“Everything Connects”: A Visit to Claude McKay High School With Lasco REAP

On January 23, we were trying to find a Jamaican poet; or rather, a school named in his honor, in the place where he grew up.

However, we were lost…in May Pen, as soon as we turned off the highway. It’s a town we don’t know well, and Google Maps sadly let us down. Our visit to Claude McKay High School in James Hill, Clarendon (just below Bull Head Mountain) was turning into an adventure – confusing at first, but ultimately completely enjoyable.

After driving uphill for what seemed a very long time – my usually reasonably good navigational skills failing us badly – we found the town of Chapelton. Time was getting on. However, we were coordinating with the team from Lasco REAP, the environmental group that was launching its school program – this year, for the first time, in a high school. So we had time to stop and eat breakfast in an unpretentious restaurant near the town square. Now, I’m not sure why country food always tastes so good, but the liver, dumpling, yam and green banana was… Umm!

In and around Chapelton town square, we found the clock tower (stopped at seven minutes to twelve), which is actually a war memorial to those who died in the two World Wars; the church and police station - and a concrete statue of Captain Cudjoe, leader of the Clarendon Maroons. (My photo)
In and around Chapelton town square, we found the clock tower (stopped at seven minutes to twelve), which is actually a war memorial to the sons of Clarendon who died in the two World Wars; the church; the police station – and a concrete statue of Captain Cudjoe, leader of the Clarendon Maroons. (My photo)

We pressed on, and at a small place with the evocative name of Trout Hall a group of men pointed us in the right direction. Clouds were gathering, but it was clear as we drove further on that there had been a drought. As we climbed, we saw what looked like bush fire smoke curling up from the forested hillsides. However, would there be rain? The staff of the Claude McKay High School (which seemed to be just round the next corner, and then wasn’t) had decided, perhaps with optimism, that it might very well rain. So the launch had been moved to the school hall. The first person we met was a cheerful U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer from Texas, who led us up a narrow staircase to the school library. There I found books by Jamaica’s poet of the Harlem Renaissance in glass cases, and a large display of photographs on the wall – of his family, his church (the Mount Zion Baptist Church) and his grave (in Calvary Cemetery, Woodside, Queens, New York).

Stephen Newland, founder of Lasco REAP (left) and Senator Pearnel Charles, Jr. at the launch at Claude McKay High School. (My photo)
Stephen Newland, founder of Lasco REAP (left) and Senator Pearnel Charles, Jr. at the launch at Claude McKay High School. (My photo)

Now, back to the business at hand. Firstly, who and what are REAP? Well, REAP stands for Releaf Environmental Awareness Program. It is a recycling, conservation & tree planting initiative in schools, supported by the local manufacturing firm Lasco. The project started off in primary and preparatory schools but the project is being piloted in high schools, including Claude McKay. It is the personal passion of Stephen Newland, who is the lead singer of a reggae band called Rootz Underground. Along with Idea Factory and supportive friends, he founded the Lasco-Rootz Releaf non-governmental organization in 2012 (the 50th anniversary year of Independence). It is competitive: schools vie for prizes in several different areas: tree planting, recycling, school gardens, anti-litter and so on. There is also a creative element – recycled fashion and dance, dub poetry and songs can win prizes too.

The project offers generous prizes in cash and kind (one young man from Glenmuir Preparatory School let out a loud gasp as Stephen listed them) – over J$10 million worth to date. So far, REAP has collected over 1.2 million plastic bottles; created over 100 new school gardens; and planted over 15,000 trees. So, there was “nuff excitement” in the assembly hall, which was fluttering with buttercup yellow shirts (the school uniform). Other schools were represented, including the aforementioned Glenmuir Prep and Edwin Allen High School.

Two Idea Factory workers. (My photo)
Two Idea Factory workers! (My photo)

The Member of Parliament for the area, Senator Pearnel Charles Jr., spoke after the School Principal, Mr. James Smith. In his role as State Minister in the Ministry of National Security, Senator Charles usually looks quite solemn; however, he made us all chuckle when he talked about the girl students “fixing their hair” in the tinted windscreen of his car before the event, unaware that he was on the other side. Senator Charles revealed that his first degree was in Biochemistry and Zoology – and that studying the sciences can lead to a good career.

Senator Charles made a strong point, however, about responsibility and respect. Just as in matters of national security, he pointed out, we must be responsible for our behavior towards the environment; and this comes down to self-respect. “Be responsible for you,” he emphasized – “What you think and what you do.” If you throw down a plastic bottle in the road, your action shows you have no respect for yourself, or for others. Respecting the environment also means you are protecting it. “We are trying to create good citizens,” he added. The young citizens in front of him looked serious (for the most part).

