Lynda Edwards is a Jamaican- born writer, born in 1967 in Mandeville. To date, she has written two novels, Redemption Songs and her latest release, Friendship Estate. She currently lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband of twenty-five years.
In 2020, the world descended into chaos. A pandemic crushed us in its grasp. We witnessed a man die, a knee fixed so firmly upon his neck, it extinguished his life as the world watched in shock and horror.
The realization that being a member of the world’s largest ‘free’ society didn’t make you free was jolting to me. There are different rules for being white, black, brown, yellow, female, male, transgender, gay, and straight in America. So many rules, I wondered how anyone kept them all aligned in their heads, I wondered who was keeping track of maintaining this status quo.
I longed for the comfort Jamaican shores gave me, away from the hate and anger surrounding me in the year 2020. When I lived in Jamaica, I bristled at being called Whitey, until my father pointed out that my whiteness was nothing more than a distinguishing feature. Like we call short people, Shorty or stout people, Bigga.
To steal a line from my good friend, George Graham, “Where Jamaicans may be unique is that we are far less obsessed with skin color and ethnic origin than any other multiracial society I can think of.” He is right; Jamaican’s never refer to themselves as anything but Jamaican. We are exceptional enough with that title alone.
Jamaica is a land of many firsts that we don’t recognize enough to bring us the pride it should. Black River was the first town in the Americas to have a telephone exchange. The Waterloo House, then a private residence, was among the first to have electricity in the Western Hemisphere (1893). In 1903, Jamaica’s first motor car – a four-cylinder ‘New Orleans’ made in Twickenham, England – was driven in Black River. Jamaica was the first country in the Western Hemisphere to ban trade and travel with South Africa because of its brutally racist apartheid government system.
Jamaica can easily boast of having one of the best collections of historical significance in the National Archives. The National Library of Jamaica originated from the West India Reference Library (WIRL) collection, founded in 1894 as a section of the Public Library of the Institute of Jamaica. This public library was the first of its kind in Jamaica. The West India Reference Library began as a small collection of Jamaican and West Indian books, under Frank Cundall’s guidance, the Secretary/Librarian of the Institute from 1891 until he died in 1937. It has developed into a comprehensive collection, rich in primary source materials covering all aspects of Caribbean life and society.
Jamaicans have a style about them, a certain panache. We are innovators, creators and prophets. I don’t say this lightly. We have produced a culture complete with a reggae music soundtrack and an outlook on life envied by most. To declare you are Jamaican is to garner another look from everyone in the room. We are proud of our national motto, “out of many, one people,” and truly strive to live up to that standard. We ‘mash-up, mash-up,’ and the delicious stew we have cooked up has attracted world attention.
We have been able to do what most have not; we have embraced the shared yoke of colonialism as our bond, rejecting what it was meant to do: create irreparable divisions based on class and color. This post-emancipation ideology stressed individual achievement as the basis for social status, not color. Race is a social construct, not a natural state of being. The fact that racism exists at all means it is useful to someone. Racism and bigotry have achieved colonialism’s final solution: divide and suppress so someone can benefit economically and politically.
In Europe, the feudal system of Serfdom began in the tenth century. Serfdom was the forced labor of poor people on the fields of landowners. Serfs were the lowest social class of the feudal society. In most serfdoms, serfs were legally part of the land, and if the land was sold, they were sold with it. In England, Serfdom lasted up to the 1600s. In France until 1789. In most other European countries, Serfdom lasted until the early 19th century, existing in Russia until February 19, 1861. Europe’s legacy of Serfdom lasted for nearly ten centuries and cemented class divisions firmly in place.
Because there were so few European whites compared to the rest of the population, a complex racial hierarchy emerged in Jamaica. Colonials, whites born on the island, held status below their European counterparts. Mulattoes, people of mixed race, had rights depending on their situation. Many were free, declared white by their loving parents, so they could be educated, hold positions of authority, and guide their island home’s future. Slaves, well slaves were African serfs. By the time abolition was growing in the collective conscience of Europeans, the reality in Jamaica was that there were fewer pure Africans and fewer pure Englishmen. The island consisted of a mixed-race of people.
Maybe that is why Jamaica led the way in forging the path for abolishing slavery and what Emancipation would look like by enacting the Abstract of the Slave Law by the Jamaican House of Assembly in 1826. This law, among other rights, gave slaves twenty-six days off every year, exclusive of Sundays. If owners or overseers disobeyed this law, they were fined twenty pounds. There were penalties for violating the personal property of slaves.
Slaves could receive bequests or legacies, sick or infirmed slaves were to be cared for, including a ten-pound stipend per year, and most importantly, “Every person found guilty of the murder of a slave shall suffer death. Any person committing a rape on a female slave shall suffer death without the benefit of clergy, and that carnal knowledge of a female slave under ten years of age shall be punished with death, without the benefit of clergy.”
In this law, there were 139 articles passed by the Assembly on December 7, 1826, signed by David Finlayson, Speaker; further passed by the Council on December 22, 1826, in Manchester parish.
Two Jamaican stories lost to the sands of time, drowned out by louder voices intent on promoting their version of history, illustrate just how complex Jamaica’s society was in the 1800s.
Munro College, in Saint Elizabeth, was founded in 1856 via a Trust. One of its two benefactors, Robert Hugh Munro, died in 1798. The other benefactor was his nephew, Dr. Caleb Dickenson, who died in 1821. Both were men of Color. So, two men of Color, one a learned Doctor of Medicine, funded a school that is reputed to have produced more Rhode Scholars than any other secondary school in the Caribbean—accomplished BEFORE Emancipation in 1834.
Mary Jane Grant-Seacole was born in Kingston in 1805. Her father was a Scottish soldier, her mother a Jamaican. Mary learned her nursing skills from her mother. In 1854, Mary traveled to England and approached the War Office, asking that she be sent as an army nurse to Crimea. Being of mixed race, she was denied. Undaunted, she traveled on her own to Crimea, where she established the British Hotel near Balaclava, providing food and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers.
She visited the battlefield, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded and became known as ‘Mother Seacole.’ Her reputation rivaled that of Florence Nightingale. In 1857, she published her memoirs, “The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.”
This continued division of race is going to be our downfall as resources become scarcer, as our climate deteriorates further. The world needs to start working together to right the many wrongs of generations past. Learn from the past instead of continually recycling the mistakes history highlights. We can only survive as one race, the human race.
Colonialism is the greatest transgression humanity has propagated on itself. But without it, we would not have the opportunity to create the greatest civilization humankind has ever known. Jamaicans understand what most do not. Through the hardships we have faced together, by remembering to give GOD thanks for the bounty of the island and the sun that always rises to shine upon us, we have created one nation out of many people with one love in our hearts.
What a lesson we have to teach the world!