Sisyphean and Confounding

October 2020

Orlando Patterson, The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Postcolonial Predicament (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019); 409 pages; ISBN 978-067988057 (hardcover)

Orlando Patterson makes it clear that the postcolonial predicament of Jamaica is anchored very much in the legacies of slavery and colonialism that lasted for over four centuries of Spanish and British rule. So when reference is made to small, vulnerable “middle income states,” we are describing very recent developments, since the two islands being compared, Jamaica and Barbados, were in the eighteenth century among the richest locations in the world. The term postcolonial is therefore at best an ambiguous one not only because of history but also because of the region’s dependent relations on the hegemonic power of the United States.   

This book of eight essays is divided into three parts: “Explaining Postcolonial Failure,” “Three Cultural Puzzles,” and “Failures of Policy and Politicians.” The overlapping theme that links the essays is a diagnosis of Jamaica’s flawed democracy, endemic poverty, violence, and stagnant economy. The longest essay, “Why Has Jamaica Trailed Barbados on the Path to Sustained Growth? The Role of Institutions, Colonialism, and Cultural Appropriations,” arises from a debate with the economist Peter Henry about whether postcolonial failures are because of policy or institutional failures. Patterson argues that postcolonial failures in Jamaica are a result of institutional failures and what is required is “institutional learning, know-how, and organizational competence” (163).

In exploring the colonial heritage of two British Caribbean colonies, Jamaica and Barbados, Patterson argues that variations in the evolution of British colonial policy and the practices of the ruling white elites have impacted their paths of development. Topography also played a role: Barbados is flat and did not lend itself to the marronage and slave revolts that rocked British rule in Jamaica during the eighteenth century. In addition, Barbados had a stable white residential elite invested in living on the island, while Jamaica had a largely absentee group of planters who had no interest in the island other than profit making.

Patterson stresses the fact that black men were in positions of authority in the Barbadian police force after emancipation, long before their counterparts in Jamaica. Moreover, Barbados did not have Crown Colony rule, as was the case with Jamaica after the failed Morant Bay peasant offensive of 1865 that was brutally suppressed by the planters with the help of the Maroons. Barbadian whites, therefore, had uninterrupted rule until independence in 1966, when legislative traditions, albeit limited mostly to the white planter/merchant elite, took hold in Barbados. That tradition of the rule of law, adopted by the black population, has contributed to political stability.

Patterson contends that the political culture and values built up around parliamentary democracy have resulted in peaceful elections and transfer of power in Barbados between the two main parties, the Barbados Labour Party and the Democratic Labour Party. Black Barbadian appropriation of British cultural, economic, and political practices was akin to their mastery of cricket. They appropriated the game and its procedures and developed phenomenal cricketers. Patterson’s argument is that the political class that emerged with independence mastered the art and procedural knowledge of governance in the same way black Barbadian cricketers mastered the English game. For Barbadians, cricket was not simply a sport; its values of fair play imbued Barbadian political culture.

Patterson’s argument is that some of the sociocultural legacies of British colonialism and their appropriation by black Barbadians amount to a counterhegemonic strategy. This is really stretching the notion of hegemony and counterhegemony because in Barbados, like in most West Indian societies, black people dominate the politics and administrative apparatuses of private and public sectors but whites and other minorities dominate the economy and finance the political parties to their strategic financial benefit. Is this the socioracial contract we want to maintain? I think not. Political leadership in Barbados was able to develop a social contract of all social classes to deal with the economic crisis in the 1990s, and this has continued into the financial crisis of 2008, Barbados’s high indebtedness in 2019, and Covid-19 in 2020. But as was the case with Jamaica’s tough International Monetary Fund (IMF) economic measures in recent years, the burden has fallen on the majority of the population, with budgetary constraints imposed on health, education, and public services. Critical questions arise, therefore, with respect to issues of class and racial inequality and about which groups bear the burden of social contract arrangements, especially around paying public debt. While there is much that Jamaican politicians can learn from their Barbadian counterparts about administering the Westminster system, this is only a partial answer to political and economic democratization.

“Why Is Democratic Jamaica So Violent?” is the second essay in part 1 that examines the island’s postcolonial failures. “Jamaica’s flawed democracy, especially its clientelistic, garrison-based politics,” Patterson writes, “has independently generated a great deal of violence and laid the foundation for the current high rate of urban gang violence.” When this is coupled with economic stagnation over several decades, you harvest multiple crises: “The island’s economic stagnation at the middle level of development has independently generated a great deal of violence resulting from over-urbanization and the massive spread of smoldering slums, poverty, youth unemployment, precarious adult employment and income, and poor education” (144). He points out that “Jamaica’s slave system was especially brutal, and its post-emancipation history was also unusually violent” (156). In addition, there is the international drug trade that contributes significantly to gun-based violence throughout the region.

