Emancipation Park is the place where Jamaican history lives

By Anthony Joseph

Emancipation Park

Recently the Caribbean Camera was invited to Jamaica to report on the Carifta Games. I was a guest at the Pegasus Hotel, Kingston, which just happened to be located across from a park; a popular spot it seemed, considering the daily regular milling about of groups of people at the park’s entrance.

I lucked in! The park turned out to be Emancipation Park, the place where Jamaicans celebrate their historical figures.

Although I was pretty busy with the Carifta games I knew that I had to find the time to visit this place. So on my last day in Jamaica, I crossed over to park and was stunned not only by the history laid out before me but also at the quality of the workmanship of the sculptured images that greeted me.

The greeting was instantaneous and awesome; at the entrance, standing atop a dome-shaped fountain were two imposing nude figures of Jamaican man and womanhood in all their glory. I was told that the height of the statues were seven feet. I guessed the height of the entire sculpture, including the dome would have been around 20 feet. A plaque stated that the Order of National Hero was created by the National Honor and Awards.

The order was passed by the Jamaica parliament in 1969. It is the highest of all Jamaican honour, and is given only to Jamaican citizens for service of the most distinguished nature to the nation. It can be awarded posthumously or on the occasion of the recipient’s retirement from active public service. It may be conferred on any person who was born in Jamaica or if at the time of his or her death was a citizen of Jamaica.

The exhibits span centuries of Jamaican history. So you’ll meet Nanny of the maroons who escaped from slavery and became an outstanding military leader of runaway enslaved Africans. She died in 1750.

George William Gordon who was born into slavery, and whose freedom was bought by his father. He went on to become a wealthy businessman dealing in real estate and farm produce. He died in 1865.

William Alexander Bustamante, who died in 1977, rose to prominence by writing letters to the newspaper and became a defender of the poor and a spokesperson for workers during the labour unrest of 1938. He was arrested and imprisoned for inciting workers to strike in protest against low wages and poor working conditions. He became Jamaica’s first prime minister in 1962.

Norman Washington Manley, died September 1969, was the founder of the People’s National Party in 1938. He become Jamaica’s first minister then the premier who spearheaded Jamaica’s transition to self-government.

Paul Bogle, who died in 1865, was born into slavery. He gained his freedom with the emancipation of slavery in 1838. He went on to acquire substantial property, and was a deacon at the native Baptist Church. He led a 45-mile march to Spanish Town where the governor of the day refused to see him. It led to a violent confrontation with authorities. The incident became known as the Morant Bay Rebellion.

Marcus Garvey of course features prominently in the ranks of Heroes. Garvey is well known for promoting self reliance and African entrepreneurship. While living in the United States, Garvey used his newspaper, Negro World, to put out his message of African self-confidence, economic independence and self-government. He was imprisoned for his “subversive” activities and deported by the US government in 1927 to Jamaica where he remained until 1935. He died in England 1940.

Samuel Sharpe lead the general strike of thousands of slaves across several parishes in Western Jamaica that ultimately became known as the Christmas or Emancipation Rebellion.

Walking through what I called Heroes Park is like taking a stroll through the history of Jamaica. Most of the people who are honoured there are ordinary Jamaicans; people who have met the challenges of life and who have won; people who came from slavery and not only overcame but were also extremely successful in the harshest of times. There are a lessons to be learned in this outdoor museum and classroom.

I recommend that every person who visits Jamaica should take some time off from the magnificent beaches to visit this park and get familiar with Jamaica’s rich history. It will help you to understand what drives your Jamaican neighbour. They know who they are.  

Growing up with heroes who look like you no doubt has a deeper impact on people than any number of words.