In August, 1962, Jamaica became an independent self-governing dominion in the British Commonwealth. Free of imperial controls, free of federal restraints, Jamaica would now “go it alone”. But where? and in what style?
During its course of nearly 200 years the slave-holding society had clearly established its forms and its criteria. In the years since the emancipation there had been economic decline and social and political confusion. The influence of the old elite of white, prosperous planters, had declined; but no other group had clearly superseded them in the hierarchy. The great changes had come in too quick succession to allow new consolidation. The social upheaval of the abolition of slavery had been followed ten years later by economic decline when after the Sugar Duties Act of 1846 the estates faced the competition of foreign producers in an open British market. Twenty-years after that, before either of the large social and economic questions had been resolved, and largely because they had not been, there had come radical political change with the institution of Crown Colony Government.
Almost immediately after, in the last quarter of the 19th century there had come further economic disturbance. The invasion of the British market by European bountied beet-sugars had brought further distress to the sugar-planters. At the same time, from unrelated and quite fortuitous beginnings, the peasant farmers had greatly benefited by the opening up and rapid growth of a trade in bananas with the United States. The incompatibilities of successful peasant farming and successful sugar estate-farming began to make themselves clear.
In the 20th century, the effects of two world wars and long economic depression had emphasised both the dangers of dependence on the export trade and the importance of domestic food production. But too great a concentration on the latter, in a small island with limited agricultural and industrial resources, would obviously lead to a reduction of living standards for the middle and upper classes in particular.
And so, as we approached 1962, neither the way ahead nor the manner of going was clear. Still another large disaster had only recently occurred in the sad short progress of the Federal attempt. Yet, there seemed reason for hope. Not because we were on our own; but because during the past generation and a half the old, hampering, criteria of whiteness, wealth and education had been seriously undermined and the way seemed open for creative thinking and vigorous enterprise in the making of a new society.
Black Jamaicans had learned from Marcus Garvey in the 1920’s that their inferior position in society was not ordained by God. Politically, and in his economic enterprises, Garvey behaved with a naivete that was sometimes astounding. But he was profound in his conviction of the fundamental equality of men, no matter what their colour. His great lesson, if it can be summed up briefly, was that the giving and receiving of respect had nothing to do with black, or brown, or white, but with character and behaviour. Jamaican workers, and this meant black Jamaicans, had also learned from Alexander Bustamante and others in the 1930’s that they should claim more than the meagre share previously allotted to them. The supremacy of whiteness had come under heavy fire.
The abolition of property qualifications for electoral candidates and for the electorate, in the 1940’s, gave opportunity to the poor man to make his way in politics. Wealth could be achieved through office. No longer was office reserved for the comparatively wealthy. Unfortunately, there is not any obviously greater merit in seeking office in order to obtain wealth than there is in using wealth to gain office. But the point is that the views of wealth and of office had changed. They were no longer the prerogative of the established elite. They were open to all who could contrive, whether black or brown or white. This is not to say that the contrivance was easy.