Jamaica at 50: liberation, irie (kind of)
This week, as Usain Bolt and other Jamaican athletes break the land speed record in London, the country celebrates its fiftieth year of independence. The country is a mixed bag – both a horrible failure and a roaring success. Sound familiar? By RICHARD POPLAK.
There are many interesting things about Jamaica, but perhaps the most interesting is the fact that 2,890,000 people live there. Yup, half a million people less than the population of Cape Town reside in the fabled Caribbean isle, and yet their cultural impact has been nothing less than seismic.
Think about how many Jamaican Moments you’ve experienced over the past week. If you happened to switch on the television, you might have encountered Usain Bolt ambling his way through the 100m finals at the London Olympics. You have probably heard a Bob Marley track—in a mall, in an elevator, on the radio, at your dagga dealer—at least once in the last seven days. If you haven’t heard Marley, you’ve heard Pete Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Dennis Brown. If by some crazy chance you have not heard reggae, you have most certainly heard dancehall or ragga, or some of the music that contains significant Jamaican DNA: hip-hop, punk, ska.
The Jamaican Moment is basically a hallmark of life on earth—the once-a-day encounter with an export from an island named Xaymaca by the indigenous Taino. They were an oral culture who spoke what anthropologists call a Maipurean language, some of which has inveigled itself into modern English usage: barbacao for BBQ, kanoa for canoe, Juracan for hurricane. Indeed, the cultural onslaught began early.
How did it happen? How did Jamaica, despite its relative remoteness and small population, manage to become such a defining cultural force? Let’s hear from Jamaican-Canadian New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell, whose bestselling Tipping Point may hold some inadvertent clues: “Economists often talk about the 80/20 Principle, which is the idea that in any situation roughly 80% of the ‘work’ will be done by 20% of the participants. In most societies, 20% of criminals commit 80% of crimes. Twenty percent of motorists cause 80% of all accidents. Twenty percent of beer drinkers drink 80% of all beer. When it comes to epidemics, though, this disproportionality becomes even more extreme: a tiny percentage of people do the majority of the work.”
Apply that reasoning to the world at large, at some countries are going to do all the heavy lifting, while the rest lounge around and suffer through dictatorships quietly. Jamaican history has been neither easy nor simple, and this richness, this trouble, has added to the rich mulch of its cultural soil. Columbus landed in Dry Harbour (or thereabouts) in 1494, which did not spell good things for the Taino. The usual horrors of “discovery” unfolded—smallpox, indentured servitude, rape, pillage. In 1655, under William Penn and General Robert Venables, the British took the last Spanish fort, and Jamaica’s history kicked into another gear.
For one thing, Jamaica become a sugar exporting, slave importing dynamo. Seventy-seven thousand tons moved out every year—by 1670, black Igbo and Akan slaves from Nigeria and Ghana formed the majority of the population. The numbers are gruesome: in 1662, there were 400 slaves on the island. Ten years later, there were 9,504. By 1775, there were 192,787. Abolition in 1807 didn’t really change much, as the legislation didn’t forbid slave trading between colonies.
A significant part of Jamaica’s mythology belongs to the Maroons, the runaways who hid themselves in the mountains and fought the British after the Spanish got the boot. They came to rule a significant part of the interior, Queen Nanny raiding British plantations long before the Boers would “invent” guerilla warfare. But even the Maroon history gets mixed into a complicated Jamaican paella: they signed a treaty in 1738, promising that they would accept no new slaves, and return those who did try join their fold. The treaty didn’t hold, and exploded into the Second Maroon War. In 1796, almost 600 Maroons were exported to Canada. Ain’t nothing simple in Jamaica.
The country’s independence narrative dovetails with many African nations. Indeed, intellectuals from the West Indies were politically simpatico with Africa’s luminaries. But when the history is properly parsed, there were some significant, typically Caribbean caveats. After emancipation in 1838, the development of the Jamaican peasantry, who cultivated the hills and plains dotted around the plantations (farming sugar, of course, but also coffee, logwood and other crops.) But the national movement grew around the struggle for land, which was still in the hands of British plantation owners. For Jamaicans, an identity emerged from a dispute over real estate.
So far, so African. But it was the Great Depression, and the subsequent implosion of crop prices, that caused insurrection among the dock workers and newly minted peasantry who formed the Jamaican majority. Enter Marcus Mosiah Garvey:
Africa's sun is shining above the horizon clear,
The day for us is rising, for black men far and near;
Our God is in the front line, the heav'nly batallion leads,
Onward, make your banners shine, ye men of noble deeds
I’ve always thought of Garvey as the Black Kipling, and in the above quoted Battle Hymn of Africa, he proved his credentials. Born in St. Ann’s Bay in 1887 Garvey, through the Universal Negro Improvement Association, defined the rising Jamaican esprit. His long tour of the Caribbean was essential in developing the terms of Black Consciousness, and stands as one of the key moments in liberation history. One of the central figures in his life was, of course, Haile Selassie, which leads us into the whole Rasta thing. (Another strange Jamaican demographic reality check: there are only 24,000 Rastas in Jamaica.) Along with Alexander Bustamente and Norman Washington Manley, who galvanised the unions and developed them as political platforms, Jamaican independence was a foregone conclusion.
