Sligoville: Jamaica’s first free village

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A report from Jamaica’s Observer.

Located about 10 miles north of Spanish Town, St Catherine, is Jamaica’s first free village, Sligoville.

The property was purchased by Baptist Minister and abolitionist, Rev. James Mursell Phillippo, who arrived in Jamaica in 1823.

He campaigned for the abolition of slavery, which came in 1834, and for the establishment of free villages for the emancipated slaves.

It was in anticipation of full freedom that Phillippo, on July 10, 1835, bought 25 acres of land for £100, on which the village of Sligoville was established.

The land was subdivided into 1/4 acre lots and sold to the emancipated slaves for the sum of £3. The property was originally called Highgate, and was renamed Sligoville on June 12, 1840 in honour of Howe Peter Browne, the second Marquis of Sligo, who was governor of Jamaica from 1834 until 1836.

He was sent from England to supervise the emancipation process for the newly freed slaves and the transition from the apprenticeship system to full freedom.

Phillipo, with Sligo’s support, constructed a school and church on the property.

Relics of Jamaica’s past can still be seen at the site. Among them are the ruins of Highgate House, where successive British governors lived; and the St John’s Anglican Church built in 1840 by John Agustus O’Sullivan as a private chapel for his family. It was O’Sullivan also who built the Sligoville Great house.

Remnants of a coffee mill and a tank where the ex-slaves got their water can still be seen in the area.

Executive Director of the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ), Vivian Crawford, told JIS NEWS that Sligoville has a lot of historical significance as it was the first free village to be established in the West Indies.

He noted that “because of the pride of the (former slaves) they did not want to be squatters. They wanted structure in which they could raise their families.”

Crawford said that several other free villages were set up across the island, which were modelled after Sligoville. These are Sturge Town, St Ann; Bethel Town, Westmoreland; Mount Carey, St James and Islington, St Mary.

Most of them were established by ministers of religion, who supplied land to the ex-slaves, who had never owned property before.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to the Baptist church for the effort with regard to these free villages,” Crawford says.

The IoJ head, in noting the rich heritage of the area, said Sligoville is the birthplace of the Rastafarian movement, with the first Rastafarian village named Pinnacle established there in 1940.

Meanwhile, residents of Sligoville, many of whom are direct descendants of the freed slaves, who settled there are proud of the area’s history.

They have formed the Sligoville Heritage Foundation Benevolent Society with the goal of preserving the heritage and safeguarding the legacy of the area.

Secretary of the Society, Girsham McLaughlin, told JIS NEWS that the village remains an important part of Jamaica’s history.

“We are trying to promote Sligoville as a heritage site because we were the first free village to be established after the abolition of slavery. There are specific structures that date back to the time of slavery and we are trying to get funding to preserve what is left of those (structures). If we don’t preserve them we will have lost a significant part our history,” he noted.

The community has organsied several fundraising activities including fish fries and the annual Sligoville Emanci-Fest in collaboration with the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC). McLaughlin said there are plans to launch a website to promote the heritage and culture of the area.

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