My fellow Jamaicans:
Today is a special day in the history of our young nation. It is the day on which we pause to pay tribute to our National Heroes and Heroine and reflect on what we can learn from their lives and experiences.
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As we are so close to the anniversary of the hanging of the Rt. Excellent George William Gordon and Rt. Excellent Paul Bogle, whose only “crime” was to cry out for justice; I invite you to spare a thought for the agony they endured. Spare a thought for the over 400 who died with them and whose remains lie mangled in a mass grave behind the burnt out court house in Morant Bay, among them: William Thorpe, James Betty, Moses Bogle, James Bowie, Ellen Dawkins and Judy Edwards.
It is the awareness of what our heroes’ and heroines’ lives and experiences can teach us that we have embraced the theme, “Our history, Our Strength”. It reminds us that the past is not irrelevant. It reminds us that when a people do not know their history, they lose their identity and their confidence because valuable reference points are missing.
History is our cultural lifeblood. History is what makes us. It is what we are. It is what helps to shape our future. When we celebrate National Heritage Week and National Heroes Day, it is not just a celebration of the past, for history intrudes on the present. We draw on our history to sustain us and to give us hope for the future.
How can we not draw inspiration and courage to face our present circumstances when we think of the extraordinary courage and toughness of mind displayed by our National Heroine Nanny and National Heroes Sam Sharpe, Paul Bogle,George William Gordon, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Norman Washington Manley and Sir Alexander Bustamante? How can we shudder under the weight of our current challenges when we think of the enormous odds faced and successfully fought by all our National Heroes?
How can hope slip from our hearts when we remember how our heroes defied the odds and rallied the spirit of fellow warriors for freedom and autonomy in the face of such hopelessness and intimidation?
Nanny of the Maroons blazed the trail of freedom fighting which has characterized our history as a people. Nanny did not—could not—accept any notion, however widely it was propogated, that people like her were nobodies, destined to the rubbish heap of history. She asserted with all the force she could muster, literally and psychologically, that she and her people possessed inherent rights just like the colonisers. So from this very early period of European settlement in Jamaica, our ancestors served notice on the colonial authorities that they were accepting nothing less than their God-given rights of human dignity and equality.
Nanny demonstrated by her leadership over her Maroon communities that she could not only protest, but that she could manage. It’s a lesson we must never forget. Hard-fought rights gained through protest must be preserved through proper and judicious management and discipline.
Sam Sharpe stamped his presence and authority on slave society while himself in the shackles of slavery, demonstrating that one’s significance is not limited by his status. In a ruthlessly stratified society, he exemplified that spirit of defiance and indomitable will that moves everything out of its way. Slavery could not survive such a spirit. Sam Sharpe had a force of personality and a passion which was contagious.
When there is the danger of losing sight of our goal, we can take heart by remembering Sam Sharpe’s compelling and unwavering vision of freedom that caused him to lead the final Emancipation War and allowed our chains to fall off.
We need to remember George William Gordon, who stepped away from his privileged life, his life of comfort and ease, to fight for the oppressed and downtrodden. He risked everything for justice, for equality, for freedom. It is this spirit that we need to recapture today.
If we talk about raw courage, then Paul Bogle was the embodiment of that. He was courage personified. He refused to give in to hopelessness and defeat. He refused to believe that what existed was all that there could be. He walked by faith and not by sight. He believed in the innate greatness of our people. Fellow Jamaicans, we can’t squander that heritage.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey, whose philosophy and activism went far beyond the shores of Jamaica represented the very best in all of us. He was the quintessential hero. Garvey gave us so much to treasure, so much to keep us resourceful and resplendent in all our struggles. Garvey prepared the way for the struggle for Universal Adult Suffrage and subsequently our independence.
This takes us to the work of Rt. Excellent Norman Washington Manley and Rt. Excellent Alexander Bustamante. Sir Alexander fought valiantly on behalf of the working class and oppressed. He reaffirmed the dignity of labor in a society which was trampling on its rights.
A hero of the working class before he was officially named one, Sir Alexander kept before our eyes the interests of the poor and marginalized. At a time when it is not so fashionable to stand up for and champion the cause of the poor and oppressed, and when you could even get ridiculed for it, I summon the spirit of SirAlexander to rebuke us.
Norman Manley had a vision of a free and independent Jamaica that would not only hold its flag high but secure economic independence. This is the struggle of our generation: To so set our economic foundations in order so that our people can build an economy that is strong and supportive of their aspirations for a sustainable future.
Our history is,indeed, our strength. It is because we have such a rich and resonant history why we never lose hope in the face of our challenges. It is why we never tire in the struggle for economic and social development. It is why we never get weary in our comnmitmet to the poor and the excluded. It is because of our history and the lives of our National Heroes why we harbour no doubt that we shall, indeed,overcome.
The whole point of celebrating National Heroes day and National Heritage Week is to remind the nation that our heroes and heroine exemplify the greatness that is within us. It is in us. We just need to call it forth. Garvey believed this and it led him to conclude that, “we have a beautiful history and we shall create another in the future that shall astonish the world.”
This is the context in which, today, we also recognize the extraordinary achievers of this present time, with national honours. We salute them because of their contribution to creating the current history that has already begun to “astonish the world”.
We are a strong people. We have done it before. We will do it again. A people who survived the horrors of Transatlantic slavery cannot be written off. We are that people. We have history that gives us strength to face our future.
As we consider the value of history, let us remember that it is not only the historians, archaeologists, teachers and other professionals who have work to do. Everyone who is able to do so, must get involved. All of us need to do this work before it is too late. If you cannot learn history in school, learn it at the feet of our wise elders before they pass on. In the words of an African scholar, “Every old man that dies is a library that burns”. Do not allow our libraries to ‘burn’ without capturing their content in one retrievable form or another.
In celebrating the theme, our “History– our Strength”, we must draw on the history of selfless national service given by our heroes; their history of putting the interests of others ahead of themselves; indeed, risking their lives for others. Fellow Jamaicans, we need more than ever to recapture that spirit at every level in this country.
My prayer and my call to Jamaicans everywhere is to become more aware of our history; and preserve the legacy left by those who went before. Heed Rt. Excellent Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s cautionary charge: “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”. Refuse to live rootless; and whatever the cost, pass it on, each one teach one!
Best wishes on this Heroes Day. God bless you now and always.