A deeper look at Montego Bay Republic and western Jamaica history

Should we forget our past?


Sunday, January 20, 2019

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Without getting entangled in a complicated dissertation about the historical origins of the word 'Republic' in political science, the particular reasons for such ascription of the name to the City of Montego Bay were due mainly to (a) the cultural tradition of fierce independence on the part of Montegonians since the creation of the town in 1704 by Colonel John Barnett of Barnett Street and Barnett Estates fame; and (b) to the significance of the American Revolution or War of Political Independence, 1776, at the end of which 13 British American colonies declared themselves republics called the United States of America.

Within 20 years of this monumental and seismic political event in the western world, on May 1, 1796 the town of Montego Bay was given city status by then governor the Earl of Balcarres after the defeat and transportation of the Trelawny Town Maroons to Nova Scotia, Canada, and Sierre Leonie, West Africa, in the Second Maroon War, fought in upper St James.

The centre of the conflict covered places like Maldon, Vaughnsfield, Flagstaff, Horse Guard, Chesterfield, Kensington, Cudjoe Town and Petty River Bottom, where the first Maroon Peace Treaty was signed with the British in 1739. The designation of city status for Montego Bay now with the appellation of “the Corporation of Montego Bay And St James”, was enjoyed by the city for 69 years and was only lost administratively, but not culturally and psychologically, after the Morant Bay Rebellion, when in 1866, the Jamaican Constitution was abolished by the Members of the National Assembly (MPs) who voluntarily voted themselves out of power — a most significant development that occurred only once in Jamaica's Parliamentary history.

St James Assemblyman James Manderson was among those leading the charge for the National Assembly (Parliament) to abolish itself. The incidence of oppression and alienation that led Paul Bogle and his followers to walk for 41 miles from Stony Gut in St Thomas to Spanish Town to lay their complaints with the then Governor Edward Eyre were not limited to the eastern end of Jamaica. The social discontent on the part of the large army of underprivileged people were widespread, and there were several places across the island where life was worse. Montego Bay, paradoxically, was one such place.

While the merchant class was prospering, the limited working class and the overwhelming underclass were “sucking salt through iron spoons”. Montego Bay was a place where black people could not walk in the town after 6:00 pm. The 'Cage' building across from the Sam Sharpe Monument in the square is still standing, where those black people picked up by the Militia night patrols, under the Vagrancy Law, were locked up and passersby, mainly whites, were able to see black prisoners who were constantly mocked, jeered and ridiculed.

In the parish of Westmoreland the Toll Gate Riots (1858), known as “Rebekah's Riots” internationally (Genesis 24:60), in which men dressed in women's clothes in the night and rioted for three nights straight, were in response to similar oppression elsewhere which had reached boiling point — eventuating an incident that not only preceded the Morant Bay Rebellion but, if good sense had not prevailed by the trial judge dealing with those who were charged with rioting, would have made Morant Bay look in history like child's play.

You see, Toll Gate and toll fees back then meant something totally different and opposite to our modern-day understanding. Toll fees were not charged on vehicles (horse and buggy) but on people per head wanting to enter a town, perhaps as higglers or for any other legitimate business. Even to cross the toll gate to fetch water, an individual would be charged a toll for every trip.

The Westmoreland Toll Riots were in response to the oppression the poor felt from the colonial authority, as there was an abundance of evidence that although slavery was abolished in 1838 not much legislatively, regarding regulation and economically had changed for the black underclass. It is time to reintroduce in these discussions.

Montegonian publisher of the County Union newspaper was Sydney Lindo Levien, coordinator in Cornwall County of the “Edward Underhill Meetings” of which the chief speaker was George William Gordon — who incidentally grew up in the town of Black River in St Elizabeth. It was at this location, as a 12-year-old boy, that Gordon witnessed up front and close the Sam Sharpe Slave Rebellion of 1831/32.

Levien used his newspaper columns to focus and speak out against injustice and deteriorating social conditions, particularly in the west. But the issue of Governor Edward Eyre's misuse of public funds designated for repair to be effected on the official residence, and which was used by the governor to instead purchase a piano for His Excellency's personal use, was exploited by Levien to hammer and excoriate the Governor.

The governor was forced to return the funds to the treasury. It was therefore not surprising that when the governor declared Martial Law in response to the Morant Bay Rebellion, that Sydney Lindo Levien and George William Gordon, also DR Robert Bruce — the Coroner for the then parish of Vere, were among the first people charged with treason by the State.

A British navy ship HMS Blanche was sent from Port Royal to Montego Bay to arrest Levien, outside of the areas in which the state of national emergency was prescribed. Levien was transported to Morant Bay for trial. The point is to be made, if it is not yet obvious that the then town of Montego Bay and parish of St James in western Jamaica, which is older than the town and city of Kingston, was no small player in Jamaica's historical journey.

Montego Bay is called the second city but not to Kingston, designated 1872, but our city designated 1796 is historically second only to the city of Port Royal. While it is true that Kingston is the capital city, it is also Jamaica's fifth capital — which was preceded by Montego Bay where the Spanish Governor Alonzo de Miranda (1607-1611) resided at the official residence at Miranda Hill along Gloucester Avenue and across from the Old Fort Frederick craft market.

