Jamaica: Freedom Come

James Ferguson recalls the day fifty years ago when Jamaica cut its colonial ties with Britain and became independent

Princess Margaret (1930-2002) dancing with Sir Alexander Bustamante (1884-1977), Jamaica, 1962. Photograph by © Keystone Archives / Heritage-Images

One of the more esoteric items that used to be available on Amazon was a black-and-white jigsaw puzzle depicting the prime minister of Jamaica Sir Alexander Bustamante (1884-1977) dancing with Princess Margaret (1930-2002). The craggy-faced veteran politician, attired in dinner jacket and white tie, towers over the tiara-wearing princess and smiles benignly into the middle distance. The dance was a waltz, though Bustamante, who had spent his formative years in Central America, was said to prefer a samba. For all the formality the pair, whose backgrounds and lives could hardly have been more different, seem to be enjoying themselves.

The occasion was a ball held to commemorate Jamaica’s independence on the evening of 6 August 1962, exactly half a century ago. The venue was the newly opened Sheraton Hotel (now the Wyndham), a concrete tower block that seemed to epitomise Jamaica’s modernity and future, and gathered there were the great and the good of the island.

The previous day a week-long period of celebration and commemoration had come to a dramatic climax at the brand new National Stadium, built to stage the forthcoming Central American and Caribbean Games. In the presence of Princess Margaret, her husband Lord Snowdon, Prime Minister Bustamante, the Governor General, US Vice-President Lyndon Johnson and some 30,000 Jamaicans, an elaborately symbolic spectacle took place.

At 11 pm an entertainment featuring singing and parades was followed by solemn prayers. Then, at one and a half minutes to midnight, the floodlights were extinguished and in the darkness the Union Jack was lowered. With thirty seconds remaining before 12 pm the lights were turned on and the new Jamaican flag – green, gold and black – was hoisted to the top of the flagpole to the sound of the equally new national anthem.

Fortunately, the lyrics of the anthem, written by the Rev. Hugh Sherlock, had been widely distributed throughout Jamaica in July, allowing at least some present to join the choir in a first public rendition.

The occasion was heavy with symbolism, as was the next day’s opening of the first session of independent Jamaica’s first Parliament. Again Princess Margaret sported her tiara as, flanked by Lord Snowdon and a group of ladies-in-waiting, she delivered a message to the people of Jamaica from Queen Elizabeth II. In front of the assembled ranks of parliamentarians, judges and foreign dignitaries Margaret then handed over the Independence Constitutional Instruments, the paperwork of independence, to Prime Minister Bustamante. She then spoke these historic words on behalf of the queen: “My government in the United Kingdom has laid down its responsibilities and has ceased to have any authority in and over Jamaica, after more than 300 years…”

Not all was pomp and ceremony. There were parties, parades and dances all over the island. Fifty years on, people recalled the special atmosphere. In a series of testimonies gathered by The Gleaner “CT” of Miami remembered:

I lived in Preston Hill, St Mary, at the time. I was 17 years old. We celebrated on one of the school grounds. There was a tent set up for the festivities. There was a sound system there and food. They killed a goat and we had Manish water and curry goat that day. Everyone was given a souvenir cup with the inscription “Jamaica independence August 6th, 1962”.

As ever in Jamaica, music expressed the popular sentiment. According to Lance Neita:

The top 10 tunes on the hit parade kept us dancing with lyrics and rhythms that reflected the mood and emotions of the people. Derrick Morgan’s Forward March, Lord Creator’s Independent Jamaica, and Al T. Joe’s Independence Time Is Here invited us from every jukebox and every bandstand to “rise, Jamaica, rise, and let us celebrate”.

Creator claimed that “everybody is happy”, yet some detected an underlying sense of anxiety. The Cold War was in full swing, nearby Cuba was about to undergo its potentially devastating missile crisis, and the antipathy between Jamaica’s two political parties, which would leave thousands dead in sectarian warfare in the 1970s and 1980s, was already tangible. Britain, meanwhile, had already imposed drastic restrictions on Jamaican migrants looking to find work.

Some foreign journalists found the independence celebrations rather muted in comparison with the unabated euphoria expressed by newly independent African nations.

Even Bustamante’s speech at the opening of Parliament had sounded cautious: “Independence means the opportunity for us to frame our own destiny and the need for us to rely on ourselves in so doing. It does not mean a licence to do as we would like. It means work and law and order. Let us resolve to build a Jamaica which will last and of which we and generations to come will be proud, remembering that especially at this time the eyes of the world are upon us.”

The truth, of course, was that independence had been won, not given, and that the process of attaining it had been long, tough and sometimes bloody. From the earliest slave revolts and the insurgencies of the Maroons through the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion to the strikes and riots of the 1930s, Jamaica’s detachment from colonial rule had been painful and violent. When independence finally came, it was largely because a Britain exhausted by war and too weakened to maintain a global empire wanted to cut its losses. To some extent, Jamaica was cut adrift from the Mother Country.

The great poet of patois Louise Bennett-Coverley perhaps caught the undercurrent of apprehension surrounding the young nation:

Independence wid a vengeance!
Independence raisin Cain!
Jamaica start grow beard, ah hope
We chin can stan de strain!

Ironically, in June 2011 an opinion poll conducted by The Gleaner revealed that sixty per cent of Jamaicans now believe the country would have been better off remaining under British rule. “As painful, and some will claim insulting, as these statistics may be to Jamaican nationalists, they are quite understandable – and even logical,” the paper remarked in an editorial. “The attitudes are formed by people’s existing realities and their expectations for the future.”

Successive Jamaican governments, however, have reiterated that they wish to sever the remaining constitutional link to Britain and to drop the queen as their head of state in favour of a republican system. Even the carefully orchestrated public relations trip of Prince Harry in March 2012 does not seem to have deterred Jamaica’s political class from a last symbolic separation.