These girls were enjoying themselves, and learning too. (My photo)
These girls were enjoying themselves, and learning too. (My photo)

I was rather touched and pleased to see that the group of girls near the front were actually taking notes while I was speaking. I gave them a few topics that I hoped they would go and research afterwards – aspects of climate change, microbeads and the problem of plastic waste. There is so much to learn about. I also tried to suggest things that we should, and should not be doing to protect the environment – for example, stop burning things! Incidentally, I prepared a similar talk for the launch of the St. Catherine leg of Lasco REAP, due to take place the very next day, and you can read it here. However, due to a broken fan belt en route to Spanish Town, we never made it. I am so sorry that I did not get there – St. Jago Cathedral Preparatory School is a great school right in the middle of the town, but with a strong “green” focus.

On January 24, LASCO REAP moved on to St. Jago Cathedral Preparatory School. Here is Stephen Newland (far left); School Principal Andrea Baugh; Member of Parliament J.C. Hutchinson, a representative of LASCO and Colin Newland of the 4-H Clubs. (Photo: Lasco REAP)
On January 24, Lasco REAP moved on to St. Jago Cathedral Preparatory School. Here is Stephen Newland (far left); School Principal Andrea Baugh; Member of Parliament J.C. Hutchinson, a representative of Lasco and Colin Woodham of the 4-H Clubs. (Photo: Lasco REAP)

We left the school, nibbling on packets of cookies kindly provided by Mr. Smith, and headed downhill, pausing to admire the views, the trees covered in brilliant red flowers. At the beginning of my speech, I quoted from a poem called Flame Heart by Claude McKay, which Mr. Smith murmured along with me. The few lines mention ground doves, pimento trees, and “the poinsettia’s red, blood-red in warm December.” Indeed, poinsettias were still blooming in some yards we passed. And we found McKay’s Sukee River – the little river that he missed so much and describes in one of his most famous poems. We had passed it, on the way up.

Jamaican poet and writer Claude McKay ( ) often wrote about the beautiful landscape of the hills of Clarendon, where he grew up before going to live in the United States.
Jamaican poet and writer Claude McKay (1889 – 1948) often wrote, in waves of homesickness, about the beautiful landscape of the hills of Clarendon, where he grew up before going to live in the United States.

I picked up on something which Senator Charles said, which by coincidence I had already incorporated into my speech. Everything connects; if we hurt our environment, we hurt ourselves. We instinctively know this.

I wish we could have spent more time at the school, exploring the area and learning more about Claude McKay. It was beautiful up there – cloudy, but somehow bright and happy. I was so pleased to be invited by Stephen and his team. They are doing good work. I really hope to visit James Hill again, soon.

And now we know the way. Just follow the poinsettias, and the Sukee River.

"I shall love you ever, dearest Sukee River: Dash against my broken heart, Nevermore from you I'll part; But will stay forever, Crystal Sukee River." (My photo)
“I shall love you ever, dearest Sukee River: Dash against my broken heart, Nevermore from you I’ll part; But will stay forever, Crystal Sukee River.” (My photo)

16 thoughts on ““Everything Connects”: A Visit to Claude McKay High School With Lasco REAP

  1. Thanks for this most interesting post. I can add some history as my family farmed the Nairne Castle estate circa 1790-1833 (between Trout Hall & James Town as you discovered on your journey.) The name Nairne Castle has been forgotten as it has been absorbed over time into James Hill, and as you said the Claude McKay High School is in James Hill. My ancestors were Scotsman Daniel Nairne, Negress Sara Williams and their six sons, and they chiefly farmed cattle, but also vegetables and fruit. When emancipation came they made Nairne Castle available to freed people and it was divided into about 20 farms, one of which was owned by Claude Mackay’s parents Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards and Thomas Francis McKay.

