Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.
When I was eight years old, my father gave me three books: The Selected Speeches of Malcolm X, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Selected Poems, by Claude McKay. I tore through all three but was especially intrigued by McKay’s slim volume of poetry. My father told me that he and McKay came from the same place: Jamaica.
My father was born in 1960 in the parish of Clarendon on the eve of Jamaican national independence. Twelve years later, my grandfather moved the entire family to South Bay, Florida, where he established himself as a mechanic working in the region’s sugar cane fields. It was, my father recalled, a difficult transition.
“Yeah, man, we were Jamaican before it was cool to be Jamaican,” he said. He told me that his African American classmates teased him and his siblings mercilessly, mocking their accents, calling them “Ju-bwoys” and claiming that West Indians ate rats. Eventually, though, they made friends with their classmates, and as more Jamaicans moved to the region to work in the canefields, they slowly began to transform the cultural landscape of South Florida into a Caribbean outpost.
For most of my life, Jamaica was song and symbol to me, found in the funky-smelling dishes my father fed me and my brother: jerk chicken, curried goat, steamed red snapper (or as we call it, Escoveitch), oxtail simmered in lima beans. We were baffled that none of our classmates had ever experienced the comfort of a freshly baked beef patty or cured a cold with a bitter cup of cerasee tea.
As more Jamaicans moved to the region … they began to transform the cultural landscape of South Florida into a Caribbean outpost.
Jamaica was Marcus Garvey hanging from my father’s rearview mirror. It was dancehall reggae and the sounds of Barrington Levy, Yellowman, and Gregory Isaacs playing in the garage as my father washed his car every Saturday. The Melodians singing “By the Rivers of Babylon”:
By the rivers of Babylon
Where we sat down
And there we wept
When we remembered Zion
For the wicked carry us away to captivity
Require from us a song
But how can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land
Jamaica was 90 percent proof white rum and Rastas named Smitty, whose regular visits to our working-class suburban home would turn my father from an Americanized, blue-collar immigrant chasing the good life into a patois-speaking yardie. I loved those Saturday nights in the garage, listening to this group of displaced yardies chatting and laughing and carrying on. I would practice my patois, rolling the accent around my tongue, wanting desperately to sound just like my father.
The author’s father (left)
I encountered Jamaica for the first time in that garage with my father. For me, my father was Jamaica. But I also knew it was a real place, and I made a promise to myself that one day I would go there and learn to see it through my father’s eyes.
St. James Parish
On December 27, 1831, a fire broke out on the Kensington estate, a sugar plantation in St. James Parish, one of Jamaica’s largest and most important sugar-producing regions. The fire signaled the beginning of the largest slave rebellion in the history of the British Caribbean. Such uprisings were not uncommon—they were a regular occurrence throughout the eighteenth century—but this one quickly grew into a massive rebellion, known as the Baptist War or the Christmas Rebellion, that swept the island’s western parishes for 11 days. One British Baptist missionary, Henry Bleby, described the chaos in St. James in his abolition memoir, The Death Struggles of Slavery (1853): the horizon for miles was lighted up with a strong, lurid glare of the burning estates.” Throughout 1831, the question of emancipation loomed large on the island. As debates raged in England, many enslaved people became increasingly convinced that emancipation was on its way, had perhaps already happened, and it was only the wickedness of the planter class that kept them from admitting this fact.
The Christmas Rebellion was led by Sam Sharpe, an enslaved Baptist preacher. Literate and charismatic, Sharpe became a leader among the native Baptists in Montego Bay, where he led religious meetings for his enslaved congregants. Sharpe used the Baptist meetings to organize a nonviolent work strike after the Christmas holidays in an attempt to force the planters to support abolition. But the strike leaders knew that the planter class would likely respond to the strike with violence, so they made plans to arm themselves to face this threat.
I would practice my patois, rolling the accent around my tongue, wanting desperately to sound just like my father.
As the rebellion raged on, it spread from St. James to the neighboring parishes of Hanover, Westmoreland, Saint Elizabeth, Trelawney and Manchester. The rebels seized plantations, burned crops and fought off the local militia until the Colonial Militia arrived to restore order. With the arrival of the military forces, the rebels were outmanned and outgunned, and the rebellion quickly fell apart. When the smoke cleared, an estimated 207 blacks and 14 whites were dead, with dozens more wounded. Although the rebellion was short-lived, its economic and social effects were devastating. The damage in St. James Parish alone amounted to approximately £600,000.
