The sun was gone but her lingering aura cast deep glorious colour across Kingston harbour, as the two friends drove their hire car away from the airport and along the thin spit of land towards the city. The Blue Mountains were a captivating sight, a silent inky backdrop to the lights just beginning to shine below as the darkness of evening crept across the sky.
“I can’t believe we’re really here,” Anna mused, her eyes flitting between the road and the sky that was becoming more dramatic with each passing minute.
“And I can’t believe the driving in this country. Look at this guy!”
Julia gesticulated towards a car approaching them on their side of the road, only swerving to avoid them at the last possible moment.
“We’ve only been here five minutes and I feel like we’ve nearly died several times. Your Dad needn’t have worried about the gangs and the guns, if we’re going to meet our maker here it’ll be at the hands of a maniac driver!”
Anna laughed but realised she needed to keep her wits about her and resolved to admire the scenery tomorrow when she was rested and more importantly, when Julia was driving. Thirty minutes later, and after negotiating rush hour traffic and more car horns than either of them had ever heard in their lives, they pulled into the car park of the hotel. Walking into their room on the 8th floor Anna whispered a small thank you to her Dad as she admired the more than comfortable surroundings and slid open the door to the balcony. The final flash of colour was fading from the horizon as evening closed in around the city. The air was still and warm and she was suddenly aware of the ache in her body from being cooped up for so many hours. Noticing a small, well-lit park on the other side of the road Anna decided that a short walk and stretch was in order before dinner. Turning to invite Julia she saw her friend already starting to nap on the bed and so gave her a gentle nudge before whispering her plan and making her way back downstairs. Reception was busy and so she bypassed the desk and instead spoke to the security guard at the front door.
“Excuse me. Is the park across the way safe to go and walk in?”
“Yes man, perfickly safe. That’s Emancipation Park, very popular for walking and running an tings. There’s security there, so you’ll have no trouble.”
Anna thanked the man and made her way across the road and into the park which was a hive of activity. A walking track around the perimeter was busy with people in sports gear going at a variety of speeds and so she decided to instead walk through the broad path that cut across the centre of the circular park and headed towards the fountains in the middle. She paused to watch the water rise and fall, smiling at the little girl beside her whooping with delight as the dancing columns of light and noise put on a show. As the water subsided and the sound dimmed there was a ruckus in a nearby corner of the park, male voices passionately raised and as she turned her head Anna could make out arms spread wide and thrown in the air. No one seemed too bothered and so she wandered over that direction to see what the fuss was about. A group of about ten men were gathered around two small stone tables where a couple of games were taking place, one of chess and another of draughts. Finding a nearby bench she paused to watch and listen, amazed that such sedentary games could attract so much vocal support. As she listened closely, trying to understand what was going on, she realised that very little of the conversation was about the games being played. The talk was fast and furious and she caught about one word in five, but she understood enough to know that politics was the topic of the night. She stayed for a while, fascinated by their debate, watching how they seemed to disagree vociferously while still remaining friendly. Looking around she noted people strolling by with ice cream, while others power walked, headphones in and engaged in their own world. Everywhere there was activity and life, a buzz of conversation and laughter.
Feeling the tiredness in her legs she got up once more and followed the path back to the fountain and noticed a narrower and less crowded path off to the side of the main thoroughfare. It was lined on both sides by stone plinths topped with metal busts. She walked down one side, pausing to read who each person was, not recognising any of the names. At the far end was a sign telling her that these were Jamaica’s national heroes and she made her way back down the other side of the path with renewed interest. Coming to one face, as her eyes lowered to read the plaque she let out a small gasp before looking again intently into the eyes in front of her.
“Hello Sam Sharpe,” she whispered.
How incredible that on her first evening here she found herself standing looking the man she read about for the first time in a journal and letters from so long ago, a rebel and a renegade hung for his part in the Christmas slavery rebellion, and here before her now as a hero. She smiled to herself thinking how proud Jacob would have been to know the man for whom he named his son was now celebrated in Emancipation Park. For the first time the full significance of the park’s name resonated with her. She walked along the rest of the path taking in afresh the people celebrated along its length now that she understood something of their status. As she finished reading the final plaque and turned back towards the fountains tiredness and hunger came crashing over her body and she turned her feet back towards the hotel, suddenly desperate for food and bed.
