Jamaica has a long history of activism, defined as “the doctrine or practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving political or other goals, sometimes by demonstrations, protests, etc.” (Dictionary.com). We can view the slave rebellions of the 18th and 19th centuries as forms of activism for the rights of those enslaved to freedom. This Adolphe Duperly 1833 creation depicts the destruction of Roehampton Estate in St James during the 1831-1832 slave rebellion.
In 21st century Jamaica the country is home to several organisations that are conducting forms of activism as described in the above definition:
- Advocating for “street, working and vulnerable children to improve their life opportunities and enable their contribution to society” as done through the work of Children First.
- Advocating “for good governance and improvements in state accountability and transparency” as done through the work of Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ).
- Advocating for the protection of “Jamaica’s natural resources using education, conservation, advocacy and the law to influence individual and organizational behaviour and public policy and practice” as done through the work of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET).
- Advocating for the rights of workers/employees as done through the various trade unions within Jamaica, such as the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), Jamaica Civil Service Association (JCSA), Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ), National Workers Union (NWU), Nurses Association of Jamaica (NAJ), to name a few.
Jamaica is also known historically for its advocacy role concerning international issues such as as apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela during his years of incarceration, and advocating for the return to democracy in Grenada when, in 1983, the Maurice Bishop-led Government was overthrown by Communists and Prime Minister Bishop was assassinated.
Sometimes, this spirit of activism has brought the country into contention with its northerly neighbour, the United States of America (USA), specifically as it concerns slavery.
US 18th Century Travel Advisories for Jamaica to all Who Ship Negroes, Bond or Free
I recently learned that after slavery was officially abolished in the British West Indies (BWI) in 1833, colonial officials would examine slaves on American ships that docked at any of the colonies’ ports, checking if they wished to gain their freedom in the BWI or remain as slaves in America. Once they stepped onto British soil they would automatically gain their freedom. This happened in the case of US ships the Enterprise at Bermuda in 1835, and the Creole at Nassau in 1841-1842. About 200 American slaves gained their freedom that way.
Of course the Americans were not happy!
In 1855, another such incident occurred, this time in Savanna-la-Mar, Jamaica, involving the newly freed black residents of the town, without the intervention of town officials.
According to the available sources, the American ship, the Young America, docked at the port in Savanna-la-Mar in June 1855. Upon learning that the black cook on the ship was an enslaved man, several residents of the town forced themselves onto the ship, and took him onto shore where he immediately became a free man.
The American Consul to Jamaica, R. Monroe Harrison, on learning of the incident, penned the following warning letter (travel advisory) from the US Consulate in Kingston “to caution masters of vessels against shipping negroes to come to any port in this island, as they are sure to have trouble” (R. Monroe Harrison, July 2, 1855). The letter was dated July 2, 1855, and was published in the New York Times on July 24, 1855. The letter starts thus:
Consulate of the United States
Kingston, Jamaica, July 2, 1855
Sir: I do myself the honor to inform you that I have more than once endeavored to impress upon the minds of our shipmasters the serious inconvenience and trouble of shipping negroes in the United States and coming to this island, as they are constantly in the habit of deserting; where there is much difficulty in my causing them to be returned to their vessels, on account of the violent opposition of the negroes here, as also from the circumstance of there being no treaty between the United States and Great Britain for the restoration of deserters…
It is only a few days since that the brigantine Young America, Capt. Rogers, of Baltimore, arrived at Savannah-la-Mar, when the black cook or steward, being desirous of getting rid of that vessel, and the master not wishing to let him go, a band of half-savage negroes went on board and took him out by force, and insulted the captain in the most shameful manner, while the magistrates looked on and countenanced the atrocious act. I have laid the case before his Excellency the Governor:…
Click on the image to read the rest of the letter via the New York Times’ website.
With my limited resources I’ve not been able to locate any other incidents of this nature in Jamaica in the post-1833 period and before the US abolished slavery in 1865. I’m sure, though, that the National Library of Jamaica and/or the Jamaica Archives may have the right resources for such an historical investigation.
This will be added to the list of historical investigations I need to follow up on when I get home in early-2015!
Until next time…
Duperley, Adolph (1833). “The Destruction of Roehamton Estate in the Parish of St. James in January 1832.” Image Reference NW0087, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.