Competing Histories


Even though it is three years since the bi-centennial anniversary of the abolition of slavery, a recent interview with Andrea Levy about her new book The Long Song on the BBC, and the enjoyment I experienced last weekend rummaging through colonial style furniture at Kingston's Antiques & Collectibles Fair set me thinking about how there can be no single story to tell the history of the Jamaican people. Our memory and perceptions of the past will differ according to colour, class or culture and our vested interests in that history. Here, many histories like that of slavery's wealth; colonialism's civilising mission; maroon resistance; slave rebellions; abolitionist's zeal or institutional oppression, compete for attention. The dominant history is normally the one recorded by those who have power and access to our textbooks, our archives and the media. Andrea Levy's life affirming and even humorous new book which looks to be another best seller, and the popularity of our local antiques fair for its wealthier patrons, suggests that a revised, sanitized, and even positive version of slavery and colonialism is on the rise. But does this mean all is forgiven and that we can begin to treat that era as a tourism product with cruise ship passengers lining up at Falmouth Pier to visit our plantations? I doubt it...

In the run up to the 2007 anniversary, a number of media initiatives related to abolition were taken in Britain that signaled the revival of their love affair with the West Indian colonies. Amongst these was a visit by another BBC television favourite, The Antiques Road Show, and a travel programme by heritage aficionado Lucinda Lambton whose one hour special documentary Jamaican Adventure featured intrepid Lucinda traveling throughout the island visiting historic sites such as Port Royal, Colbeck Castle,and Good Hope estate that all shared links with Britain's history. As an art historian, I was interviewed by the slightly quirky Lucinda who, although enchanted by Jamaica's architectural heritage, seemed perplexed that so many of its buildings had been neglected and left to decay.


I explained my theory, that unlike members of our Georgian Society, many Jamaicans are still coming to terms with their colonial past and that we have not yet reached the stage where we can all respect, accept and market, slavery and its ephemera as a heritage product. This statement was interpreted by Lucinda as a challenge and in a subsequent Historic House article she dismissed these concerns by suggesting that all the Jamaican's she met while preparing her programme encouraged her project of revisiting the past and restoring many of its buildings. But who did Ms Lambton encounter on her adventures throughout what she calls our 'jungle'? Could or would her taxi driver or tourism chaperones have been expected to provide her with a different picture of the past? What's more, in her glimpses of Kingston's ghettos, there was no attempt to engage with its dwellers about slavery and their issues of identity. Is it possible that the thousands who were so vocal against monuments such as Laura Facey's Redemption Song (2003) and Edna Manley's Paul Bogle (1965) might have provided a different point of view?

My developing interest in Caribbean art appraisal and our colonial history reflected in its objects is teaching me that history's artifacts hold memories and differing significances for all of us, according to our relationship with that history. One man's footrest can be another man's kneeling post. Before we begin to over-romanticise and re-package the past, we need to remember that we are not all on the same revisionist timetable, and that we cannot leap-frog over the more difficult and painful aspects of our past. Rather, we need to remain open to history's relativity and other ways of seeing.