The following morning, as Anna brushed her teeth after a late breakfast, she heard Julia calling from the bedroom.
“There’s a phone book in the drawer here. Do you think there might be a Mackenzie in there? You might be able to track down a long lost relative!”
Anna stuck her head out the door briefly with a look of scepticism.
“It was two hundred years ago,” she mumbled, toothbrush wedged in the side of her mouth, “so I think it’s unlikely. You could check though, just to be sure.”
As she leant over the sink to rinse she heard the directory thump open and the distinctive sound of pages turning and turning and turning. Wiping her mouth with the towel she called out to her friend.
“Eh, not exactly,” Julia responded slowly. “The very opposite in fact.”
She looked up from the page to Anna, eyes wide with surprise.
“Come and see.”
Standing above her friend Anna leaned over the book on the bed and saw column after column of Mackenzie listed in the national phone directory of Jamaica.
“It’s not just Mackenzies though Anna, have a look.”
Julia turned over page after page to show Mackie, MacLaren, MacLean, MacLellan, on and on. They thought of other Scottish names and searched for them. Addair, Aitken, Barclay, Cameron, Graham. Nearly every surname they could think of was represented in the directory multiple times. Every other page they seemed to turn to had a name of Scottish origin on it somewhere.
“Half of bloody Scotland was here by the looks of things,” Julia said, quietly and with a genuinely pained expression on her face. “I don’t understand. How can half of Jamaica have Scottish names and we don’t know anything about it?”
“I’m coming to realise that somewhere along the way we found certain parts of our history unpalatable and so they were just…” Anna paused, searching for the right words.
“Edited,” Julia offered.
“I think so. Either taken out or glossed over to look better. And as someone who has loved and studied history for as long as I can remember it makes me feel…”
Again there was a pause. There was clearly a word or words in Anna’s mind that she didn’t want to say. Finally she shrugged her shoulders and spoke.
“Foolish. Gullible. Angry.”
Julia nodded her understanding.
“I mean there’s evidence of this connection if you actually think to ask about it. Why do we have a Jamaica Street in Edinburgh? Why does the Kingston Bridge cross the Clyde? We’ve been told that we’re the good guys and so we don’t think to suspect anything, but our dirty fingerprints are all over this island and who knows where else?”
Julia looked down the list of names on the pages that were open in front of her as the questions of the past and present hung in the air between them.
“Well,” she began, “we know now, and we’re here, so what do we do?”
“Explore and find out as much as we can I guess. I’ve made a list of places that could be interesting and then there’s a beautiful drive up the hills overlooking the city that we could do later. It’s supposed to be a fantastic place to see the sun set, but from what I can tell it sits above roughly where I think the Mackenzie’s plantation used to be.”
“Ok well that sounds like a plan. Let’s consult the list and get going.”
They filled the first part of the day with a visit to the National Gallery, from where it was a short walk to the waterfront. Several huge tankers sat in the harbour, some distance from the quayside, while pelicans soared overhead before making lunging dives into the water, hopeful for a catch. Anna paused, looking around her. Closing her eyes she did her best to erase the cars and concrete buildings and instead conjure an image of horses and carriages, masts and sails.
“You’re thinking of her, aren’t you?”
Anna nodded her response, eyes shut against the interruption of modern life.
“This was where she made her final choice, where she waved her last goodbye to her mother. I’ve formed a picture of her, in my head, and I can see her standing here with Jacob at her side.”
Anna’s eyes remained closed as a single tear rolled down her cheek. Julia moved closer, laying her arm across her friend’s shoulder.
“Are the tears for you, or for them?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. Both. And more than that, for the whole situation. Somehow we’ve told ourselves a story as a nation, that we’re fair-minded, tolerant, open, that our history is one where we’ve been on the receiving end of oppression, we’ve been hard done to, and anything negative of Empire, of slavery, or other such atrocities, were all someone else’s doing. But it wasn’t. It was us. We were in it right up to our necks, like everyone else. Did you notice some of the street names as we were driving around this morning?”