The crushing of the rebellion is vividly illustrated in the 1833 painting “Destruction of the Roehampton Estate, January 1832,” by the French printer and lithographer Adolphe Duperly, who established one of the first photography studios in Kingston. The work’s focal point is the estate’s sugar mill, which is enveloped by flames and black smoke. Rebels surround the estate, armed with machetes and wielding torches, their weapons hoisted defiantly in the air. In the background, rebels lay siege to the great house with torches. The slave quarters remain untouched. In the foreground, the rebels watch the chaotic scene unfold from a distant hilltop, pointing to the destruction. A young man blows into a conch shell, and a woman carries provisions in her arms and atop her head, her back turned toward the plantation as she leaves it behind. The rebels are tiny figures in this turbulent landscape, but their gestures of triumph are clear as they raise their arms and weapons, wave their hats and begin their march toward Montego Bay.
The Roehampton estate was located roughly 15 miles from Montego Bay, near the border between St. James and Hanover parishes. The property was established in 1782 as a sugar and rum plantation. At the time of the uprising, Roehampton was owned by John Baillie, an absentee English planter, who purchased the estate in 1811. Baillie was, by all accounts, a highly successful planter, and by 1831 he owned 343 enslaved people as well as 37 heads of cattle. Baillie died in October 1832 while sailing to Jamaica—no doubt to see his ravaged plantation. The rebellion dealt a devastating blow to the plantation from which it never fully recovered. Nevertheless, Baillie’s descendants were not left empty-handed. When the British Crown abolished slavery in 1835, Baillie’s executors filed a reparations claim under the Compensation Act on his children’s behalf. They received £5,745 for the emancipation of 322 enslaved Africans.
Tomb of an unknown ancestor.
The vengeance of the planter class following the ill-fated uprising was swift and brutal. Regional militia forces raided and burned black villages on the rebel estates, indiscriminately rounding up and killing those suspected of participating in the uprising. Those rebels who avoided summary execution were arrested, then quickly tried and executed. In the end, more than 300 rebels were executed in the months following the uprising. Their bodies were dumped in a mass grave near the shoreline outside of town.
Sam Sharpe was the last of the rebels tried and executed on May 23, 1832. Bleby wrote that he attempted to remind Sharpe that “the Scriptures teach human beings to be content with the station allotted to them by Providence and that even slaves are required to patiently submit to their lot, til the Lord in his providence is pleased to change it.” But Sharpe was unmoved: “If I have done wrong in that, I trust that I shall be forgiven for I cast myself upon the Atonement … I would rather die upon yonder gallows than to live in slavery.”
In the end, more than 300 rebels were executed in the months following the uprising. Their bodies were dumped in a mass grave near the shoreline outside of town.
Although the rebels were defeated, the 1831 uprising landed a decisive blow against the slave order. The British Crown formally abolished slavery two years later, in 1833. Today, Sam Sharpe is considered a Jamaican national hero, and the square where he was executed with the other rebels was renamed in his honor in 1975. His likeness graces the Jamaican $50 bill, and schoolchildren learn about him alongside other revived national heroes, including Nanny of the Maroons and Marcus Garvey.
The Old Slave Hospital. Good Hope Estate.
But this is not what brings 4.3 million tourists to Jamaica every year. Today, Montego Bay is more famous for its white sand beaches and turquoise waters that travelers from the United States, Canada, and Europe flock to each winter. Cruise ships dock in its natural deep-water harbor daily, and throngs of tourists pour out of the ships for carefully curated day trips where they experience a sanitized taste of Jamaica for a few hours. Tourists can go to the Hip Strip in the city center and return to their ships with their hair braided like Bo Derek, circa 1979, or they can complete their tourist look with the iconic red, gold and green faux dreadlock caps or Bob Marley apparel that seem to be obligatory vacation wear. In Montego Bay, you can play a few rounds of golf at the White Witch Golf Course on the grounds of the Rose Hall estate, enjoy a meal of jerk chicken and rice and peas if you are feeling adventurous, or try something closer to home at the Sugar Mill restaurant. Unlike the capital city of Kingston, MoBay is widely considered safe for foreigners, a traveler’s paradise that is the centerpiece of the island’s tourist fantasy of sun, sand and sex.
