Peter the “Captain” of the bamboo raft is an extremely observant Seven Day Adventist and a mine of information on the Marla Brae river, on Jamaica’s North coast. He gushed with details of the history of the area, the flora, the fish, the weather, the termites, the ganja, the rum and of course, the Lord. As we floated effortlessly down stream, the river bloated by last night’s rains, he explained why he doesn’t eat shellfish, has never drank and how he observes the Sabbath in its entirety. The local Rastamen and himself – despite their religious differences – are “brothers’, sharing a deep love for the land, the nature, football, cricket and the power of the Almighty.
This is Trelawny Parish, not so far from the glitzy Montego Bay but spiritually about as far as you can get from that “all-you-can-eat” five star buffet gluttony of the typical beach resort.
Trelawny is also this Usain Bolt country. The world’s fastest man is born in the village. His mother worships in Peter’s church. Bolt was always incredibly athletic but, according to the Captain, his flamboyant running style was honed dashing through the fields to school to avoid a “flogging” when the young Usain, ever acting the maggot, missed the one school bus.
Jamaica has an image for spliff, reggae, hanging out, chilling, not to mention, the out-of-control gang violence, terrifyingly captured in Marlon James’ Booker Prize winner novel “A Short History of Seven Killings”. But there is another Jamaica, an observant, Christian Jamaica.
Tiny churches are dotted all over the place – at every crossroads and up each country lane. There is choice of Christian denominations in every village. Earlier today, at the Caribbean Development Bank’s Annual Meeting (where I am speaking) lunchtime grace was enthusiastically belted out before anyone touched a morsel.
When quizzed as to why the people have such faith, Peter reckoned it was a legacy of slavery. When everything is taken from you, he laughed, “what man got to get he through?”
Further down at a bend in the river, lay the remains of a sugar plantation and the cemetery of the long gone, plantation owners. There are no cemeteries to the slaves. There are constant reminders to the true horror of slavery everywhere. It is impossible to ignore. It is also amazing that a culture can survive such trauma, rebuild itself and function. The Captain suggested that God plays a huge part of overcoming the collective damage that slavery wrought.
We floated away lazily on his bamboo raft in the late afternoon heat, chatting about the Lord, Jah and the voodoo witches and their chicken slaughtering ceremonies that are practiced widely around these parts.
All this belief, faith or superstition, call it what you will, unifies people. It gives them a sense of purpose and a laudable set of rules. As we nattered away, Peter pointed out some wild sugar cane growing on the banks. I’d never seen cane before, have you?
When you see the size of sugar cane, you realize how awful cultivating this crop must have been. It is huge and when you see it you understand how much work went into growing, chopping, crushing and refining the juice. In slave times, there were few implements – almost everything was done by hand. In the mills, the cane was fed into rollers and the slightest mistake costs mangled limbs. In fact, the boiling cane created a scalding syrup, which stuck like glue to the misfortune whose arms of legs got splashed by this molten goo.
All this backbreaking work was done by brutalized slaves.
In all, over ten million slaves were taken from Africa to the Caribbean alone. These were just the ones who survived the passage. At least as many again, died horribly en route.
Jamaica was at the centre of a two hundred year financial, economic and trading system called the Atlantic system of the Triangular trade. British and, I suppose, lots of Irish, people were central to this.
The first leg of the trade was British goods were sold to African slave traders. These manufacturing goods would have been guns, nails and gunpowder.
These goods were exchanged for human beings, captured slaves who were then sent on to the Caribbean to work in the plantations. The plantations owners bought the slaves with money they made from selling sugar used to sweeten coffee. Soon after it was brought back from South America, coffee became the drink of choice for the chattering classes of London, Edinburgh and Dublin. 17th and 18th century Dublin was full of coffee houses and salons where the intelligentsia hung out, addicted to sweetened caffeine.
The Caribbean slave islands also bought food from Ireland and Britain because all the cultivated land was given over to this cash crop, sugar, so they imported lots of foodstuffs, salted beef and eventually salted butter. Some of the so-called merchant prince families of Cork had deep 18th and 19th century trading links with the Caribbean. This would not have been unusual because the Caribbean was a crucial corner of triangle trading system.
Slavery was eventually abolished in the 1830s, thanks in no small measure to men like Daniel O’Connell who saw the obvious parallels between slavery and Catholic emancipation here in Ireland. O’Connell was a tireless anti-slavery campaigner. Ultimately, the British commercial class was shamed into abolishing slavery by more and more evidence, produced in independent journals about the brutality of the slave trade.
However, black slaves were merely replaced by the next victims, indentured labour from India. This explains the large Indian populations of the Caribbean islands. In time, this too was phased out but not before thousands of Indians suffered similar, if not quite as horrific, fates. VS Naipaul’s account of the Indian Trinidad community is a good source on this particular exiled tribe.
Like all trades, the slave trade generated huge profits for the countries involved. Some economic historians argue that two hundred years of profits on the back of black slaves gave Britain the capital needed to fuel the industrial revolution and the Empire’s expansion. This allegation is very difficult to quantify but equally difficult to refute, at least, in part.
The brutality, violations, the starvation, the rapes and floggings meant that the Caribbean slaves, unlike those in the Southern State of the USA, actually died quicker than they reproduced. More and more slaves had to be brought from Africa simply to keep the slave populations static. All had to endure a period of “seasoning’ which referred to the torture in the first few weeks when the slaves arrived. “Seasoning” was designed to weed out troublemakers and break resistance. You can only imagine.
The sun was going down on the river and the swarms of mosquitoes were having a field day. We were chatting away, a few of us now, at a fantastic little shack called “Tarzans” at the side of the river eating Conk stew, washed down with cans of Red Stripe. Junior Gong – Bob Marley’s son – was playing in the background, as one of the young Rastas did his best Robbie Keane goal celebration impression, for the benefit of me, the Irish guest.
As I waved to these few lads, maybe eight in all, while the Captain tried to negotiate the current, I thought about the serendipity of life, the luck and the bizarre lottery of it all and how you can never tell who you are going to be, where you’ll be born, in what era into either poverty of privilege?
We headed to towards the village, past shacks and babies running around barefoot. It was nearly dark and we turned into the makeshift jetty. There, the raft was welcomed by a huge billboard of a smiling Usian Bolt, directly under a massive logo of his sponsor for this summers’ Olympics, Digicel.
The Irish are still trading here.
It was time to go home.