State of emergency 1976

Michael BURKE

Thursday, June 19, 2014

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TODAY, June 19, marks 38 years since a national state of emergency was declared in 1976. The state of emergency lasted until June 1977. Many older Jamaicans still react emotionally about it. True, most are presently distracted by World Cup Football. But the anniversary of the 1976 to 1977 State of Emergency is useful to those who are doing certain studies at universities all over
the world.

It is true that there have been all sorts of research into the origins of violence in Jamaica. Historians point to the decimation of the Tainos by the Spanish during the pre-1655 period when the British came. But were the Tainos decimated? The same historians state that the Tainos fled to Cuba with the Spaniards. And we also hear stories that they joined the runaway Africans who became known as the Maroons.

The invasion itself by the English in 1655 was a terribly violent act. Buildings were burnt down and the Spaniards were chased out. The Catholic Church in Spanish Town was burnt down and the bell was melted into bullets.

In later years prisoners from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales came here as bondsmen. Their period of bonding was for six years, but many of them never returned to England. These persons became pirates and became known as the buccaneers, who made their headquarters at Port Royal.

Eventually piracy got out of hand and no trade could take place between the Caribbean and Europe. At the treaty of Madrid in 1670, the Spanish agreed to stop trying to re-take territories and England agreed to end piracy. To keep the Treaty of Madrid, pirate captain Henry Morgan was arrested in the Tower of London.

Eventually, Morgan was released and made governor of Jamaica with instructions to end piracy. He did this by selling land cheaply to the pirates who became the aristocracy in Jamaica.

Whether piracy actually stopped is debatable, but violence never really stopped. In the context of this discussion, is it fair to link either the Christmas rebellion of 1838 or the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 to violence? Shouldn't this be classified separately from a collective tendency to violence?

Then came the politics of 1938. The stick-and-stone political wars between the 1940s and 1960s have been documented. Both major political parties had their groups of violent supporters. Then the violence became more advanced with the introduction of guns from sources officially unknown but spoken about behind closed doors.

In 1966, ten years before the yearlong one called in 1976, a state of emergency for West Kingston only was declared. At that time, Donald Sangster (later Sir Donald) was acting prime minister (served for 48 days as prime minister in 1967 until his death). During the 1966 State of Emergency for West Kingston, Edward Seaga, a trained sociologist, was in his first term as member of Parliament for Western Kingston and a minister of government.

In 1966, National Hero Norman Manley, then the leader of the Opposition, did a political broadcast after the flare-up of violence in West Kingston. He was very concerned about what he said were new features of violence that were never seen before. He asked some pointed questions about who was doing what. He referred to the uniformed red shirt gangs and asked who it was that shouted "blood for blood" and "fire for fire," among other things.

And Norman Manley asked who it was that taped political meetings to find out what excited the masses. He compared some of the acts to those of Adolph Hitler. The elder Manley went on to ask who it was that was sending political thugs into the rural areas at the election times to frighten the peaceful rural folk and other such scare tactics. In 1967, Norman Manley was shot at in Western Kingston and remarked, "A new and dangerous thing has been unleashed on Jamaica."

In 1976, then Prime Minister Michael Manley said he advised the then governor general to declare a state of public emergency because of reports that there were attempts to overthrow the Government. His detractors said that this was done to detain Opposition members while a general election was in progress.

In January of 1976, there were some unexplained fires in Trench Town. This was at the same time that the International Monetary Fund was having its meeting in Jamaica. As a result of the coincidence of foreign media journalists being in Jamaica when the Trench Town fires took place, the tourist industry took a serious body blow. Were the fires deliberately set? And if so,
by whom?

A few months later there were the Orange Lane fires, where women running away with babies had their babies snatched from them and thrown into the fire. To this day there have been charges and countercharges as to who was actually responsible for the Orange Lane Fires. There was later a commission of enquiry into the Orange Lane Fires and this was headed by the late Justice Ronald Small. His findings were very interesting.

Then, on June 17 came the announcement by Herb Rose, who had resigned from the People's National Party in 1974 to join the United party, and then joined the Jamaica Labour Party, which he heard planned to overthrow the Government.

When the state of emergency was called, many members of the Opposition JLP, as well as a few members of the PNP, were detained. One detainee, Pearnel Charles, who still serves in the legislature, wrote a book about his time in detention. By that time Keble Munn, the national security minister at the time of the state of emergency had resigned as a minister and was on the backbench of parliament.

In 1980, a letter over Munn's signature was published in the print media that no one in the 1976 State of Emergency was detained unless it came out of police investigation. In later years Pearnel Charles would state on radio that the statement by Munn was incorrect. It might take another 50 years before emotions settle and the 1976-77 State of Emergency can be looked at objectively by a younger generation yet unborn.

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