ACCOMPONG, St Elizabeth — Intriguing photographic evidence of Maroon collaboration with the British in suppression of the Morant Bay rebellion in 1865 has set tongues wagging.
But Maroon chiefs are insisting that they will not be apologising for any perceived or alleged misdeeds by their ancestors.
The issue arose at a recent Maroon conference in Accompong, the largest village of the Leeward Maroons (also called the Trelawny Maroons) located in the rugged Cockpit Country of northern St Elizabeth close to the border of Trelawny.
While delivering her address, acclaimed historian Professor Verene Shepherd told her audience of “troubling” images acquired from a private collector by Princeton University, showing men purported to be Maroon colonels posing with British soldiers in the aftermath of the 1865 rebellion.
Historians say Maroons — who are a mix of the descendants of ex-slaves freed by Spanish colonisers on their expulsion by the British in 1655 as well as runaways from British slave plantations — played a crucial part in the crushing of the Morant Bay Rebellion which was triggered by impoverishment and land deprivation.
In the discussion that followed Shepherd's revelation of the “new” photographs, Maroon colonels Frank Lumsden of the Charles Town Maroons in Portland (eastern Jamaica), and Ferron Williams of Accompong (western Jamaica) said there could be no question of an apology from the Maroons.
A post on the Princeton website said 59 photographs relating to the Morant Bay Rebellion, believed to be perhaps the earliest of their type, had been acquired by the university.
Two posted pictures focus on men believed to have been Maroon colonels sporting the bush camouflage famously used by the Maroons in battle. One picture shows the supposed Maroons standing around a seated Caucasian, identified as Colonel Alexander Fyffe, whom historians say elicited and directed Windward (eastern) Maroon companies in helping British soldiers and militias suppress the Morant Bay Rebellion.
Paul Bogle, the leader of the rebellion, and now National Hero, was captured by Maroons and handed over to the British colonial authorities who executed him by hanging in front of the Morant Bay courthouse which had been burnt during the riots.
Historians have consistently said that after the signing of peace treaties between British colonisers and Maroon communities in Jamaica, 1738 - 1740, the Maroons were repeatedly called on to suppress slave rebellions as well as the Morant Bay Rebellion. Prior to the treaties, signed separately between the Leeward and Windward Maroons and the British, Maroons had fought the British colonisers for 83 years from their villages in the Blue Mountains of eastern Jamaica and the Cockpit Country in the west. Their resistance has gained the Maroons legendary status in Jamaican history, despite tension related to their subsequent collaboration with the colonisers.
Shepherd, whose lecture focused in part on National Hero and 18th Century Maroon chief Nanny as well as “the tradition of women's resistance in Jamaica”, argued that the photographic evidence was yet more basis for Maroons to come to terms with their history.
“You must tell your own story including the uncomfortable truths,” Shepherd, who heads the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, said.
Her reference to an ongoing debate as to whether Maroons should apologise for “past actions” clearly struck a chord.
“I cannot (apologise) and do not have the authority…,” said Lumsden in the question and answer session. “It was not vested in me to apologise for the actions of my ancestors, and I speak as representing the Windward Maroons, which includes Charles Town, Moore Town and Scots Hall…,” he added.
By way of explanation, Lumsden said: “In our museum in Charles Town… there is a statement that the Maroons, by their daily struggle for freedom, forged for themselves an identity, according to which they judged themselves. If you do not understand the struggle, if you do not understand the identity, then any judgement of them will be flawed.”
In a follow-up interview with the Sunday Observer, Lumsden made it clear he was not denying the role of Maroons in the capture of Bogle and “others”, but suggested their actions had to be understood in the context of their times and realities.
“No! No! No! I am not saying that the Maroons didn't have an alliance with the British,” said Lumsden. “I am not even denying that the Maroons had a part in the takedown of Paul Bogle and others... All I am saying is that you have to understand the root causes... I am saying regardless of what they did, understand why they did what they did…,” he reiterated.
The Charles Town chief also suggested that “roving gangs of free (black) people… not just Maroons” were often on the prowl during insurrections such as the Morant Bay Rebellion.
Col Ferron Williams, who heads the Accompong Maroons, said persons in St Thomas had been urging the Maroons to apologise for “capturing Paul Bogle” and he had been receiving “calls upon calls”.
But, he said, “none of us, as colonels, whether present or future, will make such an apology, until they (accusers) can prove beyond a shadow of doubt what was in the minds of our forefathers…”
Williams, who appeared at one point to be attempting to cast doubt on the stories of Maroon collaboration with the British, also made the obvious point that the Trelawny Maroons would have been too far west to be involved in the campaign against Bogle and his followers.
Williams made no mention of western Maroon involvement in the suppression of slave insurrections nor the capturing of runaway slaves in western, central and northern Jamaica.
Shepherd, who has repeatedly called for history to be made a compulsory subject in Jamaican schools, made it clear: “I am not talking about this in the context of starting conflicts between the Maroon communities and Jamaicans, because now we are family.
“The fact that we (Jamaicans) have that uncomfortable part of our history does not mean we do not come to Accompong; that we do not come to these conferences, that we do not go to Charles Town, that we do not go to Moore Town, or that we do not come here (Accompong) to celebrate on the 6th of January (anniversary of the Treaty). That, too, is part of our history.
“If we can travel on British Airways to Britain, if we can shop in London, if we can go to Buckingham Palace and laugh and stare, if we can accept national honours from Britain... then we can come to Accompong and talk to our people. But I am a historian, and I have to confront these uncomfortable parts of our history.”
Maroons at the conference repeatedly spoke of the sanctity and legality of the treaties with the British, which they said had guaranteed them landholdings. They repeatedly warned that their land rights which had been guranteed by a “blood oath” between their forefathers more than 270 years ago and the British negotiators of the day should not be violated by Jamaican authorities.
“In Ghan, a blood oath cannot be broken, not may, not or… to this day we honour those treaties… We (Maroons) have a contract with the Queen (British Monarch),” Lumsden said.
Shepherd, who said she could only “speculate” on what Nanny would have said about corroboration between Maroons and the British, told the Sunday Observer: “I think we can't pretend as if everything's nice and honky and dory between Maroons and those who consider themselves non-Maroons.
“The same way we are calling on the State to reconcile what happened at Coral Gardens in 1963 (alleged police assault on Rastafarians), the same way we in Jamaica are calling on the Europeans to pay reparation and reconcile that crime against unity (enslavement of Africans); I think it's the same we have to say to our brothers and sisters of the Maroons… there is something to talk about.
“When you read the account of the Morant Bay war, when you look at the trial testimonies and punishment lists and when you see the number of times, it says: 'Shot by Maroons, Shot by Maroons, Shot by Maroons'… you have to say 'let's talk people, let's talk'... I am saying let's talk about what happened in the past, let's reconcile so we can move forward…,” Shepherd pleaded.