Violence in Jamaica: The half has not been told
Jamaica has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Modern Jamaican socio-political violence has its genesis in the labour union movement.

Coming out of slavery, Jamaica, prior to Independence in 1962, was a de facto British colony. As a colony, the British sought to govern the country, often resorting to exploitative and abusive tactics which resembled the institution of slavery.

Jamaica, therefore, had a Government elected by the British Parliament, whose primary objective was to govern in the economic and political interests of the mother country. Evidently, such political arrangements constantly ignored and trampled upon the rights and privileges of the majority of the Jamaican population — largely of African descent — who were impoverished and destitute after centuries of ruthless bondage. Often, Jamaicans had to endure flagrant exploitation of labour as the residual planter class, who principally comprised a white and brown minority, dominated the socio-economic and political landscape.

With the mass of the population being overwhelmingly of African descent, racism and classism were deeply entrenched in a post-Emancipation society. The British emancipated the slaves in Jamaica in 1834, subsequent to the infamous Sam Sharpe Rebellion, which proved that the institution of slavery, as existed throughout British slave territories, was untenable.

The enslaved in Jamaica has been described by most historians as having been a rebellious and valiant race of people. As an enslaved people, our forefathers initiated a violent campaign against slavery; thus, we have inherited a brutal political system in which violence is intrinsically interwoven into the fabric of our culture.

Devin Leigh, in a scholarly article titled The Origins of a Source: Edward Long Coromantee Slave Revolts and The History of Jamaica, argues unequivocally: “As historians have documented, enslaved people launched more revolts in Jamaica than in all other British colonies in the early modern era.”

History is important as it informs us of the shaping of our present realities. The fact that our forefathers — who were enslaved — could have attacked a powerful political and economic plantocracy affirms the power of the proletariat when pushed to rise against the unscrupulous nepotism and delinquency of an entrenched bourgeois class to bring about complete destruction of an exploitative social, economic, and political system.

For too long, at our impending peril, we have been oblivious to the cries, pain, and suffering of the Jamaican masses. We are currently sitting on toxic bombs of moral depravity, social injustice, economic inequity, and political mismanagement that will eventually explode when we least expect it.

In The Black Jacobins, CLR James, a distinguished and world-class Caribbean scholar and author, captured vividly the truculent purging and subjugation of slavery during the Haitian Revolution and asseverates: “The slaves destroyed tirelessly. Like the peasants in the Jacquerie or the Luddite wrecker, they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of what they knew was the cause of their sufferings, and if they destroyed much it was because they had suffered much… From their masters they had known rape, torture, degradation, and, at the slightest provocation, death.”

Tired of centuries of subjugation and barbarism meted out to them by their French masters, the enslaved people of Haiti waged a successful and vicious overthrow of the malignant institution of slavery. Consequently, Jamaica, along with our Caribbean sisters and brothers, has inherited a socio-economic and political system inherently built on violence which has contributed, in some parts, to our present-day barbaric disposition.

How do we overcome the shackles of violence, deep-rooted anger, and an entrenched sense of futility – vestiges of slavery and colonialism?

In verity, there is only one way to diminish said physical, psychological, and mental trauma, and it is by settling the injustices that were inflicted upon our forefathers with the descendants of the enslavers — through universal education and health care; equitable land distribution; an impartial judiciary; and, in the context of modern Jamaica, the swift extirpation of all garrison constituencies, which are literally modern-day versions of institutionalised slavery — and the sectional conflicts that exist in Jamaica will gradually eviscerate.

Violence begets violence. The forced migration of millions of Africans across the transatlantic necessitated an inordinate amount of barbarism on the part of the enslavers. The spurious European theory and philosophical assumptions premised on the notion of black inferiority enraged the slave population, which resulted in massive slave rebellions, revolts, and seditions — all of which included violence against an inhumane system. This unrestrained violence has been a legacy that still continues to haunt political leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly in the case of modern Jamaica.

The pivotal question is: Why did the slaves utilise violence as a tool to combat the injustices of slavery? Could they have overturned the institution of slavery by applying nonviolent strategies? The answer is a resounding, no. Human bondage is contrary to man’s constitution and nature and, therefore, will be resisted by any means necessary.

In contrast to Europeans, Africans on the continent were, from historical records, very peaceful people. Homicides were few and infrequent. In James’s The Black Jacobins, the erudite historian posits a fascinating picture of Africans, prior to their coerced journey to the Americas: “In the 16th century, Central Africa was a territory of peace and happy civilisation… The tribal wars from which the European pirates claimed to deliver the people were mere sham fights; it was a great battle when half-a-dozen people were killed.”

In 2018 Jamaica recorded 1,287 murders, a 22 per cent reduction from murders recorded in 2017. Homicide rates have continued to escalate unabated over successive years with no major plan or effort devised/implemented by the current Government to curb such a worrisome trend.

An article published by Nation News on June 14, 2022 titled ‘Jamaica: More than 400 murders recorded for 2022’ stated that, “Jamaica has recorded 405 murders so far this year, the same figure for the corresponding period last year...’ This being our 60th year of Independence, I am not sure if we should celebrate, as we have become one of the most barbaric countries on the planet.

