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Story Highlights

  • On Emancipation Day, August 1, the Government of Jamaica will join with the August Town community in celebrating the legacy of noted spiritual leader Alexander Bedward, by unveiling signage to the church, which he founded.
  • The signs are to promote awareness about the significance of the national monument, and the spiritual movement that Bedward led, which was a source of inspiration for the black population, which continued to face oppression in the post- Emancipation period.
  • In 1838, Jamaican slaves were declared emancipated after over 200 years of oppression, but the structure of slave society remained unchanged.

On Emancipation Day, August 1, the Government of Jamaica will join with the August Town community in celebrating the legacy of noted spiritual leader Alexander Bedward, by unveiling signage to the church, which he founded.

The signs are to promote awareness about the significance of the national monument, and the spiritual movement that Bedward led, which was a source of inspiration for the black population, which continued to face oppression in the post- Emancipation period.

In 1838, Jamaican slaves were declared emancipated after over 200 years of oppression, but the structure of slave society remained unchanged.

Though legally free, the social and economic structures continued to force black Jamaicans to remain subservient to their former plantation owners.

It was from this period of economic insecurity and discrimination that a young man, Alexander Bedward, emerged in August Town as the spiritual and political leader for the black masses.

Throughout the 19th century, August Town was a small village inhabited by labourers, who worked on the only operational estate in the community, the Mona Estate. Bedward was one of these labourers, who had to struggle against the harsh circumstances, but he was not prepared to sit idly.

In time, he was to become leader to the Jamaica Native Baptist Free Church and founder of a movement that came to be known as Bedwardism, a powerful organisation that catered to the spiritual, social and physical needs of its followers.

He called for changes and developments in the race relations in Jamaican society and gathered large groups of followers by conducting mass healings services.

Bedwardism attracted international attention and eventually aroused significant opposition from members of the ruling class, the police and the press.

The Jamaica Native Baptist Free Church was constructed as an impressive cut-stone structure by its members between 1894 and 1903.

Today, the ruins remain as a reminder to the August Town community of the preacher and his followers, who spoke up against racism, economic oppression and social and political inequality for the black majority.

While there are many stories surrounding Bedward, the most popular being that he called himself the Messiah, his attempts to fly, and being committed to a mental asylum, he is still seen as a Jamaican hero to many.

Many followers of Bedwardsism became Garveyites and Rastafarians, bringing with them the experience of resisting the system, reaching community organisation and self-reliance, and demanding changes of the colonial oppression and the white oppression.

Bedward is also revered in the popular Jamaican folk song, ‘Dip dem, Bedward, dip dem; Dip dem in de healing stream’.

On the 13th of May 1999, the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) declared the Jamaica Native Baptist Free Church at 67 August Town Road in St. Andrew, a national monument.

It is because of the rich history of this church and the influence of infamous Alexander Bedward, that the Ministry of Youth and Culture decided to join hands with the community to recognise this declaration by putting in place the proper signage to promote awareness about the site and its significance.

Principal Director for the Culture and Creative Industries Policy Division in the Ministry of Youth and Culture, Dr. Janice Lindsay, says this initiative is in line with the Ministry’s focus on getting cultural communities to have more prominence in the move towards the diversifying of local economies.

“This is something that would naturally make sense, because essentially what you are doing is trying to facilitate the putting in place of basic infrastructure and tools that one would expect to see [when] visiting a community that has this kind of historical underpinning in terms of the story linked to it,” she tells JIS News.

The process of putting in place the signage is being facilitated through the JNHT, in keeping with the standards and codes of the Trust as it relates to conducting work on a declared site to preserve the integrity of the site.

Dr. Lindsay says the initiative is largely community-driven and represents a push towards finding a way to responsibly monetise its distinctive culture and history.

“They (community members) have insisted that this needs to happen and within that context, we are going to try and support them in terms of recognising that value,” she notes.

General signage will be erected at the entrance of the community, to alert visitors of the historical setting. There will also be a storyboard at the site of the church, as well as one at the cemetery where Alexander Bedward was buried.

This project is being supported primarily through funding from the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF), as well as other contributors.

Eastern St. Andrew Member of Parliament, Mr. Andre Hylton, tells JIS News that the initiative was formulated out of a need to clarify the history and legacy of some of the country’s black leaders.

He notes that Alexander Bedward is popularly perceived as having been “a madman”, but that studies have shown that he was a powerful spiritual leader of the time.

“We are saying, from August Town, that Bedward was one of our black leaders that we revere and that we can be proud of. On this Emancipation Day, we want to correct the history of some of our black leaders that sacrificed and died so that we can be where we are today. Bedward was one of those leaders,” he points out.

He notes that this will also advance plans to position the community as a space for tourism.

“We are seeing August Town as prime and ready for community tourism. We want to be able to take tourists to August Town to dip them in the Bedward healing stream, to show them the [church site] and to teach them the history of what Bedward stood for in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” Mr. Hylton says.

He says that the move could bring economic benefits the people of August Town and, by extension, Jamaica.