Jamaica at forty

Submitted by on 15 August, 2002 - 8:26


Colin Waugh reviews the BBC's collection of programmes marking the 40th anniversary of Jamaican independence.

As well as the 1970 film The Harder They Come and the film of Bob Marley at the Rainbow, BBC2 has so far carried three specially commissioned programmes: I Love Jamaica, Blood and Fire and Reggae: the Story of Jamaican Music Part 1 (of three) - a superb study of the period from the appearance of sound systems in the late 1950s to that of Rocksteady about ten years later. As well as these, BBC4 has shown a documentary called Life and Debt.

I Love Jamaica, presented by Shaggy, followed the format in which bits of past programmes and present-day interviews are stitched together to show the supposed top 10 this or that. Apart from a run-down of Shaggy's own career, it included segments on Harry Belafonte, the Jamaican bobsleigh team, UB40 and Winston Groovy, the 1976 West Indies cricket team, the Lilt Ladies, former Miss World Cindy Breakspear, and Bob Marley. In essence it was a collage of Jamaica's cultural output over the last fifty years as noticed by the mainstream media in the UK and more especially the US.

Such a formula could be a recipe for stupidity, but in each of these segments something worthwhile forced its way to the surface. For example we learnt about the foul reaction of the tabloid press here to Breakspear's affair with Marley, that Lilt was unavailable in Jamaica itself, and from members of the bobsleigh team about the gulf between the Disney version (Cool Runnings) and the reality. The Belafonte segment gave due weight to his involvement in the anti-apartheid and civil rights struggles, Clive Lloyd set the 1976 Test Series - the "blackwash" - in an anti-colonialist context, and the leaders of UB40 explained how Ska and Rocksteady captured the allegiance of white working class young people here.

In Blood and Fire, UK-based academic Robert Beckford presented a version of Jamaican history starting from the Frome estate strike in 1938, which set off a wave of struggle across the English-speaking Caribbean. His thesis was that the problems which have surfaced since then stem from the failure of those in power - drawn overwhelmingly from the light-skinned elite - to improve the position of "the sufferers", epitomised by the urban poor in Kingston slums like Trenchtown and Tivoli Gardens.

He used archive footage and contemporary interviews to detail the emergence of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP) from union politics then, tracing the careers of the demagogue Alexander Bustamante and his protege, Edward Seaga on the JLP side, and, for the PNP, the upper class lawyer Norman Washington Manley, and his son Michael, who died while prime minister in 1997.

He focused on how the JLP sabotaged Jamaica's federation with Trinidad and smaller islands (1958-62), engineered by NW Manley, which might have given it bargaining power against US capital after independence from Britain, and on Michael Manley's "democratic socialism", friendship with Castro etc. This led to destabilisation by the CIA, to Manley's acceptance of an IMF loan on punitive terms (1976) and to the election of a JLP government under Seaga in 1980. Backed by Reagan, this continued in office to 1989, when a de-radicalised Manley returned with the backing of George Bush Senior.

In reality, then, Michael Manley provided at best a half-hearted and shortlived (1972-76) flirtation with social democracy from above. Blood and Fire included interviews with Seaga, with current JLP deputy leader Olivia Grange, with ruling class figures like Jamaica Airlines "entrepreneur" Gordon "Butch" Stewart, and with relatively leftwing commentators like the independent senator Professor Trevor Munroe. But eventually it turned into a lament for the two Manleys, orchestrated via interviews with Michael's daughter Rachel and former wife Beverley Anderson Manley. In contrast, two people who could have provided another perspective appeared only briefly: Amy-Jacques Garvey in a speech dismissing independence as "baloney" and Richard Hart, union organiser in the early period and now a Marxist historian, in a two-second soundbite. The programme's implied conclusion was that if Manley's own class had not turned against him, his reforms would have solved the problem of poverty.

In fact Beckford even suggested that they may be doing so anyway. Presentday shots of black Jamaicans on beaches formerly reserved for tourists and the elite were adduced as evidence that Manley's reforms to the civil service, schooling etc have opened up career paths and allowed some black people to become professionals - with the implication that the rest are being lifted with them. But this is at best one-sided. In reality there is for much of the population a spiral of deepening poverty, unemployment, lack of public services, and dependence on gangsters sponsored by both the JLP and PNP, who in turn prey via the crack-cocaine trade on sections of the Jamaican diaspora in cities across the US and UK.

In the programme both PNP and JLP bigwigs laid claim to the Jamaican tradition of popular resistance as represented by Paul Bogle, leader of the Stony Gut rebellion by small farmers in 1865. At the start Beckford rightly though briefly connected the 1938 struggles both with this and with resistance to slavery. But although he started with action from below, and specifically by the working class, everything that followed was premised on the concept of the poor as "the sufferers", with the implication that their fate must rest with the political class. But those sufferers can also be seen as a reserve army of labour, a section of thc working class linked by economic migration and family ties to other sections across the Caribbean. That could be a better way to see them.

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