History books have long told the stories of scores of African slaves who were chained and taken across the Atlantic Ocean by white oppressors. Since then, the stories of these slaves have been the canvas upon which most West Indians have drawn their ancestral portraits. However, what most people tend to forget is that the Caribbean region has a vast history that is tied to other ethnic groups, which had no connection to the slave trade. These are they who came after chattel slavery ended and human capital and labor were still in high demand. These are the indentured servants who came from France, Germany, Wales, Spain, Syria, China, and India. However, the pages of history books are turning and somehow, their history and influence are being swept aside as time progresses. David Ritter hopes to uncover the stories of the descendants of these immigrants to Jamaica. We spoke with David Ritter to get further information on his documentary “Forgotten Faces of Jamaica” and to understand his commitment to putting names and faces to our Jamaican motto, “Out of Many, One People.”
Who is David Ritter?
I am a resident of Haiti who spends lots of time in Jamaica. I have lived and worked in Kingston. Prior to that, I studied art and minored in music production at a school in Boston, MA. I do audio production and sound engineering and I’m a selector for various sound systems in northern Haiti. In my free time, however, I create film projects between Haiti and Jamaica. I am West Indian, born of French, British, and German heritage.
What gave you the impetus to begin this project?
At 23, I moved back to the West Indies. I started spending time in Kingston, working with Father Holung and Missionaries of the Poor. On one occasion, I was catching a ride from some of the brothers. As you know, Missionaries of the Poor always has a lot of volunteers who come in and work—it’s almost like missionary vacationing for some of them. This particular day, I caught a ride from them in the back of a truck and they picked up some volunteers to take to St. Andrew. As we were on our way, one said, “I’m so glad I’m safe inside this truck”. Another one said something about how violent the locals are and said, “they will probably chop you up with machetes; they don’t know what a white person looks like.” So I asked him how he thought the white Jamaicans got around and he retorted with, “there aren’t any white people in this country, are you stupid or something?” Fate would have it that soon after, the brothers stopped at the house of some benefactors, who are white Jamaicans, and I sat there and looked at the faces of these same missionaries. They were shocked! They kept trying to get to the root of where the people were from. It was as if they could not believe that Jamaicans could be anything but black. So that inspired me to do this project.
What was the process by which you acquired participants?
My first project took place in northern Haiti. It was just a matter of talking to people I was acquainted with. It’s very hard, to be honest, because many people are afraid to talk about these kinds of subjects. A lot of minorities within the Caribbean are private people and they don’t want to make it [their stories] into a big display. People already see them as strange already. I eventually got enough people and we had a conversation about the different things they experience as minorities. I simply used my acquaintances and went from there. Now, I’m expanding my network so I’ve been working on a series where I can try to include every different group that has migrated to Jamaica.
When I went to Jamaica, I went on a pilgrimage to Seaford Town (Germantown as some people call it). I had been doing some reading and found out that -Seaford Town, Westmoreland, has the largest concentration of Germans in Jamaica. So I went to Jamaica, got a map and drove up there from Kingston. I just drove up there and got my camera and started talking to people. I think most people received me warmly. The second I went there, I went to a church (Catholic). That was the first place I thought I should go and I talked to the deacon, who was of German ancestry . Most people were very eager to share their history and talk to me and then there were some other people who were very shy and who wanted to stay in their homes and then others who didn’t care either way.
What are the most fascinating things you’ve discovered so far?
I think I’ve found some pretty painful sections of history. I found some pretty big events amongst the Chinese populous like riots, etc. I find it interesting that there is so much history that people have forgotten and how few people can actually speak German amongst the community and how much culture has not stayed. I think recently there has been a resurgence to preserve and celebrate their culture and history with the building of community centers and museum in these minority communities, particularly amongst the German Jamaicans.
