Why a Jamaican’s fear of being loud can be traced to slave code in 1816

Stephen Nartey August 28, 2022
The Jamaican flag (Courtesy of Kyle James via Wikimedia Commons)

Sounds of Black origin are often perceived with prejudice. A Professor of African, African American and Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina, Petal Samuel, said cultural expressions of Black minority communities such as drumming for centuries have been criminalized.

A one-time Inspector General of Kingston, Jamaica, in 1934 had reason to complain about what he described as noise generated by Jamaicans. He gave his concerns weight by writing to the colonial secretary of Great Britain to criminalize noise-making in Kingston.

Periods in which sounds and noise have or are suppressed in African settings have been linked to tradition and cultural ceremonies. The Ga people of the West African nation of Ghana place a ban on noise making to usher in the planting of crops before the rainy season in May as preparatory arrangements for its festival, Homowo.

Researcher Daniel Tetteh Osabu-Kle in a paper he authored for Carleton University said the ban is to enable farmers to attend to the business of farming with seriousness. According to him, the ban also extends to calming the sea in a ritual called “nshobulemo” and “okomfemaa” which bans fishing in lagoons until the festival is over.

Under such dispensations, the suppression of noise is taken for the greater good of society and not targeted at discriminating against a class or minority community. Despite protests in times past, governments have backed this long-standing tradition of the Ga people.

Relating it to the Afro-Caribbean situation, Professor Samuel said suppression of noise in Jamaica is indicative of attempts to restrict persons of African ancestry from expressing themselves culturally. In her article published on the University’s website, she said racial discrimination should not be measured only in physical mistreatment, but, in the music and sounds the people associate with.

She said she suffered racial and gender indifference at an early age because she was not allowed to be loud or open the volume of music because of how it might be perceived.

According to Professor Samuel, this racial suppression of sounds stems from a colonial legacy in the 1800s where the colonial establishment perceived the Afro-Caribbean slaves as communicating military codes through the use of drums and horns.

She explained that that’s the philosophy behind the Jamaican slave code of 1816 criminalizing noise because the colonial authority considered sounds generated by the slaves as a threat to their existence.

This is linked to the slave rebellion in South Carolina which culminated in the passing of the slave code in 1739.

Since time immemorial, Afro-Caribbeans have been mentally conditioned to live according to some standards, she noted.

Professor Samuel said Whites are allowed to blast classical music loudly but not the same with increasing the decibels of a hip hop track.

She said society is reinforcing a dangerous racial code which makes it acceptable for one group of people to be loud and the other to be timid and reserved.  

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