“No I was too busy being an extra pair of eyes on the road to help you swerve the dodgy taxi drivers.”
“It’s not just in the phone book where Scotland shows up. We drove past Caledonia Avenue, Dumfries Road, Hamilton Drive. Have a look at a map of this island – there are Scottish place names right across it. Our fingerprints are all over this place. I still can’t believe I didn’t know any of this before.”
Together they stood in silence for a few moments. A local fisherman standing off to the side pulled in a catch from his line, while his companion lay on the sea wall dozing in the afternoon sun.
“Well we’re here now, and you have the opportunity to find out as much as you can. And then, who knows what you’ll be able to do with that information or how it will shape what comes next. Use your frustration to propel you forward in this adventure we’re on.”
Anna puffed out her cheeks and sighed in response to her friend’s encouragement.
“It’s a lot, I know,” Julia said in response. “And it’s absolutely roasting. I can feel my pale Scottish skin shrivelling as we stand here. How about a pit stop? I noticed an ice cream place just along from here. Let’s find some shade and cool off a little and then we can decide what the rest of the day looks like.”
Later that afternoon, having explored more of the city from the comfort of the air-conditioned car, they drove onto the campus of the University of the West Indies. The buildings on either side of the road were single story and of an older style while ahead of them new blocks of student accommodation dominated the landscape. Getting out to explore further on foot they walked across parched and dusty grass heading for what seemed to be the central part of the campus. They turned a corner and came suddenly upon a sight that stopped them in their tracks.
“Is that what I think it is?” Julia asked, a look of astonishment on her face.
“Yes. It’s part of the aquaduct from the plantation that used to be here. There are a few pieces of it left on this land with this being the most prominent.”
As they came alongside it Anna ran her hand over the rough grey stone, that familiar sensation of physically connecting with history no longer a source of excitement. While she didn’t know exactly where the Mackenzie plantation had been she figured it was in a similar area to this one. Were they neighbours to the people who lived here? She looked around as students made their way between buildings, taking in the stark contrast between what this place had been and what it was now. If the people who worked this land all those years ago could see it now what would they think?
“It’s quite something, isn’t it?” Julia remarked, looking along the length of the wall. Anna nodded silently.
“No better way to redeem a piece of land I reckon. Take it from a place of enslavement and suffering to a seat of learning and progress.”
“That’s true,” Anna agreed, still clearly lost in her owns thoughts.
“Let’s walk a bit more and see what else we find,” Julia suggested, taking the lead.
Followed the road through the campus they passing various different faculty buildings, a small café with some outside seating and the general buzz of university life happening around them. They walked on until another tumbled down stone building grabbed their attention. A sign next to the ruin told them that this was the remains of the old Papine Estate sugar works which ceased production in 1880. Other parts of the aquaduct ran behind the ruin, across a wide open grassy area dotted with lush green trees. The mountains rose behind them, offset by a bank of white cloud tucked at the base of a brilliant bright sky.
“What a beautiful place to study,” Julia commented, admiring the scenery.
Anna’s response was to turn around slowly taking in the full panorama of the old and new. She took a deep breath as if about to speak but nothing came. Instead she silently shook her head.
“It’s a lot for you to take in, isn’t it?”
Anna was glad to be with someone who knew her so well, who didn’t need to be told that in this moment, instead of talking gently to her as history usually did, it was shouting at her from every angle, asking questions and demanding answers all at once. History had always been a friend, an interesting companion on her journey through life, feeding her imagination and stimulating her mind. She had studied dark episodes of history before, but none that had brought her pain, and that’s what this was, she finally admitted. This was painful.
“Why don’t we head up the hill and get some perspective? It’s probably about that time. Come on, I’ll drive.”
