Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Saturday, May 8, 2010

To Zayda from her Shangazi - Ashanti ancestor

Child & Family
Letters to Zayda born April 30, 2010

Warm water never forgets that it was once cold.(Nigeria)

Zayda's great-great-grandfather Arthur Brown at Healthy Hill

Dear Zayda,

Stories about the Coromantee Woman come from my mother’s side of our family. Some history books talk of Coromantee as if it were an ethnic group, but captains of slave ships gave that name to those who came from the interior and left from Koromantyn on the Atlantic crossing. When I lived in Ghana, I visited Koromantyn.

So Coromantee Woman was most likely Ashanti. That might explain the warrior nature of some of my family members. The Ashanti set up an empire under the first Asantehene (Ashanti king) Osei Tutu, and the British didn’t mess much with the Ashanti people. When a British governor decided he was powerful enough to sit on the Ashanti’s sacred golden stool, a woman called Yaa Asantewaa led the Ashanti soldiers to war. The Ashantis didn’t win in the long run, but the British knew they had to tread lightly with these warrior people. The Ashantis therefore were able to rule themselves in their own way, even when the British had enough guns to force the Ashantis to obey them.

Coromantee Woman had two children with a plantation owner. In those times, slave women didn’t have a choice except to do what their owners wanted of them. Maybe she was beautiful, maybe she was strong, maybe she was strong and beautiful. Maybe she never accepted slavery even when her body was in chains and she could be bought and sold like a horse. For whatever were the plantation owner’s reasons, he freed the Coromantee Woman and her children. Freeing her was not enough. How as a Black woman would she be able to set up and support a household? She would have had no schooling, and no way of earning a living. Men who were freed might work as masons or carpenters, but no paying jobs existed for women. They could market their crops, but first they needed enough land to cultivate the crops.

The oral history does not tell us if Coromantee Woman negotiated terms with the plantation owner. However, we know that he gave her hundreds of acres of land. Zayda, when you come to Jamaica, you can drive from Eltham, near Ocho Rios, all the way to the road that leads to Fern Gully, and you will pass through land that Coromantee Woman owned. Apparently she also owned slaves, but that is another story.

Now that she had land, she still needed to feel protected in a slave society where Blacks had no rights, women had no rights, and Black women were the worst off. Apparently, just around this time an English man named Brown came to Jamaica. According to family legend, this man had been Queen Victoria’s lover, her coachman who was exiled from England for having an affair with the queen. In those days, England often exported its problem persons, even its convicts, to colonies like Jamaica.

Queen Victoria did apparently have a suspected lover called Mr Brown. What I cannot say for sure if the Coromantee Woman shared her Mr Brown with Queen Victoria.

According to the family story, Mr Brown was exiled to Jamaica. He, being a white male, came with ready made advantages in Jamaica’s slave society. However, not having land, he would have needed to work in a low-status position (for a white person) as an overseer or bookkeeper on a plantation. If he was indeed Brown the coachman, he may have been barely literate. He would therefore have had to settle for manual work and 'poor white' status. Now, Coromantee Woman was the wrong gender and colour for the times. But she had land.

We can only imagine how Coromantee Woman and Mr Brown each saw opportunities in defying society to become husband and wife. In those times, only the very rare Blacks and whites would dare marry and set up a family together.

Mr Brown gave his name to my mother’s family, but seems to have been no more than a backdrop to Coromantee Woman. Much of the family property has been sold over the years. However, if you go to Healthy Hill today, you will see many members of the Brown family still living on land that the Coromantee Woman was sharp enough to acquire and keep. Your great-grand-uncles Colin (better known as Uncle Mass) Brown and Bob Brown still farm the land left by your great-great-grandfather Arthur Brown.

Special hail to Coromantee Woman, founder of the Brown family and fortune!

With respect for our legacy of strong women,

Your shangazi

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at