Book reviews (November/December 2008)

Reviews of some new Caribbean books

Garvey meeting with members of the Universal Negro Improvement. Photograph courtesy Ian Randle Publishers/Suzanne Francis-Brown/Jean Jacques VayssièresMarcus Garvey. Photograph by Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty ImagesThe original Penny Bank in downtown Port of Spain in its early days. Photograph courtesy First CitizensTraditional fishing boats at Soufrière Bay, Dominica. Photograph by Celia Sorhaindo

Marcus Garvey: hero or hustler?

“We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.”

Although words to this effect were immortalised by Bob Marley in Redemption Song, most people don’t know that they were first spoken by Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey. He uttered these powerful words in 1937, in a speech in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he went to drum up support for his mission of black empowerment.

Garvey is an icon who divides opinion. He is Jamaica’s first national hero, and his ambition of black empowerment through education, entrepreneurship and the redemption of Africa has been lauded by his supporters. But to others, he was just a buffoon and a charlatan who fleeced his own people.

In Negro with a Hat, author Colin Grant writes a biography that shows Garvey as a well-rounded man with great ambitions and foibles. At 500-plus pages, Negro with a Hat may seem a daunting read, but Grant’s scholarship is at the same time accessible and enjoyable.

Grant, a radio producer with the BBC World Service, is the son of Jamaican parents who migrated to England in 1958. In his family, there was always ambivalence about Garvey, who was sometimes spoken about in “sinister” tones. Grant’s curiosity about Garvey deepened after a visit to Jamaica with his mother, where he kept noticing paintings and graffiti about Garvey.

“I was curious to discover where those ideas about Garvey came from, and whether they were true or not. From day one, I wanted to get to this kernel of truth about this paradoxical figure: charlatan or saint?”

Although Grant has written plays and radio scripts, writing a book was a different undertaking. He decided to do what any good journalist would do and aim to tell a good story.

In order to do so, Grant travelled to America, Liberia and Jamaica. The depth of his research is evident as he captures the full sweep of Garvey’s life, including his childhood, which has rarely been written about in great detail.

At the heart of Negro with a Hat is the bitter rivalry between Garvey’s Universal Negro Association and the US National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) led by WEB Du Bois. This wasn’t simply a clash of ideologies or personalities, but a venomous battle against the brown elite who thought that the black Jamaican would usurp their power. Du Bois described Garvey as a “little fat black man, ugly but with intelligent eyes and a big head,” while Garvey described his mulatto rival as “the white man Negro who has never done anything yet to benefit Negroes.”

However, unlike Du Bois, Garvey had the ability to sway the black working class, and such was his popularity among African-Americans and the black diaspora in the 1920s and 1930s, Garvey was considered the most famous black man in the world.

He fired up black people’s imaginations with a philosophy of “Negro uplift” and his Back to Africa movement, powered by the Black Star Line, was meant to trade between Africa, America and the Caribbean, as well as to take Africans from the diaspora back to the homeland.

To the American intelligence agencies, led by J Edgar Hoover, and British military intelligence, this popularity was dangerous. American agents infiltrated the UNIA and eventually found “evidence” that led to Garvey’s being jailed for mail fraud.

Although Grant is broadly sympathetic to his subject, this book is not a whitewash. He illustrates how Garvey’s confrontational, litigious, and stubborn nature, together with inattention to important business details (proper accounting included), led to his eventual downfall.

“After a while, his biggest fault was that he stopped listening to the people he should have listened to. I wanted to show that his necessary determination was important, but this determination carried with it an undertow of disturbance and tripped over into pathology. He was assailed on all sides, but he was also paranoid, though understandably so.

“I’m interested in the many contradictions in the man—which I don’t think actually take anything from him. They make him much more of a more rounded, flawed character, but a man, I think who was a candidate for compassion.”

Critics on both sides of the Atlantic seem to agree that this passionate and well-balanced work will go a long way to cementing Garvey’s place among black historical figures.

