Jamaica: 100 years of black consciousness advocacy

Jamaica: 100 years of black consciousness advocacy


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

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JAMAICA has had a rich history of creative resistance during slavery. Similarly, during the post-slavery era, many Jamaicans have played pioneering roles in the development and the advancement of the black consciousness idea and movement. This article seizes the opportunity of black history celebration to open a window into stories of some Jamaicans who have made their mark on the idea and movement. The article focuses on those to whom very little attention has been paid, such as John Brown Russwurm, Dr T E S Scholes and Una Marson. It is important to pay special attention to the quality of their contribution in order to ask, how well have we built on what they started? It is important for us to explore how some of these ideas may awaken the "years of lethargy" among black people in Jamaica.

Before and after 1776, Jamaica had an active trade relationship with North America. Port Antonio was one of those active trading ports; it was the setting in which John Brown Russwurm's father, a white American businessman, lived. Winston James (2010) in The Struggles of John Brown Russwurm, 1799 to 1851, writes about his birth to a black woman and his journey to the USA, with his father, where he attended school. The writer notes that, at the time of his graduation from Bowdoin College, he may have been the earliest or one of the earliest blacks to graduate from a tertiary institution in America. James notes that it was during his years in college that he began writing on black struggles. Inspired by the Haitian Revolution and the black Republic, he made it his duty to defend the young black regime against propaganda depicting the Haitian people as savages. He moved to New York after graduation. There he developed and published his ideas instilling greatness in racial pride and the back-to-Africa message. He emerged during the earlier period before another early pan-Africanist and back-to-Africa advocate Edward Wilmot Blyden (1823-1912).

Russwurm met Samuel Cornish, a fellow African-American, in New York during the 1820s. They established Freedom's Journal, the first newspaper to be owned and operated by Africans in the USA. According to James, the editors announced in their opening statement if the Journal that "we wish to plead our own cause, for too long have others spoken for us". Russwurm saw the paper as an "organising force" among unorganised blacks in America, aiming to "awaken African-Americans from the lethargy years". His writings advocated the role of family and the cultivation and growth of industry among blacks by way of education and training. He saw education as that driving force towards higher achievements in science. He guided black people in America along the path of race consciousness through which they could become useful and responsible citizens. He became disillusioned with America and went to live in Liberia, where he was established as a governor of that new Republic. A few years after his death, in 1851, and in one of the neighbouring parishes to Portland, the Paul Bogle movement advanced the black consciousness struggles in another context at Morant Bay, St Thomas.

During the 1850s the systematic programme of land deprivation among the black masses continued; the setting in St Thomas and Jamaica was characterised by high taxation, high unemployment, high prices for basic food stuff, and severe and oppressive injustice. Thee clarion call for "skin for skin", black unity was condensed into an assault against the agents of the planter/colonial power relations in that parish. This violent insurgency of 1865 may have inspired a new thrust of black consciousness among a few emerging black intellectuals: Dr Robert Love (a Bahamian who resided in Jamaica) and Dr T E S Scholes. Both thinkers noted the role of the colonial/planter society and its systematic deprivation of the black masses' access to land. They saw this as a deliberate strategy to keep blacks and the country underdeveloped. Gordon K Lewis (1968) in The Growth of the Modern West Indies, describes Dr Love as the publisher of the old Jamaican Advocate newspaper calling for black representation in the Legislative Council, as well as, his advocacy of black consciousness. According to the writer, he lived in Haiti, where he encountered 'negritude' and black political representation. In the book, The Jamaican People 1880-1902 Race, Class and Social Control, Patrick Bryan (2000) describes Dr Love, an Anglican pastor, as a secular-pragmatist; and Dr Scholes, a Baptist, as another secular intellectual, and that they expressed their concerns about the land for the ex-slaves of Jamaica. Bryan writes that Scholes placed the question of land tenure in the broader context of the imperial system of the appropriation of "native resources", and that it was a conspiracy by the British Empire to systematically deprive the black masses access to land in Jamaica. Noting the endless sources of labourers among the black masses, Bryan writes that Scholes spoke about the high rate of taxation, land hunger, and the ignorance of scientific agriculture as hindrances to the development of the black masses and the country. Scholes was a significant Jamaican scholar; his major works are: Sugar in the West Indies and The British Empire and Alliances. This tradition, especially the role of spirituality and religion in politics, continued at the level of the role of revivalist preacher, such as Alexander Bedward, his native Baptist tradition rooted in the race thinking of Paul Bogle.

Marcus Garvey, the most popular pan-Africanist, whose movement excelled in the USA, inherited the rich legacy from Bogle to Love and Scholes, among others. After Garvey was Leonard P Howell, who showed the black masses that there was no hope in the colonial/planter Jamaican society, called for a rejection of the dominant European values and the wrong doctrine advanced by the Church. He inspired a new awareness among that black lower class that in part ushered a new era of black unity, setting the foundation for the emergence of the powerful trade union movement. Una Marson emerged during the rise of this movement. She was an early pan-Africanist and one of the earliest black feminists of international proportion during the 1930s. She lived in England where she worked with the likes of other pan-Africanist such as George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, and C L R James among others. She was also secretary to His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, whom she accompanied to the League of Nations conference where the Emperor submitted his case on the Italian aggression and occupation of Ethiopia.

These persons have set the standard. It is important that we take note of their worth and refine and expand on their works. They are important sites for historical excavation by young scholars.

Louis E A Moyston


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