Hidden histories: Jamaica’s colourful legacies

Small, perfectly formed but bursting with information is how I would describe the Jamaica Hidden Histories Exhibition at the Oxo Gallery in South Bank, London. And organiser Full Spectrum Productions did well to weave so much of Jamaica’s rich history into such a small space.

Meryl’s Bowden Taino village tapestry, 2009 © photographed by MisBeee Writes

My journey started with Meryl Bowden’s tapestry depiction of life in a Taino village. Taino communities are believed to be the original inhabitants of the Caribbean islands, including Jamaica. And they are widely believed to have called the country Xaymaca, meaning the land of wood.

I recently discovered through BBC4’s Lost Kingdoms of Central Americas that the words canoe and hurricane have roots in the Taino language. And after watching a BBC episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are‘ years ago, I learnt that Welsh Olympian and sports presenter Colin Jackson can trace his roots back to these fine people.

But don’t take my word for it because sadly, the history of the early Caribbean people and their roots is still much disputed. And the following video (below): ‘The Truth About Jamaica and Jamaicans’ challenges some of these widely-held ‘truths’.

The video suggests that the original inhabitants of Jamaica were in fact Nubian and that the suggestion that Arawaks, Caribs and Tainos (believed to be the aboriginal people of the Caribbean islands) were actually fabrications made by the Western world.


Jamaica is home also to the Maroons (Colin Jackson hails from them aswell) who can trace their ancestry back to West Africa – namely to the Akans of Ghana. And this bloodline was also celebrated in the exhibition.

Some of you will know of the abeng or ‘cow’ horn in Ghana’s Akan languages. This same word is embedded in the Maroon language and culture thanks to our enslaved forefathers and mothers carrying the instrument with them to the Caribbean island.

The Maroons may have come to Spanish-occupied Jamaica as slaves around the 17th century. But they fought for their freedom and escaped to Cockpit Country in Jamaica where they held on to their African traditions and languages.

The abeng, which is used in both Ghana and Jamaica for social occasions such as births, marriages and death, was employed during the 1700s wars between the British colonial masters and Maroons. During these wars, the Maroons used the abeng to communicate between villages.

I always marvel at the new knowledge I gain from visiting museums and galleries and this visit was no different. Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey’s effort to repatriate Africans, and bring Black consciousness to the African Diaspora was lauded. So was Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie I who is seen as the returned Messiah by Jamaica’s Rastafarian community.

The exhibition celebrated trailblazers such as music legend Bob Marley, chef, entrepreneur and TV personality Levi Roots.

Also famed was fashion designer Lorna Holder. She was noted for creating dresses for well-known retail houses such as Littlewoods, Etam, Berkertex while heading up one of the UK’s leading dress manufacturer Davies & Field between 1979 and 1986.

Interestingly, it is sometimes what is not officially said that ends up being the most insightful at these kinds of functions.

While I was asking one attendant if she could link me up with an expert on the Maroon people, (I am not so secretly obsessed by the Maroons and their link to the Akans), a man with knowledge of the lost Jews of Africa rocks up who also happens to be of Maroon heritage. A coincidence……I think not 😉

Through this chance meeting, I learnt of a book called ‘Scattered But Not Lost: History of the Hebrew Israelites’, by Ra Headley. This book charts the journey of the so-called Hebrew Israelites and their presence in the Caribbean and Americas. He also urged me to look at the book of Deuteronomy – the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish Torah – which is believed to show that Black people are descendants of ancient Israel.

Food for thought and something I intend to explore …… In the meantime, please visit the exhibition here, which runs until 17 May 2015. And I would welcome your thoughts on the gallery or any knowledge about Jamaica, Maroon culture and the early Caribbeans.

Until next time…….

By Kirsty Osei-Bempong

For more blogs on culture and history like this, check

Chieftaincy in Ghana

Going back to ma roots

Belle – a new kind of English rose  

A podcast: Tudor England’s African connections with historian Onyeka

Tudor England II: England’s African connections

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