Backra was the corruption by slaves of the words 'back row'


Sunday, November 11, 2018

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The activist role of the Anglican Church, also referred to as the Church of England, as a socio-religious and political institution within the Jamaican society, during the period of colonialism and slavery in particular, has been well documented and hotly debated by scholars for decades.

So overarching was the role of the Anglican Church in the life of the plantocratic society that even other Christian denominations: Methodist, Moravians, Baptists, Presbyterians et al, operating in Jamaica, had to receive permission from the Church of England to preach the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ on the island. In other words, for years these earliest non-conformist religious groups operating here in Jamaica had to apply to the Anglican Church hierarchy for a license to preach the Christian message to the slave population and others.

The early non-conformist missionaries who were Negroes and all refugees from the American War of Independence (1776), George Lyle, Moses Baker, Thomas Swiggle, George Gibbs et al who started the Baptists work in Jamaica activities were closed down by the Anglican Church through the non-renewal of their license to preach in 1802 with the screw tightening in 1810 within three years of the abolition of the slave trade.

The planter class, all Anglicans, was fuming with such a major development in 1807 and blame was laid at the black non-conformist preachers' feet. Arising from this development, white English non-conformist missionaries began to arrive in Jamaica starting with the Reverend John Rowe of Baptists persuasion in 1813/14.

The dual role of the Anglican Church both as a spiritual and political centre of the colonial slave society was both dominant and far-reaching. Where there was not the existence of a parish church but a court house in the parish town centre, local government meetings would be held at that location instead. For example, in Montego Bay, St James after 1815 (voluntarily move from the parish church) and at the parish of St Thomas up to and sometimes after the Morant Bay Rebellion 1865.

The meetings of the Vestry now called the Parochial Board resumed in 1887 islandwide. Additionally, for many years only the Anglican Church was financed by the Jamaican taxpayer through the Government. In short, the Planters Church was a department of Government also. The Local Government Unit in each parish known as the vestry, forerunner to the Parish Council meeting place was the Parish Church Building.

Further afield and consistent with the Church of England's role in the “Mother” country's overseas possessions, the Anglican priest in Boston Massachusetts - Cotton Mather in 1712 wrote the rules of the Negro Society and began by laying out a preamble that became the edict for slaves in the western world to memorise: “We are miserable sons of Adam and Noah. We have sinned against God that is why we are in slavery. It is not the white man that has enslaved us but our sins! But if we submit ourselves to the miserable conditions of slavery… while there will be no earthly reward in the form of wages…when we die a mansion will be prepared for us where we will be in constant companion with the Angels”!

Many of the well-known Negro spirituals such as It Soon Be Done, I will Fly Away Oh Glory, Redemption Coming praise the Lord etc… were in response to and inspired by the indoctrination of the slaves by the work of that Anglican priest Cotton Mather.

This document produced by Mather in 1712 coincided with the period when Willie Lynch, a Jamaican planter delivered that famous speech at the Club House along the banks of the James River in the colony of Virginia from which would flow both an entrenched psycho-social ascription and dynamic known as the 'Willie Lynch Syndrome' in the history and culture of especially the western world.

The horrible act of the mob burning alive and hanging of Negro slaves called “Lynching” derived its name from the surname of Willie Lynch a Jamaican planter from the parish of Portland.

Another piece of literature authored by Willie Lynch in deliberate circulation throughout the various slave societies at the time was a document entitled “The Breaking of the Negro” which equated the Negro in his raw and natural state to a wild beast - (horse) which must be broken, meaning, to be made civilized by the conditioning of white European culture and values. This was conveniently and selectively applied by manipulation of the physical and psychological differences among the slaves that Lynch advised “to pit the slaves against one another in perpetual divisiveness and hatred as a method of control.

The planters church ... Anglicans…and other denominations particularly the Presbyterians whose patrons were the plantation owners, for example the Reverend Hope M Waddell and the Barrett family of Cinnamon Hill Estates in the parish of St James and other properties in Trelawny, to varying degrees, where these white English missionaries felt obligated to a particular estate owner would join the brainwashing caucus to keep the slaves happy in their oppression.

