Thu | Jul 2, 2020

British - a market locked in history

Published:Sunday | May 31, 2020 | 12:11 AM
Farmers wait for prospective buyers for their cattle at British, Clarendon.
Farmers wait for prospective buyers for their cattle at British, Clarendon.

This is a piece of history that one has to traverse on a long, winding and rocky road to reach. The road takes a path that was chiselled out on the face of the mountain by slaves.

Nestled in the lush mountainous expanse of north-eastern Clarendon is Jamaica’s oldest, and perhaps the only surviving, market established by the slaves.

Turning into a steep incline off Crofts Hill, Dr Neville Graham, a surgeon and a native of the parish, cautiously steered his pickup truck, negotiating hairpin bends on Old Woman Hill.

He gingerly manoeuvred the vehicle on the stone-riddled path as he would run his scalpel to make a precise incision on a patient.

“This path was carved out of the guts of the slaves,” Graham said, recalling how, as a boy, he used to trek down to the valley to buy fresh produce and goat meat to carry back.

The drive down to British, over 300-year-old marketplace, is nothing short of an adventure sport. The jerks and the jumps are like a camel-back ride in the desert.

But this terrain is replete with cool breezes kissing the face, the lungs singing the happy song after inhaling fresh, pure oxygen; blissful and therapeutic.

The bumpy ride culminated at British, the livestock market, located in the north-east of Chapelton, in Tinders River Valley.

The time, like the air, stood still. There were no sounds of cash registers clanking nor was there the feel of a sterile enclosed space. It was just pure, pristine and clean air, with a sweet chill that quivered the skin.

Byron Johnson stood in a corner clutching a machete, leaning over his donkey, waiting for a customer to buy the goat he had taken to the market.

“I have been coming to this market since I was 10,” Johnson said, words emitting softly, as his eyes looked around.

The white-bearded farmer, who sells cows, donkeys and goats, said British was a different place when he was growing up. “People used to come from far and near,” he said. “They sold cows, donkeys, goats, even vegetables and produce.” What remains now, he says, are jaded memories.

Joseph Blake, 48-year-old farmer from the vicinity, concurred. “I used to follow my parents,” said Blake. “British used to be in the glory days back then. The path used to be lined with shops selling haberdashery, produce, vegetables. There used to be people selling soup, food ...,” said Blake, his thoughts trailed in a flashback, as if reconstructing the market as it used to be.

Those glory days are now covered in cobbled stones and overgrown shrubs. A lone makeshift structure stands, with someone selling juices as a pot of soup bubbles. Among a handful of cows and goats, a few stray dogs roam.

Blake, in between sips of beer, recollected. “In the ’80s,” he said, “the market depleted, the shops closed, people stopped coming down as there were no proper facilities.”

Blake, who grows yam and cassava, said, historically, British has been a speculation market.

PLACING BETS

Speculation, today a term that is synonymous with high-risk, high-gain transactions, only here the hard currency is replaced by placing bets on the best livestock.

“This market,” Graham said, “is an integral part of Jamaica’s history which should be nurtured and preserved.”

This historic market still prods.

“The young just want life easy,” Johnson said, “Three-fourth don’t want to go the hard way. “Things have changed,” he said, “older people are dead, the younger prefer to run taxis.”

For some like Johnson and Blake, time will always stand still. They, like the handful of faithful who, come hell or high water, make their way every Saturday morning to trade livestock in British, this is a ritual they will not change.

“I will be back next week,” Johnson said as he jumped on his donkey for a two-hour ride back home. His business done for the day, British might be one of the last slavery markets in Jamaica, which, if not infused with assistance and impetus, might be as lost as its location in the yellowing pages of history.

- This visit to British was several years ago, the market is still organised there, despite the challenges. Email: amitabh.sharma@gleanerjm.com.