Louis E.A. Moyston | Race and politics in Jamaica: a history
Since the political meeting in East Portland, presenting the candidate for the upcoming by-election, the media, social media, and street talk have been buzzing away with perspectives on race and politics in Jamaica.
Jamaica is one of the strangest countries on Earth. It is the only place I know where the majority is treated like a minority, and the minority the majority. For example, the language of the black majority is not an official language. Whenever the issue of race and Patois comes to the fore, there emerges a ‘ball of confusion’ and views about racism and division surface.
The matter of race has been pushed on to the periphery by the politics from 1838 to the present. There has been only one political leader in this country that has come out and defended black people.
The time has come for us to deal with this question of race in politics.
This article is a chronological presentation on issues concerning race and politics in Jamaica since 1838 to the present. It examines also the role of both political parties in the history of race and politics in Jamaica.
The issue of race in East Portland may have been partly related to a 1973 event in which Douglas Vaz, then president of the Jamaica Manufacturers Association, verbally attacked Michael Manley’s declaration of support for the African Liberation struggles.
RACE AND POLITICS IN THE 19TH CENTURY
If the planter colonial society after 1838 divested itself from white supremacy and embraced the principle of equality by providing the ex-slaves access to land, then Jamaica could have been developed in some ways like a Canada, Australia and New Zealand, among other countries.
It is important to take into consideration the perspectives on race that justified slavery and colonial exploitation and to note that those ideas were rampant in the 1860s.
In giving the justification for the massacre that took place in the aftermath of Bogle’s insurgency, Colonel Pim lectured his audience in London on many schools of thinking that defined the Negro as subhuman from his work, The Negro And Jamaica, shortly after the 1865 event.
From 1838 onwards, under the most brutal and harsh conditions, the ex-slaves that fled to the ‘mountain grounds, and along with those who could purchase land, began a process of transforming the mono-crop domestic and export economy. They were deprived of land; they received little or no help from the colonial planter society to build themselves as free people. The racist, oppressive, and exploitative regime enacted brutal laws and levied high taxes on the black masses.
It was this condition that inspired the 1865 Uprising at Morant Bay. Paul Bogle called for unity of the black masses because “they (planter/colonial elite) intend to put us back in to slavery… skin for skin.”
In the late 19th century, there were new political developments. Black Jamaicans became Members of the Legislative Council (MLC), something that was not relished by members of the white minority. The case of Sandy Cox as the MLC for St Thomas during the early 20th century is a good example of white harassment of black elected leaders.
RACE, CULTURE, AND POLITICS IN THE 1920s AND 1930s
The 1920s and 1930s were very important decades in Jamaica. That period saw the emergence of the black masses in terms of their institutions: the resurrection of the Native Baptist tradition through Alexander Bedward, and his resurgence of Bogle’s Black Nationalism. The wrath of the colonial regime smashed his movement out of fear.
In April 1933, Leonard P. Howell went to Trinity Ville, St Thomas, where they launched the idea and movement of Rastafari. He became the subject of violence and police harassment for his effort in debriefing the ex-slaves with a view to uniting them across the plantation. He was met with fire. From his first sermon, there was a call to arrest him for sedition. The planters, the Church and the police conspired and arrested Howell. He became a national political subvert because of his mission to set the captives free.
His “lectures” instructed his followers against the wrong doctrine of the Church, the oppressive nature of the State, that the British monarch was no longer their king. He openly castigated the planters and the Church with bravery as he walked across the plantation of St Thomas. He was vilified for spreading the good news of a new king and messiah for back people.
Later, he was arrested and imprisoned for doing the right thing, which is debriefing the ex-slaves.
Bedward and Howell were seen as a threat to the society. Their teachings evoked fear into the minds of the minority whites. They were described as lunatics, and as such, they have been written out of history.
We all celebrate Rasta, the culture, the philosophy and the spirituality; we all observe its spread all over the world; but not many people know about the founding philosopher of the movement, Leonard P. Howell. He raised fundamental issues about racism in Jamaica as he preached a philosophy of love.
Black radical thinkers and activists, more than often, were/are persecuted, discriminated against and driven into voluntary exile.
