Brave new world

James Ferguson on V. S. Reid’s New Day, a novel set against Jamaica’s march towards freedom


November 2004 will bring the 60th anniversary of Jamaica’s 1944 New Constitution, the legislation that ended the long period of Crown Colony administration under which the island was ruled from London. Not only did it set Jamaica on the road to independence (which finally took place in 1962), but it also ushered in a modern democratic system with full adult suffrage. It’s strange to think that in 1943 only 20,000 Jamaicans out of a population of over 1.2 million qualified for the vote.

So it is perhaps an appropriate moment to look at one of Jamaica’s great historical novels, a work whose title reflects the fresh start that the constitution represented, and whose theme is people’s power. First published in 1949, Victor Stafford Reid’s New Day was written during the period of political tumult that preceded the constitutional change. The 1930s and 40s were decades of intense social confrontation, as the island’s poor majority, badly affected by the worldwide Depression, fought for trade union and political rights. Riots shook Jamaica and many other Caribbean territories, while charismatic leaders like Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante emerged from the arena of class conflict.

Reid, a journalist, was clearly an admirer of Manley and his brand of nationalism (he later wrote a biography of him). In the fight for political self-determination he also saw a longer process of struggle, leading back to one of the key moments in Jamaican history: the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865, when an uprising of landless peasants in the southern town of Morant Bay was savagely repressed by the colonial government, with some 450 people executed or otherwise killed in reprisals. His novel accordingly spans an 80-year period between rebellion and the New Constitution, stretching between two turning points — one positive, one negative — in Jamaica’s eventful history.

The 80-year period also allows Reid to present this stretch of history as a lived experience, as a single lifetime. In other words, he is able to show us these decades as lived by a single character, the narrator John Campbell, and it is this ambitious device that gives an otherwise sprawling novel its continuity and structure.

Campbell begins his narrative as an old man awaiting the “new day”. It is the night before the New Constitution is to be brought into force, and his mind goes back to the earlier events of 1865. This was a time of great hardship, only three decades after the end of slavery, when land was scarce and hunger widespread. Peaceful attempts to wring concessions from the planters led nowhere; a petition sent by the populace to Queen Victoria asking for help brought only a curt rebuff. Revolt was brewing, led by churchmen such as Paul Bogle, a Baptist preacher.

The young John Campbell is not only a witness to these ominous events, but is also an active participant. His father, a respectable landowner of mostly white parentage, sympathises with the grievances expressed by Bogle, but is resolutely opposed to violent action. His brother Davie, on the other hand, is attracted to the message of radical social justice. As tensions rise, we see through John’s eyes the characters and events that led to the uprising, the murder of some local dignitaries and militiamen by Bogle’s followers, and the terrible response meted out by Governor John Eyre. At one point John is in the main square at Morant Bay when the militia opens fire on the protestors:

Then over the shouts o’ the people I hear the muskets talking again. This time in the silence I do no’ hear any heartbeats. Neither the muskets as they reload . . . Then, God O, I come back to myself. I am lying on the ground in the square and a dead man is on me . . .  

What the massacre reveals is the barbarity of Eyre and the colonial authorities (strangely, Governor Eyre received a message of support from Charles Dickens when later hauled before a public inquiry in London), but, at the same time, it suggests that the rioters made a fatal mistake in resorting to force. The rebellion spells the end of John’s childhood, the destruction of his family (his father is wrongly shot as an alleged Bogle sympathiser) and a long period of hiding.

The conclusion drawn from the bloody events of 1865 makes sense of what happens many years later, when John’s grandson, Garth, rises to prominence as a leader of the working class in the 1930s. And it is here that Reid’s none-too-subtle political message is hammered home: violence is pointless and self-destructive, negotiation and guile are the way forward. And so we see Garth (like Manley, a London-trained barrister) bamboozling the conservative colonial authorities with his superior knowledge of the law.

Where the hotheaded leaders of the Morant Bay rebellion had charged into a futile confrontation with the authorities, Garth is able to play the system, to use the rights enshrined in British law to the advantage of his followers. And John Campbell, witness to both struggles, is in a position to articulate Reid’s insistent conclusion that progress cannot come out of violence.

The overtly pro-Manley theme of peaceful constitutional change is just one of many weaknesses in this big and often enthralling novel. There are utterly incredible coincidences and bizarre anachronisms, and some of Reid’s barely concealed real-life figures do not work as fictional characters. The author’s brave attempt to place “ordinary” Jamaicans at the centre of their own history by incorporating dialect-influenced English into the narrative is also a debatable technique. But despite such flaws, the book holds our attention because of the force of its conviction — that a “new day” was possible — and because of the extraordinary story it tells.

This story, of a people’s transition from powerlessness to democracy, is indeed an inspiring one, and it is one of the English-speaking Caribbean’s proudest achievements that today’s political rights were won without the bloodshed experienced in other post-colonial societies. New Day is also a fascinating book precisely because of its weaknesses, since it is in its historic context — the birth of a modern Jamaica — that it should be read. This is by no means an objective or neutral historical reconstruction. It is rather a totally committed, blood-and-guts celebration of what its author saw as a great victory. It is a novel about history in the making, a history that may seem distant today but which took place only 60 years ago.