Negro with a Hat
Colin Grant (Jonathan Cape, ISBN 978-0-224-07868-9, 530pp)

Franka Philip

 


Telling the children the truth

Gorgeously illustrated in ink and watercolour by Frenchman Jean-Jacques Vayssieres, Marcus Garvey is a child’s biography of the remarkable pan-Africanist and national hero of Jamaica. Vayssieres and Jamaican Suzanne Francis-Brown write clearly and informatively about Garvey—but be warned: this book is best suited to children whose parents read to them. The size of the type and the density of the information will turn off a young child.

As one would expect from a book co-published by the Commission for Pan African Affairs, it is very sympathetic towards Garvey and his life’s cause of uplifting people of African descent, but this is no hagiography. Garvey’s ethical lapses, his family life and his penchant for not quite finishing what he started are all honestly told. But the book also honestly tells the huge impact that Garvey had on the world. From Jamaica to the UK, the US and the ends of Africa, people of African descent have been influenced in one way or another by his thinking, writing and organisations. Though pan-Africanism itself might not go by that name in our “global village” any more, hardly anyone can deny the impact of Kwame Nkrumah, Haile Selassie and Bob Marley, three historically significant adherents of Garveyism.

One of the book’s few problematic areas is its final section, in which the narrator interacts with what seems to be his son or grandson, in a direct response to the first section of the book, where its narrator is introduced. However, it is distracting suddenly to introduce a new character in the last few pages of a book, especially when the reader has to work out his identity by contextual clues rather than attribution.

Marcus Garvey Suzanne Francis-Brown and Jean-Jacques Vayssieres
(Ian Randle Publishers/The Commission for Pan African Affairs/David Philip Publishers, ISBN 978-976-637-321-4/978-0-86486-711-7, 64pp)

Lisa Allen-Agostini

 


To Dominica with love

Its guide to Dominica is the Bradt Travel Guide series’ second visit to the Caribbean. The first, for some reason, was to the Caymans; the second, a worthy choice, is Dominica, that mysterious, mountainous and greenest of all islands.

What to expect from a guidebook? One that makes you itch to get there and, after you arrive, provides you with bread-and-butter information, and dispels the anxiety of the new. This Bradt guide delivers. There are the keenly researched facts, as one would expect from such a well-respected series, but also some nice personal inputs from the author, who lives on the island and, although not Dominican himself (he’s English) is married to one. About food, for example: “Sometimes it appears that Dominicans wouldn’t survive the day without having their lunch.” There’s also a section called Giving Something Back, which points out, quite rightly, that this guide’s emphasis is on supporting the local. Which is what tourism should be about—and still is in Dominica.

Hiking and diving, the twin pillars of Dominica’s tourism industry, are central to the book and described in great detail—many of the lesser-known hikes have never before been written about. Crask is himself a professional at both, and also a canyoning enthusiast.

A couple of quibbles: Crask is perhaps too diplomatic to point out that the cruise-ship industry (which the guide gives some space to) clashes horribly with the island’s strategy of maintaining a “Nature Island” image; while the “further reading” section is a little skimpy. The front cover (the publisher’s decision) is perhaps too low-key.

But essentially, this is a loving tribute to Dominica and its people, showing how visitors can get to experience Dominica beyond the obvious. And—another bonus—for further information and advice, Crask has set up a web companion to the book at www.dominicatravelguide.com.

Dominica Paul Crask
(Bradt Travel Guides ISBN 978-1-84162-217-0, 224pp)

Polly Pattullo

 


West Indians at war

There’s a story about what supposedly happened when Barbados heard in September 1939 that Britain had declared war on Germany. To show the island’s solidarity, the colonial government in Bridgetown cabled a message to London. “Go on, England,” the cable reportedly read, “Little England is behind you!”

