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GUEST COLUMN: Rock Hall no hoax

Woodville Marshall

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I RESPOND to the puzzling assertion made by Caswell Franklyn in your June 8 Daily Nation. He claimed that the Rock Hall Freedom Village is a “hoax”, that the heritage project associated with the village should be abandoned because “the history behind the project has been discredited”. I hold no brief for the heritage project, but I have been responsible in some small way for making information available about the formation of the Rock Hall village. In the 1970s Ronnie Hughes and I conducted the research that led to the preparation of a conference paper on the founding of the village, and the contents of that paper became the basis of the script for the Government Information Service (GIS) documentary, Freedom Is, which was aired in 1979. The results of additional research by Hughes and myself were later incorporated into both the Emancipation Lecture that I delivered in 2002 and in the pamphlet Freedom Is; The Story Of The Founding Of The Rock Hall Village, which was published in 2006 by the Culture Section of the Prime Minister’s Office.Other scholars, notably Tracy Edwards and Professor Christine Barrow, have added to our store of information about the village; and it may be significant that they have not challenged the accuracy of the findings that were first reported in the 1970s. Franklyn has advanced two principal arguments in support of his assertion, and I shall comment on each of them. His first argument is that the building in the village that was known as a slave hut “was never a slave hut”, but was more likely to have been a house that was built by an indentured servant, possibly in the 17th century. To support that contention, Franklyn reminds us that the early villagers, because they were established at Rock Hall after slave emancipation, could not have built a slave hut; and he notices that so-called slave hut was “similar in design to the homes of 17th century English peasants”. My first comment is that, while oral tradition in the village maintains that a “slave hut” did exist in the village, the existence of such a structure forms no part of the historical reconstruction of the formation of the village. Neither Hughes nor I found mention of such a building in the written record, and none of our village informants drew our attention to the oral tradition. The later scholars, however, were aware of that oral tradition, and they either pointed out that the oral tradition was in error or exercised appropriate care in describing the so-called slave hut. For example, Tracy Edwards referred to it in 2006 as a “post-Emancipation modelled slave hut”.The point is that the official history of the village contains no mention of a house in the village that was built during slavery. My second comment is that, though the oral tradition might be in error, houses existed in the village from its earliest times that probably resembled slave huts. By 1849, if not earlier, at least three of the founders of the village, Father Clarke, James Lynch and Joseph King, had erected stone houses; and Richard Lynch probably occupied the site of the so-called slave hut. Moreover, it is reasonable to assume that the builders copied architectural styles from the rubble stone structures that they were familiar with, because such buildings could be found on many plantations during the later days of slavery. These structures served either as dwelling houses for some enslaved persons or did double duty as storm houses. Therefore, it is likely that the oral tradition originated in the survival of some of those houses (or in the ruins of some of them).Franklyn’s second argument is that, when the beneficiaries of the Elcock legacy bought land at Rock Hall in “1844”, they “did not establish Rock Hall, St Thomas”. Rather, he claims, they were moving into “an existing community” where they would have found the former rectory of the St Thomas (Anglican) Parish Church and “at least one other building”. My first comment relates to historical accuracy. The village was not created in 1844.  Nearly three-quarters of the original lots were purchased in 1840 and 1841, and most of the rest were acquired by 1844. My second comment relates to the history of Rock Hall, plantation and free village. Rock Hall was, first of all, an 88-acre plantation. This plantation was broken up between 1783 and 1787, and the bulk of its lands, some 58 acres, were merged with other lands to create The Farm plantation, which bounded on the glebe land. Joseph Bayley, who bought The Farm in 1838, detached about 42 acres of the original Rock Hall plantation lands and, between 1840 and 1844, sold those lands in small lots to the beneficiaries of the Elcock Bequest. The purchasers of the lots created the village. The point is that the individuals who bought the land were purchasing individual lots of the remnants of the Rock Hall plantation. Indeed, it would be accurate to say that old Rock Hall finally disappeared with Bayley’s subdivision, but a new Rock Hall was born with the settlement on those lands by the beneficiaries of the Elcock bequest. My third comment relates to boundaries. The St Thomas glebe, where the former rectory is located, was never part of the Rock Hall plantation lands. Most likely, the glebe land was identified around the 1630s when the parish church was first built, and its northern boundary would have been the area that eventually constituted the Ridgeway and Rock Hall plantations. ReconstructionA reconstruction of the layout of the early Rock Hall village shows that, while 14 of the lots (front land) abutted the glebe land and the “Broad Road”, the majority of the lots were back land lots. The point is that Rock Hall lands (the Rock Hall village) share a boundary with the glebe land, but most of those lands have no physical connection with the glebe land. My final comment relates to the notion of community. Mere proximity of one dwelling to another cannot connote the existence of a community except in the most literal sense. A community usually presupposes, at the very minimum, evidence of interaction among residents in a common location, reflected in ongoing contacts, shared activities and services, and indications of social cohesion. It is easy to demonstrate that the new villagers at Rock Hall shared those characteristics and attitudes, merely by noticing the nature of theft common past, the circumstances that brought them to Rock Hall, and their joint political activity in the 1849 controverted election.But it is difficult to identify what most of them would have shared with the rector across the “Broad Road”. Some of them did worship at St Thomas Parish Church, and some did solicit the rector’s help in the writing of wills, and so on. But that type of contact was both structured and occasional; it was the relationship of a social better with clients and the less privileged. In a real sense, what the village shared with the rectory and the glebe was a boundary.
•Woodville Marshall was a professor of history at the  University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.