Quashee takes centre stage

Post-Emancipation cultural impact of the slave-overseer relationship

Sunday, June 17, 2018

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The various traits of the personality of the Negro slave fell into a general pattern that has been recognised all over the New World.

Stanley Elkins has analysed what he termed the “Sambo Personality”. His description bears a remarkable resemblance to those that existed in Jamaica. The term used in Jamaica to designate this personality pattern was “Quashee”.

John Stewart wrote that: “It is not easy to trace with an unerring pencil the true character and disposition of the Negro — they are so ambiguous and disguised. This evasive, indefinable, somewhat disguised and ambiguous quality was the most essential element of Quashee.

Stewart also remarked: “The Negroes are crafty, artful, plausible, not often grateful for small services, but frequently deceitful and overreaching.”

Dr Richard Robert Madden an anti-slavery writer and strong sympathiser of the slaves, had to admit that they were pathological liars. Another frequently noted trait of Quashee was distrustfulness, allied to which was a strong grain of conservatism. “They are so accustomed to be the subject of exaction,” wrote Sir James Mathison “that every innovation, though intended for their benefit, give rise to suspicion that it is intended for their oppression”.

Quashee was also capricious — a quality noted by many writers.

John Beckford observed that: “Negroes are capricious, the recurrence of everyday life will evince. Give them a house ready-built, they will not inhabit it; a ground ready-cleared, they will not work it. If you study their conveniences, their ease, and happiness, they will be discontented — they must have everything their own way; and would sooner complain of a good overseer than not covet an exchange by the risk of one who is bad”.

The laziness of Quashee became proverbial, but Lady Nugent, among others, also remarked that Quashee was from all reports, gay, happy-go-lucky, frivolous, and cheerful. Sir John Keane, while agreeing with those traits, mentioned Quashee's darker traits: He was revengeful, harbouring grudges for a long time; when placed in positions of authority he was likely to be extremely cruel and tyrannical. He was possessed of passions not only strong but ungovernable …. a temper extremely irascible; a disposition indolent, selfish, and deceitful, fond of joyous sociality, riotous mirth, and extravagant show”.

What was lacking in the observations of these pro-slavery and anti-slavery writers was a deeper analysis of the behaviour of the Negroes in terms of what was conscious role playing vis-a-viz natural role playing. In other words, to what extent did the Negro used his creative imagination to exploit the prejudices and stereotypes that the white observers had of him? How often did he put on a show and “play fool to catch wise”? Was his legendary laziness a natural outcome of his psychology or was it a mechanism of resistance against the slave system that he was determined to break down?

Using his feigned difficulty to understand instruction from the overseer as a tool to undermine production? Inclusive of his staged forgetfulness in not remembering to lock the armory door weeks before the date for the next planned rebellion by his fellow slaves? Can you hear “Backra” cursing him after the guns are taken by the rebels how that “fool” forget again to lock up the room with the guns?

While these writers focused on the description of the Negro's behaviour through the lens of their own prejudices and, despite the much “kernel of truth” existing in their observations, it was historian Edward Long who has left the most penetrating account of the overseer-slave relationship. Long noted: “Their principal address is shown in finding out their masters' temper, and playing upon it so artfully as to bend it with most convenience to their own purpose. They are not less studious in sifting their masters representative, the overseer, if he is not cunning for them, which they soon discover after one or two experiments, they will easily find means to overreach him on every occasion, and make his indolence, his weakness, or sottishness, a sure prognostic of some comfortable term of idleness for them. But if they find him too intelligent, wary, and active, they leave no expedient untried, thwarting his plans, misunderstanding his orders, reiterating complaints against him, to ferret him out of his post. If this will not succeed, they perplex and worry him, especially if he is impatient and of a fretful turn, until he grows heartily sick of his charge, and voluntarily resigns.”

“If the overseers comply with the demands of the mob to have things their own way, they will extol him to his face, condemn him in their hearts, and very soon bring his government down”.

The inference here from Long is that Quashee, contrary to the white stereotypes, was most sophisticated. And who we are today is who we were yesterday — always working through and conditioned by the same cultural continuum with its dynamic cyclical processes of retention, syncretism and reinterpretation.

After 250 slave rebellions in the Americas, and perhaps except for Brazil, the majority of which took place in Jamaica, Quashee arrived at centre stage on the August 6, 1962 when Jamaica gained political independence. Sir Clifford Campbell became the first native governor general, wearing that headdress with a long white feather plume to boot. Bedecked with the emblems and vestments of the British governor's uniform being worn for the first time by a Negro.

The police force in which Negroes could not be promoted above the rank of inspector later saw one of Quashee's descendants in the white English Commissioner's clothes. So it was also in the halls of justice where Quashee sat comfortably elevated in his white, curly wig designed to combat chilling English winter, dark gown with its frills, and other emblems in the higher courts as early as the 1950s. The real beauty was the ease with which Quashee transitioned from being the lost, least, and left out — the most derided and ridiculed — to playing such cool and collected role in the very institution, the source of which was a major part of his oppression.

Another one of the sons of Quashee, Hugh Lawson Shearer in 1968 arrived in that long journey of the struggles of the Negroes to become the first black prime minister of Jamaica. Racial discrimination in employment policy, particularly in the hotel and banking sectors, came to an end following serious mass protests by Pitchy-Patchy and Quashee kinfolk. And these are just a few examples.

But the momentum of the mental revolution and social change occasioned by the relentless struggles and revolts spanning over 200 years by our ancestors seem to be coming to a grinding halt due to economic conditions.

Should we call on that musical icon to lead us in singing “Sitting here in Limbo” as we resigned ourselves to a hapless, helpless and dismal fate? I believe that the faith of our fathers — not just the Ezra-inspired biblically determined Jewish daddies: Abraham, Issac and Jacob — but moreso Quashee and Pitchy-Patchy the proximate genetic and socio-cultural cause of who we are — will lead us on. And especially if we heed the advice of Albert Einstein, the father of relativity, that “problems cannot be solved at the same level of thought which existed when the problems were first created. They require a higher level of thought,” he said.

The winding journey of the Negro's aspiration, under the scourge of the whip, torturing chamber and through lynching (burning alive) in the New World manifested a circularity of cause-and-effect dynamic to produce a personality structure in the Jamaican Negro which, even with an unerring pen, is difficult to point. And it is therefore challenging to study, and yet there is an abundance of stories of goodness shown and emanating from the Negro segment of the population throughout the march of our history.

What is wrong with us, as a people, cannot eclipse in totality what is right with us. And so our various sources of conditioning and socialisation ought to be ever increasingly conscious of the inherent good in Quashie without forgetting his darker side and capacity to build or to destroy.

In all this, discernment is key. It is this tool that made the difference in the quality of relationships and productivity among plantations during slavery. The knowledge about the personality structure of the Negro is key to the desire or effort at national mobilisation ... beyond talking talking, talking the pastime of successive Governments in Jamaica, while increasingly the majority of Quashie descendants are now standing astride, uncommitted.

Political historian Shalman Scott served as the first Mayor of the city of Montego Bay

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