemed as enemies to the very freedom for which they fought.
And so, Mr. Speaker, we the children of these freedom fighters who gave up life and liberty so we can be free, cannot sit in silence and acquiesce to a system that rendered those who freed us with their lives as criminals. It would be unjust for the children of the oppressed, emboldened by a vision of future liberty for their children, to sit silently and allow the names of these martyrs for freedom to have their names and images tarnished by a brutal uncaring system of governance. It is the duty of those of us who are the inheritors of the new life that resulted from their self-sacrifice, to take the bold step and correct the wrongs of the past, restore the dignity and integrity of the cause for which they so willingly died.
The following extract from the book Daddy Sharpe by Fred Kennedy, and cited as words written by Methodist Minister Rev. Henry Bleby, captures it well:
“I witnessed the execution… I was anxious to see how he would demean himself, when actually confronted with the stern and solemn realities of death and eternity… I could not help feeling deep sorrow and indignation, as I turned from his death-scene, and brushed away the tears which the contemplation of his (tragic) fate called forth, that such a man as Samuel Sharpe, who possessed a mind which under proper influence and direction was capable of noble things, should be thus immolated at the polluting shrine of slavery… Sam Sharpe was the most intelligent and remarkable slave I have ever known”.
Mr. Speaker, it is this that we are doing by tabling this Bill – provide a situation for an entire nation to appreciate the kind of mind that our ancestors had and the remarkable ability and tenacity they displayed. This Bill gives new life to these our heroes and unsung heroes. This Bill seeks to redress the wrongs and set the captives free.
Mr Speaker, permit me at this point to express appreciation to a number of persons and entities who have played supportive roles in the processes we have followed. They are Minister Mike Henry, who has been one of those at the forefront in advocating for Reparations; Senator Tom Tavares Finson, Professor Verene Sheperd for her research and advocacy; Dr Julius Garvey; the Council on Reparations, the Legislative Committee; the Attorney General’s Office and of course the Cabinet.
Mr. Speaker, if I may be allowed in closing one final personal testimony, allow me to say how privileged I feel as one who was born and who grew up in the bowels of West Kingston to have been chosen by the ancestors to table this very significant Bill of redress. As I speak I hear the voices and feel the spirits of such greats as Mortimer Planno, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and all those who brought light to the eyes of so many, so that West Kingston became the oasis of Jamaica’s greatest gift to the world – Reggae Music, with anthems to the oppressed like One Love, Many Rivers to Cross, Equal Rights and Justice, Revolution, One Man Against the World, War, Stepping outa Babylon, and so many others.
Today, Mr. Speaker, this humble daughter of West Kingston invites us all in this Honourable House to unite in celebrating this Bill “to absolve certain National Heroes, namely, The Right Excellent Samuel Sharpe, The Right Excellent George William Gordon, The Right Excellent Paul Bogle, The Right Excellent Marcus Mosiah Garvey, their supporters, sympathizers and participants by association, and other freedom fighters, from criminal liability arising from participation in the 1760 Tacky’s or St. Mary Rebellion, the 1831 to 1832 Christmas Rebellion, the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion and the 1929 campaign of the People’s Political Party, respectively, and to provide for connected matters”.
Their resistance and militancy led to many skirmishes with the colonial rulers. As the custodians of authority based on Europeans determining their right to divide Africa and the world around them and set up empires for themselves, they legislated against the activities of the enslaved. And so, Mr. Speaker, the determination to free oneself from the bondage of slavery became an offence, punishable by some of the most horrific forms of punishment ever contrived, including execution.
Mr. Speaker, to us, these are heroes on whose shoulders we now stand tall. To the colonial oppressors they were dissidents, fighting against the status quo, terrorizing the planters and their families, being criminals
Mr. Speaker, for the colonial oppressors, those through whose daily rumblings and skirmishes with plantation owners, overseers and militia, were
In doing so, we acclaim our ancestral pedigree as fostered by many who, rather than give in to the brutality of their colonial masters, preferred rather than live in slavery to “die on yonder gallows”… and did!