    Their story is well described in a book: “McKay was born in the remote and stunningly beautiful upcountry of Clarendon. His village, Nairne Castle, comprising twenty families during his childhood, nestles in a lovely spot surrounded on almost every side by the serried, blue-green hills of central Jamaica. Though somewhat hilly; the land around Nairne Castle is kind to its inhabitants. Lush and fertile, its red soil is well watered by a river and small, gentle-flowing streams issue from the hills around. Clarendon‘s special qualities have long been recognized and praised. As early as the 1770s, planter-historian Edward Long, who owned a large estate not far from where Nairne Castle now sits, noted that “[t]he hills rise gradually in height the further we advance into the heart of the parish; yet here none so steep or barren, as not to be fit for culture of some sort or other. The vales between the hills and mountains are in general spacious, watered by some river, and enriched with fine caneland.” But over the centuries, the Afro-Jamaican peasantry especially those who sought refuge in the islands interior after emancipation, have used the fecundity of the vales for far more than the cultivation of sugar, the planters class‘s crop par excellence. Thus, in Naime Castle, the peasant’s crop – bananas, coffee, oranges, mangoes, yams, sweet potatoes and a host of other fruits and vegetables – are cultivated and seem to grow as easily now as they did in Mckay`s time – “as if spilled straight out of the Hand of God.” Perhaps it is only through seeing the countryside in the area McKay was born that one can acquire a true appreciation of why the poet celebrated it in song with such gusto and persistence. The physical beauty of McKay‘s Clarendon, which exceeded by far what I had previously imagined, is extraordinary—even for an island as extravagantly endowed with nature’s splendours as Jamaica is. But nature does not always smile on Nairne Castle. Apart from the periodic fury of tropical storms and hurricanes, areas of the little village are peculiarly prone to flooding, especially after heavy rains. And the physical magnificence of upper Clarendon has always been marred by the social inequality determining access to the soil. [quoted from ‘A Fierce Hatred of Injustice: Claude McKay’s Jamaican Poetry of Rebellion’ by Winston James and Claude McKay, published by Verso (2001.)

    Here is a poem by Mckay which conveys his deep love of his native place:

    I Shall Return

    I shall return again; I shall return
    To laugh and love and watch with wonder-eyes
    At golden noon the forest fires burn,
    Wafting their blue-black smoke to sapphire skies.
    I shall return to loiter by the streams
    That bathe the brown blades of the bending grasses,
    And realize once more my thousand dreams
    Of waters rushing down the mountain passes.
    I shall return to hear the fiddle and fife
    Of village dances, dear delicious tunes
    That stir the hidden depths of native life,
    Stray melodies of dim remembered runes.
    I shall return, I shall return again,
    To ease my mind of long, long years of pain.

    Claude McKay (1889-1948)

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    1. Thank you so much for your very interesting response to my article! I could have written so much more about Claude McKay and the area, which was completely new to me. I would really love to explore it further – as the quote says, a remarkably beautiful landscape. No wonder McKay was so homesick for it. There are some old photographs of his parents in the school library, and they have a “Claude McKay Day” every year there – I believe in March, this year. I wonder why the name Nairne Castle no longer exists? Surprisingly, according to many biographies I saw, the place of McKay’s birth was “Sunnyville.” PS I am not sure that the area is so “well watered” these days. The Sukee River was not flowing fast at all, and it was fairly dry up there. But then, McKay does describe forest fires, in that beautiful poem… Thank you so much again for your comments.

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      1. I was wondering why I wasn’t notified about this post. You missed this important instruction: “Thank the person who nominated you for this award and provide a link to their blog.” I enjoyed your seven facts and I will definitely check out the bloggers you mentioned.

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  2. Well done for being nominated for the Versatile Blogger Award. Your blog certainly incorporates insights into a wide variety of subjects, and I for one value this unfolding investigation-portal.

    In answer to your question about ‘why the name Nairne Castle no longer exists’ I can only presume that it was incorporated into James hill. On the copy of Robertson’s Jamaica Map of 1804 in the British Library the word ‘Nairns’ is shown next to the Cashmore River (between James Hill and Trout Hall). The Cashmore and Green Rivers join and flow into the Rio Minho. This fits the location of Nairne Castle estate as described in the book about Claude McKay “…well watered by a river and small, gentle-flowing streams issue from the hills around….”

    Robertson’s Map of 1804 shows four tributaries flowing southwards from the present James Hill area into the Rio Minho: Green River, Cashmore River, Roaring River and Dawkins River. The Sukee River must be a more recent name for one of these. Google-maps depict the Rio Minho somewhat differently as shown on the 1804 map, and some of the differences may reflect changes in river courses and the disappearance of other rivers over time. I am told that storms, floods etc dramatically changed the Jamaican landscape! The Rio Minho was also known as Dry River because it was a seasonal river, and its tributaries would therefore presumably also have been seasonal. This fits with your observation: “The Sukee River was not flowing fast at all, and it was fairly dry up there.”

