True genius is clothed in the ideas of others. With all the books written about Jamaica, past, present, and future, narrowing down the search to five books seemed impossible. I began my search with high hopes and aspirations, but my head was spinning within two minutes. I wanted to reduce my options, not increase them! How could I possibly find the best while excluding the rest?
So, I went in search of genius minds. Dore Tate runs a Facebook page called Books about Jamaica-Authors and Writers. Ms. Tate and her followers know what they are talking about. They are the keepers of the flame faithfully tending to the fire of Jamaica’s written word, making sure it never flickers and or dies.
The excellent suggestions from this group led me to Ian Randle Publishers, where I found Mecca. My search began in earnest. My goal was to put together a chronological order of Jamaica, As It Was, As It Is, and As It May Be. So, I decided to start with that very book.
This book is not easy reading, made even less so for me because it was written by my great, great, great, great grandfather. From the perspective of anti-slavery, anti-bigot, and anti-racism, reading it was even more excruciating.
I realized I had to read this book carefully to understand the mind of the writer. Listen to his words while trying not to interpret his tone. “That slavery is a curse, none will deny; nor would any mortal, possessing a spark of humanity, degrade himself by advocating the policy, propriety or necessity of its continuance,” councils Mr. Senior.
But dear Bernard was a pragmatist, and he understood that if the institution of slavery were not ended correctly, it would plunge Jamaica into a cycle of violence and poverty that it would not recover from. It was botched. As the end of communism led to fascism. As untethered capitalism led to unmitigated greed. As poor preparation and leadership led to a pandemic when science and technology should have defeated it. As countless other examples in history, colonialism’s last stand led to poverty, decline, resentment, despair, and the human soul’s defeat. His pessimism for Jamaica as he saw it is juxtaposed with his hopes for its future. Maybe he could foresee the indomitable spirit of the Jamaican people, who would one day take as their national motto, “out of many, one people.”
The Sugar Barons delves into the economic windfall the Caribbean provided for struggling European nations detailing how Jamaica became Britain’s richest and most important colony with brutal honesty. But the island’s economy was an artificial creation. Sugar Plantations were heavily mortgaged, propped up by political lobbyists rather than the monoculture’s actual market price. To fund the military campaign against the America’s, England raised import duties on sugar. London merchants withdrew credit extended to West Indian plantations, in some cases, recalling debts completely.
The price for essential provisions skyrocketed, causing plantations to fail, failing to repay the interest on loans much less the actual debt owed. The shortage of food led to more rebellions and more resentment.
The agricultural system in Jamaica was in decline, and as the decay became more evident, so did the stakeholders’ disenchantment. The fall of plantocracy was caused by more than the abolition of slaves. Devastating rebellions took their toll on lives and property. Disease, hurricanes, and earthquakes ravaged the island. The personal, as well as the financial risks to planters, were no longer worth the meager returns.
England led the Sugar Revolution in the West Indies and, in doing so, became the world’s leading slave trader. In an ironic twist of fate, the same country led with its campaign to end slavery altogether. “The celebration of the British abolition movement has been described as praising someone for putting out a fire he himself started.”
Yet the sugar industry’s success did shape the modern world with the introduction of a world-wide trading system that sold sugar and rum to distant markets; in return, the island received machinery, raw materials, and luxury items. Thus, began the era of global commerce, supply chains, and the ruthless exploitation of human and natural resources.
But it is Mr. Parker’s description of this period’s legacy that is most poignant. “Slavery, ‘an inferior social and economic organization of exploiters and exploited,’ had sacrificed human life and its most precious values to the pursuit of immediate gain. The sugar and slave business had encouraged greed, hypocrisy, fear, and brutality, corrupting almost everything it touched.”
This book represents a more dynamic representation of Caribbean life from migration to nationalism to identity formation. Through a series of essays, individual writers aim to present a more nuanced understanding of the historical experience by concentrating on marginalized players such as non-elite men and women, the youth, the aged, Africans, Asians, and Europeans. All who were outside the traditional plantation circle of life.
In introducing and discussing the complexities and diversity among the various Caribbean societies and economies, the writers weave an intricate tapestry of all the ethnicities who came together through their shared struggle for equality and fight for enhanced opportunities.
