The spirit of independence: A Jamaican mindset

| October 9, 2013
The Rev. Donovan Coley, formerly of Jamaica, is CEO of The Rescue Mission in Fort Wayne. (Photo: Eric Hackley)

The Rev. Donovan Coley, formerly of Jamaica, is CEO of The Rescue Mission in Fort Wayne. (Photo: Eric Hackley)

Interview with Pastor Donovan Coley, CEO of the Rescue Mission, formerly of Kingston, Jamaica


Eric Hackley: Jamaica was colonized first by the Spanish, then the British. How did the Jamaican natives avoid developing a double dosage of slave mentality?

Pastor Donovan Coley: Historians tell us Jamaica was discovered by Columbus in 1494. As a result of that, individuals saw us as a great place for Europeans to come to plunder and take our resources. We had the Arrack and Carib Indians. As there was this great fight between the natives and the Spanish, it got to a point where the rest of the world saw Jamaica and the West Indies as a place where they could also plunder. As the Spaniards’ economy grew, so did the interest in the Europeans.

By 1655, we had attracted English adventurers such as Sir Francis Drake and Oliver Cromwell. The British literally toppled over the Spaniards. At that particular time, the Spaniards had established Spanish Town outside of Kingston and that became the first capital. In fact there are still buildings that represent the Spanish conquest. But In 1655 when the British came, they literally moved the capital from Spanish Town to Kings Town. But instead of calling it Kings Town, they called Kingston. In 1655, they were also bringing in slaves.

Jamaica has always been a country where the Natives were very resilient. So we have many, many national heroes. In fact, there was a woman named Nanny who led a revolt. We had an individual named Sam Sharp who also led a revolt against the British. Jamaicans have this incredible spirit of independence for self-determination. Even as you think about Jamaica today, you’ll notice they have this fighting spirit and they tend to raise up out of the many nations of the world. Later on we had Marcus Garvey. That spirit of independence has always consumed the Jamaican mindset. Over time, we have literally decided that we are going to determine our fate as a people.

Eric Hackley: Europeans are usually smart enough to devise divide and conquer schemes. Why were they not successful with you Jamaicans?

Pastor Donovan Coley: There is an old saying that says “might is right.” There were individuals who thought the power was in the cannons, the gun powder and the guns. Jamaicans not only have the power to fight physically, but also to fight mentally. So they were very good at organizing themselves in tribes. In fact, even today we have a tribe called the Maroons and they actually have their own king. These individuals went ahead and declared their own independence many, many years ago.

So Jamaicans have a way of fighting not only psychically, but literally outsmarting the colonizers. One of the first things they did was they created their own language. We came up with a language called Patwa. It was based on English, but then added in other languages like Spanish, Portuguese, French and we came up with our own language to outsmart the Europeans. We could be talking about them and they would not know what we were saying. At the same time, we were also smart enough to speak the English language when we had to. Jamaica had to develop that kind of approach.

Education was one of the key factors causing us not to take second place to the Europeans. The churches, especially the Moravian and the Baptist Church. They sent missionaries to us and there were Jamaicans who literally gleaned, learned and educated themselves to the point that many Jamaicans became missionaries to the other West Indies Islands as well. So I will say, we outsmarted the Europeans at least from a mental perspective and we also used education as a tool.

Eric Hackley: How was this Movement kept secret?

Pastor Donovan Coley: Most of the meetings took place late in the evenings. Similar to the American story, when you have secret strategy meetings, Jamaicans also were good at doing that. They were also good at having many of their meetings in churches. So the Moravian Church provided a platform, the Baptist church provided a platform and the Jamaicans were so ingenious that they literally were able to gather the key leaders in the community and devise strategies. As they became part of the church, they developed a strategy first and foremost for education. So they started “Basic Schools.”

We also had two different types of slaves, the field slave and the house slave. We also had an incredible following for the house slave. They were for the most part lighter complexioned products of cohabitation between the slave owner and the slaves themselves. We had a group of folks who were emerging as leaders and they literally connected with the field slaves. Together they devised strategies so that in the month of October, Jamaica celebrates National Heroes Day. We celebrate a variety of men and women that literally determined the course of Jamaica.

Eric Hackley: Concerning the relationship between the fleld and house slaves, how did Jamaicans avoid Willie Lynch?

Pastor Donovan Coley: The slave owner did everything possible to keep them separated. However, Jamaicans seem to be a little different. Our mindset has always been “Out of Many, One People.” That became our national motto and still is. And I know that we use it here in America as well. We also had key leaders who were dark skinned. Think about Marcus Garvey, Michael Manley, Alexander Bustamante and Hugh Shearer. When you think of these individuals composed of light complexions and dark complexions, you have leaders and people who represent who you who are and tend to give you a sense of “if he can do it, or If she can do it, maybe I can do it.”

So Jamaica did not lack in having good leadership in representing all the classes. Hence, we didn’t have anything like South African Apartheid or the caste system of India. The Jamaican psyche is one of UNITY and we believe the moment you are born of African descent, even though your color may be slightly different, the texture of your hair may be a little different, we see you as one person created in the image of God and out of many, we’re still are one people.

Eric Hackley: Why is your history so important for you to know?

Pastor Donovan Coley: At the moment you go to Basic school, you study a book called “The Making of the West Indies.” In kindergarten, you are taught the basics of what happened in Africa. When our people were taken across the Middle Passage, we saw at a very young age the way the slaves were packaged in being transported from Africa to Jamaica and other places in the West Indies as well as the United States of America.

Those images have been riveted in the minds of the young Jamaican student. We start by teaching the truth about what happened in the slave trade. We were also taught that not only were the Europeans the ones we should be concerned with, but the very Africans who sold us out of their sense of greed. We were taught all that at a very young age.

As we move in our understanding past what was taught to us about slavery, we have also been taught to overcome the mindset that had been taught to us. As a young boy I can think back to when I was going into middle and high school which was one in the same, that our teachers were even light and dark skinned, and from the Anglican Church they told and taught us that “we were the masters of our fate”.

Music was another important thing for us. Do you remember Bob Marley’s song Redemption? In it he says emancipate yourself from mental slavery. No one but ourselves can free our minds. We were taught this at a very young age.

I went to an all boys school. One day we were all gathered around being taught a Latin phrase and that phrase was repeated over and over. My principal Mr. Bruce said, “Boys, those words will become the mantra for your life.” Here’s the translation: “the brave may fall, but never give up.”

So at a very young age we were taught that no matter what the situations or what other people or powers might say, because we are of African descent and we have survived everything slavery had to offer, we are going to take lessons from the past, understand who we are in the present, come up with a vision for the future and we’re going to call upon the community to support and provide resources we need and we’re going forward and make the world a better place. Those were the things I was taught as a young man growing up in Kingston, Jamaica.

Eric Hackley: Thank you for the insight.


This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9 print edition.

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Category: Local, Opinion

About the Author ()

Eric Hackley is a veteran independent journalist, television show host and producer focusing largely on history, particularly family history in the black community. His award-winning public access television shows have featured a host of local and national icons. Hackley can be contacted at

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