Bauxite and the Push Cart Derby

Bauxite and the Push Cart Derby

Lance Neita

Saturday, May 07, 2016

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The recent sighting of a number of brightly painted push carts in Discovery Bay has given rise to anticipation of a renewal of the National Push Cart Derby. It was in that township that the derby originated in 1975, and generations have grown up with a sense of proprietorship and memories of one of the most stellar summer holiday attractions ever staged in Jamaica.

It turns out that the carts are practising for a community tourism package due to be opened in June at the Discovery Bay football/community centre. Nevertheless, it is amazing that after a 20-year lull the push carts could have generated so much nostalgia and excitement recalling Derby Day at Kaiser Sports Club when handmade carts from all over Jamaica thundered down ‘Spyglass Hill’ in competition for the parish championship trophy presented by number one fan Sir Florizel Glasspole, then governor general of Jamaica.

It was a day set in August that drew thousands from all levels of society to applaud and enjoy the skills of the youngsters who had discovered the art of converting their home-built carts into a Vernam Field-styled motor racing vehicle.

The Push Cart Derby idea was first mooted by Con Pink in 1975. Con was then the supervisor for Kaiser’s Community Relations. Ed Coyne, the general manager, bought into it and threw the entire weight of the multinational bauxite company behind the venture.

Out of a simple trial run at the club in August 1975, Coyne instructed his staff to organise similar derbies all around the island, using a parish derby as eliminations for sending a representative team of six carters each to Kaiser for the grand national. It seemed a bit weird at first. Why was a huge and powerful international company like Kaiser getting involved with youngsters who built and pushed carts for a living or for recreation?

The answer, of course, can be traced back to the heavy emphasis placed by the bauxite industry on community relations. The bauxite community outreach has reached out in a big way into education, agriculture, health, youth development, micro enterprise, water provision, sports, etc. The industry footprint has been cast indelibly into these social development areas. The companies have done much more, however, to shape a comprehensive and close relationship with Jamaicans, particularly in the rural areas.

In Partnership with Jamaica, a historical review of Kaiser’s 50-year presence in Jamaica from 1953 to 2003, published originally as an internal journal and now set for general publication, describes the partnership as "a remarkable case study of a company/country relationship that went far beyond the boundaries of corporate social responsibility (CSR)."

Commentators such as Dr Carlton Davis and Dr Alfred Sangster welcomed the publication as an analysis of CSR that could be used as a basis for studies and practices by other companies needing to match Kaiser’s outstanding record in this regard.

The book relates the sequence of events, activities, challenges, triumphs, humour and pathos that characterised what it calls "that extraordinary period during which Kaiser played an important role in the economic and social development of Jamaica".

The book takes readers from the discovery of bauxite in Jamaica to the arrival of the early industry pioneers in the 1940s, Aluminum Limited of Canada (later Alcan), Reynolds Metals, and Kaiser, and then on to the fascinating accounts of the first shipments in 1952 led by Reynolds, the conversion of rural areas into industrial villages, the ‘hard hats culture change’, and the invasion of the locomotives trekking across the bauxite belt. The late Derrick Rochester is featured as one of the first loco operators.

Agricultural partnerships, taxation arrangements, beautification projects, industrial safety regimes, investments and expansions, labour challenges and successes, national awards, dealing with recessions and withdrawals, training and the development of human resources, contributions and donations, all make up the kaleidoscope of the myriad partnerships developed by the industry, with Jamaicans large and small.

Indeed, the emphasis Kaiser placed on people development is reflected in the history as it highlights the outstanding roles played by Jamaicans and expatriates who contributed skills, expertise and commitment to make the partnership work.

The originals – Alcan, Reynolds, Revere, Kaiser – have come and gone. What is of interest is that Noranda Bauxite’s efforts to keep the north coast operations open represent tried and true formulas that have made the St Ann operations stand out as the only industry operation that has never closed its doors, not even for one single day.

Jamaica’s bauxite/alumina industry can claim a people base, perhaps more than any other similar industry anywhere else in the world. Employees past and present will tell you how it was that the extensive land purchasing requirements, agricultural innovations, housing resettlement, and employment opportunities brought the industry into intimate contact with Jamaican small farmers.