Quaint in the re-telling; but Britain’s Caribbean colonies were all eager to do their bit for the war effort, though the hostilities had precious little to do with them. The contributions of Barbados and the other territories to World War II—as well as Britain’s various other military encounters—may have been modest, not to mention unseemly to modern sensibilities, but they were sincere. And in Humphrey Metzgen and John Graham, former British Army officers, they find equally sincere chroniclers.

From the story of the local militias, raised to defend the islands against attack from other colonial powers, through the exploits of the West India regiments, which saw action across the globe in the 19th century, this book recounts the valour shown and, inevitably, the prejudice faced by Britain’s Caribbean subjects in the service of the Empire.

The book’s focus is on the world wars, in particular World War II. A number of vivid accounts from Caribbean soldiers and airmen, as well as from women who served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service in London, are included. And war buffs will delight in the descriptions of the U-boat battles that ranged across the Caribbean Sea.

Ultimately, however, the Caribbean experience of fighting for the mother country was one of  “undervalued loyalty, unwanted assistance and frustrated enthusiasm”; perhaps the greatest legacy of the Caribbean’s involvement in Britain’s wars, as the authors speculate, was the hastened desire to leave the Empire altogether.

Caribbean Wars Untold: A Salute to the British West Indies Humphrey Metzgen and John Graham
(University of the West Indies Press, ISBN 978-976-640-203-7, 256pp)

Jonathan Ali

 


Bank book with a high interest rate

Banking and literature are not exactly a natural fit. The closest most people come to doing any sort of reading associated with banking is to go through their monthly statement—hardly a page-turner; in fact, the fewer plot twists in there, the better.

The history of a bank might seem like an even less appealing subject to the average reader. Trinidad and Tobago’s First Citizens bank, however, has a genuinely remarkable tale, and Kathy Ann Waterman sets it down in this appropriately well put together volume with agreeable candour and colour.

In fact, colour plays a major role (as with so much else) in the history of local banking. For a long time the banks were all foreign-owned and run, and catered to the mainly white and light-skinned upper classes, which put them beyond the reach of the masses. This situation led in 1914 to the founding of the Trinidad Co-operative Bank or Penny Bank (so called as you could open an account with as little as one penny).

The Penny Bank, important as it was, was a savings and loans bank, and it was not until the momentous year of 1970 that the first locally owned and managed commercial bank was realised. When one of the foreign banks came up for sale, Prime Minister Eric Williams—no doubt still smarting from the effects of the Black Power disturbances—gave instructions for its purchase (“Buy it…I said to buy it”). The National Commercial Bank was thus established. (This section of the book also provides one of its best gems: the first bank to provide automated teller banking, NCB had the chutzpah to name the service Mary Anne, after the delightfully risqué calypso that went, “All day, all night, Miss Mary Anne/Down by the seaside, she sifting sand”.)

Not long after this the Workers’ Bank, with its roots in the trade union movement, started. Yet by the late 1980s, with the economy stymied by recession, all three banks were floundering for one reason or another. Enter the government again, to lasso them together and act as midwife to a painful, protracted, but eventually successful birth: the institution now known as First Citizens.

“This is much more than the history of a bank, but rather the story of how a nation grows up,” claims First Citizens CEO Larry Howai in the foreword to On Becoming First. Indeed, the First Citizens story mirrors the story of much of modern Trinidad and Tobago, and Waterman, a one-time journalist, leaves nothing out in the telling. Drawing on a solid array of interviews, articles and other sources, and always with an eye on the major personalities who shaped events, she weaves the separate narratives into a compelling, lively whole. The text is supported by some fine photographs and a sharp layout, though an index would not have gone amiss.

Of course, On Becoming First is about banking more than anything else, and more than anything else, banking is about numbers. So: from registering a loss in 1995 of TT$11 million and being last among the six commercial banks, First Citizens went on to record a profit of TT$341 million and rank as third largest bank in the country by 2006. A happy ending, then, and isn’t that ultimately what every reader wants?

On Becoming First  Kathy Ann Waterman
(First Citizens, ISBN 978-976-8211-35-4, 109pp)

Jonathan Ali