BUBBY ISLAND, Oct. 8, 1781.
Taking a walk home last evening, I had an opportunity of hearing a dialogue between a St. Elizabeth’s and Westmoreland negro: the peculiar and uncommon attention which the one seemed to pay to what the other said, roused my curiosity. If you think it worthy of publication, please to insert it in your Cornwall Chronicle, and oblige.
Brae Quaco, ho you do? Me been long for see you. How oonoo all do in Westmoreland?
Brae Quashie, I but so so, for when belly no full, no comfort for me.
Belly no full! You ‘tonish me Quaco; you look as if you bin yam. Tan. Massa-Gubna no send down ship (?) a Sava-lama, hab flour, beans, pease, and (yearee me good) oatmeal? and, Quaco, if you yam belly full of tharra, no talk dem word, “you but so so”
Brae Quashie, if Massa Gubna send ship, he no send ‘e for me; me bin ax massa secretary for some nyanyam, him say, massa commissioners no put for me name in a book.
Your name in a book, Quaco! And why you no tell massa commissioners to put your name in a book?
I bin go to Massa Commissioners, and dem tell me, I bin stout and young, I no hab right to put for me name in a book.
I know Massa Commissioners dam well, some of dem fava book true.
Brae Quashie, you tink Commissioners read in a book, ‘cause me ‘trong and young I no want victual for nyam? If so, I am sure Commissioners book, or for me belly, tell lies.
Quaco, I tell you already Massa Commissioners fava book, if any mistake it must be in your belly, no in dem book.
There no moe mistake in my belly than it want nyanyam when I is hungry; if book say da mistake, Massa Commissioners and Gor Amity in a top must put it to rights; for true, Brae Quashie, da no for me doings.
Dis talk no to de purpose, you is ‘trong and young, Quaco, oonoo should work and rise nyanyams for yourself, tharra the reason Massa Commissioners no put for you name in a book.
You know, brae Quashie, me can, and do work, but hurricane ‘pon hurricane ‘poil [all?] my ground, and all my work serve for no moe purpose dan gee me heart burn for see dem washed away. If me bin idle fellow andno lub work, Massa Commisssioners do right to ‘fuse me; but I is not, and you know it, I must say dem no do me fair play.
Hush! Brae Quaco, some body may hear you; massa commissioners dem grande buckras, besides you tell dem fault, but no tell dem good; me can tell many good tings dem do.
— Wharra dem do, Brae Quashie?
Dem bin gee a number of idle and ‘dustrious ‘tore-keepers, shop-keepers, wharf-keepers, pen-keepers, book-keepers, house-keepers, goal-keepers, and mulatto-keepers, both nyanyam and money; and what’s moe, dem hab bin ‘tentative to a heep of brown and black ladies, in a Savanna, no one of dem da ax bin refused, now as dem lady is berry [tiseful ??] members for de gentlemens, you hab no right, suppose you ‘tarve, to say, but dem is good bacra, and behave berry clebba.
Brae Quashie, I tink you fava bacra book better than me, and as you say, Massa Commissioners do right, it must be fo – But I will tell you wharra I must do – I is strong and young and, as Massa Commissioners will not put me in for dem book, I will see if dem ladies will not put me in theirs. So Brae Quashie, good bye t you.
Q U A C O
Supplement to Cornwall Chronicle (Montego Bay, Jamaica), 13th Oct. 1781.
OLDEST JAMAICAN CREOLE TEXT
This 1781 text from the Cornwall Chronicle was discovered somewhere around 1997 by Maureen Warner Lewis in the course of her research. It is a big discovery for linguists studying Caribbean Creole languages. It is the oldest known text of Jamaican. In addition, it is the oldest text of a Caribbean English Creole outside of Suriname. It predates the next oldest known text, that for St Kitts, by at least 15 years.
To get a flavour of the text, you need to know that the Cornwall Chronicle published from Montego Bay seems, from its content, to have been a newspaper catering for white planters and merchants in late 18th century Western Jamaica. Appearing on the same page as part of the text is an advertisement for sale, with individual title, in Westmoreland of the following House Negroes: Christiana, Donie and Mademoiselle, along with Donie’s two male children and Mademoiselle’s daughter. The wenches were to be sold either separately or together, but the mothers and children were not to be divided. Below this advertisement are others for the sale of a ship in Savanna la Mar, and of 1200 acres of land in St. Elizabeth.
The Supplement to the Cornwall Chronicle frequently contained gossipy letters, poems, etc. commenting on the happenings of the day in a sometimes satirical manner. Many of the letters are signed with obvious pen names, others by the Printer. Nearly all are in English. In the one exception identified so far, the address above the letter, Bubby Island, is perhaps chosen to signal to the reader that this is a spoof. The introductory letter is in English, explaining that what follows is an account of a conversation between two Negroes, Quaco and Quashie. These were very common Akan personal names in use amongst Africans in Jamaica at the time so. Using them to identify the speakers presumably signalled that they were very typical of the Afro-Jamaican population at the time.
Quaco and Quao speak in language which is very similar to modern Jamaican Creole as, for example, when Quaco says, ‘me bin ax massa secretary for some nyanyam, him say, massa commissioners no put for me name in a book.’ It is interesting, however, that ‘commissioners’ rather than ‘commissioner’ is used. The normal modern Jamaican Creole form of a noun, when it refers to an entire class or group, has no plural marker of any kind attached to it. The English plural form ‘s’ here suggests that the writer is making the text a bit more English than would have been typical of Afro-Jamaican speech in the late 18th century. As to whether this is being done deliberately or through lack of familiarity with Jamaican Creole of the time is not clear.
Another feature of the text is that the speakers shift, particularly in the latter part, to a form of speech which is clearly English, albeit influenced by the speech patterns of the Jamaican Creole which they also spoke. This can be seen in a passage such as when Quashie states, ‘dem hab bin ‘tentative to a heep of brown and black ladies, in a Savanna, no one of dem da ax bin refused.’ When one translates this as ‘They have been attentive to a heap of brown and black ladies in Savanna, not one of them that asked has been refused’, we see that original is almost identical in structure and wording to the English translation. The use of the English passive, ‘hab bin’, among other features of the sentence, suggests a speaker who is speaking English, albeit with some Jamaican Creole interference. If this is indeed correct, we may be seeing evidence that as far back as the 1780s, speakers in Jamaica may have had a sense of the existence of Jamaican Creole and English as separate and distinct language forms.
‘Scarce Benefits & Spoils’ 17th Century Style?
Interestingly, the conversation which is put into the mouths of two ‘negroes’ is about an issue which would have, in the main, been a concern of the free white population rather than the African slave population of Jamaica at the time. The governor appears to have sent a shipload of food to Western Jamaica as hurricane relief. The dispute seems to be over the way in which the commissioners charged with distributing the relief have carried out their duties. They seem to have distributed both food and money, not only to the industrious but to the idle, and what is more, to a large number of brown and black ladies who, by implication, distributed favours to the commissioners in return.
Anyone who lived in Jamaica in the aftermath of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and the disputes which surrounded the distribution of hurricane relief, would find an oddly modern ring to this 18th century text. And this familiar sound is not just confined to the language.
Professor of Linguistics & Coordinator
The Jamaican Language Unit
The University of the West Indies