Jamaicans and the Culture of Marronage:
An Invaluable Inheritance
October 27, 2012
Distinguished Colonels from Accompong, Moore Town, Charles Town and Scotts Hall,
Conference participants, students and young people,
Fellow Maroons from this and other communities,
A very good afternoon to you all.
Yes; you heard right: I said “fellow Maroons"!
This is because it is my firm belief that all Jamaicans are Maroons or display the spirit of marronage in one way or another, and indeed, have always done so. I will explain that claim later.
For now, let me just say how delighted I am to be with you today as we pick up the pieces left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. I am happy to see that you at Accompong survived, just as you have done natural and man-made disasters for centuries.
You are the true example of our resilience and determination, of our capacity to overcome all odds and reap success. I pray today that the Creator will give all Jamaicans that strength as we pick up the pieces and continue to address the pressing issues in our beautiful country.
So here we are, gathered in this historic space; a space that is indeed a tangible heritage site that cements the physical presence of the Maroons. This spirit of this space ignites our inner consciousness of what we can and must achieve in our lives today and in the future.
Like other Maroon communities, this is evidence of the legacy of colonialism; but it is also a living testimony of the resistance of our ancestors. Many of us take Accompong for granted. We live comfortably with the Maroons in our midst; make the trek here every 6th of January to share in the festivities and rituals, and some to even taste the ital pork and to learn the dance steps.
Perhaps the school children and overseas guests even hope to meet a real life Maroon colonel and to learn to blow the Abeng – if allowed. But even as we absorb contemporary aspects of Maroon culture, we need to take time out to recall the journey that took the Maroons to this place.
It might be a truism but no less worthy of repetition to say it was not an easy road.
It was a journey that all our African ancestors took, of course; an experience they all endured:
· Capture in Africa; the long, dangerous and treacherous march to the African coast;
· Incarceration in the holding dungeons; for women, being raped while waiting to be shipped out to the Americas;
· The horrible Middle Passage journey punctuated by screams and wails as some of us threw ourselves overboard preferring a watery grave to an unknown destiny;
· Distribution to the plantations after being placed on the auction block; and then brutal enslavement.
Plantation chattel enslavement was an abomination to the African culture of our ancestors, despite colonizers’ attempts to argue to the contrary, justifying slavery on the grounds that it was practiced in Africa! How dare they visit that lie upon us?
Chattel slavery as practiced by the Europeans in Jamaica was an affront to both masculinity and femininity, indeed an affront to humanity, as enslavers perpetrated the cruelest acts on our ancestors.
It was part of their effort to dominate and subjugate the African spirit and impose their plan upon our lives. The spirit of marronage – narrowly defined as the process of flight by slaves from servitude to set up their own communities – predictably rose up in the hearts of our ancestors who knew that liberty was the fundamental right of every human being and insisted on reclaiming that right.
They reclaimed that right through consistent warfare, forcing the British to call for a ceasefire.
Today, the debate still rages about what the Maroons agreed to and what they gained. One day we will have to sit around the table and talk about it as family. For now, let us revel in the reality that our ancestors strategized and triumphed over the military power of the day and re-established their original glory and integrity.
For that purpose, let us live together today as Jamaicans with a past full of pain, yes; but also one full with evidence of triumph. I want to return to the Jamaican spirit of marronage to which I referred earlier.
When I speak of the spirit of marronage, I am not only referring to that uncompromising attitude towards enslavement that caused those we call Maroons today to
· flee the plantations,
· fight the British,
· force them to agree to a cease fire
· and establish free communities in the Windward and Leeward areas of the island, establishing a nation within a nation.
I am also referring to those who practiced rural to urban marronage;
· those who practiced maritime marronage – stowing away on boats to Haiti after the Haitian Revolution;
· those who used non-violent methods to demonstrate their opposition to enslavement;
· those who used their precious savings to buy their freedom
· and those who used various strategies to survive slavery through economic marronage – defying the status of dependent enslaved African to earn money within the spaces allowed by the plantation, especially through the markets.
I should hasten to say that it was not only enslaved Africans who demonstrated this spirit of marronage. Some locally born whites and mixed race people defied the sugar plantation dominance to create other economies, like coffee. Some defied British dictates to establish links outside of the British Empire.
· That is why we have such close links with Cuba, where freedom fighters like Jose Marti and Antonio Maceo drew energy from our Jamaican ancestors to inflame their liberation struggles.
· It explains our linkages with Haiti, where our own Maroon Boukman started the revolution that changed the Western Hemisphere forever.
· It gives credence to our relationship with other nations in the hemisphere as far afield as Venezuela; from whence came Simon Bolivar to bolster his project for the liberation of South America.
So elements of our foreign policy – where we stand in solidarity with Cuba, in support of Haiti and we retain strong ties with Venezuela, did not begin in recent times. Our linkages run long, far and deep – in our history and in our hearts.
