ARTISTIC LEGEND: Professor Rex Nettleford (left) founded Jamaica’s National Dance Theatre
A SMALL pot of sugar arrived in London sometime around 1675.
The unassuming package was rumoured to be a gift to the British secretary of state from Sir Henry Morgan, Jamaica’s infamous lieutenant governor. A taste, one might say, of things to come.
It signaled the start of a booming industry that laid the foundation for the sophisticated financial system that helped Britain cement its position as a global force. Britannia ruled the waves with Jamaica as its anchor.
In 1670, sugar factories in Jamaica numbered 57 but by 1739 there were hundreds. Thousands of African men and women were transported across the Atlantic Ocean by the Royal African Company to be worked to death as slaves to feed Britain’s insatiable sweet tooth.
The company’s profits fattened the pockets of its shareholders and contributed to the concentration of financial power in London. Banks, which had not existed in the capital until the mid-17th century, began springing up as news travelled of the goldmine that was Jamaica. Firms like Lloyds of London, now Lloyds TSB, grew rich offering insurance to ships setting sail to the West Indies.
The Bank of England was set up in 1694 and was fundamental in funding plantation slavery offering credit to New World fortune seekers.
Most vitally, it propped up the cost of Britain’s wars against other European countries in order to maintain control of its most valuable colony: Jamaica.
In a letter to Charles II praising its new and fertile soil, ‘well shaded with goodly woods’, one of Jamaica’s wealthiest planters Peter Beckford was almost salivating: “No place the King has is more likely to thrive, for they [sugar cane] increase in planting to a miracle”.
Beckford was not wrong. In 1798, at the height of the sugar trade, the West Indian colonies brought in an annual income of what would be £400 million by today’s standards. Two thirds of that fortune was made in Jamaica. The glittering glass of Canary Wharf today is a legacy of that wealth.
Following the abolition of the slave trade in 1809 and the subsequent Emancipation Act of 1834, which finally outlawed the inhumane practice, the good times came to an end. Without slave labour, the industry was unsustainable. Britain found it could produce sugar cheaper elsewhere.
The mother country was now stuck with a disgruntled colony that had a history of resistance and rebellion. Maroons - escaped slaves, had attacked plantations as routine, field hands began demanding better working conditions backed by revolutionaries like national hero Paul Bogle (1820 – 1865) and St William Grant (1894 – 1977).
Norman Manley and his cousin Alexander Bustamante, who would become the country’s first prime minister, began striking a deal with Britain for independence. The pair founded the two-party system – Jamaican Labour Party and People’s National Party – that remains the bedrock of Jamaica’s vigorous democracy.
As the clock struck midnight on August 6, 1962, the British flag was taken down and the new flag of Jamaica was hoisted. The flag’s pan-African black, gold and green colours represented its people and their suffering, sun and lush vegetation. Independent Jamaica was born. Its motto: “Out of many, one people”.
ALL SMILES: Jamaican PM, Portia Simpson-Miller and Prince Harry
Standing on the streets of Kingston in 1962 as a little girl Patricia Cumper, one of Jamaica’s leading contemporary playwrights, remembers the jubilation: “We were given aluminium cups adorned with the coat of arms and flags in the new Jamaican colours and solemnly told what they meant. I remember seeing The Queen driving past and waving my flag enthusiastically though I did not understand the significance.
“The pride that came with independence shaped who I am. As a little girl we drew snow and pine trees on Christmas cards, but after independence it was all about who we were as Jamaicans. We had to reinvent ourselves, relearn our history and create our own heroes.”
Plantation life was difficult, but the Jamaican people had proved even more difficult to break. They flouted the ban on the practise of African culture and tried to hold on to everything they could of their heritage. Words and phrases from West Africa pepper Jamaican slang today and exist as an entire language among the Maroons. ‘Old school’ dancehall moves like the ‘Bogle’ are derived from African dances of fertility and male athleticism.
“If we take Jamaican Jonkanoo it was about making fun of people in power” explains Cumper, now artistic director of Talawa, the UK’s most prominent black theatre company. “Slaves would dress up like their masters to mock them. It was about being disrespectful and taking bits from Europe and Africa then synthesising the cultures to make something new. Jamaica has a tradition of creating.”
