THE FORERUNNER or
Battle of the Spear
said: "Rachel, your question to me earlier in the year was: why should you
learn to read and write. How far is your question answered today?"
Rachel opened her mouth to speak, and shut it again. "To tell truth,
Headmaster Thomas," she spoke now. "I think I was happy before you came. Now I
know I will never be happy again."
Thomas was taken aback. It was not what he expected. Rachel spoke again:
"Maybe I was happy like a fool to know nothing. Since Cudjoe talk, I too,
start reading the newspaper. From you, I know who I am and what they say. And I
know they say we are not educable. So I want to learn more and more. And still
"Aye, Headmaster Thomas. I do not know if my words making sense. But I prefer to
be alive than to know nothing and be happy. And I… we thank you, Headmaster
Thomas had received the recognition of the most eminent learned body
in his field in the English-speaking world.
Historian: Donald Wood.
Adult Trade Paperback: ISBN: 0-9744096-3-4
Author's Note: On the Resurrection of John Jacob Thomas.
They gave to him a couple of pages in history. But truth is in the words of the late historian, Donald Wood: “John Jacob Thomas… undeservedly forgotten by his countrymen.”
He was undoubtedly The Forerunner, and his entire life was about showing The Way. The only way, which of course, is through education and knowledge of the past. You cannot compromise the quote: “If you do not know where you came from, you cannot know where you are going.” John Jacob Thomas is therefore inescapable and will not be denied. Any attempt at avoiding him stagnates you in the folly and mayhem of your present existence. In other words, your hour of enlightenment awaits an understanding of your past.
The Nobel Prize laureate, Sir Arthur Lewis had observed: “The duty of the author in the Caribbean is to return the peoples to themselves.” The distinguished literary critic and author, Professor Frank Birbalsingh, in his review of The Promise, and incorporating the similar perspective in When Gods Were Slaves, ends by saying with profound insight: “… these novels also identify the links that unite different ethnic groups, forced by the shift and flux of history, to share a common landscape.”
And in a telephone interview with Anthony Milne of The Express, a full decade ago, I said: “It isn’t possible to empathize or sympathize with others you know nothing about. I feel there can be no real progress, no genuine unity without first having an intellectual understanding of each other’s heritage…”
The Forerunner is even of greater importance today. Thus across all nations:
I would build a university.
And I would name it:
The John Jacob Thomas University.
And I would teach the things he taught.
How else can you know the beauty in
Some scrambled excerpts about Jacob's Mission.
Uncle John’s laughter was mirthless, bitter. The school at which he’d taught was a private institution. “The Ward School is nothing but a great sham to show the world. The condition of the buildings is forbidding, and there really is not a single asset or equipment for teaching. As for the qualifications of teachers, I dare not open my mouth.”
Amaze was silent, while Akinkanju had become less afraid of having an English education in a Ward School.
Uncle John now stood from his chair, pacing the gallery. The bitterness in his voice had increased. “Through my correspondence abroad, I have learnt that the universities of Europe engage themselves in the study of biology. And this, so as to prove African inferiority to the world!”
He stopped pacing abruptly, and almost shouted: “By this wickedness, they intend to exonerate themselves from four hundred years of African slavery. This, and the outrageous charade of Ward School education!”
With a suddenly defeated look, Uncle John sat on his chair again: “One would imagine that after Emancipation, the African would be left to enjoy his freedom. It is so unfair, that now the burden of the black man, without means, and without a universally recognized language, is to dispel those myths, to expose growing European propaganda against him.
Akinkanju was intensely digesting Uncle John’s every word. He spoke to Amaze, yet he felt his words directed at him, as they pierced his heart sharply. Uncle John recalled in him all that he’d heard, and much more, suddenly opening his eyes to the wider world.
* * *
Before traveling to Savonetta, Thomas visited his village once again:
Yetunde gazed for a long while (at his Headmaster’s certificate), her face beaming with pride. Then she was showing Ominira, who kept nodding his head. Thomas could not understand their surfeit of pride. “Akinkanju won the battle,” Mother whispered, wiping her eyes! Then she embraced him all over again.
“Akinkanju will eat now?” she said then. “The yam is tasty, and akuko is still hot in the pot.”
“I will respect the ancestors first,” he said. “Akuko will not run away.”
… Here he understood most who Akinkanju was. In Port-of-Spain, he was so much of Europe! Here his religion and his culture, his philosophy and civilization were African, yet he, Akinkanju was not African? Yepa, sometimes it was confusing to find answers to define who he was!
Akinkanju strained his ears, listening very hard now. Yepa! But was he not the son of slavery? Centuries of brutality was his legacy and his heritage! And all the answers, every single one was to be found in the enslavement of man. Only the truth will set you free. Only the truth. Akinkanju heard those final words ringing in his ears, as he held on to the poui trunk.
Yetunde could not have known that her son’s journey through life had only just begun.
* * *
That Christmas holiday, Thomas spent much time with Ominira, and with the ancestors. It was in speaking to them, that the Black man’s burden became most poignant. To want to write a book is only mere thought. To attempt to do it is quite another matter. There were several times in his life, when he’d felt the urge to attempt such a feat. But in the end, he’d known it was not possible.
Thomas knew it was not something to talk about, and he’d only told Kate so far. Only Olodumare knows the path of a man’s life. Why had he studied French and Spanish; Latin and now Greek? Why did he spend so much time at orthoepy? Yepa! Why did he take two boxes of notes on the lingua franca? Thomas knew the time had come.
