We Should Bite Them Back

We Should Bite Them Back

Lance Neita

Sunday, October 12, 2014

GORDON… was not a physical fighter, but he was just as brave

National Heritage Week is upon us and the heroes’ weekend holiday will provide a welcome break. The holiday will find us concentrating on the chikungunya epidemic that has overtaken us, but just to be at home for a while, or to take off for a weekend spree, will be just what the doctor ordered.

The past few months have thrown us into a tizzy. We came face to face with one of the most mysterious epidemics that have ever swept across Jamaica. Those who have escaped so far have been turned into caregivers for family members, neighbours or friends. It has become the daily routine after waking up to check your body for the well publicised symptoms of rash, high fever, weakness, and excruciating pain. Then a silent prayer of thanks if you are OK, a quick check around the house to see if everybody else is, a telephone count of neighbours and friends, and preparation for another day of surveillance, prevention, and batten down against any possible mosquito invasion.

We have come to the grim realisation that we are a nation under siege, fighting against an alien army as threatening as the ISIS, and forced into a state of war against the little devils with the intimidating name of chikungunya, or “that which bends up” — so named by the Makonde ethnic group from Tanzania and parts of Mozambique.

As advised, there is little we can do beyond Panadol and plenty of fruit juice to treat it, although I believe I heard ‘Magnus in the morning’ suggesting that if they bite we should bite them back.

It is a pity that we have to go into Heritage Week, and possibly even into Christmas, with this albatross on our backs. But think, it could be much worse. A hurricane on top of all this would have been disaster, and we must give thanks that we have been spared that ordeal, to date. It’s now mid-October and I haven’t seen any hurricane on the horizon. We trust that our favourite weather reporters will continue to give us good news and fan those storms off the weather chart.

For the next few days, however, we can shift a bit from the topic of the day, take our heroes out of the cabinet, dust them off, and trot out the usual speeches about honour and integrity, courage and brave hearts, loyalty and patriotism, and all the other good things about heroism that are good for that one week and forgotten for the rest of the year.

Heritage Week is an opportunity to make nice-sounding speeches about nationhood and the flag and so on, but how many of us remember what was said last year on this subject by the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition? I will bet that they could repeat their 2013 messages this year and none of us would blink an eyelid.

Take National Heroes Park, for example. Each October there is much talk coming from the Government of big and exciting plans for sprucing up the park. A park dedicated to National Heroes should be one of our proudest national sites — a must-stop for tourists and locals — with beautiful landscaping and gardens and fountains and walking lanes providing a backdrop to the imposing monuments and burial sites that mark the final resting place of our national leaders.

Would you believe that there has been a plan in place since 2001 to construct an amphitheatre for formal and cultural activities, a nature area with shade trees, an outdoor activity and recreation area with running tracks and playgrounds, and a combined administrative and sports complex?

Plenty of talk, yet our National Park remains a disappointment for those who expect to see something reflecting the grandeur and stature of memorials dedicated to the ones whom we salute each October with those grand speeches and parades; here today, gone tomorrow.

The park itself has an interesting history. It was founded in 1878, and was the site of the Kingston Race Course; home to some of the finest breeds, meets, derbies, and fashion parades in the Americas and the colonies. In 1905, a new track was constructed at Knutsford Park and the old track renamed George VI Memorial Park to honour the King of England.

The Knutsford was dismantled in 1958 to make way for a new track built at Caymanas Park. In the meantime, George VI Park, or Race Course as it is still called by the elders, remained the home for cycle racing and for informal cricket or for the famous Reggie Matcham competitive matches.

When Jamaica gained Independence in 1962, the name was again changed to National Heroes Park. A stroll through the park today is worth the opportunity to come close to national figures like Garvey, Sangster, Bustamante, Norman Manley, and all our national heroes with their monuments enriched by legends and statues. This is where, surprise, surprise, you run into Miss Lou and Mass Ran, and the incomparable Dennis Brown, provoking a nostalgic thrill. A moment of grief, however, as you come across the mass grave with the bodies of the 140 elderly women who were killed in the fire that destroyed the Eventide Home for the Aged in 1980.

I questioned the whereabouts of Hugh Shearer’s monument, which was promised by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust in 2009. It was not there on my last visit in 2010.

Pause for a moment, however, at the shrine to National Hero George William Gordon. To me, he represents best the ideal, as said by Sir Phillip Sherlock that: “The heroes of a nation should embody its cherished values, express its highest purposes, inspire its noblest achievements.”

As I quoted in an earlier article some years ago: “Gordon personifies this description. His role was not fashioned by any accident of history. He deliberately took the road he trod knowing full well that it could lead to his incarceration and inevitable death.

“He was a gentleman who had an absolute passion for helping the poor. Unlike Bogle, Sharpe, Nanny, and even Bustamante, he was not a physical fighter or a warrior in the true sense of the word. But he was just as brave and outspoken when it came to standing up for the downtrodden.”

He was driven by an amazing social conscience. Remember, he was a ‘high brown’ man with property and wealth, and Bogle and himself were miles apart, both in physical distance as well as at social levels.

And yet, as a member of the House, he used his position to highlight the sufferings of poor people and worked unceasingly on their behalf for better living and working conditions. This man, who could have lived out his days in comparative ease, chose to throw in his lot with Bogle and the heroes of Stony Gut. In so doing, he earned the hatred of the governor and also of his peers in the House, who jeered and derided him whenever he got up to speak on behalf of the poor.

And poor they were. Jamaica today has no idea of the conditions which faced ordinary people in the 1860s. It was a period which saw ex-slaves living, for the most part, in abject poverty. Conditions were almost as bad as they were during slavery. And a two-year drought prior to 1865 worsened the already miserable conditions.

The 400 people who stormed the bulwarks at Morant Bay on October 11, 1865 had been driven to the limits by the victimisation and harsh repressive measures inflicted upon the poorer classes.

Governor John Eyre took personal charge of the reprisals. Troops were sent out to hunt down the rebels. One soldier said: “We slaughtered all before us, man, woman, or child.”

Eventually 439 were killed directly, and 354, including Paul Bogle, arrested and later executed. But wait, it didn’t stop there. Over 600, including pregnant women, were publicly flogged. A butcher, who was forced to carry out some of the whippings, said he had to flog from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM without a break. And through all this horror, Governor Eyre sat and watched every stroke.

In the midst of all this turmoil Gordon was falsely accused as the instigator. He was tried on October 21 and hanged on October 23.

The letter he wrote from his prison cell to his wife the night before his death is a literary gem which deserves compulsory reading and recitation in our schools. It is a testimony to the hallmarks of true heroism and makes Gordon stand out as a leader and a martyr:

“Say to all my friends an affectionate farewell; they must not grieve for I die innocently. Comfort your heart. You must do the best you can and the Lord will help you… and do not be ashamed of the death your poor husband will have suffered.

I thought His Excellency would have allowed me a fair trial, but I have no power of control. May the Lord be merciful to him.

I have only been allowed one hour. May the grace of our Lord Jesus be with us all.

Your truly devoted and now nearly dying husband.”

A remarkable and immortal letter of compassion, forgiveness, and testimony. A timely reminder to all those who attend at Gordon House of the pillars on which it stands.

Lance Neita is a communications and public relations specialist. Comments to the Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com