By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 26, 2021
By the rivers of Babylon/Where we sat down/And there we wept/When we remembered Zion.
But the wicked carried us away in captivity/Required from us a song/How can we sing King Alpha song/ In a strange land?
—Jimmy Cliff, “Rivers of Babylon”
Two Fridays ago Brian Lehrer interviewed me on his radio show on WNYC (New York) about Jamaica’s most recent petition to Britain for $10.5 billion (US) in reparation for the damage done to our people during slavery. I informed Lehrer that Jamaicans have been battling Spain and Britain for the control of their lives and the product of their labor ever since those two countries enslaved and later colonized their country.
In the 1970s I visited Accompong where Captain Cudjoe, the leader of the 18th century Maroons, defeated the British. I wanted to meet my ancestors and physically experience the terrain over which they fought. While I was interviewing the leader of that group, his wife smiled at me and said: “You are one of us.” A few moments later, her grandson brought to me a wood carving of Captain Cudjoe upon which the following words were inscribed: “Accompong Cudjoe: Great Leader of the Maroons.” That wood carving adorns the entrance of my home.
Jamaicans have a long history of slavery and fought strenuously for their freedom. With the memory of slavery embedded in their consciousness they have used their resistance culture to energize their quest for liberation. Bob Marley remarked in an interview with Isaac Ferguson: “In my music I and I want people to see themselves. I and I are of the house of David. Our home is Timbuktu, Ethiopia, Africa where we enjoyed a rich civilization long before the coming of the European. Marcus Garvey said that a people without knowledge of their past is like a tree without roots.”
These sentiments shaped his song, “So Much Things to Say”: “I’ll never forget, no way: / They crucified Jessus Christ/ I’ll never forget, no way: / They sold Marcus Garvey for rice / So don’t you forget (no way) your youth / Who you are and where you stand in the struggle.” It was a message to Black people throughout the world.
It is no wonder, then, that in 1961 the Rastafarian Brotherhood petitioned Queen Elizabeth for 72.5 billion pounds (or $100 billion US) in reparations for the enslavement of Africans in Jamaica. They reasoned: how could Britain pay their enslavers 20 million pounds (100 billion dollars in today’s currency) for giving up their property (we may have been cattle for all they cared) without paying the enslaved one solitary cent for their centuries of enslavement.
The Rastafarian brothers petitioned Queen Elizabeth again for reparations when she visited Jamaica in 2002. They were in order. In 1776, forty members of the British parliament made their fortunes from investments in the Caribbean. Twenty-two years later, William Hardin Burnley arrived on our shores and made a fortune. When slavery ended, the British paid him 49,000 British pounds to release 900 slaves.
Burnley lived in Tacarigua from 1821 to 1850. My family and I, starting with my great grandparents, lived on Burnley’s land. Burnley’s brother-in-law was Joseph Hume, a Member of the British Parliament, who also profited from the labor of Trinbagonians. In 1833 Burnley sailed to England to protest against the British Parliament’s intention to free enslaved Trinbagonians.
In 1995 I wrote a short book, Tacarigua: A Village in Trinidad, in which I described Burnley’s presence in the island. I wrote: “Burnley saw the entire business of slavery as an economic enterprise in which the slaves were but so many bits of capital stock. To him, emancipation meant that he would be deprived of his ‘laboring hands’ and stock and he certainly could not have that.” I grew up seeing Burnley’s mansion every day.
On the evening that I launched my book on the Holy Ground Savannah (now the Eddie Hart Savannah) between St. Mary’s Church and Burnley’s mansion, Brother Resistance chanted down Babylon. He bellowed: “Is a long time now we fighting for freedom, victory bound to come/ I come with my bell just to second the motion, rock the rapso rhythm.”
Throughout the week we have been celebrating the life and work of Brother Resistance who, in many ways was carrying on the tradition of our chantwells, a continuation of our West African griots in action. He was part of our “revolutionary cultural workers” who strove to preserve our history, forced us to remember the revolutionary dimension of our culture, and to pour scorn on the vultures who strove to deny our humanity.
Next Sunday, Emancipation Day, we will celebrate the activities of those brothers and sisters who devoted their lives to freeing us from the iniquity of physical and mental slavery. The names of Nanny, Cudjoe, Louverture, Dessalines, Butler, Williams, James, and other freedom fighters will be featured prominently. However, we do them a disservice if we do not study their words, honor their legacy, and remember what they fought for.
The British government just finished paying the Rothschild (who loaned them the 20 million British pounds to pay to the slave owners) the interest on that loan in 2015. Malaika Jabali suggested: “It is a reminder that history that seems like a distant past is still very much shaping our present” (Essence, July 14, 2021).
All of us, in one way or another, are implicated in the drama of slavery. None of us can sing “the Alpha song” in a strange land without thinking of repairing the horrors of European slavery on Black people. How, indeed, do we recover, preserve, and honor the lost world/words of our fathers? That is the challenge.