The whole concept of non-Black slavery is something that isn’t addressed often in academic settings and it’s an interesting topic to study. It can get into semantics sometimes when it comes to the discussion about indentured servitude versus slavery. Indentured servitude is voluntary and there’s a chance to get out. A lot of my research shows that there have been lots of Asian and White slavery in the New World. I can’t confirm it in Jamaica but indentured servitude is something that people don’t get into. There is the belief, in Jamaica, that if you are white or of Asian descent, you’re a merchant or rich. This is not true for my project. The people in this project do not necessarily come from a history of wealthy merchants. Their families came to Jamaica to escape their homelands or to seek a better life by serving as indentured laborers. This shows you that the color of your skin does not make you a part of a certain class or ideology. Slavery and class differences have affected all kinds of people in the world. As far as Jamaica goes, indentured servitude is the biggest thing amongst Welch, Scottish, Chinese, and East Indian immigrant families. It offends people sometimes when I talk about these cultures because they think I’m taking away from the hardship that blacks have gone through. I want to emphasize that this is absolutely not my intent; the hardships that blacks in the Caribbean have experienced is evident and well recorded. I’m just trying to get into something that hasn’t been talked about. I’m delving into that to show a sliver of Jamaica that is rarely discussed.
German history has been very bumpy and a result of that has made a lot of Germans migrate all over the world. The Ottoman Empire pushed a lot of Syrians out and they came to the Caribbean because they were accepted there.
I have found one book, Lost White Tribes, that focuses on this history of minority cultures in the Caribbean. Every now and then I’ll find little things popping up on the internet; little articles here and there. My documentaries alone help me connect with all kinds of people all over the world, so that is allowing me to gather even more information.
What kind of responses have you gotten from Jamaicans?
I’ve gotten everything from “thank you, this is amazing and I never knew this kind of history” to “this is stupid, who cares, I don’t wanna hear it.” When I get the second type of responses, I say to myself “ if you don’t care, then why are you taking so much time to talk about this?” I understand that I’m doing something that is exclusive because it focuses only on this one group of people as opposed to talking about everybody. I didn’t do it to offend any Jamaican people. I’ve met anthropologists and sociologists who are researching African heritage but it’s been done so many times. I wanted to focus on all of the cultural aspects that my ancestors and other people from the Caribbean have had. Reggae music has roots in German music. The Creole that Jamaicans speak has roots in the many African and European influences on Jamaica. Sometimes critics of my project tell me “I must be a racist”. But I’m not doing it to put down anyone but rather, to celebrate my heritage and the heritage of others who are not known by the world. If it offends people then I’m sorry because that was not my intent.
What are you hoping people will glean from this project?
This project is my response to westerners and those missionaries who come for a few days and a few weeks to “help”. When they see me in my community, the first question they ask is “what mission are you a part of?” I tell them I live there and they instantly jump to conclusions to explain why I live there. With this project, I want them to see that this is very normal. Our cultures have played a part in making these countries what they are. Just because there’s a page in history that said “these people once existed” doesn’t mean they all went away. The books talk about the evil white people but leave out these other groups of people who had nothing to do with that. There are those who came to start businesses and get a better life. Jamaican is not a race, it’s a nationality. People might have a stereotype that lighter skinned people are rich and live above everyone. My hope is to break down stereotypes. I come from a middle class background. I don’t relate to the ultra elite group of people. I never made this project to emphasize class. It is to celebrate positive aspects of culture. The history of whites and the whole concept of plantocracy is just a chapter in history, not the entire book. There are several people who need to be a part of the full story. I don’t expect a huge emphasis. I just wanted something that represents how I felt as a descendant of the people who had nothing to do with slavery and oppression. I get tired of people seeing me enjoying my culture and then saying to me that “the white man is trying to eat Haitian food”. What gives them a right to eat it more than I can? Why is it that I can’t speak Creole as opposed to French. My culture is still living on and there are people with direct lineage still living on and we are not any less Jamaican or less Haitian than anyone else.
I just hope that anyone who gets to see the project watches it with an open mind and that the message gets through and they watch it in its entirety before casting any judgments. I hope it fascinates people who have never contemplated these subjects. I hope it has an educational value that everyone can appreciate. The Jamaican populous has been very supportive to me. It’s been wonderful! So many people, so much passion comes from Jamaican people. Jamaican influence is everywhere. Many countries, can take a lesson from how well Jamaicans promote themselves. I am grateful that Jamaicans have embraced me and the project.
How can people get the full version of the documentary?
A production company is interested in distributing it and we are currently negotiating that. I plan on doing some screenings so by August there will be something available to the public. For now, people may watch my Youtube channel (forgotten faces 001 or subscribe to raqsattaq) and check my website (http://forgottenfaces.info/) and once the post production is taken care of, I will notify the public and have copies available. I would love if scholars could contact me so that we can work together. They can contact me at [email protected]. I check my email pretty regularly.