A sad tale of two islands — Jamaica and Trinidad

Outside Western Europe & Anglosaxonia — the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — the English-speaking Caribbean is collectively the most stable set of democracies on Earth. Outside the one-off and never-repeated 1983 Grenada Revolution, every change of Government in the region has been peaceful. Quite a proud record unmatched in the developing world.

Unfortunately, six of the planet's eight most murderous places are English-speaking Caribbean. With the highest murder rates per 100,000 in 2022 are: Turks & Caicos, 78; Jamaica, 53; St Lucia, 42; Venezuela, 40; St Vincent, 40; Trinidad, 39; Honduras, 36; and The Bahamas, 32 (https://insightcrime.org/news/insight-crime-2022-homicide-round-up/)

Jamaica and Trinidad are the two most populous English-speaking Caribbean countries. The former has been bedeviled by high murder rates for so long that it has become almost a byword for violence. Yet it was not always thus. Jamaica was founded upon perhaps the most pernicious and violent societal organisation ever known — plantation slavery and its pre-1838 emancipation history is littered with bloody revolts. However, post-Morant Bay Rebellion (1865-1965) Jamaica was relatively peaceful.

The only serious upheaval was the 1938 Labour Rebellion in which under 20 lives were lost, less than in similar disturbances in much smaller Barbados. When British colonial rulers accused protestors of having been violent and uncontrollable their leader, Alexander Bustamante, pointed out that many demonstrators had been armed with machetes, but none had turned their weapons on their oppressors.

Jamaica's 1965 murder rate was similar to Singapore's, lower than the US's, and much lower than those in Thailand and the Philippines. The 2022 situation was drastically different (http://smj.sma.org.sg/1004/1004smj6.pdf). From 1875 to 1975, Jamaica's homicide rate was about the same as relatively peaceful Barbados (https://tarjomefa.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/F1797-TarjomeFa-English.pdf). However, from 1965 to 1966, murders increased 68 per cent — from 65 to 111 — and rose constantly thereafter. A terrible genie had been let out of the bottle.

In the July 26, 1966 parliamentary debate on the Back O' Wall clearance, Norman Manley warned: "The level that separates normal, human, decent conduct... from what is virtually obscene cruelty is a very narrow margin, indeed... how easy it is if an example is set by Government of cruel conduct, for everybody to condone cruelty, and for cruelty to become a national attribute." ('The Road to a Cruel Jamaica' https://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20100613/focus/focus2.html)

Sadly, his Cassandra-like prophecy was ignored on all sides.

Trinidad seemingly had a similar murder rate to Barbados up to about 1990, but was never a stranger to violence (https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/VC.IHR.PSRC.P5?locations=BB) Steelband Calypso is one of the happiest beats. Yet Carnival Road March winners 1954 Steelband Clash, 1959 Gunslingers, 1960 Royal Jail, and 1963 The Road, had violent themes.

"It was ah Bacchanal, 1950 Carnival

Fight fur so, with Invaders and Tokyo

Meh friend run and left his hat, when they hit him with ah baseball bat

And when the steelband clash, mama if yuh see cutlass

Never me again to jump in ah steelband in Port of Spain." — D'Warlord Blakie

Steelband violence emerged in the 1940s–50s. Carnival provided the main arena for clashes involving cutlasses, knives, razors, baseball bats. Carnival steel band violence was not contained until the late 1950s, though serious clashes continued up to 1966. Working-class districts of Port of Spain were undoubtedly fairly violent places in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. (The Historical Background to the Culture of Violence in Trinidad and Tobago, Bridget Brereton)

Still Trinidad did not have its societal shifting violence inflection until the late 1990s. Between 1989 and 2008, murders in Trinbago soared from 84 to 550. Astonishingly, this almost sixfold increase in murders took place while per capita gross domestic product (GDP) was increasing by over 400 per cent.

Many trace Jamaica's current violence back to 17th-19th century plantation slavery. Others claim strong economic growth would automatically take care of crime. Well, Trinidad never experienced plantation slavery and is better educated and richer than Jamaica. (https://drugtrade.wordpress.com/2017/01/10/murder-in-tt-1990-2016-an-analysis/



In Narratives Of Fear And Crime In Trinidad, Sacha Ann Geer gives an excellent overview of how the crime surge has affected Trinidadians, though from an almost solely upper-class, Indo-Trini point of view. Trinidad and Jamaica share many depressingly similar 'only names have been changed' elements — crime-ridden ghettos Laventille and Tivoli, notorious gangs G-Unit and Shower Posse, community leaders "Fresh" and "Dudus". One striking difference is that not only did murders rise sharply in Trinidad, but so did carjackings and kidnappings. These are still relatively rare occurrences in Jamaica — knock wood, no goat mout', please!

Trinidad and Jamaica may be the only two islands known primarily for their music — reggae/dancehall and calypso/soca. They must also be on the short list of 'vibesiest' countries on the planet. Considering they have only about 1.4 million and 2.8 million inhabitants each, their pound per pound cultural creativity is probably unmatched. So it's especially sad that inhabitants of these two worldwide symbols of joy and happiness, are so often plunged into grief by the violent death of relatives.

Specifics in various countries can be pointed out, but over the past 30 years murders have risen sharply across almost the entire English-speaking Caribbean. Does this simultaneous spike in violence in so many separate places represent a collective failure of democracy?

This is a group of countries with a common culture. One so steeped in press freedom, the rule of law, and fair elections, that no other system of government but Westminster parliamentary democracy can even be conceived of. So why have these fervent devotees of democracy so miserably failed to guarantee to their citizens the greatest of human rights — the right to stay alive?

In Jamaica there has long been a great gap between what the people want and what the politicians do. Polls have consistently shown a strong desire for tougher sentences for violent crimes and extended states of emergencies. But until recently these cries have gone unheeded.

This disconnect seems to exist across the West Indies. For instance, someone familiar with Trinidad says, "The consensus is that former Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith was their best to date. He was fearless and very visible — could be seen on patrol, at scenes of crime, at roadblocks, at press conferences, etc. All this inspired confidence. Yet he was removed despite strong public support. The current commissioner is not matching up."

Maybe this great democratic divide is the root of the region's failure on crime? For, as Napoleon said: "When the common people think long and hard about something, they are usually right."

Perhaps the solution to the Caribbean crime problem is a simple one. Politicians listen to your people.

Kevin O’Brien Chang

Kevin O’Brien Chang is an entrepreneur and public commentator. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or kob.chang@fontanapharmacy.com.

Kevin O’Brien Chang

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