That creativity from which Jonkanoo sprung has remained and adds to what make its people distinctly Jamaican. So much so that as quickly as Jamaica put its stamp on something, it is seized upon by a world hungry for what it had to offer.
Black nationalist Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African philosophy inspired millions and led the United Negroes Improvement Association (UNIA), one of the largest black organisations in history.
It helped form the basis of the religious Rastafari movement that emerged out of Jamaica in the 1930s and spread around the world, thanks to one of its greatest ambassadors - music icon Bob Marley.
With his one-size-fits-all message of One Love, waist length dreadlocks and the traditional Rasta colours of red, black, gold and green, Marley became its pin-up boy. Exodus, named after the song promising deliverance to Jah’s people, was the best-selling reggae album of all time and was lapped up by people across all colour and class boundaries.
Jamaica’s influence, however, extends far beyond music. For a start, sprinter Usain Bolt is one of the biggest draws of London 2012 and his lightning bolt victory pose is as universally recognised as the peace sign. Traditional Jamaican dishes – hot patties, rice and peas, jerk chicken and curried goat – have become an everyday part of British culture.
TASTE JAMAICA: Celebrity chef Levi Roots has put the island’s flavours in supermarkets and homes across Britain
Brands such as Dunn’s River, Nurishment and Grace are now widely available at the local Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury’s alongside KA sodas – “authentic” Jamaican flavours manufactured by, surprisingly, a Scottish firm.
Musician and chef Levi Roots has made millions from his Reggae Reggae Sauce empire, Caribbean cookery books and spin-off TV show by bringing words like ‘Scotch Bonnet’ and ‘escovitch’ to Britain’s masses. Rising from humble beginnings at a Notting Hill Carnival stall, the sauce has now found its place at home on supermarket shelves between American favourite Heinz Ketchup and quintessentially British Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire sauce.
Roots said: “At my book signings, it is mainly white British people who are queuing up. People love Jamaican cooking for its flavours, its spices and for what it represents. We gave the world the fastest man, a religion and reggae music. Who wouldn’t want a taste of that?”
British author Ian Fleming was one of the outsiders who fell in love with the island, resulting in one of the most successful movie franchises in history. From his home on Jamaica’s north coast, appropriately named Goldeneye, Fleming wrote 12 of his James Bond novels and short stories in the 50s. Many were either set or filmed on the island including Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy.
In a 2008 travel piece published by the New York Times, journalist David Allan wrote: “The island was Fleming’s retreat, artist colony and passion, and he repeatedly sent Bond on assignment there. The legendary spy experienced the island as Fleming did — beautiful and underdeveloped with enough exoticism, history and potential for danger to justify it as a backdrop for post-war espionage adventure.”
The tiny island nation of just 2.7 million people has successfully exported its culture worldwide through cuisine, language, the arts and academia, largely thanks to its active diaspora in New York, London and Toronto.
“There is not one great thing that Jamaica has contributed to the world, but many great things”, says Professor Verene Shepherd with pride.
The leading academic from the department of history at the University of the West Indies reels off a list of accomplishments, from tourism to the National Dance Theatre founded by the late Professor Rex Nettleford “whose global tours exposed Jamaica’s talents to the world.”
But the Cambridge graduate is disappointed that some of Jamaica’s most valuable assets – its great minds – remain largely unsung. “Marcus Garvey, Michael Manley, Trevor Munroe, Horace Campbell, Lucille Mathurin Mair, Orlando Patterson, Stuart Hall – all of these Jamaicans have helped shape global thinking on cultural studies, political ideology, economic thought, the non-aligned movement; justice, equity and feminism”, argues Professor Shepherd. “Yet, Jamaica’s academic credibility is overlooked because the world prefers to see the Caribbean as a place for the four ‘Ss” – sand, sea, sun, sex.”
She added: “I am proud to live in a country with a strong brand name that has given so much to global development where I can look back on ancestors who never accepted injustice uncomplainingly and who have instilled pride and self-confidence to all those who wish to learn from the past.”
It was once said that the sun never set on the Empire, but without Jamaica it may never have risen. Jamaica is a nation of trendsetters, leaders, and global icons who, to quote Garvey, never waited for chance to satisfy the hopes of a suffering people. Out of bondage, it won freedom. Out of a broken history, it created new traditions. From Jamaica, the world drew inspiration.
An edited version of this feature was first published in the Powerlist 2012