The next capital of Jamaica was Seville in St Ann, followed by Spanish Town in St Catherine, ending Spanish occupation of Jamaica after the battles of Ocho Rios and of Rio Nueva between the colonial powers of Spain and England.

With that major victory of the English against the Spanish, the city of Port Royal became the fourth capital of Jamaica, followed by the city of Kingston in 1872.

Sir William Beeston, assemblyman for Port Royal at the time of the 1692 earthquake and later governor of Jamaica, sold 200 acres of his property known as “Beeston” to establish the location for Kingston, which later became Jamaica's capital city.

The ascription of the word “Republic” to the city of Montego Bay for 311 years, though not official, spoke volumes about how the citizens saw themselves in the broad sweep of Jamaica's history and indicated an ample, eloquent description of the individual and collective contributions of the various players in the city to national and regional development.

Key landmarks in the city include the Sangster International Airport, Doctor's Cave Beach and Hotel, Montego Freeport as a multi-modal economic driver, and the multidisciplinary health complex Corwall Regional Hospital, now under well-needed repairs, among other pivotal and powerful infrastructural nodes.

The recording and reportage of Jamaica's, in general Montego Bay's history, have been shamefully handled in the past and with no area of exception. Surprisingly, one of the most dishonest area's of our national history, ironically so, relates to the history of religion and particularly that of the activities of the non-conformist churches that began to arrive in Jamaica — starting with the Moravians in 1754 in the parish of St Elizabeth and the Baptists in 1783 by war refugees fleeing from the British defeat in the American Revolution of 1776.

Over 400 white families and between 3,000 to 4,000 blacks were to have arrived in Jamaica. Baptist preacher Moses Baker arrived in St James in 1787 at the Adelphi Plantation and built several Baptist churches, including Salter's Hill, Vaughnfield, Falmouth Baptist Church, known later as William Knibb, Montego Bay Baptist Church — later known as the Burchell Baptist, Ridgeland Baptist Church — known later as FullerField Baptist, among others.

These churches were built some 41 years before Reverend Thomas Burchell (1824) and teacher William Knibb (1825, ordained in Jamaica 1827) had arrived on the island.

St James with its capital Montego Bay,”the Republic” was the pivot and base in western Jamaica for the mushrooming of Baptist work on this section of the island. But the Baptist history in Jamaica, first written by the great-granddaughter of the Reverend William Knibb, Inez Sibley, in 1965 and 135 years after the Reverend William Knibb arrived in the town of Falmouth in 1830, totally excluded from its pages the black preacher Moses Baker's sterling contribution to the development of the Baptist faith, particularly in western Jamaica. Such a shame.

The dishonest and biased history of the development of the Baptist faith (of which I am a part, has found fertile soil through the use of Sibley's propagandistic account, which has become the central reference to many “scholars” studying Baptist history in Jamaica. Therefore, one ought to look out for those in the churches and some tertiary educational institutions — after all the embarrassing lies written about our history — who out of laziness and deceit have been caught trapped in defending the foolishness masquerading as authentic history, with one of their ploys to exhort audiences, congregations and believers to forget about their past.

But how does one forget the past which is the fundamental source of memory, conditioned response and learnt behaviour? And so, if we do not pay attention the “kakanaboo” stories called Jamaican history would have flourished, doing great damage attitudinally to future generations in many ways. For our past journey, with reports riddled with dishonesty and chicanery, cannot and will not be a credible platform upon which our nation stands. What irony, as some churches, denominations and individuals have carelessly hugged up tightly ….the foolishness, clearly with the hope that the fabrication of so many aspects of Jamaica's history, that conveniently suits and serves individuals' personal interests, will last. It will not.

That is part of the reason I write from the city of Montego Bay, which from very early received the accolade and ascription of “the Republic”, reflective of that proud tradition to think and research the available Jamaican history far and wide…for ourselves. So we are never easily fooled; and that is the spirit of this city and by and large of this country.

But some of us still need to pay closer attention to the years of con-artistry and trickery in respect to our history. Montego Bay learnt its lesson, for the most part, very long ago. I was passing through a town recently and noticed a man sitting and holding an Awake magazine in his hand, but he was fast asleep. A perfect image to my mind of the apologists regarding the damage occasioned by the widespread falsification of virtually every major aspect of Jamaican history. But it is being cleaned up, with Montego Bay — the “Republic”— taking the lead. And the response from a few truth-resistant apologists is that we must forget the past. Really? Yet they celebrate dutifully birthdays and anniversaries which are based on the past. Additionally, every past thought and action carries consequences that last longer than the date an event occurred influencing the present and the future. A good example is the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ at Mount Calvary, the consequence of which was the birth of a new religion called Christianity which is now approximately 2018 years old.

Rather than being seen as an attack on anyone,I trust this article will help to stop the nonsense talk masquerading as discernment. As a Christian, that is my hope... and that respectability will return to Jamaica's history generally and to our religious history in particular — which is downright squalid, to say the least.


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