About forty years ago when I lived in London and worked for the BBC, I strolled one day into the Victoria & Albert Museum to view an exhibition of the arts of 'Primitive' and indigenous cultures of the world.
I was brought up short at the very entrance to the museum by the sight of a small figure I had last seen at the museum of the Institute of Jamaica. It was a small, black carving of a human figure with a bird's head – one arm uplifted and the other outstretched, resembling the attitude of a policeman directing traffic.
It was a zemi – an Arawak (as we called the Tainos then) representation of a demi-human demigod or ancestral spirit.
Going into the museum I discovered that the zemi at the door was the original of the carving in Jamaica, and what I thought was the original Jamaican zemi on East Street was the copy.
The V&A is part of the British Museum and the British museum was founded by the bequests of Sir Hans Sloane,who was personal physician to the Governor of jamaica, the Duke of Manchester. Sloane spent his time in Jamaica collecting all manner of curiosities, including natural history specimens. He did not however, collect the zemi; that was stolen later.
As Lord Mahon's history of England put it, "the museum has ever since continued to thrive and grow, sometimes by accessions liable to censure, as by the Elgin spoils of Athens …" – a notorious example of the Imperial looting of foreign cultures for the greater glory of Britain. This imperial pillage was not confined to Britain. Museums in the United States, Germany, Austria, France, Spain and the Netherlands, among others contain some of the finest collections of stolen national treasures from other nations. A few years ago the Italians were forced to return to Ethiopia the sacred obelisk of Axum (1700 years old, 180 feet high and weighing more than 150 tons) and testimony to the greatness that was Ethiopia's before the Europeans turned their attentions to conquest, genocide and slavery.
The looting of artefacts of ancient civilisations continues, the most recent and spectacular being the rape of Iraq's 8,000 years of history and culture by armies of looters directed by rich men in the western world – 'eminent collectors' who, if not so rich, would be described as criminal – receivers of stolen property. It was all done under the benevolent gaze of Field Marshal Donald von Rumsfeld, then the self-appointed Caliph of Baghdad. "Stuff happens" he said.
Here in Jamaica we have been avid participants in what may be described as consensual rape, in which ignoramuses posing as public servants have been giving away or selling priceless patrimony to all sorts of freebooters,
Long Mountain, for instance, is not only a priceless hotspot of biodiversity – the site of one plant (albiflora portlandia) known from nowhere else in the world – but also the site of several Taino – and possibly much older – pre-Columbian settlements. Mr Patterson handed much of this treasure over to Mr Robert Cartade for the construction of a gated community on state-owned land. No one knows how much the deal was worth. All we know is that we have lost forever, records of civilisations which may have been superior to ours at least in their respect for human dignity.
It may be useful to remember that Schliemann excavated six levels of ancient Troy, one under the other.
Right now, further depredations are afoot. Falmouth, that gorgeous if neglected Georgian masterpiece, is about to be Botoxed and cosmetically altered in the interest of the cruise shipping industry and its attendant gimmick 'attractions' while various unsavoury bean counters hold options to destroy the Cockpit Country and to sequester the entire Trelawny coast from public access.
One part of this storied coast, Stewart Castle at Carey Park near Duncans, is an archaeological and biological treasure which is even now being explored by people from the University of Kentucky who have found artefacts of slavery, both of the masters and the slaves, and of the Tainos, about all of which we remain totally ignorant.
That may not be as bad as it sounds, because they may find objects of interest which would otherwise have been covered by one of three (count 'em – three!) golf-courses together with housing for foreign elites which are due to be approved in the interest of drive-by 'development'. The golf courses will use lmost aas much water daily as all the people of Kingston.
These developments may finally bring to a head the resource conflict between tourism and its host country. The people living just outside these developments depend on a water supply for which my father and others agitated eighty years ago but is now inadequate for the native population. Even Silver Sands and Duncans itself, have serious water problems because the Dornoch water supply from the Rio Bueno, is just not sufficient.
In a lunatic example of the boobocracy's not knowing its right hand from its left, the Patterson government was proposing to let loose the bauxite companies on the Cockpit Country, destroying not only one of the world's most precious biological hotspots, but also the limestone aquifers supplying the water for most of the county of Cornwall.
At the same time it was inaugurating the unfortunately named Leakey water supply, a development meant to provide carrying capacity for hotels, casinos and condominiums on the arid seacoast and beautiful beaches of Trelawny.
What our boobocrats do not understand is that JAMAICA IS THE ATTRACTION. We don't need to import camels or design other idiot 'attractions'. Do we reallyneed to import foreigners to sell in-bond goods imported from abroad to classy dudes imported from abroad to splash their money around in Prada and Gucci shops and casinos which are washing machines for money before it is re-exported to its natural habitats in Liechtenstein, Cayman and other places where the hearts of our elites are resident.
Soon, Jamaica will resemble the Palestine West Bank, a collection of Bantustans of penury embedded in an ever expanding matrix of 'development' for which we will supply the manpower for domestic service, sanitation and security, armies of the low paid cut off from real development by the imperatives of the 'Bell Curve"
I was fortunate enough to be on visits to Amsterdam in 2002 and 2004 when by pure coincidence each time there happened to be a major exhibition of ancient culture, the first from Egypt, the second from Mexico. These countries are foremost among those which have seized control of their archaeological patrimony in the national interest, both cultural and financial. Even so, some of the most important exhibits came from museums outside the host countries. In Mexico there dwelt nearly two thousand years ago a people known to us as Olmecs.
The Olmecs invented the essential mathematoical concept of the zero, a few hundred years before Ptolemy in Egypt. The Olmecs, if their statuary is any guide, looked remarkably African. Ethnologists don't want to believe that these guys were African because they refuse to believe that Africans could have been so advanced and that they made it to the western hemisphere before Europeans. They must have come from Asia!!! Like the Maori, perhaps.
So Asians sat down and carved portrait sculptures of people they had never seen and made them 2 to 3 meters high and weighing six to twenty tons each. And they got their sculptural rock from fifty miles or more away from where they put them up. Talk about Vision!
In the Egyptian exhibition, I remember particularly the statue of an Egyptian queen which I, and many others more expert than I, consider to be one of the most beautiful man made objects in the world. It also seemed fairly clear that most of the Pharaohs must have been ethnically African and that despite all the ethnographers to the contrary, the Egyptian civilisation was home grown in Africa and not imported from anywhere else.
For Egypt and Mexico, history and archaeology are potent attractions, pulling in millions of visitors. Here in Jamaica we build roads over sites believed to be Taino, although we don't know if they may be even more ancient.
Between Moneague in St Ann and Point Hill in St Catherine at a place called Union Hill, there is what appears to be a pyramid of stone stone which some people say is a idiosyncratically designed coffee barbecue. Of course it can't be a pyramid! Jamaica has no prehistory worth considering!
So. although we don't know wheyther Union Hill really is an Olmec pyramid as I think, we may soon allow the bauxite companies to level it in the interest of foreign exchange, as they have been unleashed to savage and maim the landscape surrounding the birthplace of Norman Manley at Roxburgh in Manxhester..
If, as I suspect, Jamaica is much more archaeologically and (palaeontologically) interesting than most people suspect, we may, in the most fundamental and shameful sense, be swapping our patrimony for a putrid mess of pottage.
COPYRIGHT©2008 John Maxwell