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Three Fingered Jack: His name drove fear into the hearts of white plantation owners

Sunday, October 14, 2007    

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i>The first in a series of articles looking at the rise and fall of infamous men who lived a life of crime in Jamaica.

Perhaps the most feared runaway slave in Jamaica during the 1700s was Jack Mansong, popularly known as 'Three Fingered Jack' - Jamaica's first infamous bad man.

Historians say that the very mention of Mansong's name drove fear into the hearts of white plantation owners in Jamaica and those in Britain where many plays and books were written about his exploits. He was also the first fugitive in Jamaica's history to have a bounty, £300, placed on his head.

The books on Mansong were widely popular and two became best-sellers, while one of the musical plays, entitled Obi-or Three Fingered Jack, had a run of at least nine years to packed houses in British theatres.

During the slavery years, there were many runaway slaves and rebels, but Jack's infamy was legendary, considering that his time as a fugitive lasted less than a year - between 1780 and 1781.

According to the Jamaica Journal volume seven, number four, Jack Mansong was described by the authorities at the time as 'the terror of Jamaica', a 'famous Negro robber', 'a daring rebel' and 'a bold and daring defender of the rights of man'.

Accounts of his early life vary, but one story that remains consistent is that Jack Mansong fled the slave plantation and at first holed up at a spot at the head of the Cane River, where he could observe and swoop down on commuters traversing the Windward Road, as it was known at the time.

From there, Mansong moved to higher ground and settled in a cave in the Blue Mountains from where he robbed passers-by, raided nearby plantations and launched his own private war against the authorities of the time.

The area in St Thomas between Bull Bay and Grant's Pen, where a monument in his memory stands today, was Three Fingered Jack's main hunting ground and it was there that he reputedly carried out many daring hold-ups, robberies and kidnappings.

Information gathered at the Institute of Jamaica reveals that Government officials and slave owners were his main targets.

Mansong has been blamed for numerous murders of the time and popular legend had it that he did not harm women, children or slaves. In fact, some writings suggest that Jack freed a number of slaves during his reign of terror.

The razing of a district known as Crawford Town in Western Portland in February 1780 has been widely attributed as the work of Mansong, who recruited disgruntled slaves as his deputies.

The attack on Crawford Town was carried out in the early hours and it was set on fire, according to the Jamaica Journal, "amidst screams of the defenceless and groans of the dying".

The Maroons, who were at the time hired to capture and return runaway slaves to the plantations, were hired to quell the disturbance and dispersed the gang of rebels led by Three Fingered Jack. A free pardon was offered to the rebellious slaves and all accepted, except Mansong, who from then on fought his battles against the state alone.

Since the incident at Crawford Town, Three Fingered Jack's reputation grew widely. He was allegedly an avid believer in obeah and was often blamed by both blacks and whites for marital breakdowns, illness and misfortune.

The January 9, 1930 issue of the West India Committee Circular stated, "By his magic he was not only the dread of the Negroes, but there were many white people who believed he was possessed of some supernatural power..."

There was also talk that Mansong had forced open iron bars and jumped 30 feet before killing two warders, when he was once captured, he was also alleged to be a giant-sized man who could absorb bullets in his body without coming to harm.

Historians say Mansong got the name Three Fingered Jack after he lost two fingers in an ambush in which he attempted to rob a maroon called Quashie. Quashie is said to have fought back and chopped off Jack's two fingers, although he was also badly injured in the skirmish.

By the end of 1780, the colonial government had become frustrated that all efforts to rid the society of Three Fingered Jack had failed, despite the posting of rewards by the British Government and the colonial assembly. To bolster their drive to capture Mansong, the colonists offered full freedom to any slave who could bring the feared rebel to justice, dead or alive.

Jack Mansong's short but effective guerrilla warfare ended on January 27, 1781, according to an account in the Royal Gazette of February 3, 1781.

The report states that Three Fingered Jack was surprised near the entrance of his cave by Quashie, who had converted to Christianity and was now known by the name John Reeder and a small slave boy known as 'A Good Shot'.

Mansong only had time to grab his cutlass, but was shot three times, and in an effort to escape threw himself down a 40-foot precipice. Reeder is said to have followed Mansong down the slope and the two engaged in a deadly fight which saw both being badly injured.

Three Fingered Jack was eventually overpowered and slain after the slave boy bashed in his head with a rock and both he and Reeder proceeded to cut off his three-fingered hand and head. His head was then placed on a bamboo pole.

The trophies of war were then taken to the town of Morant Bay before being placed in a bucket of rum. They were then taken to Spanish Town where the £300 reward was claimed.

The head and hand of Jack Mansong were preserved for 20 years at Spanish Town.

Despite driving fear into the hearts of the colonialists and being branded a cold-blooded murderer, the exploits of Three Fingered Jack were used by anti-slavery activists in England to advocate human dignity for both West Indian and African blacks.

- researched by Karyl Walker

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