As a child, I knew very little about Sam Sharpe and the uprising that he led. But my connection to this struggle was deeper than I realized. My grandfather, Rennick Carlton Morris, Sr., was born in Roehampton in 1928. I went to Roehampton for the first time in December 2015 with my father, my husband and my mother. At the time, I knew nothing about the destruction of the Roehampton estate.
The morning after my parents arrived, we set out to find Roehampton. We rode in a route taxi headed west along the northern coastal highway for about seven miles. The road is one of the smoothest, most modern highways in the country, built to facilitate the comings and goings of tourists whose travels remain firmly on the beaten path of multinational big-chain resorts in MoBay, Ocho Rios and Negril. When we turned south into the hills just beyond MoBay, we began to see the Jamaica that tourists don’t visit. The tiny two-lane road winds along the edge of the hills as taxis and trucks careened around each curve so quickly that I was certain we would fly off the hill at any moment and end up in a gully so deep that no one would ever find us. The windows were down, and the wind whipped through the crowded route taxi as we climbed higher into the hills. I worried that the map might have been wrong or that that the driver didn’t know where he was going.
Slavery is the reason that our history lives at the bottom of the sea.
I leaned across my husband and shouted at my father, “Are you sure you know where you are going?” He looked at me and sucked his teeth—Jamaican for “Fool, please.” He was already settling back into himself and the environment. “Nah worry, me know where it is.” I was quiet, but doubtful. He hadn’t been to Roehampton in more than 30 years. As usual, he proved me wrong; his memory is remarkable. We pulled into a quiet, working-class neighborhood and approached a small store. As we drove past the store, we saw a slight, elderly man wearing a straw fedora, a Bible in his hand as he walked to church. My father glanced back and banged on the roof of the taxi.
“Stop the car!”
Everyone in the taxi looked at him as though he were crazy. “I think that’s Unc,” he said, and swung open the car door and dashed out of the taxi.
Top Yard, Manchester Parish.
We sat uncomfortably for a few minutes and watched him talking to the elderly man. To our astonishment, the man’s face broke into a wide grin as he threw his arms around my father. This was my great-uncle Ralford.
Uncle Ralford is my grandfather’s youngest brother and one of the last surviving members of the Morris family on the island. He was tickled that after all this time, my father somehow recognized him. He couldn’t stop patting his arm, calling my father “Colly,” his childhood nickname. A committed bachelor, he has no children and lives in the same house that he and my grandfather were born in. We walked back up the hill to the house. It is a small cement structure with three bedrooms that sits on about an acre of land. Like his father before him, Ralford is a farmer who keeps goats and chickens on the property while maintaining a larger planting area a few miles from the house.
I asked him what he remembers about my grandfather. “He was a good man, you know,” he says. “Anything him can do fi help you, if you need it, he will do it.” I asked about his father, Ralbert, and his answer was warm but brief. “Him was a nice person, he mostly keep to himself.” When I asked him how long the family has lived on the property, he shrugged. “Long time we been here. Mi fadda was born here and his fadda born here. Me no know exactly when them come here but them was here long time before I born.” He didn’t know anything about slavery or have any property records. I tried to hide my disappointment, but he could read it on my face.
“You want to see the tomb them?”
I perked up. “Tombs? Here? On the property?”
“Ya, mon, they right there up the hill.” And with that he turned and began walking up the hill. When we reached the top, I spotted a cluster of three tombs. They were covered with vines, and an enormous tree trunk stretched across the newest one that bore a small headstone with my great-grandfather’s name, Ralbert Morris. Uncle Ralford disappeared behind a tree and returned with three machetes. He silently handed them to my father and my husband, who removed their shirts and, without a word, began chopping away the brush on the tombstone. It was as though they were performing an ancient ritual. The sun rose high in the sky, and the three of them began to sweat but kept working. When they were done, we all sat quietly on the tree trunk on Grandpa Ralbert’s tomb.
