FEATURED STORY

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STRANGER THAN FICTION

(The Boy)

© 2012 Beresford Callum

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For me, the Jamaican 500 dollar bill, with its artist impression of national heroin, Nanny, has a very special significance. It triggers memories of an untouched Jamaica. Untouched as in not the utopian dream imagined by tourists (i.e. exotic cuisine, endless sunshine punctuated by cool breezes, white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters, limestone caverns and fertile alluvial plains) but forested valleys so deep their mists don’t clear until after 9 am. Where there are no direct rays of the sun until midday. Where days are cool, nights are bone chilling, the air is clean, no carbohydrates grow there, and the only human sustenance is wild boar, fish, and wild honey. Thus was the environment I found myself in the summer of 1991.

It was not my first time in the upper valleys of Portland’s Rio Grande and Back River. The History Department of the University of the West Indies had initiated the Maroon Archaeological Research Project (UMARP). In 1990, three classmates and I spent three days here, conducting a site reconnaissance survey. This time I was among an international body of students dropped by helicopter into Nanny Town or “Old Nanny Town” as it is referred to today, for a six week stay.

Like all battlefields where the disenfranchised have triumphed over superior forces; Little Bighorn or Greasy Grass for the American Indians of Montana, Thermopylae for the Greek and Palmares (Angola Janga) for the Brazilian maroons, “Old Nanny Town” is considered hallowed ground and the most sacred place on earth to Jamaica’s Windward Maroons. The original home to one of the most notorious band of runaway slave freedom fighters, the village always took the name of their heroin leader, Nanny.

The temporary British Barrack at Old Nanny Town was situated on three terraces. Mr. Leopold Shelton and the three West brothers – Grassy, Clinton and Raldi ; our maroon guides, built our camp on the two lower terraces, roughly 20 meters from the assumed boundaries ruins and main upper terrace.[1] Three tents enclosed a central cooking and a general multi-purpose area. Two tents were located on the lower horizontal terrace acting as informal barriers between the site and the 50 meters of steep, thick scrub land before the Back River Grande. Littered with sharp protruding rocks and precipitous falls, locals say, “Woe is unto the stranger who tries to descend these slopes after nightfall.”

There was a series of unexplained phenomena that field season. The following are my accounts of the two by which I was directly impacted.

Off the beaten path to the south west of our camp was a creek housing a seasonal stream known to wild boar hunters as Nanny Falls. One morning before breakfast, a female friend and I decided to do our morning hygiene at “Nanny Falls” stream. As we began ascending the creek, we heard a series of strange noises and a heavy rustling in the thick dried foliage all around us. We looked enquiringly in all directions. Nothing! Assuming it was a hunting dog; we shrugged our shoulders and moved on. The sound escalating and foliage moving more vigorously, we were interrupted two times more, in quick succession. After the second time hearing what sounded like the flapping of a dog’s ears as he is shaking his head, we not only scanned our surroundings, we threw a few rocks in the general area and then different directions hoping to hear or see some immediate response. Nothing!! The third time was so loud; it made the hairs at the back of my head uncurl. It was as though the eyes of a predator were trained on me. The fear of God was driven into us. We stopped, scanned our surroundings, stared at each other and without saying a word, simultaneously turned and quick stepped it back to the camp.  Back at camp not a word was uttered to our peers and for the weeks that followed neither of us looked in that direction.

As if my Nanny Falls experience were not enough, about two weeks later, I was chased out of my tent. That Friday night after the usual campfire joke session, group members returned to their respective tents. With members of our tent being of the more worldly persuasion, we spent another hour living it up. Some people were smoking and everyone had been taking more than a few shots of Appleton Estate’s finest.

There is something rejuvenating about the fresh clean air when you are 2,256 meters (7,402 ft.) above sea level and surrounded by miles and miles of untouched rain forest. I rarely sleep straight though the night. Lying on my back, I often just keep my eyes closed until I return to deep slumber. This particular night was no different. Awake in the middle of the night, within my sleeping bag, I curled into a semi-fetal position to harness my body heat. Eyes closed I breathed deeply, taking full advantage of the mountain air.

Suddenly, I was overcome by the smell of a heavy smoke. For those familiar with wood fires you know this can be a very pleasant smell. I assumed the wind direction had changed and the logs on the campfire were still going. I grew suspicious when the smell of pure smoke changed to a musky smell of sweat, something similar to an odor carried by char-coaler who had spent days in the hills disassembling a burnt kiln.

I opened my eyes. Standing at the entrance to our tent was “The Boy.” From my position he could have been roughly 5’ 6” tall, burry soot black hair, with wide shoulders and a muscular wedge like torso. Spear in hand, shirtless, and only wearing torn pants from waist to just below the knee, he was looking directly at me. Most noticeable were his huge bulbous eyes that stared at me menacingly. Against his obsidian skin they were most pronounced, a smoky white with enlarged capillaries around the pupils, somewhat similar to varicose veins.

