Jamaican drivers are not generally known for careful or courteous behavior — speeding and a disregard for the rules of the road are unfortunately all too common — resulting in high numbers of fatalities which have climbed steadily since 2012. In the past two weeks, the island has suffered from a series of accidents with multiple casualties, with a grim tally of 22 deaths. However, one major accident in particular has sparked both serious discussion — and a flurry of outlandish speculation rooted in Jamaican folklore.
The latest tragedy occurred in the early hours of Sunday morning (July 17) at Flat Bridge, which crosses the Rio Cobre in the parish of St. Catherine. An overcrowded, medium-sized SUV, with eight people aboard, apparently overtook a line of vehicles waiting at the traffic lights as they turned from amber to red. The car reportedly skidded and plunged into the river, which is quite deep and slow-moving near the bridge because of a dam further downstream. Six people lost their lives, one 19-year-old survived and the driver miraculously escaped, but fled the scene, turning himself into the police the following day.
The Flat Bridge has a special place in Jamaican history and culture. It lies at the end of the picturesque Bog Walk Gorge, with the Rio Cobre on one side of the road and a steep wall of rock on the other. The banks of the Rio Cobre include remarkable limestone rock features. The bridge itself was built with slave labor around 1724, and many slaves’ lives were reportedly lost in its construction.
The accident is certainly not the first in that particular spot. The bridge is a simple flat structure, without a railing or parapet, built close to the surface of the river, which is deep and prone to flooding — but this latest crash has sparked a discussion on whether it should be replaced or fixed in some way. Vice Chair of the National Road Safety Council, Dr. Lucien Jones, came down on the side of restructuring it:
— Lucien Jones (@lucienforJesus) July 17, 2016
He later suggested:
— Lucien Jones (@lucienforJesus) July 18, 2016
Since his tweet, another accident in the same parish has claimed four more lives — but many Jamaicans reacted to his suggestion with some annoyance. By all accounts, the driver was reckless and has now been charged with six counts of causing death by dangerous driving and driving without a license.
Radio talk show host Emily Shields echoed the sentiments of many, tweeting:
We have a man who had no licence; fitted 8 people into a Vitara – and we are having a discussion about the bridge?#Trumped
— Emily Shields (@emilymshields) July 19, 2016
One Twitter user weighed in on a poll asking whether the bridge should be replaced:
@LoopJamaica its probably the best Bridge ever built in Jamaica (300 years). Respect the Bridge & It will respect you
— RealRenk (@Ryan_X2) July 18, 2016
— Wil Possible (@wilwyse) July 18, 2016
Dr. Jones later offered several proposals on his blog, concluding:
Although there is no ‘silver bullet’ that can immediately prevent any further loss of lives on our roads, there are enough projects and proposed initiatives […] which, if successfully implemented, can make a difference. For many, those measures will be far too late. However, for other disasters ‘waiting to happen’, if we as a nation can find the political will to take the hard decisions, and provide the necessary investment, who knows how many lives we can save in the future.
Popular television current affairs show All Angles discussed the issue in detail with the head of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) Traffic Division, who is currently conducting non-stop media interviews. Producer and avid tweeter Giovanni Dennis weighed in:
— Giovanni R. Dennis (@GiovanniRDennis) July 21, 2016
But a few days after the accident, more fanciful stories have begun to emerge. All the passengers were members of the Mount Maria Zion Truth Fellowship Spiritual Church of God in rural St. Catherine. The car was owned by the church's pastor, Bishop Stephen Rickets, who died in the crash along with his two sons. They were allegedly on a “duppy-catching” expedition (a duppy is a ghost or spirit). Neighbors have had contradictory and sometimes extraordinary stories to tell about the pastor and his church, which is in the Revivalist tradition that developed from myalism, a folk religion focused on the power of African ancestors that typically involves drumming, dancing, spirit possession and animal sacrifice.
Besides the alleged activities at the church — reminiscent, to some, of obeah (a folk religion that is still practiced in some parts of the Caribbean) — the bridge itself is the stuff of history and legend. Historian Lance Neita recorded, among other stories:
Flat Bridge also featured during the 1976 State of Emergency when the late Prime Minister Michael Manley warned the House after an announced arms discovery that “it would only take four sticks of dynamite to render Flat Bridge impassable”. “Nonsense”, asserted a friend as I got carried away with the argument. “All it takes to block Flat Bridge is a good shower of rain.”
There is another point of interest on the approach to Spanish Town, where Jamaica's original Golden Table [the story is here] is said to have surfaced repeatedly in a spot in the river between Angels and the river dam.
Clinton Black in his Tales Of Old Jamaica records the story of the 24 steers and six screaming slaves who were dragged under the water at that spot as they tried to harness the legendary table on the instructions of a plantation owner.
So the river road is not without its fair share of superstition. On a certain day at noon, legend has it that the Flat Bridge is a gathering place for the ghosts of the departed slaves who died during its construction.
Another well-known myth is that of the River Mumma or River Maid, who sits by the river and waits to pull people in:
It is believed that mermaids, or ‘River Mummas’ as they are called in Jamaica, live in a bottomless hole just below the bridge. Many believe that the mermaids are the reason each attempt to establish railing on the bridge has proven futile.
One regular tweeter scoffed:
@Petchary Weeeell a lot of people died to make it, but mostly now it's just stupid people killing themselves
— Game: Blouses (@askanonpro) July 22, 2016
Emily Shields continued to put up a staunch defense of the bridge:
I want justice for Flat Bridge
Just because it has remained silent over the years, it has become a soft target!#JusticeForFlatBridge
— Emily Shields (@emilymshields) July 19, 2016
Meanwhile, the Flat Bridge keeps its secrets (and its growing number of duppies) to itself, still inspiring a mixture of respect for its history — mingled with a little trepidation — among Jamaicans young and old.