My father was the first to speak. “Alright, grandpa,” he said. “It’s good to see you.”
Rose Hall, Montego Bay, St. James Parish.
Ralbert was born in Roehampton in 1902 and, like both his son and his ancestors before him, worked the land his entire life. I was eight years old when he died in 1991, and I’ve only seen him in a three-by-five photograph that my father keeps tucked into the edge of a mirror on his dresser. In the photo, Ralbert stands in front of his house, leaning on a cane. He is slender, like all the Morris men, and his face is lined and weathered. He looks like a man who knows what it means to work with his hands. He isn’t rich, but doesn’t wear the look of defeat that I associate with poverty in the developed world. He appears comfortable and self-possessed, as though he has all that he needs in life.
He silently handed the machetes to my father and my husband, who removed their shirts and, without a word, began chopping away the brush on the tombstone.
The other tombs bore no headstones, and when I asked Uncle Ralford who was buried alongside his father, he said, sheepishly, “Me no know. I think me grandfather and me grandmother.”
It’s an experience that I have had many times. Black history in the Americas is fleeting and ephemeral. It slips through one’s hands like water. The Europeans who colonized the New World left their imprint everywhere in semi-permanent monuments that underscore their descendants’ contemporary claims to dominate and shape the world in their own image. These monuments are everywhere—in the decrepit great houses that haunt the island, street signs, town names, the architecture. The descendants of the enslaved must look elsewhere—to the soil and the sea—to find our monuments, our martyrs, and the memory of our existence.
The Counting House. Good Hope Estate.
Having paid our respects, we made the march back downhill, and got ready to leave. On the way out, Uncle Ralford pressed grapefruits, rose apples and fresh ackee into our hands. “You haffi wait until the ackee them drop pon the ground,” he told me. “You cyaan eat them from the tree because them will poison you. But these one good.” I thanked him and placed the deadly fruit into my purse, alongside my camera. We would eat them for breakfast the following day. I hugged my great-uncle and planted a kiss on his cheek. He patted my shoulder and blessed me. “Go good then.”
And so we did.
ROSE HALL GREAT HOUSE
My work focuses on the question of memory—what do we remember and what do we forget? What stories survive, and what stories vanish into the sea of history? How does public memory shape our understanding of the places that we call home, and how does silence act on us in ways whose impacts are no less real because they remain illegible and invisible to us? What archives can tell the history of a people who are said to have no history worth speaking of?
The following day, my parents, my husband and I decided to visit the Rose Hall Great House, just east of Montego Bay. The greatest of the island’s plantation great houses, it’s an imposing white mansion built in the Caribbean Georgian style that defined colonial architecture in the eighteenth century. Framed by cotton trees and perched on a small hill, it appeared to rise up from the ground as though asserting its dominance over the landscape. Heading up the long driveway, I felt as though the house was watching me. As we approached the house, I thought of all the enslaved Africans who must have felt the same thing as they labored under the watchful eye of the estate’s multiple owners.
The tour guide told us that this was the dungeon where Palmer held and tortured her slaves.
Of all the island’s great houses, none are as infamous as Rose Hall. The estate’s notoriety is linked to the legend of its last and most famous occupant: Annie Palmer, known as the White Witch of Rose Hall. According to local lore, Palmer was born to British parents but grew up in Haiti. Her parents died when she was a child, and she was raised by her Haitian nurse, who taught her voodoo. When she turned eighteen, she moved to Jamaica, where she married the owner of Rose Hall, John Palmer. But the marriage was short-lived; John Palmer died shortly after the wedding, and it was widely believed that Annie Palmer used her knowledge of “dark magic” to kill her unwitting husband. She married two more times, and both of her subsequent spouses met similar fates.
Palmer was said to be a wicked woman who tortured her slaves and was in the habit of “taking male slaves as lovers and then murdering them when she tired of their service.” According to legend, she met her own demise at the hands of a powerful obeah man named Takoo, who strangled Palmer in her bedchamber after attempting to curse his daughter. After recounting this story, our tour guide paused dramatically and lowered her voice into a stage whisper. “It is said that the spirit of Annie Palmer haunts Rose Hall,” she said. “At night, you can hear Annie wailing.”
