Fri | Dec 1, 2023

The Marcus Garvey story – Part I

Published:Wednesday | October 4, 2023 | 12:06 AMPaul H. Williams/Gleaner Writer
Marcus Garvey
Marcus Garvey
A section of a printing press once owned by Marcus Garvey.
A section of a printing press once owned by Marcus Garvey.
Marcus Garvey
Marcus Garvey

IN UNFLATTERING circumstances, Malcus Mosiah Garvey was born in St Ann’s Bay, St Ann, on August 17, 1887. Somewhere along the journey, Malcus was changed to Marcus. He became a printer’s apprentice before moving in 1906 to Kingston, where he got involved in trade unionism and politics. He published his first newspaper, Watchman, about 1909. By now his name was circulating among Kingston employers, who regarded him as a troublemaker.

In 1910, Garvey left Jamaica to find employment. In Limón, Costa Rica, he worked as a time-keeper on a United Fruit banana plantation. The conditions under which the employees worked and lived were so deplorable that Garvey wrote about them in La Nacion, a newspaper he edited. His next stop was in Panama, where he edited La Prensa.


Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Chile and Peru were other Latin American countries Garvey visited, and in every one of them he observed racism and social injustice being carried out against black people. As a youngster, he himself experienced some amount of racial discrimination. In February 1912 Garvey returned to Jamaica, where he worked at the Government Printing Office in Kingston.

By May 1912, Garvey was gone again, this time to London, England, where he worked on the shipping docks, and attended classes at the University of London’s Birkbeck College. Forever a writer, he also found work with the African Times and Orient Review, a journal run by Duse Mohamed Ali, a black nationalist and journalist.

In 1913, he visited other European countries, and did not like how black people were being treated there. He conceptualised an idea to start an organisation that would advocate for the rights of black people all over the world. He decided to leave England right away. On June 17, 1914, he boarded the SS Trent at Southampton to Jamaica. He was only one of three third-class passengers onboard.


The other two were a West Indian missionary returning from Basutoland with his Basuto wife. They struck up a conversation. Garvey was disturbed by the story of their experience in Africa. He thought long and hard, but he said he could not find the black man’s government, his king and kingdom, his president, his country, his ambassador, his navy and “men of big affairs”. And then he declared to himself, “I will help to make them.”

Lying on his back in his cabin, Garvey came up with a name for the aforementioned organisation. He called it the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities (Imperial) League UNIA-ACL. Within five days of his July 15, 1914 arrival in Jamaica, Garvey formed the UNIA-ACL, with its main purpose being to unite all Africans worldwide to establish a country and government of their own. Garvey became the president of the organisation, whose motto was ‘One God! One aim! One destiny!’

Of immediate concern to Garvey was the uplifting of the “Negro in Jamaica”. Yet, to his great disappointment, he came up against significant resistance from upper-crust Jamaican society. He nonetheless attracted a big crowd of loyal followers, with whom the message of ‘Up ye mighty race’ resonated significantly.

But, Garvey was twice disappointed, as some of the very people that he sought to unite were full of prejudice and discrimination against their own kind. People as black as he was, and blacker, were convinced that they were white. He referred to them as the “black-whites” of Jamaica, and they opposed him every step of the way. Yet, he succeeded to a significant extent in establishing the UNIA-ACL in Jamaica with help from prominent white friends. But, they were afraid of offending the coloured gentry that was passing for white. Hence, he realised that he had to go it alone.


He was invited to the USA after he wrote to Booker T. Washington and told him of his intentions. He had looked to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in the United States as a template for Jamaica, and the idea was for them to tour the southern and other states to spread the word. However, Washington died in the autumn of 1915. That did not stop Garvey from leaving Jamaica in 1916, and the decision to do so was to evolve into the biggest pan-Africanist movement in the world.

Garvey arrived in America at a time when there was a vacuum in black leadership. He underscored the need for blacks to interpret their own history and control their own destiny. Harlemites and black Americans loved and adored him for what he was doing for the race. Marcus Garvey was the first to preach forcefully, without apology, that “black is beautiful”. In May/June he began his tour of 38 states, promoting the organisation while surveying life in America.

When Garvey returned to New York, he established the New York division of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in May 1917. After instructing the people of the aims and objectives of the association, he intended to return to Jamaica to complete the setting-up of the UNIA in Kingston, but he was encouraged by the reception he had received from American blacks, so he decided to stay on. Within a month, the UNIA had more than two million members across the USA.