Jamaica: Hidden history beyond the beach

A visit to Grandma in Jamaica helps Richard Liston teach his daughter about the role of black people in shaping the world

When my five-year-old daughter, Lauren, came home from school clutching a book lauding the heroics of Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, I was alarmed to discover from her that no mention had been made in class of the equal part played by the Jamaican nurse, Mary Seacole,during the conflict.

With a half-term holiday at my mother's home in Jamaica approaching, I sensed the perfect opportunity to give my daughter a history lesson of my own design on the island from where our family originates. Apart from Black History Month, held here every October, the role of black people in history is too often overlooked. I wanted to show Lauren how Jamaicans played their part in shaping the world.

Arriving at Montego Bay airport brought back the memories of my own father's attempts to drum into me and my siblings the names of Jamaica's national heroes; names such as Paul Bogle, Nanny of the Maroons, Marcus Garvey, Samuel Sharpe and, of course, Mary Seacole. Where better to start than in this tourist hotspot on the north-west coast?

Here, beyond the smart hotels and gift shops, you'll find the cobble-stoned Sam Sharpe Square. Sharpe, a slave leader, seemed particularly relevant to our visit, since next year marks the bicentenary of the abolition of the transportation of slaves from Africa to the New World - although it would be another 26 years before Britain completely abolished slavery.

This was just the place to relate something of the past to my daughter for here stands a brick building once called "the Cage", a lock-up for runaway slaves and drunken seamen, and four large sculptures of slaves.

"Is that Mary Seacole?" asked my daughter, pointing to the sculptures.

"No, that's Sam Sharpe with some other slaves," I explained, trawling through my memories of my father's history lectures. "He was born in 1801 in Jamaica and was a slave throughout his life though he became an educated man. It was because of his education that he could read the Bible. He was highly respected by his fellow slaves and became well known as a deacon at the Burcell Baptist Church in Montego Bay, where he preached about Christianity and freedom."

"Why was he a hero?" asked Lauren. "Because he led a slave rebellion," I said.

"What's a rebellion?"

Grandma took up the slack, explaining how Sharpe organised a peaceful strike across western Jamaica during the sugar-cane harvest of Christmas 1831. Angry slaves burnt the sugar cane leading to the rebel organisers being rounded up and hanged. Sharpe, the leader, was made an example of. The square, she told Lauren, had been renamed after him in recognition of his role in bringing about the eventual abolition of slavery.

This isn't the only place where you can unearth Jamaica's hidden history. Another Baptist preacher, Paul Bogle, can be tracked down to Morant Bay, in the south-eastern parish of St Thomas. Here, in 1865, he led one of the most bloodily repressed revolts in the history of British colonialism.

At St Ann's parish, on the north coast, best known to visitors for the Ocho Rios waterfalls, another statue stands at the birthplace of Marcus Garvey, originally a trade unionist in Jamaica's print industry, he later founded the biggest black nationalist organisation in history, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which influenced the Rastafarians and Nation of Islam.

Up in the Blue Mountains at Moore Town, visitors can follow the history trail to Nanny Bump, the final resting place of Nanny of the Maroons, whose band of fugitive slaves routed the English soldiers in the first Maroon war during the early 1800s. Nanny gained a formidable reputation for guerrilla tactics and exceptional leadership skills.

And in the capital, Kingston, Mary Seacole's legacy was celebrated just last year with the unveiling of a plaque to mark the location of her home, Blundell Hall, now the site of the National Library.

Back in the square, Lauren's interest was waning: "Can I go swimming now?" "Yes," I smiled. "School's out."