It’s Friday evening in Accompong, a small town nestled in the craggy hills of Cockpit Country, West Jamaica. We’re huddled around a flickering television screen in ‘Flashy’s Shop’ watching the evening news. The shop-come-bar is no more than four metres square, with empty shelves apart from a few bottles of Guinness and some tinned vegetables. Set back from the rest of the town on the hilltop, with glassless windows opening on to the clear night’s sky, it is the ideal meeting place for locals to relax, play dominoes and conduct ‘reasoning’ sessions (Rastafarian philosophising).
Despite his gold tooth, owner Flashy isn’t very flash, not like your typical money-motivated small businessman. (“Pay me later. No Problem mon” is a phrase I hear again and again.) Halfway through the evening he leaves his patrons/friends to mind the premises and invites me for a walk around town, “circling” he calls it. We pass other shop/bars similar to his, with one or two patrons chatting over the counter, and many other groups on similar nightly strolls. It’s barely eight o’clock, but with little street lighting it seems much later. A circuit of the whole town (population 1,000) takes less than half an hour. It’s a typical rural Jamaican community – apart from the fact that it is exempt from government rule.
In 1739, after 76 years of irregular war, the Maroon slaves signed a peace treaty with the British giving them semi-sovereignty over 1,500 acres of land. The Maroons promised to end all hostility and, controversially, to return any future runaway slaves. The land became Accompong and 265 years later the treaty still stands. The town is run by an elected ‘Colonel’ instead of the government, residents don’t pay taxes, there are no town police and yet it’s almost 100% crime free. The state can only interfere in the case of a capital crime and Flashy tells me that there has only ever been one major incident – an attempted gun robbery by an “outsider”.
As late as the 1980s, the town gates were kept locked and outsiders had to seek permission to enter from the Colonel. But times are changing. Residents have seen the benefits of tourism – social and financial – and now visitors come and go freely. A small museum has been constructed in the town centre, showcasing excavated relics, traditional musical instruments and details of ceremonial practices, and local guides are happy to conduct tours through the wilderness to the Peace Cave, where the treaty is believed to have been signed by their founding Colonel, Cudjoe.
On this warm December night I’m the only tourist in town – yet if I had arrived a month later it would have been a very different scene. On 6 January, the town celebrates the signing of the treaty. Up to 20,000 visitors come to join in the festivities – including Maroons from all over the island and tourists shipped in by the coach load. The day starts with a ceremony at the Peace Cave paying respect to Maroon ancestors. This is followed by feasting, dancing and traditional myal drumming. It all culminates in a giant parade and a sound-system dance party that continues throughout the night. With only a handful of official guesthouses, everyone opens their homes to accommodate the influx of visitors.
But festival aside, few foreigners make the detour from the all-inclusive hotels and white sand beaches of resort towns Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios. “We need more tourists,” Deputy Colonel Rupert Robinson (aka Colonel Robbie) tells me earnestly, when I visit him at his home/guest house. No taxes may sound ideal – but it puts Maroons under pressure to raise their own funds for community projects, maintenance and development.
At the moment, there are no set fees for tours or museum visits and no organised tour companies – and some guides can exploit this. But the Tourism Product Development Company (TPDCo), a private company operating under the Ministry of Industry and Tourism, has been working with locals to create an infrastructure for sustainable tourism. They have also helped instigate an entrance fee during the festival period which is a huge money-spinner for the community. Proceeds have enabled them to construct an open air venue, known as Bickle (food) Village, where outside vendors can hire a plot during the festival and on other special occasions.
Accompong town is concentrated around one main road running up the hill, but the surrounding area is vast – somewhere between the 15,000 acres they were originally promised and the 1,500 acres recorded on the written treaty (where a crucial zero was mislaid). Sun drenched and fertile, the terrain should yield equally vast profits, but residents have never had the resources for large-scale farming. The costs involved in selling outside the community are high and so is competition. It’s a frustrating situation, especially when they watch authors and “pharmaceutical bigwigs,” as Colonel Robbie calls them, cashing in with sales of Maroon history books and herbal remedies. “They take from us, make a profit and we get nothing,” he says. “It’s all done secretly, illegally and dishonestly.” The Maroons were unaware of their intellectual property rights until recently and now they have vowed to “tighten up”.
Last year, the Maroons started renting out their land to mobile phone companies. Despite ongoing compensation wrangles for damage done to personal property during construction, most residents seem to have accepted the two giant metal towers, forming hideous eyesores on the otherwise unspoilt landscape. “The funds help the community a lot,” reasons Colonel Robbie, “and they also gave us 250 free phones.” (Although Pay-as-you-go are far from ‘free’ in the long term.)
“Life here is changing rapidly,” says Colonel Robbie. Almost all the younger generation now uses mobile phones and not one has learnt to use the traditional method of communication, the abeng horn (a cow horn that produces a surprising range of notes). Colonel Robbie wants to encourage young people to preserve the unique culture of their ancestors, who came from the Coramantee region of Africa, where Ghana lies today. It is his dream to send a delegation to Africa to bring back the lost Coramantee language so they can translate their songs.
In the future, festival proceeds could help make this project viable – along with many others. 2004’s celebrations took place a month after I left town. The TPDCo let the Maroons take control once again and locals reported a record number of foreign visitors.
Speaking after the festival, Colonel Peddie was optimistic: “I believe that if we do the right sort of development, this little town can become the most sought-after destination in the West Indies – if not the world.”
About th Writer
‘Vicky Baker is a freelance journalist based in London. She is assistant editor of Overseas magazine and The Linguist. This article was first published in Overseas, a quarterly journal for members of the Royal Overseas League ( http://www.rosl.org.uk ).’