Julia steered them back towards the car and set the navigation for Skyline Drive. Leaving behind the open spaces of the university they drove through a community where tiny shacks at the side of the road sold a vast collection of items, vendors sat on cool boxes next to their stalls offering drinks and snacks as children ran and played among them. At the top of the road the picture became busier and more chaotic, with people milling across the road and car horns blasting as the rush hour traffic filled the streets. It took both of them to be fully alert to avoid collisions with pedestrians and vehicles, as well as the many stray dogs that could appear out of nowhere. Finally they turned on to a narrow side road and immediately the hill began to rise steeply. Taking it slowly around hairpin bends to make room for the occasional oncoming vehicle, they were glad to be away from the madness of the city below. As they climbed higher the small wooden dwellings gave way to large impressive homes and as the view unfolded beside them it wasn’t hard to see why someone would want to live up here if they could. Finally the road straightened and to the left was a small parking area, some benches and the uninterrupted sight of the whole city sprawling beneath them. Stepping out of the car it was a relief to find that higher elevation brought the benefits of a gentle breeze. Up here the birdsong could be heard and the city looked peaceful and surprisingly green.
“Wow,” Anna exclaimed, a smile appearing on her face for the first time that day. “That is really spectacular.”
Julia stretched and rolled her shoulders, shaking off the tension of the drive as she admired the view.
“Where is it you think Molly lived?” she asked, trying to get her bearings.
“I’m really not sure, but she describes hills at the back of the estate and being able to see across to the ocean and Port Royal. I think that Port Royal is at the end of that strip of land you can see jutting out just there,” Anna explained, pointing to a hazy line cutting out across the harbour. “The airport is half way along there, so we drove part of it yesterday. This side of the city feels like it fits her descriptions and where there were a number of plantations. I don’t know exactly but we’re not far off the mark I think.”
“So down there somewhere was the Harlaw Vale plantation. How does it feel to stand here? To find your way to the end of the story?”
Anna paused and tilted her head at her friend, a silent question written all over her face.
“I mean I know you still have places on your list to see, but we’re here! You made it to Jamaica, you followed the trail that your Mum started and you’ve completed the picture. That must feel good, on some level, no?”
“It’s not just my picture though, is it? That phone directory in our hotel room makes that obvious. This is our picture, our shared story, all of us,” Anna waved her hands between herself and her friend and then out to the rest of the city. “I don’t think you learn a truth like this and then tuck it back in a box. This isn’t an end, it’s a beginning.”
“So what’s next?”
“I don’t know, but it starts by asking some questions and not walking away from the answers, no matter how uncomfortable they are. You know, Dad said something to me recently. ‘Your past will find you in the end, no matter how hard you try to outrun it. You have a choice then in how to deal with it. You can bury it and keep running, but it will poison the very ground beneath your feet. Or you stop and turn to face it, look it in the eye and make peace with it. Only then can it teach you something to carry into your future.’”
“I guess he’d been running for a long time.”
“Yes he had. And I see the change in him now that he’s stopped. It’s a work in progress, for sure, but he’s feeling the benefit of it, and so am I, so are we.”
Anna took a step back and sat on the bench to watch the sun dip down towards the hills in the west. Julia disappeared into the car for a few moments before emerging with a small bottle of champagne and two paper cups.
“I figured we should make a toast,” she explained, pouring a small amount and handing it to her friend. “To your Mum, who led us here.”
“To Mum,” Anna smiled, raising her cup to the sunset and taking a sip. “And to Molly and Jacob,” she continued, nodding in the general direction of the hill before them.
“I think tomorrow I’d like to drive out to Sligoville, where Molly and Jacob’s story ends. I don’t know if there’s anything there now that will be a specific connection to them, but I’d like to see it, to feel the same earth beneath my feet.”
“So that’s the next step,” Julia nodded, “and after that there’ll be another, and we just keep going and see where this takes us and keep answering the questions we find, as best we can.”
Beneath a darkening sky the two friends sat in silence for a time, lost in their own thoughts and pondering the stories and secrets of the past. Below them, somewhere amid the mass of green, an anonymous tree swayed gently in the wind, its reading nook still holding space for two or three books and beneath the aged bark the carved letters J and M.
