By John Myers Jr.
Negro River in Jamaica? You better believe it. There are in fact two Negro Rivers in the network of about 100 rivers that flow across the Jamaican landscape.
There is a Negro River in St. Ann and another in St. Thomas. Not much is known about the latter except that it is located in Danvers Pen and is part of the Yallahs River system.
The Negro River sign is prominently displayed along the North Coast Highway near the entrance to the parish capital of St. Ann’s Bay. Many people wonder: how did this come about?
Mayor of St. Ann’s Bay, Sydney Stewart, explains that the river was named in “honour” of slaves who once worked on the Richmond and Llandovery sugar plantations and who would gather by the river to rest.
“I have seen the Negro River sign in St. Ann and often wondered about it,” admitted Professor Verene Shepherd, historian and international race-relations Ambassador.
The word Negro identifies a person of Black African ancestry. However, it is often used as a racial slur, and for that reason the word has become socially unacceptable and offensive to some persons.
With February celebrated as Black History Month each year, we expect a continuation of discussions surrounding the rationale for place names and monuments which identify racial, ethnic or religious groups in the context of heightened sensitivity around such matters.
The clamour for removing vestiges of slavery and renaming monuments, statutes and places associated with that evil system has grown louder with the expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement which began in the United States.
Professor Shepherd reasoned that some geographic locations and historic names like Columbus Heights and Discovery Bay, may have to be reconsidered.
Jamaica’s history as a slave colony is well documented. It moved from the hands of the Spanish, who have been credited with its ‘discovery’, to the British where it remained until the abolition of slavery and colonial rule and independence thereafter.
As a consequence, many of the island’s villages, towns and places of interest still bear names associated with that colonial past.
“We have to go further and remove offensive statues/monuments, example Queen Victoria’s statue in St. William Grant Park (downtown Kingston) and replace her with a statue of St. William Grant,” said the recently- retired UWI professor, who is also a United Nations Ambassador on Race Relations.
“Medals with colonial names should (also) go. The Musgrave Medals, for example,” she mused.
Governor General Sir Patrick Allen, who is the Queen’s representative in Jamaica, was forced to suspend the use of the insignia of the Order of St Michael and St George in June last year when the ripple effects of a global race- reckoning hit Jamaica.
Attention was drawn to the insignia which appears to depict a white man, cited as a triumphant archangel, with his foot on the neck of a black man deemed to be ‘Satan’. It ignited a firestorm on social media.
Consequently, Sir Patrick asked his office to review all insignias and iconography associated with his Office that may be considered racialized or culturally inappropriate.
The Governor General wrote to the Chancellor of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in Great Britain requesting a revision of the image used on the medal and recommended that it be changed to reflect an inclusive image of the shared humanity of all peoples. So far King’s House has not revealed the response to its overtures.
So should the Negro River be renamed, we asked the St. Ann Mayor. “Negro River depicts some historical (value) so I wouldn’t want the name being changed,” Mr. Stewart told Jamaica-Linc.
“It stands as a symbol of where we were (during slavery) to where are now as a people,” he added.
Professor Shepherd agreed: “I think some place names can stay with a suitable story board (erected) explaining its origin, but others should really go.”
“History does not mean much if not explained,” said returning resident Joy Chambers who was always curious about the significance of the Negro river.