Unbinding Identities

The Challenges to Nationalism’s Myths in Jamaica for Sale

• October 2014

My navel string bury right here
But a tourist own could be anywhere.
— The Mighty Gabby, “Jack”

Directed by independent filmmaker Esther Figueroa (who is also a novelist), Jamaica for Sale (2009) is described on its website as a film about tourism and sustainable development.1 In this essay, however, I want to consider Jamaica for Sale as a film that critiques the construction of a national identity founded on the promise of wealth from tourism.

Paul Willemen’s discussion of nationalism and identity helps to elucidate ways this environmental film might be considered as both a narrative of the nation and a critique of nationalism’s myths. Willemen describes nationalism as the forces that seek to bind people to identities: the range of institutionalized practices that attempt to define and impose a particular, reductive, politically functional identity on members of the national body.2 Central to this process, states Willemen, is the deployment of a broad-ranging array of modes of address, employed rhetorically but also embodied in organizations and the policies of institutions, that seek to socialize us to think of ourselves within prescribed formations of identity. While Jamaica for Sale is explicitly concerned with documenting the impact of tourism on the Jamaican environment, it can also be understood as an attempt to subvert the process of identity formation that Willemen describes, by exposing how the apparatus of nationalism works and by critiquing the myths and assumptions on which a specific formation of national identity has been constructed. The film reveals how nationalism’s modes of address have been deployed to socialize Jamaicans to think of themselves in relation to tourism in specific ways, that is, to associate tourism development with national prosperity, autonomy and nation building, and, further, to bind positive attitudes to tourism with ideas of what it is to be Jamaican. By showing how certain forms of tourism development are in fact detrimental to the well-being of citizens and their traditional ways of life and values, the film constitutes an attempt to unbind the citizen from nationalism’s formation of an identity based on the expectation of wealth from tourism. Thus the film offers an alternative way of positioning Jamaicans in relation to tourism development. In doing so, it makes the case for a more nuanced and complex understanding of tourism’s impact, insisting that the state’s monolithic representation of tourism as beneficial is inadequate and illusory.

Jamaica for Sale primarily uses archival material—interviews, film excerpts, television footage, and aerial and other photographs—to demonstrate how the promise of wealth from tourism has been embedded in concepts of nation in Jamaica and has constituted a persistent theme within nationalism’s mode of address to Jamaica’s citizens. The archival images affirm that not only has tourism development been offered to Jamaicans in an uncomplicated way as a viable vehicle for economic growth and development but also that in the nation-state’s modes of address, ideas about patriotism and national autonomy have been imbricated with myths of wealth from tourism and the citizen’s support for the industry. Mainly black and white, the archival material essentially creates glimpses of the past, constructing a loosely braided account of the emergence of tourism as a major component in the country’s economy. The use of the older material suggests the longevity of the myth of tourism as a producer of wealth for the nation and also creates a visual contrast to the more contemporary images shot in color. This in turn accentuates a tension between early expectations of tourism’s promise and the later revelation of its disastrous consequences.

In one sequence, archival footage shows P. J. Patterson speaking in his capacity as minister of tourism, a post he held in 1972. In his address, Patterson, who would later become prime minister of Jamaica, urges the country to support tourism as a matter of moral obligation and national duty. He states,

I am well aware that in certain circles it has become fashionable to dismiss the tourist industry and to spend all the time denigrating its performance and condemning its social effects. I ask the country here and now to accept as an undisputed fact of life that given the capital already invested, having regard to our precarious balance of payments situation and the frightening level of unemployment in the society, the tourist . . . has a key role to play in revitalizing our economy and stimulating the possibilities of further development. [applause] Whenever and wherever the performance in a job has even the slightest effect on the industry, it is the duty of that person from self-enlightened interest and his obligation as a Jamaican to do all that which is humanly possible to facilitate the growth of tourism.