She led us through through the formal dining room and the drawing rooms on the ground floor. As we ascended the staircase, we passed by an oil painting of Annie Palmer surrounded by a group of small children. She was petite, her face childlike. “Some visitors say that if you look at the portrait, you can see Annie’s eyes watching you,” the guides said. I stared at the portrait for a moment and felt nothing. We followed our guide upstairs, where she showed us Palmer’s bedchamber. “This is where she was killed,” she said. From Palmer’s bedroom, we visited the bedrooms where her husbands met their own deaths.
We returned downstairs and headed to the basement down a stone staircase. We passed through an iron gate, and the temperature suddenly dropped, the air cold on my skin. The tour guide told us that this was the dungeon where Palmer held and tortured her slaves. A narrow mahogany table held half a dozen menacing-looking iron tools, including one that looked like an enormous bear trap held together by a red ribbon. When I asked what it was for, the tour guide explained that it was used as a punishment for runaway slaves. Shocked, all I could do was stare at this evil power object. The guide broke the silence: “The owners have converted the basement into a bar that you can visit during the Haunted House Night Tour.” She lifted her eyebrows ominously and said, “You might even see Annie Palmer walking the grounds.” I looked at my father, who simply shook his head.
The legend of the White Witch has become its own cultural industry. There have been dozens of novels, plays and poems written about Annie Palmer. Even Johnny Cash, who owned a vacation home in Montego Bay, wrote a song, “The Ballad of Annie Palmer,” about the White Witch of Rose Hall. In fact, the Palmers lost their home in the 1820s after falling into debt and were forced to abandon the property. Annie Palmer died of natural causes in 1846. The estate fell into disrepair and was uninhabited for 130 years until it was purchased in 1977 by former Miss USA Michele Rollins and her husband, John Rollins, former lieutenant governor of Delaware. The legend of the White Witch of Rose Hall has become its own tourist attraction, bringing thousands of visitors to the estate each year.
We emerged from the dark basement, and the tour guide led us to Annie Palmer’s tomb, which sits in a circle of stones. Our guide told us that Palmer’s grave has become something of a destination spot for tourists interested in the occult and the supernatural. She spoke of a group of North American witches who traveled to Rose Hall years go to perform a ritual that would allow her tortured soul to finally rest. After the ritual, she said without irony, they triumphantly announced that Palmer’s soul was finally at peace. What of the enslaved Africans who were her property? Did this coven of witches pray for their troubled souls, too?
Our tour guide paused dramatically and lowered her voice into a stage whisper. “It is said that the spirit of Annie Palmer haunts Rose Hall.”
I asked the guide if there were any records about enslaved Africans who were held there, or any information about what life was like for them. She appeared troubled by the question. “There isn’t much information about the slaves,” she said. More accurately, there is no information about the slaves—no records, no plaques, no tombs or monuments to the enslaved Africans who built this plantation. No foreigners have traveled here to pray for their souls or bless their burial grounds. The tour guide said she doesn’t know where their burial grounds are, but believes they are located somewhere south of the great house. No one knows their names.
I turned to look at my mother, her mouth pressed into a thin line and her arms folded across her chest. As she spoke, her voice quivered with rage. “I mean, I just find it incredible that there is all this information about this wicked woman and not a single word about the slaves who lived here and died here. I don’t understand what’s so great about some woman who tortured her slaves and killed her husbands and died because she was so awful,” she said. The guide said we had a point, but unfortunately that is the way the tour is organized. Our anger was so strong that we barely noticed that a group of German tourists had clustered around us. They seem startled, asking their Jamaican guide to translate the exchange.
The translator was annoyed—not with the tour guide, but with us. “Americans always come here and want to make things personal,” she said. “Slavery finished a long time ago; there is no point in crying about the past. Nobody want to talk about that anymore.” But my mother wasn’t finished. “I have a right to my opinion,” she said. “And I don’t agree with you. Slavery still matters. They find time to get the furniture right and know everything about this wicked woman, but don’t know the name of a single slave who worked this plantation.” The translator is nonplussed: “Cry about the past if you want. We have better things to do.” She turned her back to us and continued her translation.
