I don’t know whether I can call myself an independence baby. I wasn’t born in 1962—the year the flag went up—nor did I come of age in that time, with the implicit suggestion that I might possess some fuller understanding of what the whole occasion meant. Indeed, I probably don’t qualify at all, being born in Montreal, Canada, despite my always reminding anyone curious enough to ask that I arrived on the Rock only a few months later. Even this minimal claim though, I wryly discovered in the wake of Pluto Shervington’s 1970s hit song, would inevitably fail the “I man born ya” examination of national authenticity.
Yet, in a fallback attempt to secure a pass, I submit that I was present in the National Stadium the night the black, gold, and green unfurled, and this must count for something. And though only a tender nine years old, I remember it sharply. There were these rapid strobelike flashes, or at least I think it was a strobe, which I had never seen or heard of before. Or it might just have been the multiple flashes of hundreds of cameras as the red, white, and blue Union Jack slithered down and the new symbol of hope clambered up, illuminated intermittently and tentatively, like the new nation herself. Then it was up and fluttering as the strains of “Jamaica, Land We Love” filled the already overflowing stadium for the first time.
I was, perhaps, a little too young to understand all that was going on. There were the debates over the West Indies Federation that had run very hot in the preceding months. Then, there was the referendum, in which Premier Norman Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP), with its argument for achieving sovereignty via a united group of West Indian states, was ultimately defeated by his cousin Alexander Bustamante and his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), with its belated though powerful appeal for Jamaican independence as a solitary state. The referendum was a huge disaster for Manley, the respected Queen’s council. The intellectual leader of the nationalist movement, he and his comrades had sat in opposition for the entire decade after universal adult suffrage elections were first held in 1944. When the PNP eventually won in 1955, he worked tirelessly to advance the goal of national autonomy through what he thought was the only feasible avenue for economic and political viability—a West Indian federation of Jamaica and the British territories in the Eastern Caribbean.
But the federal project was blighted from the start. The failure to engage Jamaicans in a genuine conversation on the pros and cons of federation from the beginning meant that when the inevitable differences arose, there was no foundation of mutual understanding to fall back on. Conflicting and contradictory island-specific interests led to clashes around the citing of the capital, taxation policies, the design of a customs union, and myriad other details. There were also the inevitable personality-based conflicts as the newly emergent political elites jockeyed for power, seeking to balance the priority of securing national power bases with the necessity of protecting island interests at the federal level.
The game was virtually over when, in the lead-up to the first federal elections in 1958, the key players—Manley in Jamaica and the brilliant historian Dr. Eric Williams in Trinidad—chose not to contest, effectively ceding the regional premiership to Barbados’s Grantley Adams, an individual whose personality would prove wholly unsuited to forging unity out of regional indifference and adversity. Adams’s petulant style of leadership in which, from the distant (from Jamaica’s perspective) federal capital in Chaguaramas, Trinidad, he issued edicts that seemed to dictate policy to Jamaica, only served to inflame suspicions that were simmering beneath the surface about the “small islanders.”
The federal idea was always somewhat alien and artificial in Jamaica, with her historical ignorance of and distance from the Eastern Caribbean. Her traditional patterns of migration looked either north, to the United Kingdom, Cuba, and the United States or west, to Panama and Costa Rica. The British Colonies of the Eastern Caribbean, aside from minor contact through the West Indies cricket team and the still tender University College of the West Indies (UCWI), founded in Mona, Jamaica, in 1948, were far beyond the horizon of most Jamaicans and existed in the imaginary, if at all, as backward, dependent, “small islands.” When, in the course of the brief federal moment, these distant, vaguely perceived second cousins appeared in the popular mind to wish to dictate local policy, the door was left ajar for the intervention of determined opposition.
Into this opening rode Bustamante. The leonine, charismatic hero of the 1938 labour riots had lost much of his glamour in the previous decade when the JLP served in office. The limited power offered by the early constitutions, with the governor having the decisive vote, was in part the cause, giving Bustamante (Busta) responsibility without genuine authority. But his own brand of unpredictable authoritarianism also contributed to his gradual eclipse, as the PNP countered this with a mass base built on more democratic, grassroots-based organizational principles. Many assumed that when the PNP triumphed convincingly in 1955 it signaled the banishment of Busta and the JLP to the political wilderness for a long time. But this was to underestimate Busta’s wiliness and canny grasp of Jamaican folkways and politics.
Initially lukewarm to the federal idea, Busta eventually embraced it to the point where the federal party to which the JLP was allied was victorious in the 1958 elections and in Jamaica herself, the JLP actually gained more votes than the PNP. When, however, he sensed growing dissension in the federal ranks and a groundswell—particularly among the elites—for a Jamaican solution, he pirouetted from his pro-federal stance to become, seemingly overnight, the supreme advocate of Jamaican secession. In the end, Busta’s simple slogan of independence for Jamaica proved far more comprehensible than the more convoluted concept of independence via the avenue of federation. In retrospect, it was probably only Manley’s remarkable personality and the trust that many invested in him that prevented an even more convincing JLP victory in the 1961 plebiscite, instead of the relatively modest, though decisive margin of 54 percent against and 46 for continuing in the regional government.