The 1930s was the apogee of racism in Jamaica during the post-slavery era. The socialist historians would like you to believe that the 1930s was just about class and trade union activities. The returned residents were the main contributors to the racial awakening – in the 1930s.
When Mr. O.T. Fairclough returned from Haiti, where he worked in the bank, he must have cherished grand ideas of working in the bank in Jamaica. He was in for a rude awakening; banks in Jamaica were not places where black people were employed.
It was in the 1960s that black people could work in the banks and some other places.
Racism was rampant at the workplace. In the Voice At The Work Place, the writer illustrates the extent of the history of racism at the Jamaican workplace. It was from this idea that I made the inference that none of the employers in commerce or in the plantation wanted to sit across the table from a black trade union leader.
This was how Bustamante’s anancyism usurped the leadership of the movement and took the workers back in to the control of the planter and commercial class. The message was clear that black trade union and political leadership were not desirable.
If there was a hero of the crowd in 1938, it would have to be St William Grant, active Garveyite and leader of the people. Who gets the accolade?
It is interesting to see how the two political parties in Jamaica treated the race question and also important to note that it was a united Jamaica people that defeated colonialism in 1938. The emergence of party politics and the descent into political tribalism divided the black people in Jamaica, hence diluting black power. Contrary to the thinking of the socialists, the 1930s was not just about class, but also race.
RACE AND THE POLITICAL PARTIES DURING THE 1940s TO THE 1970s
Because of the socialist pronouncement by the People’s National Party (PNP) from its foundation years, the Jamaica Imperial Association and the Farmers Party, representing commerce and the plantation, along with the bauxite companies, were avid supporters of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), more so, Bustamante.
The racial support is implied for this relationship. Ken Post, in ‘Arise Ye Starvelings’, shares a letter that was sent to Richard Hart from W.A. Domingo from the Jamaica Progressive League, New York. Both men were serious socialists. The letter instructed Hart to ‘hold down’ the race issue in PNP political activities.
As the modern politics progressed, neither the PNP nor the JLP was willing to embrace and ‘deal upfront’ with the race issue. It was not good for elections.
During the 1950s, the Bustamante regime was part of a British and American anti-black and anti-Red drive in Jamaica that led to the destruction of a radical trade union movement led by Ferdinand Smith, and also to the destruction of Pinnacle, the Howell-led Rastafarian commune in Sligoville, St Catherine.
What was in the package of Independence for black people? Is there a preamble in the Constitution that condemns the past with a new view of embracing the principle of equality? Why was there a need for Ras Sam Brown and Millard Johnson and his renewed People’s Political Party election of that period? What about ‘the Rodney upheavals’ and the banning of black books entering the country in the late 1960s?
In 1972, a new order emerged. It was like a second Emancipation. Michael Manley is the only political leader in mainstream politics that dealt with the race question ‘upfront’ in the defence of black people. He paid a tremendous price for it when the minority exerted its majority power.
I can understand why the race issue surfaced at the rally in Portland. It arises out of a serious wound that was inflicted against the PNP and Michael Manley in the mid-1970s.
In Land Of My Birth, Leroy Cooke reminds us how the elite in Jamaica responded to Manley’s new policies: the land reform, the Youth Service, the foreign policy, and other new social programmes. Of course, his new political philosophy, based on the principle of equality, was an affront to the commercial and planter elite.
As Cooke continues, the most drastic action was taken by the newly appointed head of the Jamaica Manufacturers Association, Douglas Vaz. He cites newspaper evidence of Vaz’s verbal attack on Manley because of his support of the African Liberation struggles at the September 1973 Algiers meeting. He travelled in the same plane with Fidel Castro to Algiers, and that was also an issue combined with the race question.
Vaz warned that he (Manley) would be better off dealing with domestic issues “in order to stop the outflow of people and capital”.
It was not the Americans that began the destabilisation process of Manley’s regime; it was started by Jamaicans. The race issue was a central feature of the dissatisfaction by the elite with Manley, whom they castigated for leaving his side of the road and stepping on the other side with black people. They never forgave him.
The time has come to deal with this race issue with some amount of reasonableness. Until then, it will never go away. It may return in ways that are not desirable.