The guide clapped her hands and smiled at the group, careful to avoid our eyes. “That concludes our tour of Rose Hall,” she said. “You are welcome to visit the gift shop on your way out.” We all lifted our eyebrows in disbelief. The Germans headed to the gift shop. We walked down the long driveway and back to the highway to flag a taxi. We remained silent on the ride back.
GOOD HOPE ESTATE
Slavery produced a void in black social memory. Slavery is the reason it took me 33 years to learn the names of my great-great-grandfather. Slavery is the reason nobody knows who is buried on the Roehampton property. Africans held enormous value as property for the people who owned them, but after slavery, their lives were considered meaningless, beyond the purview of history, not worth archiving or remembering. Slavery is the reason their lives can be forgotten or overlooked in plantation tours and no one bats an eye. Slavery is the reason that our history lives at the bottom of the sea.
In January 2019, I dragged my father and husband to yet another great house. We traveled to the neighboring parish of Trelawney to visit the Good Hope estate. Once the largest plantation on the island, today Good Hope has become a popular tourist attraction that is run by Chukka Adventure Tours, a multinational corporation that provides short- and long-term excursions for travelers in exotic locales.
There is no information about the slaves—no records, no plaques, no tombs or monuments to the enslaved Africans who built this plantation.
Our tour guide was named Crystal. She is what black folks in the US call “thick,” curvy, with smooth, dark skin, a wide glossy smile and a pleasant demeanor. She led us up the front stairs into the gallery, a long corridor that stretches across the length of the house linking the formal and informal drawing rooms. She pointed out the original wild orange hardwood floors; the cloudy eighteenth century mirror hanging on the wall opposite the entrance; the mahogany planter’s chairs on either side of the mirror, which she told us were measured to fit their original owners; the exquisitely carved side tables. She pointed out the cedar shingles in the formal drawing room that contract to allow the breeze to pass through the room during dry weather and expand to keep out rain.
Fire in the hills, Roehampton Estate, St. James Parish.
Crystal led us from the formal living room to Tharpe’s bedroom and his wife’s private quarters. She made much of the mahogany bed frame, the authentic eighteenth century traveling valises stacked at the foot of the bed and the picturesque views of the valley below. We followed her into Tharpe’s bedroom and personal bathroom. She claimed that Tharpe built the first jacuzzi in the 1790s to deal with his arthritis and gout, a common malady of the planter class who led pampered lives eating rich food, drinking rum and wine and hosting enormous parties that lasted for weeks on end. Unfortunately, Crystal told us, Tharpe’s jacuzzi was lined with lead, and after several years of soaking in this artisanal hot tub, Tharpe died unwittingly at his own hand.
We exited Tharpe’s bedroom and stepped out onto the veranda, where a group of tourists was sitting down to an “authentic” English tea offered to visitors. Everyone seated was white. Everyone serving them was black. As we passed them, their conversations turned suddenly quiet, and several guests shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I was preoccupied with my camera, and it took me a second to notice the subtle shift. When I looked up, I felt as though everyone was staring at me. I glanced at my father, who responded silently with a knowing, exasperated look on his face.
We sighed, turning our attention a few feet away to an imposing, elevated, one-story limestone structure with a wide staircase surrounded by towering palm trees: the Counting House. According to our tour guide, John Tharpe was many things—a philanthropist, an inventor, a successful businessman, and, apparently, deeply superstitious. Our guide told us that despite his success as a planter, Tharpe was supposedly uneasy having made his fortune on the backs of slaves. He did not like having his money counted in his home, so he built the Counting House as an office for his bookkeeper and never talked money or business inside his home.
During his lifetime, Tharpe enjoyed a reputation as a humanitarian who provided charitable aid to the poor and the enslaved. Crystal told us that Good Hope was the only plantation in the area that was not burned down during the 1831 rebellions, a reflection of the slaves’ regard for John Tharpe as a fair master. While the rebels burned down other plantations, she said that the slaves at Good Hope not only did not participate in the rebellion but continued working throughout the uprising.