He didn’t move or utter a word, but I was sure he had come to get me. In one swift adrenalin filled motion, I flew out of my bag and stormed through my ghost, unconsciously downhill. It could have been only through the mercy of God or Granny Nanny herself who could have assisted in my navigating the treacherous path toward the river. I was very fortunate. I have heard stories where Red Coats and militia men having had the same experience, ran aimlessly throwing themselves over the precipice which littered the this mountain landscape. Skin torn, flesh bruised and torn from my right big toe in my flight. I was taken to the University medical center where strips of skin were surgically removed and the wound cleaned and bandaged. Up until this day; more than two decades after, I walk with a slight limp.

I was sure of what I had seen, yet when others inquired as to the source of my sudden uproar and the subsequent accident, I said it was a rat or something like one. When things calmed down our four Maroon guides and the five other individuals with whom I shared the same tent quickly covered their heads with their blankets and never uttered a word to refute my explanation. I knew they didn’t believe a word. I have no doubt that my tent mates, all the Jamaican students, were thinking duppy but scared stiff themselves, they dared not say it.

The next day, my peers schemed and plotted, quickly applying their academic and creative skills using my unfortunate situation to modify the popular 1974 hit Duppy Gunman by Jamaican singer Ernie Smith. Duppy Gunman tells the tale of a romantic liaison that went bad. It opens:

I an I man forward

Pon a different scene

I an I man collie weed

I an I man queen

Everything was irie

Getting in the groove

We jus’ a come dung to movement

When someone sey don’t move

It mus be a duppy or a gunman

I man no fin’ out yet

(“Quarrie [2]was a bway to I man las’ night, him coulden falla me”)

 

I have forgotten all the words but, keeping the tune the modified chorus like the original was especially catchy.

Callum no fin’ out yet

“Quarrie was a bway to Callum that’ night, him coulden falla him”

A day or two later, I described what happened to the maroon guides and a few friends. The guides were not surprised; they had suspected what had happened all along. They then surprised me by telling me about the experience of a young college student (who by coincidence happened to be the father of my University roommate) who decide to take a casual hike to the site in the mid-1960s. The word is he was lost, supposedly led away by ghosts for a week.

Fuelled by the aforementioned song, I became the camp’s source of laughs for the rest of that field season and the History Department’s most popular joke the following fall semester.

AFTERMATH

Fascinated by my experiences at Nanny Town, I developed a special interest in Maroon heritage and culture. As fate would have it, I was later hired by The Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) as an Archaeologist. Somewhat similar to America’s National Park Service and England’s English Heritage, the JNHT houses artifacts and is responsible for maintaining Jamaica’s historic sites. Being intimately involved with the material culture over the next three years further stimulated my interest. By the time I began graduate school, I was reading any material associated with Jamaica’s Maroons.

In this relatively short paper, along with his site description, Alan Tuelon gave an account of the experiences of a few other unsuspecting and skeptic adventurers dating back to the mid-eighteenth century, when British Red Coats abandoned the site. So powerful is the folklore that shrouds Old Nanny Town, that since the end of the nineteenth century, only maroon boar hunters have dared to visit the site. Among the many phenomena to which hunters have attested are hearing strange unexplainable noises, clearly not associated with the physical environment of the forest. There are stories of huts spontaneously combusting after being visited by an unclassified speckled, red tailed bird. Others tell of a vocal monster – the whooping boy. Even more outrageous are the stories of a legless dog, floating across waterfalls and through the mist of dark ravines. Hunters say, “that when either of the aforementioned gives tongue the hunter regardful of safety had better make tracks for his home.”

I was dumbstruck! Turns out what I had experienced in Old Nanny Town were just two more events to be added to a long line of unexplainable phenomena to have occurred at the Nanny Town site. Among the more noteworthy are: In 1898 two white men attempted to journey to the site alone, losing their bearings. Fortunately for them they were found close to dying from foot sores and starvation. In the 1930s nine boys from Jamaica College (a high school located in Kingston), somehow after setting eyes upon the site, were lost in the rain forest for two weeks, later found by a Mr. Sebert Mackenzie, a local farmer working in his fields. The local newspaper (Daily Gleaner), contemporaneous with that year, carried some interesting accounts of the efforts of search parties to locate the boys. The most tragic incident associated with the site is probably that of 1965 when a party of geologists working in the area supposedly came too close to the site. They too were lost, one of them dying as a result.

My college roommate swears that until this day his father refuses to talk about his experience. To tell the truth, if it had not been for Alan Tuelons’ paper, I wouldn’t be writing this story either.

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[1] In 1991 Mr. Leopold Shelton was the only surviving guide of Alan Tuelon’s 1967 team.

[2] The Quarrie mentioned in the original song was Jamaica’s, Donald Quarrie one of the world top sprinters in the 1970s.

[3] Alan Tuelon, “Nanny – Maroon Chieftainess,” Caribbean Quarterly 19, no. 4 (1973): 20-27.

See Also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2uRadowN0w.

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*All rights reserved.  No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written permission of the writer Beresford Callum.*

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