Andrew Higson states that public debate gives the nation meaning and media systems with a particular geographical reach give it shape.3 One can imagine, therefore, how this injunction to support tourism, uttered by an important national figure, reverberated across space and time: first, in 1972, with its immediate and initial audience, shown listening to and applauding the tourism minister; then, among countless Jamaicans as it was replayed on television; and, much later, experienced by the spectators of Jamaica for Sale. In its early reception, Patterson’s message would have interacted with other official messages about tourism to create for Jamaicans a sense of how closely their futures and the future of their country were bound to tourism’s growth and success. Significantly, Patterson urges the exemplary performance of the citizen’s job within the context of a specific industry or sector rather than in the service of an abstract idea about the usefulness and value of work, as occurs in some expressions of identity produced by other nations. The mode of address here is critical. Patterson’s remarks are staged against the backdrop of what appears to be a homogenous consenting audience, but although he explicitly addresses “the country,” he appears to be speaking to members of the elite and middle class. By dismissing dissenting voices as “fashionable,” he infers that the more enduring and stable position is the one that he endorses: a well-thinking, patriotic Jamaican is one who works avidly (one might even say obsessively) in support of the tourist industry.

Incorporated into the text of Jamaica for Sale, Patterson’s ideological intentions are rendered more visible, and the “undisputed fact of life” that he offers the audience is revealed as false. The film uses his comments to expose the apparatus of nationalism and shows how Patterson, as an agent of the nation-state, attempted to create social conformity by conflating support for tourism with the performance of a national duty, thus binding the economic activity to ideas about national identity and national well-being. Through this critique of nationalism, Jamaica for Sale participates in the public debate on nation, providing alternate ways of imagining the community that differ significantly from the official version or definition.

In another sequence, Figueroa uses archival material to link both Jamaica’s independence from Britain in 1962 and the attendant need to forge a sense of national destiny supported by economic development with the promise of wealth from tourism. Figueroa’s use of archival material is problematic for the researcher, since she neither dates nor identifies much of the older footage, but in her referencing of independence she uses excerpts from a film that is familiar to many Jamaicans: the official recording of the inaugural independence celebrations of 1962, A Nation Is Born. Produced by the state-run agency the Jamaica Film Unit, the excerpts from A Nation Is Born are dutifully patriotic in tone and sentiment, prompting the spectator to reflect on the nation-state’s sophisticated use of film to reinforce certain ideas about national identity on the occasion of the emergence of the new nation. Ironically, the self-reflexive containment of a film within a film also directs our attention to Figueroa’s selective use of archival and contemporary images to persuade the spectator of the validity of a particular point of view. Jamaica for Sale is not a documentary that attempts to present a dispassionate, evenly weighed argument; it is a protest: a film that carefully crafts a specific and persuasive argument on a topical issue. This is not to say that Jamaica for Sale does not make a valuable and much needed intervention in public discourse on the critique of uncontrolled tourism development; it certainly does. But in the construction of her position, Figueroa leaves little room for dissent, using provocative images and personal testimonies that support a specific point of view in order to persuade the spectator.

Such mediation is evident in the sequence of archival material that references A Nation Is Born as well as pre-independence proposals for tourism development. Historically, the small size of the British West Indies colonies was seen as an impediment to independence because of the difficulties this presented for economic stability and growth. In Jamaica for Sale, the Jamaican government’s proposal for large-scale tourism development in Negril, prior to independence, is juxtaposed with scenes from A Nation Is Born of the 1962 independence celebrations. The placement occurs in such a way as to infer that tourism development was woven into public debate on nationhood in ways that conflated the two and positioned tourism as the vehicle on which the emergent nation could pin its aspirations to economic growth and development.

The excerpts from A Nation Is Born interrupt a speech (read by an actor) by former premier Norman Manley.4 In the first part, Manley refers to the strong spirit of the Jamaican people within the context of the historical importance of independence; after the excerpts, Manley is heard advocating the incurring of national debt in order to transform Negril, a small town in rural Jamaica: “We are going to build a city down there, for money will come from abroad to build hotels and a new life for that part of the country.” A well-placed image of Manley with small children infers a betrayal of the younger generation—and, by extension, the nation—in his promise of wealth and prosperity from tourism. Indeed, shortly after this pronouncement of transformation, the narrative reverts to images of contemporary Jamaica in which a resident of Negril details the disastrous impact of tourism development on the natural environment and mocks Manley’s promise to transform Negril into “a second Miami.” Images of the garbage-strewn, badly eroded eleven-mile Negril beach reiterate that tourism is destroying the very resource that it was meant to promote. The archival material, used here to expose the myth of tourism as a path to wealth and prosperity, also contrasts the heralded promises of the past with the revelation of the environmental damage and destruction tourism has wrought.