I came from a federal family. My mother is Trinidadian and she met my Jamaican father while they were both students at McGill in Montreal, she a liberal arts major and he studying dentistry. They returned to Jamaica in 1956, just as the PNP had come to power and federation was gaining momentum. As bright young professionals, they soon gravitated to the small but influential crowd of young thinkers and artists gathered around the UCWI. Douglas Manley—Norman’s elder son—and his charming, talented wife, Carmen, were among their best friends, as were the St. Lucian student/poet Derek Walcott, the novelist John Hearne, and the iconoclastic painter Karl Parboosingh. This was a PNP crowd, but also essentially a federal crowd. People like my parents had studied in Canada and others like Douglas in the United Kingdom, where, for the first time, they met other West Indians. They came home with a burning sense of belonging to a wider West Indian space, bolstered, as in my father’s case, by marriage to a partner from another island. My best friend was Carmen and Douglas’s son Norman, named, I think unfortunately, for his famous grandfather. So, if our parents were PNP (and in Norman’s case, his grandparents, too), we by default were also PNP and, though somewhat distanced from the incessant debates surrounding the stubbornness of Williams, the arbitrariness of Adams, and Busta’s opportunism verging on calumny, we were, by osmosis, also profederation.
Thus, we were more than mere bystanders as the disaster of the referendum defeat unfolded all too rapidly into Manley’s decision—against the advice of many of his supporters—to hold an early election to decide who would lead the country into independence. I recall that on the night of the election, I was visiting with my friend Norman and his parents at a guest house near Port Antonio. Douglas, who was a sociologist at the university, also had a guest: an English professor who was a polling expert. I remember when the results started coming in on the radio, Douglas’s friend almost immediately said that it looked bad and that the PNP was likely to lose. We sat with trepidation, dejected, voiceless, and without franchise, reflecting, no doubt, the feeling of thousands of PNP supporters nationally on the cruel irony through which Busta and the labourites, who had never been strong advocates of national sovereignty, had now, as pretenders to the throne, swept into power with the popular mandate to lead Jamaica into independence.
Yet on that fecund and fateful August night in the new National Stadium—the stadium conceived and built by Manley, despite the many detractors who argued that it was a waste of time and money—the entire country, or at least a thirty-odd thousand representation of the whole, seemed to be gathered for a common cause. How quickly and painlessly everyone had put federation behind them and come over as one to the new notion of independence!
But now some of these very detractors were sitting alongside Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret in the Royal Box. And suddenly there was grumbling and unrest in the crowd as dense rumors circulated in the grandstand and beyond that Opposition Leader Norman Manley and his artist wife, Edna, had been denied seating and had been turned away from the box; this action was thwarted only when Prime Minister Bustamante himself intervened and silenced the young Turks in his cabinet with the command, “Let my cousin in.” And that is why, when the Kingston crowd, the majority traditionally loyal to the PNP, heard that Norman was in the stadium and was being treated impolitely, they rose in adulation but also in anger, drowning out, to their consternation, the polite applause accorded Bustamante and his ministers.
And that is, in retrospect, why my mother—“decent middle-class” lady that she was—and others from the crowd gathered outside the stadium after the ceremony, waiting expectantly for Norman’s Jaguar to emerge from the VIP parking, and why she, along with many others, began shouting and running behind the Jaguar, to the embarrassment and consternation of my nine-year-old sensibility. And though my memory fades, I know they offered him words of comfort that must have said, “Never mind, Mr. Manley; don’t let the labourites worry you. We, your comrades, will stand with you through thick and thin.”
Yet when the British sun set on this uncertain evening, and at midnight the black, gold, and green fluttered in the gentle breeze, we all, comrades and labourites, paused in awe and wondered together at the possibility and hope that this new nation offered, a nation so small and frail in a world of immeasurable industry, commerce, and nuclear might. For Jamaica was herself, immeasurably beautiful and filled with a dynamic and prepossessed—if also volatile and unpredictable—people who might still pen a new chapter in the history of the world.
For, though its history was never an urgent part of the nascent nation’s celebrations, this was, after all, an island that had once been the wealthiest sugar plantation slave colony of Great Britain and was still only a hundred and twenty years removed from enslavement. Jamaica’s children—overwhelmingly out of Africa but also of Asia, and of the few Europeans who had stayed and of the larger number of hybrids that had emerged along the way—were for the first time beginning to write their own lyrics and sing their own song. And many hoped, perhaps tentatively, that when that song was written, the rest of the world might stop in its headlong rush, take note, and listen to an urgent rhythm accompanied by a new, enchanting melody.
Thus was born Jamaica, not in blood and thunder yet riven with doubts and divisions, even as hope swelled in the hearts of many as they considered in the early morning hours the glorious possibilities that a new beginning might herald.
Brian Meeks is professor of social and political change, director of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, and director of the Centre for Caribbean Thought at the University of the West Indies, Mona. He has taught at Michigan State University, Florida International University, and Anton de Kom University of Suriname and has served as visiting scholar at Cambridge, Stanford, and Brown Universities. He has published nine books and edited collections, including Caribbean Revolutions and Revolutionary Theory: An Assessment of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Grenada (1993); Envisioning Caribbean Futures: Jamaican Perspectives (2007); The Thought of New World: The Quest for Decolonisation (ed. with Norman Girvan; 2010); and M. G. Smith: Social Theory and Anthropology in the Caribbean and Beyond (2011). His first novel, Paint the Town Red, was published in 2003.