Tharpe built a slave hospital with approximately 300 beds. It was later converted into a birthing center, and after emancipation, it was repurposed as a school. Today, it is an aviary. Crystal told us that Good Hope was the only plantation on the island that provided these services to slaves. She said Tharpe built the only slave hospital on the island because he “cared about his slaves.”
“I guess you could say he was a good slave master,” she said. “Ain’t no such thing,” I retorted. She laughed, and I couldn’t tell whether she was nervous or if this was simply part of the tour guide script, or if she actually believed that Tharpe was a good slave owner in need of defending. “Even a farmer,” my father muttered, “take care of his animals.”
A group of tourists was sitting down to an “authentic” English tea offered to visitors. Everyone seated was white. Everyone serving them was black.
We continued the tour into the informal drawing room. Crystal wanted to talk about the many dinner parties and social affairs that were held at Good Hope. I wanted to talk about slavery. After she finished, I asked if there are any records on site about the enslaved men and women who may have been held at Good Hope. I know that this information exists because several years ago, the British government released the records detailing the reparations that the planters received following the abolition of slavery in 1834 as well as the annual Slave Reports that the planters completed each year providing an account of their slave and property holdings to the British government. Crystal was pleasant but firm: “No, we don’t have anything like that here.”
As we rode down the driveway, I looked at the rolling green hills that surround the house. They were covered in rocks and trees. I thought about the extraordinary amount of work it must have taken—with no heavy machinery, no electricity, just raw human energy—to clear this land and make it produce sugar. I had hoped that Good Hope would be different. That someone, finally, might be willing to tell the whole story.
After the shuttle dropped us off, we stopped so my father could take a cigarette break. As we sat under a pair of ceiba trees, I complained about the lack of attention paid to the people who built Good Hope from the ground up. “Why is there never any information about the slaves?” He exhaled and barked out a short, bitter laugh. “The slaves don’t matter, Courtney. The sooner you get that through your skull, the sooner you understand that, then you will understand everything.”
The sun climbed high, and the heat beat down on our shoulders. We needed food and water before we could talk about this any further. We headed to a restaurant on the main grounds to scare up some lunch, passing a group of tourists on ATVs getting ready to hit the obstacle course. My father sucked his teeth. I asked a staffer where the restaurant was, and she directed us toward the water park. We walked past a multiracial group of tourists getting ready to ride down to the park on a zip line, then descended a wide, winding staircase bordered by thick wooden rails. “They did a nice job,” my father said. He’s not wrong. An artificial waterfall thundered next to us, emptying into a pool that fed a slow-moving river. At the bottom, we approached a round bar covered in a thatched roof where we ordered a meal and took a seat in the Sugar House restaurant.
We ate a delicious, wildly overpriced meal of jerk pork and chicken, rice and peas, callaloo and festival, Jamaica’s version of fry bread. The old Sugar House has high ceilings, and the breeze flowed through wide arcades that afforded a full view of the swimming pool. Dozens of white and a handful of Asian and Latino tourists sauntered through the corridors of the Sugar House in their bathing suits, sipping on rum punch and enjoying the warm weather. All I could think about were the people who worked this sugar house as slaves.
Suddenly I feel nauseous. I felt like a damn fool. I kept going back to these Great Houses as though I would discover something. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I could not stop returning to these sites that consistently break my heart. I shared this with my father. He was quiet for a moment. But when he spoke, his voice was heavy, deliberate.
“All these places, they just tell one side of the story. I don’t want to see everything from the master’s point of view. Slaves built all of this,” he said, gesturing at the surroundings. “It just seems like an injustice.”
We talked about the awkward encounter with the tourists having tea, how the logic of the plantation repeats itself across time and is embedded in the country’s tourist economy. The tourism industry promises tourists a fantasy, the ability to travel back in time, to live like a planter even if just for an afternoon, without having to answer for or confront the past or acknowledge the people whose labor made that colonial fantasy possible. Tourists want to come to Jamaica to live like modern-day planters. But they don’t want to talk about or think about or be reminded of slavery.
My father shook his head and picked at his food. “This is my island,” he said. “But we don’t own none of it. Still.”
Courtney Desiree Morris is a visual artist and assistant professor of African American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her forthcoming book is titled To Defend this Sunrise: Black Women’s Activism and the Geography of Race in Nicaragua.