It’s not dead history; it’s our story

It’s not dead history; it’s our story

Sunday, January 17, 2021

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A people without a knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots — Marcus Garvey

It seems that in Jamaican schools the interest in studying history is even lower than in past years. There is a view that history is not relevant; it is a dead subject, and career options are limited. History is also thought to be boring, requiring a lot of reading, remembering dates, and, worst, Jamaican, as well as Caribbean, history is about slavery, exploitation, oppression and suffering. As Jamaicans are predominately black people, why should we want to be reminded of that? We should put that dreadful episode behind us.

Marcus Garvey was spot on. A knowledge of our history is essential and gives us roots.

The dictionary definition tells us that history embodies the inquiry into or study of the entire series of past events related to an individual, a family, a country, place, event, era, an institution, and so on. History is the story of the human race. It is the story of us.

All of us are living histories; we have ancestors, those who came before us, and whose DNA we carry. We have traditions, culture, religious practices, education, work experiences, and we benefit from science and technology. All these have a background reaching back into time. We build on this platform to take us into the future.

History is not a dead subject. We make it every day. It connects the past to the present. In my opinion, history is very much a living subject. In the 1990s, when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia disintegrated, it was necessary to go back into the history of these countries to understand what happened and the new countries which were emerging. The map of Europe was returning to a period prior to World War I.

To craft new policies and legislation it is necessary to examine historical records. To conduct some real estate transactions you must review the titles which carry the historical record of property ownership. The past impacts the future.

The journey for Jamaicans has been from Africa, India, China, and Europe, and it has involved relocation, colonisation, slavery, Emancipation, indentured labour, self-government, federation, and Independence.

On a personal level, the journey may have been from slavery into the peasantry, and, through education and enterprise, into the middle class, or to foreign parts. It may have taken a different turn. From our journeys we have had varied experiences from which we have evolved into a unique people.

The contributions of Jamaicans have also gone beyond our borders into the international community and, through immigration, have impacted the history of other countries — USA, Britain, Canada, Cuba, and Central America.

Understanding our history also facilitates our participation in the country's development and political processes. We cannot decolonise our past history, but knowing that history can help us to decolonise our future through research, analysis, reform, updating, upgrading and creating.

To further quote Marcus Garvey, which also made its way into Bob Marley's Redemption Song: We will be able to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.

On the question of whether history is boring I want to point out that some of the most popular television programmes in recent years have been historical dramas; for example Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones and The Crown. The US PBS channel, staring this month, will be airing Andrea Levy's The Long Song, which is set in Jamaica in the final years of slavery. We need more of our own television historical dramas and documentaries.

History also inspires great books and music. It was such a pleasure, in 2019, to hear the Kongkongkraba (Abeng) Symphony, based on the Maroon Wars, composed by Dr Andrew Marshall and performed by the Immaculate Conception High School Orchestra.

Our history and historical sites also have further economic value. Surveys have shown that most visitors are interested in the history and culture of the countries they visit. This means that Jamaica has to invest more in restoring and maintaining our historical sites, such as Port Royal, Spanish Town, Falmouth, Morant Bay (the courthouse especially), and many others. I always thought that it was most unfortunate that the very successful movie series, Pirates of the Caribbean, was not filmed in Jamaica at Port Royal.

We have to train tour guides who are well grounded in Jamaica's history. We should also have parish historians.

Another area which is becoming increasingly popular is genealogy research. There are people all over the world with Jamaican heritage, or an ancestor linked to Jamaica, who are interested in tracing their ancestry.

Our history matters and is worth studying and knowing — the good, the bad, and the ugly of it. It is our story which has shaped our identity and provides the foundation from which we can make new history.

Our history organisations could benefit from new members and support. These are the Jamaica Historical Society, the Georgian Society of Jamaica, and the Archaeological Society of Jamaica.

Marcia E Thomas is a history enthusiast. Send comments or feedback to

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