This analysis of social, economic, and political threads highlights our historical experience’s still to be examined. Making it relevant to the modern-day Caribbean islands’ societal makeup and their interconnectedness.
Make no mistake, Stuart Hall is a scholar in every sense of the word, he is an actual Rhodes scholar who attended Jamaica College. He is influenced not only by growing up in Jamaica but also by his experiences as a member of the Diaspora. Hall is a creative thinker, a cultural activist, and a teacher.
His post-colonial development is fundamental to his work. “He has interpreted British society and culture from the perspective of someone who was both deeply formed by it, as a colonial citizen, but was also an outsider to it,” says Michael Rustin.
“But I am not and never shall be “English.” I know both places (England and Jamaica) intimately, but I am not wholly of either place. And that is exactly the diasporic experience, far away enough to experience the sense of exile and loss, close enough to understand the enigma of an always postposed “arrival.”
One of his most significant conclusions in this book is that racism is a continually evolving organism. “There have been many different racisms-each historically specific and articulated in a different way within the societies in which they appear. No doubt there are general features to racism. But even more significant are the ways in which these general features are modified and transformed by the historical specificity of the contexts and environments in which they become active.”
Redefining history as a narrative discourse has significant implications, one of which is an increasing understanding of its structure and role. “Race is not biology, race is not transhistorical, race is not an essence outside of social dynamics and representations, but a social creation.”
His thoughts on the lack of real political will, imagination, and a progressive agenda in Jamaica and the Caribbean are illuminating. The contemporary nature of violence in Jamaican society has a relationship with political authority, the very meaning and value of life, and the realization that power walks in my guises.
Stuart Hall is a cultural theorist and political activist. He is dubbed the “godfather of multiculturalism” for his contributions to sociology. This book lays out, analyzes, and decimates his contribution to understanding Jamaican sociology in remarkable detail.
Amanda Sives wasn’t born and raised in Jamaica, but her love for the island has promoted her desire to understand its origins and people. The aim of this book, she writes, “is to contribute to the wider debates about political development and political culture in Jamaica and to contextualize partisan violence.” In short, it is to help us better understand from whence we came.
Historically political violence has been the tool to overthrow the state or shift the balance of power. But not in Jamaica. Violence has been the weapon of the political parties in the struggle to acquire and maintain power, giving rise to ‘partisan political violence.’
This book details the political landscape from personality politics to trade unions to garrison politics. Patronage politics defined political identity. As Norman Manley remarked in the 1967 General Election, “I hate to see Jamaicans killing and maiming Jamaicans…I hate to see the spirit of Nationhood broken and destroyed.” But this is the very nature of the political violence espoused and encouraged by Jamaica’s political parties.
“How do you fight violence without yourself becoming violent? How do you do it? Needless to say, my supporters really wanted to fight it out…and you had the same type of people on both sides,” recalled Dudley Thompson.
The ideological divisions created by both political parties had lasting effects. “One half of the country became convinced that the enemy was a CIA manipulated set of stooges, and the other half was convinced that the enemy was a set of communist stooges manipulated by Castro. Both sides of the country by then seduced each other into a complete departure from reality. The whole thing was wildly exaggerated, terribly polarized, and bitter. I think that it had a terrible effect, and I don’t think Jamaica has ever really recovered from it,” Michael Manley said after the 1976 elections.
Partisan identities, formed through loyalty to political leaders, have played a prominent role in Jamaican politics because of the lack of religious and ethnic differences politicians typically use to mobilize support.
“Keep them poor and keep them tired, and they’ll never leave.” This mantra seems to apply to Jamaican politics. The exploitation of the poor for political gain by allocating scarce resources to ‘buy’ votes is regularly utilized. But these words were uttered by Jim Jones, the man who convinced more than nine hundred of his followers to kill themselves in the Guyanese jungle.
Why these five books?
So, why did I choose these five books? As Maya Angelou once said, “I have great respect for the past. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
I believe the solution to our current problems lies in understanding and correcting past mistakes. These five books, while not the be-all and end-all, are a good starting point.