The Barretts of Cinnamon Hill above the Rose Hall Great House St James were direct descendants of Hercy Barrett of Spanish Town in the parish of St Catherine and after whom Barrett Street is named….was the first to land in Jamaica after the restoration of the monarchy with King Charles II in 1660 and after the death of Oliver Cromwell.

It is to be noted, however, that significant and fundamental changes have come to the Anglican Church over time with some brilliant and decent men such as Father Nembhard, Lynch, Bishop Nuttall, Desouza, Reid, May (May Pen) et al and the limitation of space has constrained placing of other respectful leaders on my list. These men have provided leadership at various levels within the Church community as it evolved through its historical transformation.

The Anglican contribution to educational development in Jamaica, for example, is legendary.

Backra, a subtle but deliberate derisive corruption by the slaves of two words: “Back Row” speaks to and reflects the level of the very deep social division that existed in the plantation society where the poorer whites such as bookeepers, clerks etc would be seated at church based on their status on the sugar plantation and animal pens.

Backra was white but not always the estate owner. The owner was called Massa, many of whom were absentee. Where Massa was resident on the plantation and played an active role in its management then he would be called Backra Massa!

The slaves understood the economic and social pecking order very well as they never addressed their God as “Backra God” but always as Massa God!' The social hierarchy at the St James Parish Church in Montego Bay, which I am using as reference, represents a perfect replica or prototype of the hierarchical social arrangements across the length and breadth of Jamaica.

Massa such as the Palmers, Lawrences, Irvings, Kerr Jarretts and the Barretts, among others, would occupy the front row in the Church and have the privilege of laying stones inside the church closest to the pulpit, and have their dead buried in the church yard next to the buggy drive way and doorways.

Those of lesser economic means but better off economically than the white collar workers at the back row, sat in the middle pews at church. So it begs the question, where would our ancestors the slaves sit since even the back row, was for white people? They sat under the trees on stones or on the ground as there were really not at church. They only brought Backra and Massa to Church and need to wait on them to operate the horse and buggy to take them back home.

It was not until 1815 that a law was passed for the Anglican Church to give religious instructions to the slaves and their children. In that law it was stated that a suitable place other than the church should be found to give religious instruction to the slave population.

Those slaves wishing to be baptised had to get permission from their owners who would be required to pay a fee for the baptism of each slave. The price per head to baptised slave ranged over time from one pound, 13 shillings and four pence, to two shillings and six pence.

By the time the price came down so cheaply the curates, rector and priests resorted to baptism in bulk where each slave in the batch was simply asked his or her Christian name… then hurriedly baptised en masse and the monies per head collected.

The idea of the melanin saturated Negro slaves - becoming whiter than snow despite being instructed by the said Church leadership to make earnest pleadings in song … “Lord wash me”….. and sharing the same Heaven by rubbing shoulders with their white owners was never taken seriously by the priests. But the baptism fee was.

What a journey our people have travelled in this city … and across this country, even as we remain mindful that black people could not walk in the town of Montego Bay after 6:00 pm and not be picked up by the Militia Night Patrol and arrested as a vagrant. The jail was the “Cage” building across from the Sam Sharpe monument in the square. Still standing as a memorial to our past oppression as a people, the plan to build the “Cage” was taken from a carbon copy of a torturing house, brought from the island of Antigua and consisted of three chambers namely a whipping post, a torturing house and jail where passerby (whites) could mock and jeer those with minor crimes and who were “Caged”.

Every day the bell from the St James Parish Church would ring, starting at 2:00 pm, to warn Negroes to begin preparation to get off the streets of Montego Bay by 6:00 pm sharp.

There existed a Vagrancy Law which states inter alia: “If you were caught walking on the street with your face “blackened” after 6:00 pm you were a vagrant.

This law subtly made every Negro into a vagrant who would be arrested and “caged”. And I trust the subliminal meaning of the word “Cage” is not missed. It was perhaps fortuitous that when the time came for the Sam Sharpe monument to be erected in the city's square that it was I who as then Mayor of the city, to decide on its location.

My instructions were that the base of the Sam Sharpe monument, a symbol of liberation, was to be elevated above the foundation of the “Cage”, a symbol of oppression, depicting a perennial struggle of the painful journey from the atrocities of slavery to the logic of freedom - freedom for both the jailed and the jailer.

Thank Massa God.

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