This idea of a promise betrayed is powerfully communicated in the film’s provocative opening montage that both evokes concerns about the impact of tourism development on the environment and raises questions about our understanding of concepts of nation. Mocking the customary practice in Jamaica of playing the national anthem in cinemas prior to the screening of the movie, Jamaica for Sale begins with a voiceover directing the audience (“Ladies and gentlemen . . .”) to stand for the national anthem. Rather than the expected images intended to evoke pride in country, however, the spectators are treated to a collection of images that create unease about tourism development’s erosion of citizens’ rights and privileges.

The montage begins with the familiar image of the Jamaican flag fluttering in the breeze against the background of clear blue skies, but a cut to a long shot reveals that the flag is being flown behind a zinc fence at a dusty construction site. Images of various construction sites follow, showing large vehicles deployed in the process of building something. The puzzled spectator, trying to make sense of the juxtaposition of these images with the national anthem playing throughout the montage, might conclude that what he or she is seeing should be interpreted as signs of progress, industry, and development. After thirty seconds of the construction images, the scene changes and a man in uniform opens a gate to allow a tour bus to drive into a nicely landscaped driveway. Yet, rather than follow the bus into the compound of what one suspects is a large hotel (the expected product, perhaps, of all that construction and activity), the scene cuts to a succession of shots that suggests Jamaicans are being excluded from spaces preserved for use by tourists. Images of “No Trespassing” signs, dangerous-looking razor wire, walls, zinc fences, and other barriers show how Jamaicans are locked out from beaches and parts of the coast that have been acquired by hotel developers. In its latter part, therefore, the montage creates a motif of exclusion that is contrapuntal to the national anthem that carries with it associations of national autonomy and sovereignty. The montage asserts that the exclusion of citizens from land appropriated for tourism development has taken place within a new geopolitical arrangement and with the full consent of the postcolonial nation-state.

"NWA Warning" photograph courtesy of the Jamaica Environment Trust

"NWA Warning" photograph courtesy of the Jamaica Environment Trust

In an interview in the film, sociologist Mimi Sheller further develops the concern that tourism has transformed concepts of nation as well as the role and responsibilities of the nation-state. Sheller locates tourism development in Jamaica within a global context and identifies Caribbean governments’ selling off of land—including entire beaches and islands—for tourism development as an indication of the scaling back of government’s role in national life and the privatizing of functions and services previously undertaken by the state. She points out that this has, in turn, facilitated “cutting off the local citizenry from having a say in what’s happening in the places around them.” The film’s coverage of work stoppages and demonstrations by workers on hotel construction sites, as well as contentious community meetings between residents and resort developers, positions working-class Jamaicans, in particular, in an adversarial relationship with tourism investors. Despite the protests and complaints of construction workers and community members, foreign investors appear to flout Jamaica’s labor and environmental laws with impunity. This indicates, as Sheller suggests, deep-seated changes in the way governments have traditionally operated within national boundaries and prompts the rethinking of ideas about the privileges of citizenship. Indeed, in the film, Jamaica is characterized by an imbalance of power in which citizens’ rights and privileges are sacrificed for the profits of foreign investors and developers who, like twenty-first-century conquistadores, claim and acquire land in Jamaica (and around the globe) to build massive hotels, even as they trample the rights of local people.

Ernest Renan insists that neither geography nor natural frontiers define the nation; it is defined by man and his activities. “The soil furnishes the substratum, the field of struggle and of labour,” he states. “Man furnishes the soul.”5 Yet the land, or the soil, as Renan might say, provides a concrete basis upon which the citizen’s concept of nation may be firmly grounded. The chorus of the Jamaican national anthem, for example, repeatedly proclaims “Jamaica, land we love,” using the word land to refer to the actual soil but also as a metonym for Jamaica and nation. In Jamaica for Sale, the land and the natural environment operate as powerfully evocative emblems of nation. The film suggests that the nation-state’s management of land—its ownership, access, protection, and development—has become a pivotal element in reconfiguring ideas about the role and responsibilities of the nation-state vis-á-vis its citizens within a global economy.

