Beginning today, the Jamaica Observer presents a series of articles — Independence Perspectives — telling the stories behind some of the most defining moments leading up to and after Independence, written by researcher and historian Lance Neita:
"Independance with a vengeance, Independance raising Cain,
Jamaica start grow beard,
A hope we chin can stan' de strain"
— Miss Lou
LOUISE Bennett's rhyme and reason in her Independence poem 1962 was as exuberant as it was cautious. "Yes", she said, "we turn big man", but that growth came with responsibilities and a hope that we would be able to bear the weight and stand the strain.
Fifty years later, Miss Lou up in Heaven must be still hoping, even as she sees Jamaica 'bearing up', but bending under pressure.
Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga has been more succinct. "One step forward, one step backward," he is reported to have told the Jamaica Observer's Monday Exchange, as he bemoans the fact that we have not yet found the formula that would balance our outstanding successes against our failures.
Like Seaga, Miss Lou is one of those icons of the first 50 years who always told it like it was in their different ways. Miss Lou's life and works are legendary and a delight to remember.
In just a few more days we will be "seeking to recapture the first fine careless rapture" of those earlier days. The planning has fallen short of the preparations and groundwork that went into the 1962 organisation, but the excitement and enthusiasm is mounting and all seems set for the grand festivities and celebrations we deserve.
In fact, Jamaica will party as never before, as the timing has hit the jackpot with the happy coincidence of the Olympics providing the background for a 'birthday' salute from around the world on August 6.
The partying is easy, it's a part of our psyche to simply forget our troubles and dance. Perhaps the harder part is to recall the sequence of events leading up to that defining moment in 1962. It is true that we are now nearly two generations away, but that is why the stories need to be told over and over again so that we can understand, explain and place our attainment of Independence in its rightful historical context.
For example, the link between the West Indies Federation experiment, the Jamaica Referendum of 1961, and the achievement of Independence in 1962, is indelible. Yet, with time, these historic instances have become blurred, leaving our stories in danger of getting lost as we focus only on Red Stripe beer and the carnival jump-ups.
But not so fast. Our history is anything but boring. The chronicle of events, fast-paced action, and the larger than life personalities of the pre- and post-Independence eras, is the stuff of which 'once upon a time' preambles are made.
The Federation saga
We must start with the Federation; when the British Government, eager to relinquish responsibility for some of their colonies in the wake of the gradual breaking up of the Empire, finally corralled the British West Indies leaders in the mid 1950's into agreeing to form a political and economic union.
While Sir Alexander Bustamante and Mr Norman Manley were in agreement at the initial meeting convened by Britain in 1947, it had always been touch and go between the two national leaders on the issues. Manley was an ardent supporter, while Bustamante was lukewarm to the idea. Indeed he warned during the Conference against "a federation of paupers, foisted by Britain to escape her ancient responsibilities".
Mind you, he gave the subject his full backing, but watched suspiciously in the after years as Manley, who was to defeat him and take over as chief minister in the 1955 General Election, went on to hasten the pace towards full Federation in consort with the other illustrious names in the Eastern Caribbean headed by Dr Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago and Grantley Adams of Barbados.
But the dissenting factors were slowly coming into the light. By 1956 it had become obvious that, in spite of Manley's insistence, the British Colonial Office was not in a hurry to elevate the Federation to dominion status.
Another stumbling block to developing any kind of a cohesive union came from mounting pressure by the Caribbean leaders to institute a levy on customs duties on all the islands, a step which would have had negative impact on Jamaica's revenue.
It was at this point that "Busta" began to position himself as defending Jamaica's interests against what he saw as the 'smugness' and 'political cunning' of 'small islanders'.
He fired off a cable to the JLP spokesman at a Caribbean Conference being held in London in 1956 which had been called to map out a plan for establishing a formal union. "Do not agree to one penny increase in taxation of any kind. We have our own economic distress here. It cannot be Federation at the expense of greater poverty."
It could be said that this was a shot that was heard around the Caribbean. Certainly, it signalled the start of a growing disenchantment with Federation that Busta was to use to his advantage.
Federation issues had begun to influence the next path forward in Jamaica's political history.