Peter Abrahams’ life in Jamaica

Peter Abrahams’ life in Jamaica

Michael Burke

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

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Peter Abrahams knew poverty, destitution and apartheid as he grew up in South Africa. Apartheid is an Afrikaner word for ‘separation’. True, Abrahams did not suffer apartheid as badly as most of the others in South Africa because he was regarded as ‘coloured’. But changing his name to Abrahams was a necessary tool to escape South Africa and apartheid.

In his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, the late Pope Paul VI wrote: "Racism is not the exclusive lot of young nations, where sometimes it hides beneath the rivalries of clans and political parties, with heavy losses for justice and at the risk of civil war. During the colonial period it often flared up between the colonists and the indigenous population, and stood in the way of mutually profitable understanding, often giving rise to bitterness in the wake of genuine injustices.

"It is still an obstacle to collaboration among disadvantaged nations and a cause of division and hatred within countries whenever individuals and families see the inviolable rights of the human person held in scorn, as they themselves are unjustly subjected to a regime of discrimination because of their race or their colour. We are deeply distressed by such a situation which is laden with threats for the future."

This explains some of what Peter Abrahams went through. And it was expressed well in his autobiographical book, Tell Freedom. Fortunately, for Peter Abrahams, he was a writer, and that talent would move him into fame. In his autobiography, the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, would refer to Peter Abrahams as a "gifted writer".

In the early 1950s, Peter Abrahams went to England and eventually got married there. Working for the colonial office in London, Abrahams came to Jamaica in 1955 to write a book at the invitation of then chief minister, Norman Manley. He fell in love with Jamaica and stayed, buying land in Red Hills which he made his home with his wife and children. He called the place Coyaba.

My parents were friends with Peter Abrahams and his wife Daphne. Their children attended Priory (both a preparatory and a high school), which was one of the two preparatory schools I attended. Daphne Abrahams taught art and craft at Priory and I was in her class. During my childhood, my family was invited to Coyaba for Sunday dinner. It was the first time in my life that I was eating an African-style meal, where a bowl of cooked meat stew was placed in the middle of the table. I imagine the table rather than the ground was a compromise. The lady of the house was Scottish.

Peter Abrahams could not be in the original Drumblair Circle because he entered Jamaica in 1955 and not in the 1930s. But Norman and Edna Manley believed in the arts and were very much into reading books, so Peter Abrahams could fit quite easily into the elder Manley’s circle of friends.

Drumblair was the name of Norman Manley’s residence and the Drumblair Circle consisted of his friends. They read books, listened to music, went to plays, and observed displays of art and sculpture. Indeed, it was out of this that Norman Manley conceptualised his version of Fabian socialism for Jamaica, which to a large extent his son Michael Manley attempted to implement in the 1970s. In an interview some decades ago, Peter Abrahams said, "While capitalism is more efficient, socialism is more distributive."

Incidentally Norman Manley’s political associates were not necessarily his close friends. The late Pamela O’Gorman, a native of Australia, was for a time principal of the Jamaica School of Music. In an article published in the Jamaica Journal, Miss O’Gorman wrote that if Norman Manley invited someone to his house, played classical music, and the guest seemed bored, that person would never be invited again to Drumblair as a guest.

Peter Abrahams, as a writer and a lover of African music, would therefore fit into the company of the elder Manleys. And when Norman Manley established a radio station totally dedicated to Jamaican culture, Peter Abrahams would be a first pick to be a news analyst on the Government-owned Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) radio and television.

There was a strike at JBC in 1964, which was caused by the alleged unfair dismissal of two members of staff. After the strike, news analysis was cancelled on JBC TV. This meant that both Peter Abrahams and Frank Hill were no longer heard on the air. So both Peter Abrahams and Frank Hill went to RJR.

Peter Abrahams was a public commentator for more than 40 years and still had his audience. But one day, a media house informed Abrahams that they could not afford to pay him any longer. If he were to continue he would have to do it for free.

Were there social climbers in Jamaica who were jealous of Peter Abrahams? It is quite possible. He was Norman Manley’s special guest in Jamaica and had his ear in a way that some people in high society might not have had. Was this a case of envy and revenge? Peter Abrahams was literally a refugee in Jamaica and some might not have liked an outsider ‘not knowing his place’.

I certainly made my protest at a public shareholders’ meeting of that media house and I wrote my views in my column at the time. But Peter Abrahams bore injustices without complaint. Was Abrahams taken unfair advantage of because of his peculiar and uncomfortable situation of literally being a refugee from South Africa? Was it a case of waiting until the Manleys were unable to protect him to take revenge?

In his encyclical Populorum Progressio, the late Pope Paul VI further wrote: "We cannot insist too much on the duty of giving foreigners a hospitable reception. It is a duty imposed by human solidarity and by Christian charity, and it is incumbent upon families and educational institutions in the host nations."

The last time I saw Peter Abrahams was at the funeral of John Maxwell, some years ago, at the University Chapel on the Mona Campus of The University of the West Indies. May his soul rest in peace.

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