The Making of Independent Jamaica
By Basil Wilson
On August 6, 2011, Jamaica celebrated 49 years of independence. We exist in a world experiencing great turmoil. There were riots in Britain over the weekend. Demonstrators have poured into the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem protesting the high cost of housing and falling living standards. The citizens of Syria have risen up against dictatorship and despite the blood that has been shed, Syrians have been resolute in bringing democracy to their habitat.
Like in many other developing countries, the social order in Jamaica is brittle. But over the 49 years, political power has been transferred peacefully four times and has held over eleven democratic elections. Jamaica has successfully institutionalized a democratic political system with fairly high levels of voter participation and an electoral process with a high degree of legitimacy.
In examining approximately five decades of independence, it is useful to look back at the making of Jamaica. Jamaican history is more than 49 years and what we have become was very much shaped by the pre-independence years. Although slavery was abolished in August 1, 1833, over one hundred and eighty years ago, the experience of slavery has had a lasting impact on Jamaica’s class structure. Upward mobility is essential to the preservation of any democratic social order and upward social mobility then and now has been exceedingly limited.
The slave system in Jamaica was characterized by absentee-ownership. English adventurers came to Jamaica in search of capital accumulation. They would establish slave plantations and return to England to collect the profits. The plantations were administered by absentee owners. White women seldom migrated to Jamaica or the Caribbean. That invariably necessitated white men cohabiting with African women. As an outgrowth of that intimacy, a brown section of the population emerged. Many of the brown or coloured people inherited land and were able to use land inheritance to provide themselves with some level of income stability, to educate their children and enter the ranks of a fledgling middle class.
After emancipation, the vast majority of black peasants in the rural areas did not inherit land. Many of the ex-slaves left the plantations and ventured into the hinterland and created communities out of marginalized lands. Jamaica’s black peasantry showed great entrepreneurial creativity by opting for banana cultivation as the hilly terrain was certainly not suitable for the growing of sugar cane.
It must not be forgotten that working conditions in the slave plantation era was immensely harsh and unlike the slave system in the United States. Africans in bondage in Jamaica failed to reproduce themselves because of the harshness of the material condition.
The slave economic system although extremely exploitive, was also precariously profitable. The cost of sugar would fluctuate and often triggered a mountain of bankruptcies.
Not much infra-structural development took place in Jamaica. At the end of the slave period, there was no health system, no educational system, and no economic system in place to raise the living standard of the mass of the population.
The African population living in Jamaica constantly rebelled against the social injustice of the plantation system. Unlike Haiti, the spasmodic rebellions never put an end to slavery but it made the continuity of the slave system untenable. When the British parliament invoked emancipation legislation, the planters were compensated but no provisions were made for the ex-bondsman or to develop the society. Economic activity had peaked in the late decades of the eighteenth century.
Immediately after emancipation,the planter class exercised hegemony over the political system and ensured that their class was exempted from taxation and only those with propertied interest could pariicipate in the political process. In the post-emancipation period, the peasant population suffered an immiserated fate and those conditions led to the Paul Bogle rebellion in Morant Bay. The colonial power to maintain the social order was forced to concentrate power in the hands of the Governor . Some progress was made in creating rudimentary health and educational institutions to improve living conditions. Nonetheless, the British government refrained from putting in place any serious economic development strategy for Jamaica.
Again, it was a large scale rebellion in 1938 that changed the fortunes of the Jamaican people. Jamaica had been impacted by the worldwide depression that began in 1929. The agro proletariat rebelled in 1938. The rebellion spread to port workers in Kingston and the modern trade union movement under the leadership of Alexander Bustamante was born. The British set up the Moyne Commission to make some sense of the unrest . The Commission recommended the establishment of self-government for Jamaica with political parties and a free trade union movement.
The first universal suffrage election was held in 1944. Limited self-government was conferred in the 1950s. It was during the 1950s that modern institutions were established as a precursor for independence. Norman Manley and Noel Nethersole were the ceregral architects of modern Jamaica. Educational opportunities were expanded for the populace. A tertiary system of education, the University College of the West Indies came into being.
Independence has not been a panacea. Upward mobility is still disheartingly limited and large numbers of would-be-workers are excluded from the productive sector. The mal-distribution of wealth in the society has been a factor in creating a hardened sub-culture of violence. What is somewhat heartening is that Jamaicans are in control of their own fate. The umbilical cord of colonialism has been shattered. As the old saying goes, we now make our own history but in circumstances not of our own choosing.