Jamaica 55 — Can we recapture that first fine careless rapture?Sunday, April 30, 2017
We are approaching the 55th celebration of our Independence, hastened and chastened by Culture Minister Olivia “Babsy” Grange's determination to outdo the 50th, which was celebrated under somebody else's watch. Political barbs are being thrown across the aisle, but here is hoping that they won't spoil the party.
If we really want to recall the spirit of Independence 1962 then we need to try to 'recapture that first fine careless rapture' that captivated the new nation 55 years ago. A Gordon House quarrel will never be able to evoke the unity, the pride, the innocence which characterised the behaviour of the Jamaican people in 1962.
Obviously the two protagonists are too young to remember what it was like in the National Stadium on the night of August 5, when the Union Jack was lowered, and God Save the Queen was played as our national anthem for the last time.
It was a moment best described by Edward Seaga in his autobiography, My Life and Leadership, Volume 1. It was the time of the public flag-raising ceremony, and the excitement was high as crowds converged on the Stadium for the big occasion.
Martial music filled the arena as the Jamaica Military Band and combined choirs entertained with patriotic music and songs. The VIP boxes were filling up with local and international personalities, the royal party, headed by Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret, the vice-president of the United States Lyndon B Johnson, Prime Minister-designate Sir Alexander Bustamante, the Opposition Leader Norman Manley, the Governor General Sir Kenneth Blackburne, visiting heads of state, over 150 international journalists, and literally thousands of Jamaicans who had journeyed from all over the country to be present for the historic moment.
Prayers began at 11:51 pm. At 11:57 pm a Boys' Brigade runner entered the stadium with the Jamaican National Flag on the last lap of an islandwide run, and handed the flag to Sir Alexander. At 11:58 pm the Union Jack was lowered with the lights turned out and the British National Anthem being played. At 11:59 pm the lights were turned on, the guards of honour saluted, and the new Jamaican flag with the black, green and gold was seen fluttering in the breeze for the first time.
“With uncontrollable emotions the 30,000 spectators and the combined choirs were singing the Jamaican National Anthem. The cheering was thunderous as the Governor General Sir Kenneth Blackburne and Premier Sir Alexander Bustamante resumed their places,” reads Seaga's account.
“For me,” says Seaga, “the raising of the Jamaica flag in slow tempo to the resounding crescendo of the Jamaican anthem was the emotional highlight of my life. I was close to tears. To the extent that I helped to realise this national dream for many, this was one of the achievements of my life of which I am unreservedly proud.”
No wonder people poured out into the streets the next day, political partisanship cast aside, as we danced, sang, enjoyed stage shows, pantomime, boat regattas, horse racing, cricket matches, country fairs, village beauty contests in every nook and cranny of Jamaica.
We cannot put it any better than how Miss Lou (Louise Bennett-Coverley) saw it, without any cass-cass, without any political finger pointing, without any counter-accusations as to who can do it better:
“Not a stone was fling, not a samfie sting, not a soul g'wan bad an low rated. Not a fight bruk out, not a badwud shout, as Independence was celebrated….dere was functions by de tousan' an wi crowd up every one, from Packy Piece to Macka Town, di behaviour was gran'.
“Teet' an tongue was all united, heart an soul was hans an glove, fenky-fenky voice gain vigour, pon 'Jamaica, land we love.' “
Outside of the straightforward historical data there are many stories about that exciting era which ought to be told and retold as part of the narrative history of Jamaica.
Consider that during the seven-year period following the general election won by the People's National Party (PNP) in 1955, the people went to the polls four times — first in 1958 to determine party representation in the West Indies Parliament, then in 1959 when the PNP was re-elected, again in 1961 to decide the fate of the Federation through a referendum, and in 1962 to decide which Government would lead us into Independence.
Historian Troy Caine gave us a comprehensive and brilliantly written account in a Jamaica Observer column about the 1962 election which, Clarendon debaters and all, he correctly calls “the milestone that charted Jamaica's nationalism”.
