Antigua’s debt to Sir Keithlyn Smith

“Edith Oladele and Sir Keithlyn Smith on a cultural exchange mission to Cameroon in 2005.” (Photo contributed)
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By Edith Oladele

Prior to the publication of “To Shoot Hard Labour” Volume 1, few Antiguans, including myself, understood fully the impact of slavery in our own families, and on the very life of our nation. A big question that bothered me at 25 years old was “Where is the history of the black people on this island?” My father had just told me about my great, great, grandparents who were enslaved on Gilbert Estate and of their daughter, Abigail. I remember reflecting on the information that I’d just received and how puzzled I felt as I asked myself, “How is it that as black people we’re visible and yet so invisible; where is our history?” People see us; yes, we’re highly visible, but we have no written story so we’re as ones who ‘just appeared’!

Then came Sir Keithlyn’s fantastic “To Shoot Hard Labour” Volume 1 giving in raw detail the life of the Africans on this island. His book thrilled me, Papa Sammy gave such harsh details of life on the plantations post slavery and Emancipation that Antigua and Antiguans took on a deeper and more meaningful personality. We were a people with history told and written by our own.

After my first journey to Cameroon in 2004, with the specific purpose of reconciliation between the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slave traders in Cameroon, I recognised that we in Antigua knew nothing about the slave trade there and that they knew nothing about us out here. I felt very strongly that the ‘divide and rule’ strategy of the colonialists had worked too well in keeping us apart and that I had to work to bring about the needed reconciliation and reconnection.

In March 2005, I headed an evangelistic mission there with four carpenters specifically to rebuild the first church built in Bimbia, the former slave port, by Jamaican missionaries in 1843. The four young men made an impact among the youth and civic leaders in Limbe, but the question remained in everyone’s minds “Where did they come from, saying that they’re the descendants of slaves; from where?”

Seeing the perplexity, I decided to mount an exhibition about slavery in Antigua and Barbuda. I invited Sir Keithlyn to return to Cameroon as part of a cultural mission, bring his book and tell the people about us and our history out here. An Antiguan traditional food exposition was also mounted. Pepperpot, saltfish, fungie, red herring and even cassie. What a hit the slave food made!  The little delegation consisted of Sir Keithlyn, Auntie Esther Henry, Ma Salene Spencer and Boris Teague. Auntie Esther kept the cooking of traditional foods in the forefront of Antigua’s cultural life and seeing so much green papaw everywhere was asking everyone if they cooked it! (They didn’t) Sir Keithlyn was kept busy up and down with interviews to the press, on radio and in conversations all around the town of Limbe. The team hosted Chief Samuel Epupa of Dikolo Village in Bimbia, the former slave port of which his great, great grandfather had been the master. Chief Ekum spent many hours giving us the history of the port and his village and of Limbe itself. To celebrate Emancipation Day with us he invited five other important chiefs in the area to accompany him to view the exhibition and together we held a very meaningful time of discussions with us. The Emancipation proclamation was ceremoniously read. Sir Keithlyn gave an address and Chief Ekum charged the other chiefs to welcome back the slave descendants who returned and to give them lands as compensation for having sold away our grandparents. That charge is being put in place today as I write.

Strangely, Sir Keithlyn and I never discussed the journey in detail. But I know that he was deeply touched by conversations with the people he met. One very important guest appeared at the gate looking for us one day. She was Professor Nalova Lyonga, of the University of Buea. She’d heard the interview on radio and came to speak with him in person. She said that there had never been a book like “To Shoot Hard Labour” and that she wanted to include it in the university’s Caribbean African Studies curriculum for the coming year. I asked Sir Keithlyn if he’d honoured the request. He hadn’t. The Chancellor at the University of Douala also wanted it for their students and were willing to have it translated. Even quite recently a couple asked if they could translate into French. The book stirred up strong desires to know more about the slavery experience in these parts. Hopefully, these opportunities to educate ourselves on the continent will be taken up by the family. I would be happy to introduce you to the relevant authorities in Cameroon and across West Africa today. People need to know.

During the exhibition I observed Sir Keithlyn as he repeatedly went to stand before the display with the names of the 88 men who had been executed in 1736/37 because of the Prince Klaas conspiracy. He told me later that it was the first time that he was seeing the names of the men and that tears came to his eyes each time he read their names.

Personally, Sir Keithlyn’s books, volumes 1 and 2 enabled me to understand Antiguan life more realistically. I understood my personal history better and am all the richer for it. I am sure that the same can be said for all who have read the books. His faithfulness in keeping his grandfather’s wishes have motivated me to do my part in researching, documenting and preserving for posterity the history of our ancestors who were enslaved here.

Very shortly, the African Slavery Memorial Museum of Antigua and Barbuda will open its doors. There will be a room dedicated to Papa Samuel Smith and Sir Keithlyn Smith. Sir Keithlyn’s family will be given the honour of contributing to that exhibit. There will also be a room dedicated to Lady Jumbia, that giant- of-a-woman who formed the construction crews motivating the ex-slaves to build over 60 new villages across the land, to the chagrin of the planters and British officials.

Everything that is done with regards to the history of the Africans in this country is because Papa Sammy expressed his concern that the black people of this island should know what happened to their ancestors and that slavery should never happen to our people again. If university professors, heads of history departments could recognise the value of this historic work “To Shoot Hard Labour,” why is it not a part of the history curriculum in the school system here in Antigua and Barbuda? As simple as it seems, it would foster a profound change in the minds of the future leaders and citizens of this little nation. This book is a national treasure and we need this to build our identity as an African Antiguan society. As the honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey said “A people without knowledge of their history and culture is like a tree without roots”. Isn’t this the sad reality which African Antiguan descendants face today? And we wonder why our young people are so lacking in knowledge of ourselves and so culturally rootless? The answer is to be found in “To Shoot Hard Labour.” I believe that Sir Keithlyn died a very happy man once he heard that his book had been accorded the place of study for the Observer Summer Reading Programme and listened to the effects that the study had on the hearers and participants. He knew then that he’d accomplished his grandfathers vision and that he could enter peacefully into the ’joy of the Lord’ having done his work well!

Thank you, Sir Keithlyn, for ensuring that the legacy, written and published has been left to us. We will learn from it and pass it on to future generations as you were charged by our Elder Papa Samuel Smith so to do.  We honour you and vow to avidly concern ourselves with whatsoever work towards the mental and psychological freedom and dignity of our people and the preservation of our ancestral story. You have enabled us to stand as proud owners of our own story written by ourselves and for ourselves today. Thank you.

        Thoughts and views expressed in guest editorials do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Observer NewsCo, its management or staff.

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