Paul Bogle, 148 years after his death, is still embroiled in a struggle. Bogle is one of our original rebels and a defining character in who we are as Jamaicans. His historic march from Stony Gut, St. Thomas to Spanish Town (and back) and the resulting 1865 revolt was repaid in kind by the then colonial government with his being hanged. It seemed that his being raised to the status of national hero when Jamaica gained independence should have been a salve on the wound. Yet now we add insult to that old injury by being unable decide who he is, or at least what he looked like. In this the year of Jamaica marks its 50th year of independence, this is a woeful state.
The issue came to my attention through FaceBook (as do most things these days – unless I noticed it on Twitter). I came across three postings which noted that Jamaica’s officially accepted image of national hero Paul Bogle is also the being used as the image of American inventor Thomas Jennings.
For ease of reference, the image in question is the one which had been used on the $2 note and which now graces the 10cent coin (for those of you born after 1990 yes there used to be a $2 note – see Damian Marley’s ‘Welcome to Jamrock” as reference “…before Bogle start dance and deh pon paper money”. The note was discontinued circa 1989.) The issue of Bogle’s monetary demotion (which incidentally also resulted in the removal of that awesome question that accompanied the flipping of a coin – “ackee or toto?” – now we like everyone else have to ask “head or tail”. Of course we could also say Bogle or Toto,) is a matter that deserves its own post. Suffice it to say, with the current state of the Jamaican dollar, the 10 cent coin is largely ignored, which means that Bogle is becoming a figure less and less remembered. (And yes, I realize that Garvey shares an equally ignominious monetary fate.)
Based on the comments posted on the FB threads, many immediately assumed that the Jamaican researchers must have got it wrong. I find that, in and of itself, disturbing. Why did so many people assume that the assertion that the image is that of Thomas Jennings must be the right one, and we had all fallen for a big lie? Interestingly, the National Library of Jamaica and the National Gallery of Jamaica argue that as Jennings had died before the tintype technology was invented, it is easy to prove that Jennings cannot be the man in the image. David Boxer of the NGJ highlights that it is not merely a similarity of images as it appears the the image being used for Bogle and for Jennings is from the same source.
The question of whether Bogle is the man in the picture, is a different kettle of chicken. Boxer says that the original tintype photo (now lost) allegedly came to the Institute of Jamaica through a researcher from the Jamaica Historical Society who went to Stony Gut seeking an image of Bogle. However, the image has never been fully authenticated, and has in the past been captioned as such. Boxer believes that there is a good chance that the image is not that of Paul Bogle, but may well be an image of his son or another relative. He notes that the picture would have had to be taken in 1864-65 when Bogle was in his 40s, but the man in the image appears to be younger. Of course, maybe Bogle just aged really well. Edna Manley is among those who rejected the image, instead choosing to base her 1965 Paul Bogle monument on her gardener. Manley’s decision has resulted in its own furor among the people of St. Thomas, including some of Bogle’s relatives, who see Manley’s action as a blatant insult and insist that the monument is not representative and cannot be returned to its former place before the Morant Bay Court House.
But whether or not the tintype Bogle is the real image is now in the main moot. The world accepts artistic impressions all the time. Let’s face it, given the location of Jerusalem, the chance that Jesus was a skinny white man is pretty slim. But for many years it is the only image that many of us knew, and for many of us it remains enough. In the case of our heroes, we have only artistic interpretations of Nanny and Sam Sharpe to rely on. So whether we believe like Boxer that the Bogle picture is a “justified concoction in the national interest” or that the picture is that of our National Hero, our nation has the duty to protect that image.
The issue with the Bogle image therefore questions whether we are doing enough as a country to protect the legacy, contributions, image (real or imagined) of our heroes. How can we simply allow others to appropriate an image we have accepted as that of our national hero without even a whimper?
Officialdom generally honours our heroes on their birthday and on Heroes Day. By honour I mean we lay a wreath and have a one hour function (usually at heroes park). As the birthdays of Nanny, Sam Sharpe, Bogle and George William Gordon are unknown they are only honoured in the general ceremony on Heroes Day (which is also celebrated as Nanny Day by the Maroons).
Bogle’s plight I believe (and I await correction from either the Jamaica National Heritage Trust or the NLJ and will update the post should it arrive) seems special. At least with George William Gordon, we may have sold off Mutual Life but the Cherry Gardens Great House (and numerous images) remain. In the case of Sam Sharpe the Burchell Baptist church where he once preached was rebuilt by the JNHT. There remain remnants of Nanny Town and in Moore Town there is Bump Grave. Bogle’s church, home and much of the village he once lived in were razed in retribution for the revolt. Even the original road leading to Stony Gut no longer exists, and the Morant Bay Court House was (not so recently) lost to fire and with the country’s continued economic woes, who knows if or when it will be rebuilt. Indeed, if we take the roads leading from St. Thomas as any indication, it appears we have given up on that parish. So Bogle is left with a contested monument and a plaque at the place that used to be Stony Gut.
This means that should we lose custody of this photo, Bogle’s legacy will be plunged into even further depths of abstraction. The value of the internet as the route to knowledge (if you do not know it, Google it) means that Jamaica must officially counter the use of this image to represent Jennings and ensure that it is stopped.
There has been much talk about the return of Civics to the school curriculum, which some argue will create greater patriotism. In my view, the return of Civics will simply give children one more class to be bored to death in. What is of greater urgency is fixing the ways we remember our heroes, removing ignorance where possible and allowing them to become a part of popular culture. We cannot ignore the contribution that Reggae has played in keeping Marcus Garvey relevant even in the face of the Ministry of Education’s woeful behaviour. Indeed, Bogle’s appearance in literary fiction is one of his greatest saviours. His exploits were captured in Alma Norma’s poem ‘Ballad of Sixty Five’ and (to some degree in V.S. Reid’s Sixty Five (which is on my to-read list). Both of these however are no longer widely used in schools. Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante have the two political parties to protect their legacies. However, it appears that our other heroes may well be at risk of becoming endangered memories, and it seems that Bogle is highest on the list.