    Daniel Nairn came from the region of Brae Murray (Moray) in the Highlands of Scotland (ref. the address he gave for his family in Scotland in his will dd 1816.) He is first recorded at Nairne Castle, Clarendon, Jamaica in 1792 (birth record of his daughter Susannah Nairne.) At this time the spelling of his surname changed from Nairn to Nairne, possibly in line with the practice of his wider family back in Scotland. He is recorded as owner of Nairne or Nairn Castle in Jamaica, for example in the 1816 Jamaica Almanac, as owner of “Nairn-Castle” with 58 stock. The low number of animals for a sizeable estate seems to indicate that he was producing significant amounts of fruit and vegetables as well. The Gazeteer to the 1804 map indicates “Nairnes, Pen” which confirms that Daniel was primarily running a cattle ‘Pen’. This accords with the idea that he had been a cattle farmer in Scotland and emigrated when it was decreed by Whitehall that sheep farming should dominate the Highlands of Scotland. 1792 was called the ‘Year of the Sheep’ – in ‘gaelic Bliadhna nan Caorach’ – because so many sheep were put onto land in the Highlands. Daniel was a Jacobite and was strongly opposed to English policy towards Scotland which he felt to be oppressive and discriminatory.

    [Before the establishment of Nairne Castle, an estate called Fort Nairn had existed close by. It was run by Brig Genl John Nairn, also a Jacobite, who died there in 1745. Ft Nairn became the property of his daughter Frances and her descendants after his death. Daniel Nairn was part of the Clan Nairn and was therefore welcomed as family by the descendants of John Nairn, and this explains why he integrated so well into society in Upper Clarendon, and became a Lt Col in the local militia. It is thought that Fort Nairn and Nairne Castle formed part of the military defences on the northern boundary of the Rio Minho area.]

    Daniel Nairn’s life-partner was Free Negress Sara Williams, whom he was prohibited from marrying according to British law because of her race, but they formed a normal family and raised six sons. They had both experienced racial prejudice at the hands of the English, and I believe that one of the pillars their union was an opposition to such racial prejudice – which was based on equality and mutual respect. In his will of 1816 he left all his land and property to Sara, a normal practice today, but revolutionary at that time. Contemporary records did not acknowledge her as the owner of Nairne Castle and continued to record ‘Daniel Nairne, deceased’ as owner until after the abolition of slavery in 1833. Daniel’s bequest of this property to Sara was a departure from the deplorable practice in which white British men in Jamaica raised families with Black women and treated them and the children as second class citizens or worse.

    The Scottish community in Jamaica worked hard to ensure that their people did not suffer material or emotional deprivation. The term ‘networking’ is used nowadays, and Prof Kenneth Morgan writes, in a review of a book by Douglas Hamilton on the subject*: “…the networks were critical to the success of Scots in the islands. The networks provided opportunities, for employment, for investment and for advancement; and they provided security for those taking their chances…” http://www.electricscotland.com/books/caribbean.htm

    The Scottish community, working within the established order in Jamaica, ensured that Daniel and Sara’s sons were given solid positions in life. For example, Alexander Nairne born in 1805, was an Inspector of Police (probably the first mixed-race holder of this position in the British Empire.) His son Captain Stanford Nairne of the 94th Regiment, was probably the first mixed-race Army Officer in the British Empire. Kenneth Morgan explains how Scottish networking came to involve the wider community in Jamaica: “…Although the networks were, at their hearts, based on a local or familial link with Scotland, they were by no means exclusive. Scottish involvement in the Caribbean empire played a crucial role in forging a unity among Britons during the eighteenth century….” Thus the Scots turned prejudice into inclusion, not least with the English. Alexander Nairne’s daughter Harriette married Lt Col Samson of the West India Regt., and on his retirement they settled in West London. They are my Gt-gt grandparents, and that is how my family came to live in England. Their descendants gave up military pursuits and have become a largely medical family.

    *Scotland, the Caribbean and the Atlantic world, 1750-1820, by Douglas J. Hamilton

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    1. Thanks so much for your kind comments. This blog has been around for almost seven years now, so if you click back through the archives you may find quite a bit to read! Interesting information about the rivers – perhaps Sukee River was more of a local name for that tributary. The last time we drove over the Rio Minho (a couple of weeks ago actually) it was almost completely dry. It often seems to be, these days, as there is no doubt that our climate is drying out. Thanks again for the fascinating detail on your ancestors – especially the relationship between Daniel and Sara. As one half of a “mixed” marriage and mother of a mixed-race son, these stories always fascinate me! I have never met anyone called Nairn in Jamaica, all these years – although of course there are many Scottish names.

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