Which did not mean that there wasn’t a fight in store for those who hoped to free the country from British rule. The two most enduring political institutions are the country’s two pre-independence political parties, the Jamaica Labour Party (thank you, Bustamente) and the People’s National Party, (ta, Manley), both underwritten by the unions. For those of us in South Africa who believe that two strong liberation parties would have been better than one, the JLP and the PNP—at war for seven decades—prove that the devil we know is better than two we don’t. Jail time, violence, etc. We know all too well how it rolls.
Independence came in 1962, and with it an economic boom that almost exactly mirrors Ghana. Six percent year on year GDP growth for almost a decade, rule under a liberation hero (thanks again, Bustamente), lots of bauxite, tourism, manufacturing, trade with the Yankees, and boom, boom, boom. Then, like Ghana, Jamaica slammed into the 70s like a tractor-trailer hitting a 747. The PNP replaced the JLP, under the threat of all out internecine war, and Jamaica started on its great decline.
But decline from what, exactly? As a plantation colony, it worked just fine (unless you were a slave, in which case it was quite crap.) But as the world economy became more connected, and Jamaica’s economy diversified, a decline was inevitable. But Jamaica never had the political institutions or checks and balances in place to weather the incipient social and economic Juracans.
Is the country a total basket case? Jamaica is no one thing, and the Sex Pistols view—talking a holiday in other people’s misery—is (no surprise) something of a simplification. In his award winning travel memoir The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica, Ian Thompson told NPR, “One of the things that I set out to do in writing this book is to look at the fabulous variety of this country. It's a whole kind of bewildering melting pot of different skin colors, different peoples, different religions, different creeds ... so I was looking at that aspect of Jamaica in particular and celebrating it as much as I could."
Speaking of The Dead Yard, it was the subject of a vicious takedown in the New York Times. Dexter Garner wrote of Ian Thompson’s book: “Stand back and witness the bonfire Mr. Thomson makes from the kindling of modern Jamaican society. He calls it a place with “no recorded ancient history, religion or civilisation of its own.” It is “a nation built on violence and morose vendettas.” It is “vexatious” and “fear-ridden.” It has a low literacy rate and is “one of the most violent countries in the world.” It has no credible justice system. Eight of 10 children are born to unmarried mothers. It goes on. “The doctor-to-population ratio in Jamaica is currently 1 to 5,240, one of the lowest in the world.” He suggests it may be a “failed nation,” in a state of “moral decomposition; a hating and hateful place” and “a kind of corrupted Eden.” About its capital city, he declares: “Everyone in Kingston — uptown, midtown, downtown — seemed to be frightened of everyone else.”
Those numbers are nasty, but it’s the sort of thing that an outsider could easily write about South Africa, missing the nuance, the ambition and the energy, especially from the young. It’s a misreading that hamstrings newish countries, because international affirmation seems to mean so much. But there is no doubt that Jamaica has possibilities, and that’s been proven by the sectors in which it has had so much success: Track and field, and music.
Both are established industries with tried and tested structure. They pull in new talent, generating future stars. And it’s not like the country hasn’t noticed. The writer Colin Channer wrote, in the introduction for the Jamaican short fiction anthology Iron Balloons, that in order for local writing to be successful, it needs to imitate the music industry. “Jamaica's emancipation from slavery and subsequent independence as a nation were possible because many people sacrificed their lives,” wrote Glenford Smith in a recent Jamaican Gleaner editorial. “Our Olympic superstars have paid the price for athletic greatness through years of grueling practice, focus and unwavering dedication. Nanny of the Maroons sacrificed the relative security of plantation slavery life to risk her life leading a rebellion against the English colonists. A century after Nanny, Sam Sharpe, along with 550 other freedom fighters, sacrificed their lives in the Christmas Rebellion of 1831. It was their ultimate sacrifice, however, which was catalytic in the 1834 abolition of slavery in Jamaica.”
Extrapolate that outwards to IT or manufacturing, and the country suddenly has a future. The potted history above ignores so many of the sacrifices Jamaicans made for their independence; the country will have to make many more in order to build over the course of the next 50 years. Now, it comes time to insert the essential Jamaican proverb: “Puss and dawg nuh have di same luck.” We’re not all equally lucky. Jamaica’s future depends upon evening that up a little. Good luck, y’all. We’ll be watching. Because there are lessons aplenty in the Jamaican journey, not all of them the proper way to operate a bong. DM
Photo: Jamaicans celebrate after watching Usain Bolt win the men's 100 metres final during the London 2012 Olympic Games, as they gather in Half Way Tree in Kingston August 5, 2012. Hundreds of Jamaicans who braved the wind and heavy rain to watch outdoor screenings of the Olympic 100 meters final on Sunday, erupted in wild celebration, blowing horns, banging pots and pans and waving flags, as their star sprinter Usain 'Lightning' Bolt retained his title. REUTERS/Gilbert Bellamy