"For John Allen, “The Man from Baker Hill”
There, where the tree watches and the rock beside it keeps witness, the two no longer argue darkness anymore, but accept each other knowing what the sea already knows, the business of always and forever.
A man was hung here; so they say. Not a great weight for a tree to handle, not if you add time to it. Then the tree would surely win, for what's a man's weight compared to a tree. It was only after the third day that they felt the lesson had been taught well enough and the fear sufficiently spread, so they cut Cudjoe down. They had the Irish do it, place the black head upon a spike and call this failed rebellion our history. Not that they had to push the Irish hard to follow. They soon warmed to their work.
Now it's only the speech of sheep and goats that keeps record. Sometimes you hear them in the falling of night with voices more human than the moon. The dance of Jumbies in the willful trees.
Fathers and their fathers tell the story again and again about the St. Patrick’s night whisperings of revolt and uprisings, planned and unplanned. All I know with certainty is this tree of silk-cotton and what it tells me, leaves soft like a petticoat, yet tall and old enough to know slavery and hangings.
How many girls have been leaned against this tree and bodies learned right here on moon-danced nights, here in this peculiar place, Cudjoe Head, here on this vulva-spelled island of sugar, lime and cotton? Only the tree knows.
they named us
The Irish they tamed us
And the British they own us still."
My father, Tuma, said: mostly we had seven years of life in us before they "kill we dead with their labour" but it mostly depends on how we use the seven. Being sly, we would spread it out. The Irish were our time keepers and they were hard to cheat being as they were natural born cheaters themselves. They were here on a mission and that mission at first was merely survival alone but later that quickly changed. Soon it was not merely to survive but to prosper as well which they sought. From servant to planter required a certain callousness and singleness of purpose which the Irish took to naturally.
Make no mistake; given a choice between master and slave, the master wins every time; no surprise then that this was the role which the Irish quickly settled into. What began initially as seven years of indenture and stewardship turned to ruthlessness and plantation ownership.
And so we had the big estates like Galways, Blakes, Brades and Drummonds. The Irish, who came to Montserrat just a chamber pot away from slavery themselves, soon became slave-owners.
The purchase of a slave even if only one or two was a wise investment because they could always be rented out and in the case of a skilled slave, like a carpenter or a mason, you could make good money from them. In the long term though, a woman was a better investment than a man because they would live longer and when you own a woman you would own her children as well. If you spaced out her pregnancies well enough you could end up breeding both a mother and a daughter at the same time, in the Celtic tradition of grandfather-fathers.
Imagine there was a time in Ireland when it was forbidden not only to speak Gaelic or Irish. You couldn't even call the name Ireland aloud without risk of flogging. You had to refer to it only as: "The Silk of the Kine" or "Cathleen Ni Houlihan" or "Dark Rosaleen". So the Irish were driven to subterfuge and yet were merciless when it came to punishment of a planned rebellion. Even the suspicion of rebellion in Montserrat was met with brutal suppression, like the case of Cudjoe who was overheard speaking of fire in the mountain.
And what did the Catholic Church make of the brutality of slavery up there in St. Patrick's? Precious little, believing as they did that we had no soul. It was a Jesuit priest (Las Casas) after all who suggested that blacks be used for the practice of slavery to end the cruelty to the quickly disappearing Amerindians. Having no soul then, the sin is not venal. This, despite the fact that St. Augustine, one of the giants of Catholicism was African as well as were three African Popes.
Did the Irish see themselves in us? Perhaps, but if they did, this only made them more determined to succeed and not become us. There is a lot of guilt and self-loathing in Irish history and this is where drink and religion enter as opiates. Even St. Patrick, who wasn't even Irish (born as he was an English slave) understood well the madness of the Irish. We were their escape route. Remember the Irish never intended to make Montserrat a home. The plan was always to get rich quick and return to the old Sod as lord and ladies. Their way home and sudden transformation to landed gentry came by way of our bondage. They rewarded good labour if you helped them attain success quicker than planned. They left you with an Irish name and Irish cotton.
The best position for a slave to be was Driver, the first to arrive and oversee the day’s business. Not quite overseer, who himself wasn't quite master.
The one who knew all the tricks and could short-circuit delays was invaluable. They say that a slave who rode a horse was privileged. Somewhere in my family was said to be a man on a horse. They say he was one Matthews.
He never had to nail a man's ear to a board for theft, but he'd report it. They were good to him at Christmas giving him extra pork and he knew enough to share in turn so others wouldn't grudge him in the Montserrat way. He knew when to ease off. He would have had to know just how hard to press. More than that and you could meet with some hazard in the night. Maybe someone marks you, or brings your name to someone dark. He was a Driver and had provision land, this Matthews and someone gave him their name and their blessing. He had things he could own and things he could sell.
He learned how to make seven years spread a life and not end on a tree. He believed in the Phantom of Liberty. Over time, when they said slavery was done and so they no longer had to feed or clothe you, he knew how to live in the shadow of the estate house. He said cotton doesn't lie and most times, lime you can trust.
It was the day of the night of Cudjoe's head. An uncle was being honoured. Years now, I had been begging his name. He wasn't a rider of horses. He climbed the steps to the scaffold to get his ribbon. They made him take off his hat. I was afraid he say no. Uncle not easy.
He bent his head and let them place the medal about his neck. He bowed, thanked them and turned to go. They said, no; he had to make a speech.
"Ninety years me wuk in a sun, and when no sun a rain, and you still a look speech?"
With that he lifted his hand (the one which didn't hold the cane). He tried to let the hand speak but they still wanted more. Tears, maybe.
they name we
The Irish they tamed we
And the English they own we still"
Here then is the strange dream nostalgia of the Montserrat psyche: a search for the Phantom of Liberty, the preference to embrace heritage rather than ancestors. Why? Because the term ancestors summons Africa whereas, heritage suggests Irish.
The irony is that the Irish too are always in search of nostalgia. For them, Montserrat is a return to an Ireland they've never known, an Ireland which is not the corned beef and cabbage fantasy, which is an American construct. So what then is this St. Patrick’s really all about here? Is it a celebration of liberation for us or for them?
History is a rape scene revisited and unremembered. For the Irish, it's a welcome change of role to find themselves as colonizers and not merely the familiar victims they're so used to being, Wandering Aengus versus the Phantom of Liberty.
I don't care what they want. All I know is that this is the night of Cudjoe's head.
All I know for certain is this tree of silk cotton and what it tells me, leaves soft as a petticoat yet tall and old enough to know history and hangings will never end, as long as there’s a Montserrat.
In my hand I cradle my shak-shak and let it lead me through this night. This night too dark to see each other’s slavery. Too dark to make out the family or the bad-mind.
Just guilty of night and this music rising like incense. And dawn comes on then and catches us in all our fear and beauty. And we checked ourselves to make certain we hadn’t turned into lizards or jumbies. And Cudjoe who died without an Irish name.