Today is Sam Sharpe Day. There really is no more appropriate day in our national calendar for official observances than this one to discuss war. War is a part of life. It’s a phenomenon that precedes the dawn of manually recorded history. The earliest evidence of warfare is about 13,400 years old. Unsurprisingly, the evidence was found in modern-day Sudan—the region of our planet most widely accepted by archaeologists to be the origin of humankind (a conclusion corroborated by the most comprehensive family tree ever devised).
It is almost irresistibly tempting to ignore the realities of war when you’re free, and you have the privilege of not being in the midst of one—but it is neither wise nor safe to do so.
This time every year (for the past four years), I reflect on the pre-eminent yet underrecognised significance of December 27 in Jamaica’s history; I recall, with reverence, the decisions and actions of the estimated 60,000 men and women who fought alongside Deacon Samuel Sharpe in the Baptist War (1831-1832); I experience a healthy level of anxiety about what I should be doing more or better or instead to honour their selfless sacrifices (even martyrdom); and my consciousness is steeped in gratitude for their priceless legacy—not just my physical freedom, but that of all peoples across the terrorised, traumatised lands historically referred to as “the British Empire.” As horrific as war is, some situations demand it.
But, even in the context of war, there is such a thing as gratuitous violence. Determining whether a particular form of violence is called for can sometimes be complicated. There are violent acts that decent persons might deem justified and necessary under certain circumstances but gratuitous under others. Genocide isn’t one of them. Genocide isn’t just wrong. It’s ALWAYS wrong.
Many of us take Jamaica’s National Pledge seriously. Every single word. Not only is our pledge a holy vow to the Most High God. Not only is it a solemn promise to all mankind, but it’s also a spiritually potent sequence of benevolent affirmations, culminating in an invocation, for Jamaica to “play her part in advancing the welfare of the whole human race.” So, as my thoughts about Jamaica’s past, present and future collide, I can’t help but ask: How could WE, of all people, possibly even consider staying quiet about mass bondage and slaughter—of any people, anywhere?
What would Samuel Sharpe think of us? What would he say to us?
The circumstances of the deacon’s last words prove that heroism is not defined by government decree. Today is an ideal moment to acknowledge as well that our mandate to advance human welfare did not begin when the pledge was penned. (Let us remember Dutty Boukman. Let us remember Mary Seacole. Let us remember Harry Belafonte.) It was already thriving in the hearts of our acknowledged, under-acknowledged and unacknowledged heroines and heroes, at home and abroad, until—through sheer genius—it was captured in writing (circa 1961).
Whether measured by population, land mass or national output, our size had no bearing on our capacity to assert our independent integrity while still under colonial rule in 1959, when Jamaica became the first country in the Western Hemisphere to declare a trade embargo against the South African apartheid system, on the basis that it was “revolting to the conscience of decent people throughout the world.” This was done three years ahead of the United Nations resolution, which it loudly opened the door for. Since then, generation after generation has ensured that Jamaica’s global stature continued to be fuelled by audacity.
Given that the downpayment for the multi-generational legacy of moral leadership in the world was the martyrdom of untold numbers of our ancestors, what cost to us would justify breaking with that tradition? Do we have a price tag for turning a blind eye to any genocide, much less one being committed by a UN-recognized government? I refuse to believe that. WE are NOT the generation that will reduce Jamaica’s National Pledge to meaningless words in the face of the near incogitable scale of evil being unleashed on the people of Gaza. We are just as capable of outsized geopolitical impact as our foreparents were. We SHALL be counted among the heroes and heroines who stood up for humanity in this modern era.
In the words of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, immortalised in song by Robert Nesta Marley, “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior, and another inferior, is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned—everywhere is war.”
Fight the fight!
[The title of this article series was inspired by an eponymous song released by Mortimer in 2019.]