We are truly glad today for our historic passionate defiance in our DNA. That spirit infused the fight for:
· for workers rights,
· black dignity,
· for justice,
· for independence;
· for continued relationships with our neighbours
· and it is that spirit that we celebrate during Jamaica 50: A NATION ON A MISSION.
Marronage in this sense then is an alternative way of being, of acting, of imagining; and it is this marronage that created; that created a Kojo, Nanny, Quao, Tacky, Sharpe, Garvey, Father Coombs, St William Grant, an Aggie Bernard, and so many other heroes and heroines of the past.
It is that spirit of marronage that makes us want to shun adverse cultural influences. It makes us want to hold on to our intangible heritage despite de-culturizing strategies that threatened its survival.
This heritage is expressed in our rich and diverse African Heritage brought here by our ancestors from different parts of Africa, including the nations we now call Ghana and Nigeria.
We know, for example, that attempts were made under slavery to ban the Goombay drum. It was just too powerful a revolutionary signal and symbol of cultural survival.
Yet, the drums are still with us. So are other reminders of the African heritage demonstrated in cuisine, music, dances, fashion and sense of style; domestic architecture.
We have also retained ways of speaking and behaving; folktales; festivals; markets; belief systems; community spirit and history, especially the history of resistance to forms of racial domination and all manifestations of injustice.
This was the underpinning of what Peter Tosh saw as the struggle for ‘equal rights and justice’.
Even as we laud the circumstances of history that resulted in the failure of the historical attempts to suppress or even eradicate African culture, there is still work to be done to ensure that we pass on the best of the past to the next and successive generations.
Brothers and sisters, our history is part of our heritage.
Marcus Garvey put it well: We have a beautiful history, and we shall create another in the future that will astonish the world.
We continue to do so on the great human stage of activity. That is what we celebrate through our athletes in London 2012, in the demonstration of our many areas of national and international prowess.
So, let us appreciate that history and live its legacy because we are people who, in Rex Nettleford’s poetic formulation, used “guerilla” or Maroon strategies to seek to proclaim and live a more liberating narrative of self.
That spirit of marronage remains with us to this day. I recognize it and respect it, even though I am also aware that I cannot always live up to its high expectations. Yet it beckons us to arm ourselves with the indomitable will and power of our ancestors as we take on the challenges of today.
As we face the challenges of our modern life we must be prepared:
· to create economic solutions, to fight crime and violence and other anti-social behavior among us,
· to protect the vulnerable even as we seek to move them from welfare, to well-being and from well being to wealth creation.
As a people we find ourselves in this present day, faced by serious economic challenges. For some, this has been made worse by the recent passage of Hurricane Sandy.
We are a defiant, determined, resilient and strong people.
We have what it takes to look adversity squarely in the eye and face it head on.
We have what it takes to get back to basics.
We have what it takes to put our shoulders to the wheel and increase our productivity, because it is that which will save our lives and that of future generations.
We have what it takes to “tun we han’ mek fashion”.
The spirit of marronage provides strength through the realization that our ancestors suffered greater hardships and triumphed.
Our ancestors did it so that we could see better. This generation is being called upon to do the same in our own way.
So that future generations can call us blessed.
Today, the spirit of marronage reminds us in the words of Marcus Mosiah Garvey that a world of opportunities awaits us and we must simply strike out to achieve the great things that will manifest to the world our equality in all areas of industry, commerce, science, culture, education, and politics.
Today, in this place, we reflect on that glorious occasion when our ancestor, Kojo, sat and watched as the then super-power climbed the hills of Accompong to sign a treaty that acknowledged the great power of our heritage, almost 275 years ago.
In that reflection, I call on all of us to re-discover our own responsibility wherever we are to exert ourselves for the greater benefit of our people.
Through Kojo I honour the Jamaican men for whom ‘responsibility’ is a watchword – the stand-up man, the go-to man, the dependable, uncompromising, protecting man – The man for whom family is everything and community and nationhood are extensions of family.
It means greater productivity among those of us who work in the public and private sectors.
It requires sincerity of purpose and promotion of stronger bonds of family as Jamaican people.
It resides in the understanding that our individual success is only assured in the collective prosperity of all our people.
In closing, allow me to claim the spirit of marronage that empowered Nanny, Woman of Destiny, Mother Africa, upon whose shoulders the Jamaican woman stands as the matriarch and guardian of the intangible heritage, which is our strength.
Today, we pause to pay tribute to the many Jamaican women who continue to mother and father their children, who spend long hours of sacrifice to ensure that their children eat, go to school and live decent lives, whose hands and feet display years of toil and hardship, but whose smile is the assurance that their children will succeed.
To the Maroons, I thank and congratulate you on your anniversary and for your excellent examples of resilience, perseverance and independence as you continue to inspire all of us.
As stated by Vera Bell in Ancestor on the Auction Block:
Yours was the task to clear the ground.
Mine/Ours be the task to build.
I thank you.