Indeed, Jamaicans have resigned themselves to the fact that they are enmeshed in a never-ending civil war. As a country populated predominantly by people of African descent (92 per cent), why have we morphed into warmongering tribes?

It is disheartening to listen to our chattering classes talk ad nauseum about our faux democracy while ignoring our criminal and lawless society. How can democracy thrive in a society in which the rule of law has long been buried in the Caribbean Sea?

Having proffered a brief synopsis of the symbiotic relationship between violence and the institution of slavery, I shall attempt to chronicle the same parallel between violence and the labour movements in Jamaica and the provenance of our two major political parties — Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and People’s National Party (PNP).

Kareen Williams of Columbia University, in an illuminating and engaging PhD dissertation titled The Evolution of Political Violence in Jamaica 1940-1980, contends: “By the 1960s violence became institutionalised in modern Jamaican politics. This endemic violence fostered an unstable political environment that developed out of a symbiotic relationship between Jamaican labour organisations and political violence.” This elegantly and brilliantly written dissertation should be mandatory reading for all university students, particularly our journalists, who often report on homicide in Jamaica.

Williams, based on rigorous and impartial research, recounts compellingly the nexus between the labour movements, specifically the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), the National Workers Union (NWU), and the endemic violence in Jamaica.

The labour movements emerged out of quest to curtail the embedded exploitation of labour encountered by the Afro-Jamaican descendants. The British white minority, coupled with their brown Jamaican counterparts, deemed the masses (the black population) of Jamaica as inferior and, thus, they were regarded as their underlings. The problem was exacerbated by the 1929 Great Depression in the US, which sent irreparable shock waves through Jamaica’s fragile colonial economy. In addition, many Jamaicans, due to unprecedented economic malaise, were prohibited from emigrating overseas as many foreign countries, including Britain and America, sought desperately to curtail immigration to their shores.

Therefore, with an underperforming and depressed economy, the Jamaican entrepreneurs capitalised on labour exploitation of the large, impoverished, black Jamaican population. It is out of this hostile labour environment that the national labour movements of Jamaica emerged, aimed at defending the labour rights of the proletariat.

However, self-interests and personal egotism dominated the political and national agenda of prominent leaders such as Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley, who were both viewed as champions of the Jamaican peasants. Given the recalcitrance of the British to respect workers’ rights, the proletariat often resorted to violent protests, aided and abetted by the aforementioned leaders.

Manley and Bustamante represented two fundamental philosophical and political ideologies — the former espoused self-governance and independence from British colonial rule, while the latter embraced, unreservedly, colonial leadership.

Logically, the British favoured Bustamante as he was more conservative, while his cousin, Norman Manley, was an unflinching advocate of progressive politics. Thus, the difference in ideologies separated them into two political camps — JLP and PNP.

Emerging out of the national labour movements in which violence played a pivotal role, Manley and Bustamante used the impoverished masses to perpetrate violence against their opponents. Ours is, therefore, an unpalatable history of cultural and political violence — a brutal history of which most Jamaicans are ashamed. However, we must confront the savoury and unsavoury facts of our history.

Williams, in her scholarly and cerebral dissertation asserts further: “In my research into Jamaica’s modern political history, I discovered that the current literature overlooks the direct role of many Jamaican political leaders in the instigation, encouragement, or condoning of political violence.” Consequently, it is imperative that our political scholars undertake critical and scientific investigations, grounded in scientific accuracy and objectivity, with regard to the irrefutable nexus between our politics, delinquency, and our chronic crime dilemma.

Michael Manley and Edward Seaga were two of Jamaica’s choicest and ablest leaders; nevertheless, like Bustamante and Norman Manley, they espoused divergent political philosophies.

As a nation, we have still not yet learnt to appreciate opposing views in a civil and cultured manner. Our irascible demeanour and acute delusion of grandeur militate against coalescing around any united effort directed at national development.

Michael Manley and Seaga, during the 1970s, converted our budding nation into warring tribes, thereby augmenting the political temperature of violence. Thus, since the 1970s to present, we have — voluntarily or involuntarily — stamped an indelible mark on the world as the most violent ‘little’ island on Earth.

Williams narrates very succinctly in her dissertation: “The 1970s epitomises an era marred by brutal political violence and the Government’s inability to resolve the economic crisis. Both the JLP’s and PNP’s participation in political tribalism and politically motivated violence brought the credibility of Jamaican democracy and political practice into question.”

Successive governments have tried to tame the crime monster, without avail. The problem has been aggravated by organised crime, lotto scamming, money laundering, political corruption, and cybercrimes, all attendant consequences of globalisation and economic liberalisation. Our home-grown, politically contrived criminal elements have combined their resources with an international criminal network — which has as its sole mission — to kill, pillage, and plunder. History seems to be repeating itself. The half has not been told.

Andrew G Tucker is an educator and social commentator. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or

Michael Manley
Edward Seaga
Norman Manley
Sir Alexander Bustamante
Workers on strike in the 1930s
The Black Jacobins by CLR James describes the Haitian Revolution.

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