Mystery, history and the spirit of survival

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The Independent Online
In search of bananas, runaway slaves and warriors, Stephen Thorpe ventures into the Maroon country of north-east Jamaica.

Yellowfin snapper, a chunk of barracuda and a bag of rice would just about see us right, I reckoned, as I boarded the Rio Grande express. This decrepit lorry is the only public transport between the old banana centre of Port Antonio and the lower reaches of an intriguing hidden valley in north-east Jamaica. I was heading for the former stronghold of the Maroons, a formidable band of runaway slaves who found sanctuary at the elbow of the John Crow and Blue Mountain ranges. Provisions may have seemed a priority, but other matters quickly became of more pressing concern.

Our truck was loaded to the gunwales with breezeblocks, building materials for hardy locals looking to establish a more permanent footing in the valley. An old lady scrambled aboard with a pair of goats which settled in beside her. No one spoke as we lurched through down-at-heel settlements, past the turn-off for a tourist rafting experience and the road grew ever more fissured, teetering just feet from the edge of a canyon dropping sheer into the Rio Grande.

After negotiating a landslip and veering from the gorge past Windsor, my fears began to subside. Yet as we proceeded deeper into Maroon country the landscape became more rugged, framed by the twin mountain masses and by myriad hues of green. An hour later we halted in Moore Town, in fact a village, which straggles uphill along the Wildcane tributary. The place was founded in 1739 following a treaty with the British that granted independence and is still the centre of Maroon life, run semi-autonomously by a committee of captains, majors and a colonel.

Their history is rooted in slavery and revolt. Slaves of the Spanish, the first colonists of Jamaica, were freed and encouraged to harass the British when they arrived in 1655. Small bands of independent Negroes survived in the more inaccessible parts of the interior for more than a century. They were joined periodically by other escapees from new British plantations, systematically slaughtering livestock, raiding fields and buildings in an effort to undermine the colonists.

The great majority of rebels were Coromantee or Akan speaking slaves from the Gold Coast and Papaws from the West African empires of Dahomey and Ashanti, renowned for their warlike stance, but today's outsider has no need to fear malice or hostility. Visitors are treated with more disdain than anger and, though welcomes are far from effusive, an appreciation of their troubled past goes a long way.

Occasionally, violence will flare up. A gaggle of disaffected youths, conversing in thick patois, strolled by a wayside banana gathering-ground, an urchin niftily stuffing a bunch under his torn T-shirt. The owner, a large lady not to be trifled with, spotted the felony and hurled abuse, followed by a handful of gravel. "Me kill you to rass!" she bellowed. It looked for all the world as if she would have - but the scamp was gone.

Nanny, the legendary chieftainess of the Rio Grande area in the early 18th century, exerted a huge influence - originally as a sorcerer or obeah women, then as an intuitive and fearless warrior. When one English hostage was taken, he found himself surrounded by a group of hostile women, Nanny's former associates, adorned with necklaces strung with the teeth of white men.

The site of the main fortress at Nanny Town, on a bluff of the Blue Mountain ridge, was excavated 25 years ago but is now barely accessible, rubble foundations reclaimed by the bush. Yet the spirit of the place is still there - and the word is that any European venturing here will die.

Nanny herself was killed by a renegade slave and laid to rest in "Bump" grave at Moore Town; the monument now is sadly neglected, the area being used by schoolchildren as a makeshift cricket pitch. Yet moves are afoot to establish a museum of culture in Moore Town. Maroon tradition still persists - drums are made by hollowing ackee trees, and rope is produced by twining the bark of trumpet trees. The abeng, a cow horn, remains a powerful means of communication across the valleys.

The spirit of the Maroons, of indomitability and ingenuity in adversity, is alive and well at Ambassabeth, a rustic camp perched in stupendous surroundings near the summit ridge of the John Crow mountains. Here Sister Lil presides. She is educated, well travelled and a fine raconteuse - and has returned to her roots for what she terms "spiritual sustenance and guidance". Tall and straight-backed, dressed in voluminous African style, rich in ochre and gold, she conducted a learned discourse on the marginalisation of the Maroons well into the night. It was a tale of frustration - yet in view of their rich and warlike history and Nanny's legacy, it is unlikely that their heritage will ever be destroyed.

Getting there: Air Jamaica (0181-570 9171) flies four times a week from Heathrow to Kingston. British Airways (0345 222111) flies three times weekly from Gatwick via Kingston to Montego Bay. Discount agents, such as Jetline (0171-360 1111) offer scheduled flights on Air Jamaica for pounds 480 return to Kingston, or charters to Montego Bay for as little as pounds 315 in February (though few seats are available at this price). Many charters also operate as part of package holidays.

More information: the Jamaica Tourist Board is part of the High Commission, 1-2 Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BZ. For brochures, call 0800 445533 (a call-handling agency). For other details, dial 0171-224 0505.

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