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The annual International Maroon Conference and Convention at Charles Town in Jamaica is becoming an important venue for highlighting Maroon culture in the Caribbean, Mexico, South America, and Canada. Every year since 2009, the event has brought together Maroons, indigenous peoples, and academics from all over the world for a three day celebration. Known for its broad approach, the conference explores Maroon culture from a variety of angles: history, literature, ethnography, anthropology, sociology, geography, archaeology, political theory, gender studies, cultural studies, film, linguistics, art, music and theatre. Organized by Colonel Frank Lumsden, Dr. Frances Botkin, Dr. Paul Youngquist, Mr. Evan Williams, and Mr. Charles Campbell, the Fourth International Maroon Conference and Convention will once again convene this summer.
Loyal to tradition, this year’s event (scheduled for June 20-24) will take place in concurrence with the Quao Day festivities, when Jamaicans give homage to Captain Quao, a legendary Maroon leader and national hero. With alluring attractions such as Maroon dancing, drumming, singing, poetry, storytelling, cultural tours, food, crafts booths, the blowing of the abeng, river bathing at Quao Village, as well as fashion shows highlighting the African mode of dress and clothing designs, the event promises to repeat the inspiring excellence it has achieved in previous years.
Abeng Central is honored to have the opportunity of meeting Colonel Frank Lumsden and Frances Botkin, two of the event’s organizers.
Colonel Lumsden, Dr. Botkin, thank you for attending this interview. For those of us who have never been to the conference in Charles Town, could you please describe the atmosphere? Since it has an academic focus, should we assume that it is very scholarly?
Dr. Botkin: The mood has been scholarly, yes, but it’s also quite a unique conference experience in its entwinement of academic and cultural programs. Our participants are serious academics at different stages of their careers and projects. The program is truly multidisciplinary with papers coming from the disciplines of history, literature, music, linguistics, geography, anthropology, ethnography, film, cultural studies, and gender studies.
The format of the conference fosters engagement—a kind of lived experience in tandem with scribally-based academic experience. Our presenters have repeatedly commented that this type of conference would not be possible at a hotel or a university.
Both of you have played an integral part in the inception of this convention, which was first held in 2009. Colonel Lumsden, you are the elected chief of the Charles Town’s Maroons, one of four Maroon communities in Jamaica, while you, Dr. Botkin, are an associate professor of English Literature at Towson University in Maryland. How did the two of you become involved in this event?
Colonel Lumsden: The concept of a conference in Charles Town came from the South African conference on the African and Caribbean Diaspora, an event that was hosted in Jamaica. It was said that Africa knows nothing of the Caribbean, and the Caribbean knows nothing of Africa. I wondered about knowledge, in this equation, of the Maroons in the Americas because so few people know the extent of the different islands and different expressions of marronage. My goal was to prepare Maroons to better interface with Africa as a united group and with each other globally. The idea was made flesh by Frances Botkin.
Dr. Botkin: Colonel Lumsden created the first event with the help of Flavius Laidley of Events Slowly Jamaica. I became involved late in the planning when Evan Williams of Red Bones Blues Cafe and Design Collaborative introduced me to the Colonel. At the time, I was on a Fulbright fellowship in Kingston, teaching literature at UWI and conducting research for a book about Three-Fingered Jack Mansong, a runaway slave who wreaked havoc in the Blue Mountains from 1780-1781 before he was killed by a Maroon. At this point I had done my archival research, and I wanted to collect oral histories from Maroons—to hear their own stories about their relationship with the notorious bandit. Colonel Lumsden had been thinking about a conference on Maroons in the Americas, and so we decided to work together to pursue our separate projects collaboratively. I put out a very late call for papers; we had one visiting scholar from Suriname and a handful of local speakers. We also had a wonderful launch at Red Bones in Kingston, and the Charles Town drummers and dancers came into town to perform. The conference was very small that first year, but we learned so much about what to expect from a project that endeavors to bring together different cultures, communities, and methodologies.
It’s been four years since the first conference in 2009. It seems that the event has gradually matured. Is that correct?
