Jamaica, West Indies

Spanish settlers arrived in 1510 introducing two commodities that would profoundly shape Jamaica and the Atlantic world’s future: sugar and enslaved Africans. The British took control of the island in 1655 and over the course of the next 100 years, Jamaica became a major world sugar producer. Jamaica accounted for 42 percent of sugar imported into Britain alone.

The slave trade is said to have forcibly transported over ten million Africans from their homeland, with approximately six hundred thousand coming to Jamaica. Many Africans that were taken to Jamaica on British and American ships originated in the Gold Coast of West Africa. Many of the Africans who would arrive in Jamaica came from the Fante, Ashanti, Coromantee, Ibo and Yoruba people largely what is present-day Ghana and Nigeria

During the eighteenth century, sugar cultivation became Jamaica’s main source of income. The sugar industry was labor-intensive and hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans were forcibly transported to Jamaica to work on large sugar plantations, mills and boiling houses. English merchant Thomas Tyron reported with vivid detail the horrific conditions within a Caribbean Sugar Plantation in 1700:

“The Climate is so hot, and the labor so constant, that the [Black] Servants night and day standing great Boiling Houses, where there are Six Seven large Coppers or Furnaces kept perpetually boyling; and from which with heavy Ladles and Scummers, the Skim off the excrementatious parts of the Canes, till it comes to its perfection and cleanness, while others as Stoakers, Broil, as it were alive, in managing the Fires; and one part is constantly at the Mill, to supply it with Canes, night and day, during the whole Season of making Sugar, which is about six Months of the year”

Jamaica also had livestock-raising farms or “Pens” that utilized enslaved African labor. Livestock husbandry played a vital role in providing the food and dairy needs of vast sugar plantations and their large enslaved workforce. Little October and the other African Jamaicans may have been more fortunate to be ensalved and working on a livestock farm rather than a sugar plantation, but their lives were still filled with daily oppression and uncertainty.

Barclay survey of Unity Valley Pen c. 1786

Little October aka Robert Barclay was born in 1788 at Unity Valley Pen located in central Jamaica within the St Ann’s Parish. Many of the African Jamaicans that were enslaved at the Unity Valley Pen were African born or like October, first generation children with African born parents. As enslaved Jamaicans came from West Africa, many of their customs survived based on memory and tradition. One important custom is the “Day Naming” tradition. The Akan people of the Gold Coast would frequently name their children after the day of the week they were born and the order in which they were born. A study of African Day Names in Jamaica from 1967 found that ” A system of day-names, indicating the sex and the day of the week on which a child was born, was carried from Africa to Jamaica in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”

This important naming tradition can be seen throughout the African Diaspora. The retaining and in some cases reclaiming of African names became a powerful means of preserving African identity. Within the Unity Valley Pen population we find day names such as Quashie, Yawo and Ajuba. Even October’s name may have West African roots such as “Ottobah” which in some translations means – ‘one who does not need pampering’.