"Scenic view" photograph courtesy of Wendy Lee

"Scenic view" photograph courtesy of Wendy Lee

Jamaica for Sale’s protest of the loss of citizens’ access to highly valued coastal land, as well as what is perceived as the nation-state’s accommodation of tourism development’s destruction of the natural environment challenges the myth of tourism as a source of national wealth and development. In its documenting of a growing inequity in terms of the rights of the citizen in relation to another, more privileged group, tourists and hotel developers, the film shows that uncontrolled tourism development has led to the erosion of some of the basic assumptions attached to nation, privilege and citizenship. This contraction of the citizens’ privileges limits their authority over the spaces they inhabit and renders the relationship between nation-state and citizens problematic. Such concerns resonate in the placement of the title, Jamaica for Sale, at the end of the opening montage, with its images of exclusion, rather than at the beginning of the film. Placed over the image of a postcard proclaiming, “Greetings from Jamaica,” the film’s title  suggests that tourism has involved the selling out of citizens’ birthright by the state, a transaction that the film defines as immoral.

As part of the film’s soundtrack, the up-tempo song “Jack” similarly constructs notions of membership and belonging around the concern of access to land. Written as a response to a controversial declaration by a public official, “Jack” is heard at various points in Jamaica for Sale, reinforcing the connection between access to land, nation, belonging, and identity:

Jack don’t want me to bathe on my beach
Jack tell dem to keep me outta reach
. . . Dah cyan happen here in dis country
I want Jack to know that de beach belong to we.6

In Barbados, the country referred to in the song, sea-bathing is a highly valued and popular leisure activity that one might describe as a national pastime or ritual. The song’s claim to public ownership of the beach is, in effect, a rejection of the nation-state’s imposition of regulations that would seek to create a hierarchy of access based on the perception of the tourist, rather than the citizen, as the primary component within an economic system. In opposition to the state’s value system, the song asserts ownership and the right to access on the basis of membership within a community that is defined in terms of nation and citizenship.

“Jack” also speaks to concerns about identity and how the Barbadian defines him- or herself as citizen. In the lines from the song quoted as the epigraph to this essay, the buried “navel string” acts as a potent symbol of rootedness and belonging that is directly tied to notions of land and nation; it contrasts sharply with the image of the wandering tourist whose origins are unknown. When “Jack” was released in 1982, it became a rallying call in Barbados in the local struggle to preserve access to beaches. It provided, in what has traditionally been known as a law-abiding nation, an alternative way for Barbadians to position themselves in relation to the state at a period when many felt that a fundamental right was being threatened. (No doubt the popularity of the song was also fueled by its irreverence and mockery of the offending official, referred to in the song as “big guts Jack.”) Similarly, Jamaica for Sale opens up spaces for the alternative positioning of the citizen by critiquing the formation of a national identity grounded on myths of tourism and wealth. The film directs the spectators’ attention to the real and very pressing problems of unsustainable tourism development and thus proposes that the selling off of land for the construction of massive hotels is not an uncomplicated economic transaction. Rather, the film suggests, it is a complex and risky process that threatens not merely the myths of officially sanctioned formations of identity but also citizens’ rights and their sense of who they are in relation to that land, the place they call home, and the community defined as nation.


Rachel Moseley-Wood teaches film studies and literature in the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. She has published a number of articles on Caribbean film.


Jamaica for Sale, directed by Esther Figueroa (Kingston: Vagabond Media and Jamaica Environment Trust, 2009), DVD.

2 Paul Willemen, “The National Revisited,” in Valentina Vitali and Paul Willemen, eds., Theorising National Cinema (London: BFI, 2006), 30.

3 Andrew Higson, “The Limiting Imagination of National Cinema,” in Mette Hjort and Scott MacKenzie, eds., Cinema and Nation (London: Routledge, 2000), 64.

4 Norman Manley, now a National Hero of Jamaica, was chief minister of Jamaica from 1955 to 1957 and premier from 1957 to 1962. Theodore Sealy, Sealy’s Caribbean Leaders (Kingston: Eagle Merchant Bank of Jamaica and Kingston Publishers, 1991), 153.

5 Ernest Renan, “What Is a Nation?,” 10 February 2014, www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/172/30340.html.

6 “Jack,” the Mighty Gabby (St. Philip, Barbados: Ice Records, 1982). The hugely popular song was penned after Jack Dear, chairman of the Barbados Tourist Board, made a controversial announcement regarding the right of hotel owners to develop their properties along the waterfront. The announcement was seen as threatening the locals’ rights to beach access.


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