Dr. Botkin: Yes, the event has developed exponentially. Symbolically, the first year the conference was themed “The Abeng” or “the Calling.” In 2010, we named it “Meet me in the Circle” to emphasize the collaborative nature of the event. The third year we titled the conference, “The Return” to explore Maroon values and practices, considering the ways they have endured, transformed and resonated in the Caribbean, Canada, South America, Europe, the United States and Africa. The theme each year builds upon the previous and looks toward the upcoming conferences. This upcoming year, we have chosen the theme “Independence,” linking the Maroon defeat of the English in 1739 with the fiftieth anniversary of Jamaican independence from England in 1962 to celebrate both events.
Our organizing committee has expanded as well. In 2010 Colonel Lumsden, Evan Williams, and I welcomed new voices to the project. My esteemed colleague, Dr. Paul Youngquist of the University of Colorado in Boulder, joined our team that year, and he remains a vital collaborator today. We also worked with Charles Campbell for production and PR, and he is returning this year. At the 2010 conference we hosted 15 speakers and performers who came from the United States, England, Senegal, Suriname, Jamaica, and Canada. The panels included “African Backgrounds,” “Maroon Identities,” and “Global Maroons,” among others. The Colonel and Charles organized the cultural program and the Quao Victory Day celebration, which remains the centerpiece of the event and draws hundreds of people from around the island. The 2010 conference inaugurated the model we have retained for the subsequent years.
Could you share with us some highlights of the previous conferences?
Dr. Botkin: This is a hard question, but for me, a few papers do stand out. They include “The Rule of Law and the Public Transcript: The Accompong Maroons and the Jamaican Government’s Dispute about Fullerswood Estate” by Michelle D. Thompson of NYU; “Marronage and Identity among the Maroons in Suriname” by Saloman Emanuals of the University of Suriname; “Time to be Counted: Maritime Maroons of Jamaica, 1740-1820” by Dr. Kofi Boukman Barima, at the time a visiting lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Mona; “Marronage in South Carolina” by Tim Lockley of the University of Warwick; Maroon Language, History, and Language History” by Joseph T. Farquharson of the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine; “Maroon Genetics” by Jada Benn Torres and Gabriel Torres of Notre Dame; and “Archeology and the Mitigation of Natural Resource Extraction in Suriname” by Dr. Cheryl White of Florida. In addition, the past two years we have had creative performances by Marcia Douglas of the University of Colorado in Boulder and Shauntay Grant of Halifax.
Are these papers, and others, also available to the public?
Dr. Botkin: Paul Youngquist and I have been working on such a project, but we do not imagine a collection of all the presented papers. Instead we envision a selection of expanded papers from the last few years collected with a co-authored introduction for a special issue of an academic journal. In addition, we have been working with Cheryl White on a proposal for a collection of essays with UWI Press that would use a few of the expanded conference papers as part of a larger study on marronage in the French, Spanish, and English speaking Caribbean.
The convention always takes place in Charles Town, in the Asafu yard. What is it like there?
Dr. Botkin: The Asafu yard is the Maroon space for drumming and dancing. We set up on the stage with a podium and a table for the panels. The residents of Charles Town build canopies to protect the presenters and the audience from the sun or rain. The food and craft vendors set up their stalls outside the Asafu yard. The Charles Town museum sits next to the Asafu yard, and visitors can walk through themselves or get a tour. Just a few steps away one finds the river, a nice place to relax (or swim) or eat fresh caught and cooked fish.
The conference participants stay at Goblin Hill Villas, a lovely accommodation right outside Port Antonio Link? The property affords stunning views of the Caribbean, and one can walk down to San San beach or up the road to Frenchman’s Cove. We have the opening reception at Goblin Hill as well as the informal banquet. This year we are building in time for a few tours of the area or simply more time to enjoy the beach and the view.
What do guests and visitors do during those three days in Charles Town?
Dr. Botkin: The conference format consists of two days of academic panels in the morning and cultural events, performances or excursions in the afternoon. The past few years participants have particularly enjoyed Colonel Lumsden’s guided hike to an eighteenth century coffee plantation way up the mountains; along the way, he tells stories about Maroon history and bush survival (sturdy shoes are critical for this event). This kind of activity provides a bonding experience one does not always get at academic conferences. It also embodies the kind of intellectual and cultural exchange we wanted to promote.
The celebration of the third and final day of the conference commemorates the legendary Jamaican Maroon leader and hero, Captain Quao. On this day, Quao Victory Day, we start the program with libations, followed by a procession of the colonels from Charles Town, Accompong, Scotts Hall and Moore Town. The celebration has featured myriad cultural performances films, and talks that highlight various aspects of Maroon life and culture.