Patterson’s analysis and prescriptive ideas are strongest when he deals with cultural practices at the micro level, drawing on his ethnographic work in communities of the urban poor. He points out, first, that some 86 percent of Jamaican children are “being brought up without the psychological or financial support of a father and by mothers, who while desiring the best for their children as mothers everywhere do, are often too overworked, underemployed, or underpaid (and overstressed) to devote sufficient care, beyond meeting basic needs, to their children.” Patterson emphasizes that research indicates that “the continuous presence of a social and biological father does reduce the level of violent crime within a community” (157). The second cultural factor is the prevalence of abusive relationships between men and women. The authorities, he notes, do not take gender violence seriously. The third factor is “childhood abuse and violence-inducing child-rearing practices” (159).

The book identifies propositions as to how Jamaica’s problems can be overcome and calls for the coming together of the two dominant parties in support of a common agenda around a series of measures to deal with violence (see 165–66). “What is needed is the political will of both parties to implement a jointly agreed upon plan of action,” Patterson concludes (163). Jamaica’s experience is that strong external pressure on the parties can bring this about. In recent times, the IMF and Jamaican governments have succeeded in building macro-economic policy continuity as Jamaica emerged from very high levels of unsustainable debt. Internal pressure has also been seen to force a coalition of political will, since activism around reparation has led to both the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party supporting a national body on reparation now known as the National Council on Reparation. The reparation movement’s mobilization in 2015 during the visit of British prime minister David Cameron was successful in bringing the parties together, and they spoke with one voice in a parliamentary critique of British slavery in Jamaica and the demand for reparative justice.

Part 2 has three shorter essays on Jamaica’s athletic prowess and the global influence of Jamaican music. The development of Jamaican music, with its deep roots in the cultural traditions of the peasantry and the urban poor, has resulted in world-class musicians. Jamaica has also had over one hundred years of organizing athletics competitions among high schools. The success in athletics has been the result of institutional innovation around the annual Boys and Girls Athletics Championships, coupled with improvements in public health. A democratic ethos manifests in the development and growth of Jamaican music and athletics, in which grassroots excellence comes to the fore. This is not the case in business and politics that are elite dominated, with the business elite exercising financial control and influence over the political class and, in my view, too many of the latter using state resources for their own personal enrichment.

In part 3, the essay “Why Do Policies to Help the Poor So Often Fail?” draws on Patterson’s personal experience working as an advisor to Michael Manley in the 1970s on a remedial housing assistance program. He frames the project as a case study and subjects his experience to scrupulous analysis, with harsh criticism of political leadership as well as his own. Patterson needed to go further in critiquing how housing is systemically subject to political control. The essay “Were Female Workers Preferred in Jamaica’s Early Economic Development?” discusses his ethnographic work and data collection in the 1970s. “Governments, especially Third World governments, should have as little as possible to do with the provision of new housing stock,” Patterson argues. “Building should be left entirely to the private sector, and government should intervene only through the provision of subsidies, where necessary” (310). However, the view that urban upgrading should be a priority but that new housing should be taken out of the hands of the government is unrealistic. The private sector has little interest in low-cost housing because profit margins are not high enough, so the financial sector prefers to fund middle- and upper-middle-income housing. This leaves government to fund low-cost housing through agencies such as the National Housing Trust. The composition of government boards such as the National Housing Trust is skewed in favor of government appointees. Moreover, in Jamaica, new housing, access to water, road improvement, new roads, bridges, and key infrastructural projects fall under the control of the Office of Prime Minister and are strategic areas for purposes of reelection to political office.

The problems facing Jamaica outlined in this volume are complex and difficult to solve, and solutions will take a very long time. In positioning Jamaica’s global impact in athletics and music against endemic violence and poverty, Patterson challenges the reader to engage with the stark contrasts between individual success in popular music and athletic sprints and failures in economic, social, and political pursuits that require sustained collective efforts. From the evidence in this book, Jamaica’s problems are both Sisyphean and confounding.


Rupert Lewis is a professor emeritus in the Department of Government at the University of the West Indies, Kingston, and a research fellow in the UWI’s P. J. Patterson Centre for Africa-Caribbean Advocacy.