When I came to write this story I knew it would be important for the fictitious characters and plot lines to intersect with real events and people. Although the Harlaw Vale Estate and all inhabitants are imagined, the landscape on which they are placed did contain other plantations, alongside the Papine Estate on which sits the Kingston campus of the University of the West Indies.
William Knibb began his time as a missionary in Jamaica as the school master of the Baptist mission school in Kingston, where he also worked closely with James Phillipo. I have reflected his movements across the island (and indeed back to the UK for a time in 1832) within this story including, where appropriate, some of his own words. Such was his influence within his parish that he was accused of inciting the Christmas rebellion of 1831, which he strenuously denied. His church in Falmouth, where he remained as minister until his death, is still standing today. The William Knibb High School, just outside Falmouth, boasts none other than Usain Bolt as a former pupil. On the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, Knibb was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit, the country’s highest civilian honour and the first white male to receive it.
Samuel Sharpe was born into slavery in the Parish of St. James. He became a preacher and leader in the Baptist church in Jamaica, which welcomed enslaved members. He was a deacon at the Burchell Baptist Church in Montego Bay and spent time travelling to different parishes across the island. He organised a peaceful general strike across many of the estates in western Jamaica, where reprisals by the plantation owners led to the rebels burning the cane crop. The uprising lasted for 10 days and spread throughout the island, before being quashed by the military forces. The government tried, convicted and hanged many of the ringleaders, including Sharpe, in 1832. The severe reprisals in the aftermath of the rebellion are believed to have contributed to the abolition of slavery soon thereafter. As such Sam Sharpe is held in the highest regard, being proclaimed a National Hero in 1975 and his image is on the $50 Jamaican bank note.
James Phillippo, along with Thomas Burchell, came up with the system of Free Villages, enabling emancipated slaves to build houses and begin a new life free from the threat of eviction from their former estate masters. He hosted a vigil on the evening before the emancipation proclamation and in the grounds of Phillippo Baptist Church you can still see the place where the shackles were buried to mark the death of slavery.
Molly and Anna are both fictional characters but are used as a means to illustrate the journey of ignorance to discovery and the questions that await us all along the way. Our history is not a glorious one. The surnames in the Jamaican phone book, the streets and towns across the island, all reflect our shared history. At the very least that history should be fully acknowledged and then together we can perhaps move towards a conversation about what comes next. An apology? What about reparation?
The idea of reparation is one that often raises spirited debate. In the countries that would be due reparative justice for the time of slavery the conversation is a live one. When the subject is discussed here in the UK there are many who consider the idea ridiculous and highly impractical. How can a debt from so long ago and involving so many ever be calculated and repaid? Where do we draw the line on who is due reparation and for what injustices? These are good questions, but not if they are being raised simply as a deflection, to bat away the uncomfortable idea that there is work to be done here.
If we have wronged someone and are truly grieved by that wrong, the question we ask after we have apologised is “what can I do to make it right?” It is absolutely the question to ask, because it shows that our repentance is more than just words. The answer may not be one that we like, it may be difficult or costly, but if it will set our relationship back on track then we will do it. There have been statements of regret made in reference to our history with slavery but these have largely been seen as half-hearted attempts to make ourselves feel better, rather than genuine remorse backed up by the will to truly restore what has been broken. The ugly truth of the matter is that, as a nation, we became very rich on the back of a system that exploited other peoples. That injustice and imbalance of power didn’t end with the abolition of slavery as many would like to believe, but continued for many years, being perpetuated throughout the generations and feeding into more recent situations such as the Windrush scandal and race relations in this country.
Renowned researcher and author Brene Brown talked about what happens when a people don’t truly recognise their own history. She said that when people don’t own their story, it ends up owning them and they are never truly free of it – but when we do own our story we get to write the ending.
If we are to be people who live in a country that values justice and fairness then perhaps we can begin by walking humbly towards the neighbours we have wronged, offering them a heartfelt apology and then asking what we can do to make it right. I don’t know what kind of answers we will hear, or if those requests can or will be met, but I’m pretty sure that asking the question is the right place to start.