This year the Quao Day Celebration will include on Friday night the full viewing of Roy Anderson’s acclaimed film Akwantu: the Journey, a documentary that tells the story of the Maroons and their fight for freedom. We are quite excited about the papers we have lined up, and we are planning to issue an additional call for papers in the Spring, once we have the rest of the program a little more established. We did the call quite early this year, and we would love to expand the program as much as possible.
The Charles Town Maroon Council has made it clear that the convention is more than just a three day event. Its impact is meant to be long-term. For example, the event aims to promote Maroon heritage tourism. What exactly is Maroon heritage tourism? Do such destinations exist?
Colonel Lumsden: Heritage tourism is a narrative of the culture of Maroons, not an attraction. A museum of artifacts drumming and dancing; Maroon cuisine; and the Abeng blown to call the drummers and dancers and to convey information. It demonstrates that these things are not just for tourists, but they are part of the life of the community. It exists in Charles Town, Accompong, and Moore Town to varying degrees. Development is required to make it sustainable.
Sustainable? Could you clarify that?
Colonel Lumsden: Sustainable development is a story at a time: the bammy maker exporting bammy and employing people and the drummers and dancers making a living touring and playing drums. Sustainability a story at a time because integration and synergy builds the larger story. This requires a proper understanding of the concept of community. A proper functioning definition of community is people committed to one another with the achievement of goals and aspirations in common. Sustainability happens when elements in a community can fund its own expansion.
Another sub-goal of the convention is to work with educators to improve school students’ understanding of Maroons. The Charles Town Maroon Council particularly hopes to correct certain ‘misconceptions’ it says are perpetuated by historical text books. Which are these misconceptions?
Colonel Lumsden: The first is that the Maroons existed in settlements of size before the British came. In fact, Juan de Bolas and Juan de Serras fought alongside the Spanish against the British. The Maroon numbers were augmented when the Spanish released the slaves, but in fact the Jamaican Maroons existed already.
The other misconception is that Maroons are traitors because of 8th clause in the treaty stipulating that Maroons return runaway slaves to planters. Maroons by their daily struggle for freedom forged for themselves, an identity according to which they judged themselves. If that struggle and identity are not understood then any judgment of them will be flawed.
At one time, the Charles Town Maroon Council also expressed the desire to establish a Maroon Quarterly, a magazine that features articles from Maroons in different parts of the Diaspora. Has this plan taken off?
Colonel Lumsden: No, it has not been realized. The possibility and need, however, were highlighted when I attended the historic land rights conference at Kola Creek in Suriname in 2011. And this includes Maroons from South America and Mexico. If people in the modern world allow the indigenous world to disappear, then they will be in a long, hard journey into the future in search of values of the past.
June 2012 is steadily approaching. You must be very excited to see how the conference will fare this time around. In terms of attracting an audience, how has the turnout been in previous years?
Dr. Botkin: The audience has increased each time, especially for the Quao Victory Day festivities. In 2010 we had about 150 people for the celebration. Last year we had about 300, not including the many residents (and tons of children) of Charles Town. For the academic panels on the first two days, the audience has tended to be smaller.
One thing we’d like to see is more of an exchange between the visiting scholars and the local community on the first two days. Paul Youngquist and I have talked about ways to get more local Maroons on the podium and get our scholars further into the community. But this is a work in progress, and we are delighted each year with the progress we make.
We need more funding to realize these goals, however. Our budget for the academic portion of the program consists only of registration fees. These fees pay for transportation between Kingston and Port Antonio (about three hours) as well as daily buses from Port Antonio to Charles Town (about 45 minutes each way). They also cover the opening reception and dinner at Goblin Hill Villas, lunch daily at the Asafu yard, cultural events, the Quao Day celebration, and an informal banquet.
Colonel Lumsden: We have been trying to build up our limited resources which have constrained us in terms of publicity and action. We will this year have the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust, the JCDT, as partners in the production of the Conference/celebration. Recently, the JCDT applied to make the Blue and John Crow Mountains a world heritage site listing for which they have been nominated. Charles Town provides the cultural justification for it. At present, we are sending out sponsorship proposals. We hope that Abeng Central will help us broaden our scope.Thank you both very much for this interview.