The clock actually started ticking with the Federation referendum held on September 19, 1961, following which events and the legendary stories unfolded at a fierce pace.
Many of those stories centred on the two cousins Norman Manley and Sir Alexander Bustamante.
Two days after the referendum Manley, who was premier, announced he would be leading a delegation to London to officially inform the Colonial Office of the results and to set a date for Independence.
But having come out ahead in the referendum, Bustamante's tail was up, and he correctly believed that his party was favoured to be the one to take us into Independence.
So when Manley announced his visit to London, Bustamante threw down the gauntlet with a terse telegram:
“Not so fast,” he wired in as feisty a manner as imaginable. “In matters regarding dominion status for Jamaica, let it be understood that no delegation should proceed to London without representation from my party, because in those matters you don't speak for Jamaica. I do.”
The premier, nonetheless, proceeded to London on September 30, but returned without fixing a date for Independence, while reporting that the Colonial Office favoured a date in March 1962. This led to wide public expectation that Jamaica should prepare for its Independence Day in March 1962.
Well, on October 17, one month after the referendum, Manley took the next step and introduced a resolution in the House to appoint a committee to make proposals for a new Constitution for Jamaica. The report of the committee was debated January 23-26, 1962, with the premier opening with what Seaga recalls was “a masterly presentation, comprehensive, articulate and eloquent”.
The next chapter followed when the House gave unanimous approval to the resolution asking approval of the constitution. To add to one of our little-known stories, members of the public who had packed the gallery also stood with the House members and shouted 'Aye!' — a breach of protocol, but allowed by the Speaker for this historic occasion.
Things were to light up again when Manley announced that the colonial secretary of state had been asked to receive a delegation representing both parties to discuss and officially approve Jamaica's request for Independence. It seemed the right way to go, but Bustamante again stole the limelight when he suddenly announced that he would not join the group but would travel by himself; no doubt to impress upon his followers that he was really 'the man in charge'.
He joined the delegation a few days after the conference had started, but not before making a public announcement that he disagreed with Manley's suggestion of August 1 for Independence Day, and suggested May 23 instead — “The day when, from Queen Victoria's statue, in 1938, I addressed 100,000 persons, defied police guns held to my chest, and was thrown into prison the following day.”
Nevertheless, by the time he arrived in London, both sides were in one accord with most of the issues. Indeed, Bustamante and Manley came together to stoutly resist Secretary of State's Reginald Maudling's proposal of an October date for Independence. The two leaders threatened a walk-out, with Bustamante famously rolling up his sleeves for a fist fight. Apparently they had both come to an agreement for August 6 as the favoured date. Faced with a formidable Manley/Busta combination, poor Maudling had no choice but to bow.
It is on record that the People's National Party (PNP) and Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) worked together, for the most part, prompting Bustamante to quip in his final speech: “I am happy that Mr Manley and myself were able to work together as if there was one party in Jamaica — the Jamaica Labour Party.” There was much laughter all around.
The camaraderie ended immediately after the signing of the agreement. Each side booked separate British Overseas Airways Corporation flights back to Jamaica. Before leaving his hotel, Manley announced the date of the general election as April 10. Bustamante heard the date during his stopover in Miami and wired ahead to his supporters to prepare a giant welcome party back home at the Montego Bay airport. Manley, Vernon Arnett, Dr Ivan Lloyd and Florizel Glasspole arrived in MoBay two hours before the JLP and drove directly to Kingston. Bustamante, Donald Sangster, Robert Lightbourne, and Clement Tavares held meetings in Montego Bay, Lucea, Savanna-la-Mar, and May Pen on their way into Kingston. The campaign described so well by Troy Caine had begun.
And there were more exciting stories ahead with milestones to pass on the road to Independence. More to come in future articles.
Lance Neita is a historian and public relations consultant. Send comments to the Observer or email@example.com.
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