LACONIA — A documentary exploring the German heritage of a town in Westmoreland, Jamaica, will see a special screening, followed by a discussion with the director, at the Belknap Mill on Thursday, February 27 at 7 p.m.
Producer-Director David Ritter, a Jamaican who attended school in New Hampshire and now divides his time between the United States and the Caribbean, says the project grew out of a series of 10-minute documentaries he was producing to highlight some of the cultural enclaves in the Caribbean. His segment on Seaford Town came to the attention of producer Clinton Wallace in Los Angeles, whose family had its roots in Jamaica.
Ritter said Wallace was happy to see that someone had documented his family heritage and he asked Ritter to return for a more complete record of "German Town". Armed with camera, microphone, and "a big stack of mini-DVD tapes", Ritter returned to interview residents willing to talk about their lives and history. The result is "German Town: The Lost Story Of Seaford Town Jamaica".
The documentary explores the history of an isolated village deep within the mountains of Westmoreland where the inhabitants may be the descendants of German indentured servants who worked the plantations after the Jamaican emancipation. Germans were brought in to replace the slave labor that previously drove the island's economy. The residents' ancestors also may have arrived under different circumstances, as runaway prisoners or former members of the military battered after the Napoleonic wars. People seeking a better life and looking to escape the poverty and hardships in their homelands found their way to Jamaica.
"A great deal of the people are very uncertain of their own ethnic origin," Ritter said in a telephone interview. "For some, they had heard oral history passed down through the generations. Others had a more historical grasp, with documents that had been passed down. For others, it was more conjecture on where they came from. Some couldn't accept any idea, and they were uncertain about anything."
Ritter found that the 30-50 residents remaining there were very diverse in attitude, some of them happy to speak with him and share their stories, while others were hostile. Although they were a diverse lot, most held modern views, so Ritter was surprised to find one woman, who was about 93 when he interviewed her, holding a white nationalistic ideology. Having grown up there when the village was very isolated, she knew what the old town was like, and her ideas were very different from those of the general populace. "It was stunning because she was very much of the 19th century, with views you don't generally see or even hear spoken of in Jamaican society," Ritter said.
Asked how he came to focus on a town that was so isolated, Ritter said, "If you are someone like me, interested in history, you read a lot, and there's a good chance you'll come across the name. Now and then, a newspaper report comes through, and it is recorded in some history books — just a small paragraph."
He said one book that inspired him was Lost White Tribes, with the subhead, "The End of Privilege and the Last Colonials in Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Brazil, Haiti, Namibia, and Guadeloupe." The book describes former colonial groups that "never went away — small European pockets that never really vanished," said Ritter. There he found a small chapter on German Town.
The 55-minute documentary explores both the contemporary life of Jamaicans of German heritage and their murky history. For further information on the mill and its events, visit www.belknapmill.org or call 603-524-8813.