That night as he dined with his parents, he said: “I am going to write a book.”
For some moments, the silence was hushed, and only their minds spoke. Yetunde felt it would be a great and wonderful thing. And that Olodumare had blessed her to be the mother of Akinkanju. Ominira’s mind whispered: Asiwaju, the time has come for the Battle of the Spear!
Thomas explained to them what he hoped to achieve. And how useful the patois was, in teaching the English language to his pupils. Thomas felt it was all they (his parents) would understand, until he saw Father’s wise smile.
Two days after Christmas, he said goodbye once more. On the way, Ominira insisted that he come to him at once, should he find himself in need.
“Perhaps I shall be in need, Father. I am going to marry.”
Ominira’s laugh was like thunder in the deep woods.
* * *
They all knew that Thomas and his wife were visiting, and that he’d written a great book…
Thomas could not feel more appreciated. After some while, he left to speak with the ancestors. How often Grandfather had said: “The battle is not of the spear.” Aye, he’d laboured for many a long year. And in the end, he’d won the battle. Aye, Grandpa, my life is a privilege!
Ominira now came up behind him. “Your grandfather knew,” he spoke, placing a hand on Akinkanju’s shoulder. “Your life has never been an ordinary one. Nor will the future be since it is a life of sacrifice.”
“Father,” Thomas almost choked. “I feel honoured.”
“You have done well, Akinkanju,” spoke Ominira. “You have exposed their big lie by lifting the Black Man’s Burden. And you have shown the way for others to follow. Can you see the ancestors smiling with satisfaction?”
“But I do see them, yes!”
“Aye, a long time ago, Mother Ayoka taught me to struggle with who is John and who is Ominira. Who is Akinkanju today?”
They were ready to return. “It is a big question,” Thomas explained. “While teaching myself, and especially while writing, many things became clear. A man becomes his work, so I am Anglo West Indian today.”
Thomas continued: “Your question requires much more explaining. No matter how the different races with different cultures live here, we are all peoples of the West Indies.”
He added: “We are Africans also but without Africa. East Indians without India. In time we must learn all about the continents where we came from. It is where our civilizations began.”
Ominira nodded. They’d reached the huge barn, and Thomas was greeting several of the folks. Of course, they spoke the patois mixed with Yoruba. “Aye, Akinkanju,” said Cubbenah. “We have heard about you, and Eme just showed your book to us. You wrestle in strange ways, I say! Cubbenah bows to you, and surrenders forever.”
Thomas grabbed the fellow in a wrestler’s grip. “You are worthy of the fight, Cubbenah.”
* * *
While the prophet was being honoured in his village, The Athenaeum also had highlighted the book in England, and Thomas had already heard that he was a white man, and then, a mulatto! Indeed, he’d even heard that the half of his brain responsible for writing his book, belonged to the white race!
Thomas made his first journey to England, where after giving many lectures, he received the recognition of the most learned body in his field in the English-speaking world. Thomas was elected as a member of the Philological Society.
For the rest of his life, Thomas continued to write, while holding many high-ranking posts: Clerk of the Peace at Cedros. Stipendiary Magistrate, and Secretary to the Board of Education amongst others.
Thomas was also the Secretary of The Trinidad Monthly, the first literary journal in the colony. He spent much time contributing articles to the press, so as to instruct and to inspire intellectual pursuits. When a Negro expressed the view that they should not be reminded of the degradation under slavery, Thomas was outraged.
Kate had much to hear… “What can the fellow mean?... “All my life, I have been teaching my pupils about their ancestors, about what they had to endure. It is not the Black man who must feel degraded! He must know truth before he can know himself!”
Thomas’ pen had already scolded many of the colony’s governors for their neglect, their incompetence and their favouritism. And indeed, his was the most scathing pen against the governor and Sir Arthur Childs for the massacre of the East Indians at the Hosey Riots in 1884! In the following novel, the East Indian knew that in India, this great man would be made a saint!
Thomas had driven himself much too hard. Towards the end of his career and his life, while lecturing in Grenada along another voyage to England, the Oxford don, James Anthony Froude had published his book: The English in the West Indies.
… Thomas was at first outraged, as were so many others.
To say the least, this professor was an ignorant, and therefore, evil being. A disgrace to the title, Author. Thomas’ rage was in constant turmoil. He recalled all the newspaper articles over the decades, all the clippings Uncle Henri had given to him. From Lord Acton through Thomas Jefferson, to Trollope, Hume and Carlyle, and now this mou-mou, Froude with his froudacity!
Thomas was unaware that he’d found a title for his new book, Froudacity. C. L. R. James, in his foreword to this book, has done an inimitable job in describing Jacob’s refutations of all that Froude wrote.
* * *
Thomas too, has been victim to the axe of his countrymen. My novel, The Forerunner is therefore, both a resurrection and a celebration of this very great man.
All the studies in the universities of Europe on biological concepts to show that the Negro is inferior, have been made obsolete and turned into trash by Thomas’ achievements. We do see how while one man is a whole world, no man is an island. For educators across the globe to go publicly now looking for role models would be equal to the sin of heresy (disgrace) on this man, who has lifted the Black Man’s Burden.
The life and works of John Jacob Thomas have shown the way and the light. He was in every sense of the word: The Forerunner.
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