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Xmas 1859

New York Times, 1860

February 25

(refers to Christmas 1859, probably in Savanna-la-Mar)


Emancipation in Jamaica:  part V:  by W. G. S.


 It was Christmas eve - a season at which the West Indian creole goes wild with excitement. Old drums, trumpets, kettles, bells, and anything that can make a noise, are brought out; dancers dance violently, and fiddlers fiddle violently, without any regard to time or tune and masquerading and psalm-singing are alternately kept up until New Year’s day is fairly past. No negro will work for love or money during this carnival time - he is literally demented, and can hardly give a sane answer to the most ordinary question. All night long, and for eight successive nights, an infernal din - a concert of cracked drums, shrill voices, and fire-crackers - is maintained. Those poor devils who cannot enjoy this species of amusement suffer the most exquisite torture. I passed the whole season in the country, and saw exhibitions of excitement that made me think the actors fit subjects for a lunatic asylum; but, although I moved freely among the people, I was always most civilly treated, and never on any of these occasions did I see a negro in a state of intoxication. I do not remember having ever seen a West Indian negro drunk; and the temperate habits of the Jamaica creole are the more remarkable, as the spirit manufactured in the island can be obtained for a very trifling cost.


 I allude to these Christmas festivities because they afforded me an opportunity to see the people in their holiday time, when, if ever, they would be disposed to be as saucy and insolent as I have heard them characterized. I found them nothing of the kind. The accusation may be true as far as regards Kingston loafers, who hang about the wharves for chance jobs, and follow visitors with annoying persistency; but it is not true when applied to the peasantry. The people are no longer servile, though they retain from habit, the servile epithet of “Massa” when addressing the whites; but I have ever seen them most respectful to their superiors and most anxious to oblige. Individual testimony on this point might be discredited or deemed insufficient, but there is no discrediting the fact that, since their freedom, no people in the world have been more peaceful than the creoles of Jamaica. With their freedom they seem to have forgotten all ancient grievances, and never to have entertained a thought of retribution. The contrast in this respect between the reign of Freedom and the reign of Slavery carries its own lesson and its own warning. Twenty-five years of freedom and not a murmur of popular discontent! Twenty-five years of Slavery - I take any period - and what fears and anxieties and actual outbreaks. It cost the Government $800,000 to suppress the single insurrection of 1832, during which six million of dollars worth of private property were destroyed. But the outbreak from which the planters then suffered would have been light compared to the one that was ready to burst over the island when Liberty appeared in the gap and proved its salvation.


 I have also heard the Jamaica people denounced for making Christmas their great gala season of festivity, instead of the anniversary of their emancipation. It is argued that they can care little in the boon of freedom if they do not keep it in remembrance, or regard it as a fit opportunity for national rejoicings. But I do not think that the absence of any general enthusiasm in the West India Islands on the 1st of August demonstrates at all that the people fail to appreciate the blessings of freedom. Any one acquainted with these colonies knows that the reverse is the case. Negroes, very like other people, are creatures of habit, and in their Christmas festivities they keep up the customs that they were taught to observe. They have a week’s holiday, and they make the most of it according to their noisy fashion. Probably they don’t reflect on the great event that the season is designed to commemorate, any more than civilized people do who drink champagne and eat roast turkey



If you are bothered by words and terms used in this piece, please recollect that it was written in the mid-19th century. I try to alter written material as little as possible, so that the reader is brought as close as possible to the time in which it was written.

I do not know who W. G. S. was.

Xmas '04

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