It was those early contacts, they say, necessitated by the face-to-face dialogue with thousands of Jamaicans across the hills and valleys of the bauxite terrain, that shaped the comprehensive and all-embracing friendship and policies that the industry developed with all sectors of the population.

Stories abound of personal interventions that liven up the mundane financial statements and business strategies that are the normal staples of corporate annual reports.

Vincent Rose, a most respected company driver, recalled the mutual admiration that existed between Prime Minister Michael Manley and Edgar Kaiser, chairman of the Kaiser Corporation, during the bauxite levy and partnership negotiations of the early 1970s.

"On one occasion, Mr Kaiser had been to an early morning meeting with the Prime Minister at Jamaica House, and was due to leave at 9:00 am to catch a private flight out of the Norman Manley Airport. However, the meeting went an hour overtime, and at about 10:00 am, with the plane waiting on the tarmac, and Mrs Kaiser and myself waiting patiently in the car, Mr Kaiser and Mr Manley came out and walked slowly to the car while carrying on an animated conversation that continued for another half-an-hour. It was Dudley Thompson, then minister of mining, who eventually broke up the conversation by nudging Mr Kaiser gently into his seat and hurrying the party on to the airport.

"Inside the car Mr Kaiser explained that Mr Manley and himself both realised that they were late for respective meetings, but that he didn’t consider it protocol for him to adjourn the conversation with the PM.

"Rose later heard that the PM was, at the same time, explaining to an aide that he could not possibly be the one to adjourn a conversation with such a charming gentleman like Mr Kaiser as that would have been poor manners, and in any case we were enjoying each other’s company immensely."

That is just one example of the rich personal stories and anecdotes flavouring the exchanges and personal interactions behind many of the events which drove Kaiser’s programmes and policies over the years.

And so we return to another example, the push cart derby, some distance away from the air-conditioned corporate boardrooms, conferences and social affairs criss-crossing the New Kingston hotels and
Page 2.

The popular event became a part of industry history. It was a period when the corporate world took time off from the rigorous production of bauxite and alumina to make an institution out of the indigenous push cart tradition in Jamaica.

Parish organisations were built up with voluntary input from people like Noel Lawrence in St James, Coswell Glover and Lusta Higgins in St Thomas, Bill Daniels, Hayden Ramsay and Winston Casanova in Clarendon, Clarence Pringle in Westmoreland , OJ Lawrence in Manchester, Calvin Bariffe in St Elizabeth, and the indefatigable police teams led by Neville Wheatley, Barry Dixon, Barry Cross and Hyacinth Stewart-Williamson.

At Discovery Bay the national was the premier event of the summer. Kaiser had more than 100 employees on the organising committee. The company put everything into recognising and creating opportunities for youngsters who utilised handcarts for various lifestyles to be recognised for their innovation, skills, and application.

Kaiser teams included Phil Fillinger, Horace Love, Frazer Perry as chairmen; Ken Lowe as chief marshall; Lincoln Russell and Aziel Bennett - the standard starters; Lloyd Russell as public relations; Algon Senn Yuen, Lindy Forbes and Elworth Williams as transportation managers, and the irrepressible James Larmond and ‘Dudley’ Phillips in charge of ground preparations.

At the finish line on various occasions were Sir Florizel, St Ann Mayor Sam Campbell, Herb McKenley, Mike McCallum, a number of Miss Jamaicas, and NWU Chief Delegate Willy Wilson.

So what if the Trelawny team used yam juice (as it was whispered), as lubricant for their cart wheels? Look who is running now. And so what if a certain employee smuggled out used bearings from the plant shop to equip his parish team with modern technology? All part of the fun.

The fact is that Jamaica’s bobsled entry into the Winter Olympics was inspired by the humble push cart derby. In 1992, I received a surprise call from Walt Disney Studios seeking permission to film scenes at Kaiser Sports Club for a motion picture based on the push cart and bobsled adventures. The film was to be called
Sno-Kone. It was later changed to
Cool Runnings and became a runaway hit.

A tribute to ‘foot-bottom power’, Jamaican ingenuity, and bauxite industry community relations outreach.

Lance Neita is a community and public relations consultant and writer. Comments to the Observer or to

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