Jamaica Gleaner

Eman­ci­pat­ing Bed­ward from the mad­house

- Carolyn Cooper Carolyn Cooper is a teacher of English lan­guage and literature. Visit her bilin­gual blog at http://car­olyn­joy­cooper.word­press.com. Email feed­back to col­umns@glean­erjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com. Ipswich Town F.C. · Alexander the Great · Christopher Columbus · Columbus · Marco Polo · Iceland · Belarus · Abraham mateo · Jamaica · God · Austria · Moses · John the Baptist · Belgium · Caribbean · Panama · Sizzla · Peter Tosh · Chris Columbus

AFEW years ago, con­tes­tants on TVJ’s Schools’ Chal­lenge Quiz were asked to name a fa­mous prophet from Au­gust Town. Their an­swer was ‘Siz­zla’. These stu­dents should have known Alexan­der Bed­ward’s story. But, as Peter Tosh sang, “You can’t blame the youth.”

It’s the school sys­tem that’s to blame. In his song, Tosh mocks the way in which Christo­pher Colum­bus, Marco Polo, Pi­rate Hawkins and Pi­rate Mor­gan are por­trayed in history books as he­roes. He em­phat­i­cally as­serts, “All these great man were do­ing/ Rob­bing, rap­ing, kid­nap­ping and killing.”

Tosh over­states the case with that dou­ble mean­ing on ‘all’. That’s not all that all of them were do­ing. But Tosh was dra­mat­i­cally teach­ing an im­por­tant les­son. We keep telling the youth sto­ries of ‘great’ men whose deeds are ac­tu­ally crim­i­nal. Even worse, we fail to tell the youth sto­ries of our home-grown he­roes.

And, some­times, the sto­ries we do tell are so dis­torted that the hero­ism is com­pletely lost. All that re­mains is a ghostly pres­ence, a fleet­ing sense of grandeur. But none of the sub­stance of the men and women whose vi­sion of full free­dom forced them to rebel against sys­tems of op­pres­sion!


Alexan­der Bed­ward is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of a haunting Ja­maican hero. Depend­ing on who is telling the story, he was ei­ther vi­sion­ary or lu­natic. Or both. Or much more! Take, for in­stance, the melo­dra­matic ac­count of Bed­wardism given by the Amer­i­can Je­suit priest, Abra­ham Em­er­ick, who was a mis­sion­ary in Ja­maica in the late 19th cen­tury:

“Its founder was a lu­natic, named Bed­ward, who was suf­fer­ing from re­li­gious mono­ma­nia. He claimed that he had vi­sions from God, and that the spirit of God had de­scended upon him and that in him the prophets were rein­car­nated, at one time Jonas, at another Moses, then John the Bap­tist. He de­clared that in a vi­sion God had made known to him that the wa­ter of Hope River cleansed from dis­eases and sin.

“It was ru­moured that a sick woman was cured by par­tak­ing of this wa­ter. Belief in Bed­ward’s mirac­u­lous pow­ers grad­u­ally grew un­til per­sons from all over the is­land came to get the heal­ing wa­ters from him and sto­ries of won- drous cures by him were spread about. The craze grew un­til as many as twenty and thirty thou­sand Ne­groes used to gather ev­ery Wed­nes­day morn­ing along the river­bank at a place called Au­gust Town, on the Hope River.

“In the great throng were hun­dreds of the crip­pled, the de­formed, lep­ers, the blind, con­sump­tives and suf­fer­ers from ev­ery form of dis­ease. At a few mo­ments of nine, the so-called prophet would ap­pear in flow­ing white robes, and with a wand in his hand, with elab­o­rate and ma­jes­tic cer­e­monies, he would bless the wa­ter, where­upon, these thou­sands of men, women and chil­dren of all ages would strip naked and jump into the wa­ter. An in­de­scrib­able scene fol­lowed.”

It seems un­likely that Fa­ther Abra­ham Em­er­ick would have been able to see any sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween his own priest­hood and that of Bed­ward. The words he uses to de­scribe Bed­ward and his move­ment are ‘lu­natic’, ‘mono­ma­nia’, ‘ru­mour ’, ‘craze’, ‘wand’. Bed­ward is a lu­natic ma­gi­cian who waves his wand to at­tract equally crazy fol­low­ers.


But all re­li­gions are ‘ir­ra­tional’ to vary­ing de­grees. Dreams and vi­sions are stan­dard re­quire­ments. Mirac­u­lous pow­ers come with the ter­ri­tory. Ask any suc­cess­ful tel­e­van­ge­list. And di­vine haute cou­ture is es­sen­tial. No self-re­spect­ing re­li­gious leader wears or­di­nary clothes. Priestly gar­ments must make a spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion state­ment. Flow­ing white robes are ba­sic.

Bed­ward’s sup­posed lu­nacy can­not be mea­sured by the re­li­gious re­vival he led. His Na­tive Bap­tist church was nor­mal as re­li­gions go. The real test of Bed­ward’s (in)san­ity was that he be­lieved in the power of black peo­ple to de­ter­mine their fate.

Like many Caribbean mi­grants, Bed­ward went to Panama in 1883 to make a liv­ing. There, I be­lieve, he be­came po­lit­i­cally con­scious. He re­turned to Ja­maica in 1885 and worked on the Mona es­tate. In 1889, he be­came an el­der in the Na­tive Bap­tist church and, by Oc­to­ber 1891, he gave up his job to be­come a full-time preacher.

The sub­tle ac­count of Bed­ward’s life given on en­cy­clo­pe­dia.com sug­gests that he was very much aware of the op­pres­sive so­cial and eco­nomic forces that were amassed against black Ja­maicans: “Bed­ward as­sailed min­is­ters and physi­cians as mer­ce­nar­ies for charg­ing fees, and he proph­e­sied the im­mi­nent end of the world. Ja­maica’s priv­i­leged class feared Bed­ward’s heated ser­mons, and in 1895 the press and po­lice framed him, ac­cus­ing him of ad­vo­cat­ing in­sur­rec­tion.”


Though Bed­ward ended up in a lu­natic asy­lum, he was per­fectly lu­cid about racial pol­i­tics in Ja­maica. He’s al­leged to have said, “There is a white wall and a black wall. And the white wall has been clos­ing around the black wall: but now the black wall has be­come big­ger than the white.”

The Ja­maican elite could not tol­er­ate a pow­er­ful leader with the huge fol­low­ing that Bed­ward at­tracted. His re­li­gious move­ment could easily have been trans­formed into a po­lit­i­cal force. He had to be stopped. So he was de­clared a lu­natic.

On Eman­ci­pa­tion Day, I vis­ited the ru­ins of Bed­ward’s mag­nif­i­cent church for the un­veil­ing of a sto­ry­board about the site. That’s not enough. We have to teach the youth the whole story. In de­tail! We must eman­ci­pate Bed­ward from the lie of lu­nacy.

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