Island of Bad Blood

Jamaica is inhabited by people of many ethnic backgrounds. The lighter your skin, the higher up the pecking order you are

Ian Thomson

Jamaica is an island of bewildering mixed bloods and ethnicities. Chinese, Lebanese, British, Indian, Jewish and aboriginal Taino Indian have all intermarried to form an indecipherable blend and vitality of Caribbean peoples. Contrary to popular belief, Jamaicans are not all black. Many gradations – Asian, African, Arab – can exist within a single Jamaican family. In some ways, this multi-shaded community of nationalities was a more “modern” society than post-war Britain, where thousands of Jamaicans migrated in the 1950s and 1960s. British calls for racial purity often puzzled these newcomers from the West Indies, as racial mixing was not new to them. Jamaica remains a nation both parochial and international in its collision of African and European cultures.

The lighter your complexion in Jamaica, however, the more privileged you are likely to be. An insidious “shadism” has ensured that a minority of white (or near-white: what Jamaicans call “local white”) inhabitants still control the plantations and other industries. So anxious are some Jamaicans to “whiten up” that they use skin-bleaches – a sad after-effect of the aristocracy of skin that evolved under the British during slavery.

As Jamaica is predominantly black, it might be thought that racial prejudice does not exist there. Jamaicans often claim that they have no “colour prejudice”, only “class prejudice”. Class snobberies were certainly rife among British sugar planters, as they ranged down the social scale from attorney to overseer to bookkeeper. But these were not British class distinctions (the typical planter preferred to forget his class origin): rather, they were a variant designed by men who needed to keep their “position” in West Indian society as a reward for their self-exile.

Inevitably, planter snobberies were shaped and defined by colour or, more properly, ethnicity. In order to bolster their social status, planters in the slaving era evolved an elaborate ranking of skin tones beginning with their white eminences at the top and descending to the “salt-water Negro” at the bottom. Between true black and pure white were mustees, mustaphinos, quadroons, octoroons, and Sambos (children of “mulatto” and African mix). These names have a strange poetry in their sounds, but they conceal an elaborate taxonomy of prejudice. Consequences of this “racialised” system – the minutely calibrated hierarchy of skin tones devised by the slave-driving British – have survived in Jamaica to the present day.

The claim that colour prejudice does not exist on the island is a nonsense. Prejudice is strongest not between white and black, but between black and “browning”, or mixed race, Jamaicans. Though “structurally black” (in anthropologist’s jargon), “brownings” often seem more pugnacious in their disapproval and derision of African “mumby-jumby” and Back-to-Africa religions (such as Rastafari) than white Jamaicans.

Most “brownings” who stayed on in Jamaica after slavery thought of themselves as staunchly British. Their Britishness was part of what it meant to be a cut above the poor, patois-speaking Jamaicans who said “Inglan” instead of “England”. Even freed Jamaican slaves were at pains to reject their African origin. Anthony Trollope, in his beady-eyed travel account The West Indies and the Spanish Main (1860), wrote of how “freedmen” refused to eat, drink or even work alongside slaves newly transported from Africa. These newcomers, their faces scarred with Congo tribal distinctions, were reckoned to lack British manners and upbringing, what Jamaicans today call “broughtupsy”.

In their move whiteward, inevitably mixed-race Jamaicans identified with planter-class Englishmen. There were even some “brownings” who joined slave-drivers in resisting emancipation. On the other hand, many white Jamaicans will today happily lapse into Afro-Jamaican patois, as they have no reason to fear the mark of Africa. Such are the intricacies of skin colour in modern Jamaica.

Attempts were made in the 1970s to heal Jamaica of its class and colour divides, when the leftist Prime Minister Michael Manley embraced blackness and black race-consciousness. As a “browning”, Manley was both beholden to, and in symbolic rebellion against, his mixed-race ancestry, his partial “whiteness” (unlike that of Barack Obama after him) being a mixed blessing as it eventually alienated him from both black and white. Manley had been influenced by Marcus Garvey, the black Jamaican race leader who urged repatriation to Africa, as well as the American civil rights activists Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, whose book Black Power (1967) called for a recuperation of “Africa” in the mind of the modern African American (a strategy that has evolved in unsophisticated form in today’s obsession with “respect”).

In Michael Manley’s Garvey-inspired vision, Jamaica’s African heritage was the colonially induced dark area of self-denial in the national psyche. No sooner was he elected in 1972 than he urged Jamaicans to abandon the streak of self-hatred and suspicion towards their own black kind. It was time to rehabilitate the notion of Mother Africa and, to that end, Manley established links with Jamaica’s Rastafari communities and promised to “beat down Babylon” (in Rastafari iconography, the biblical whore of St John’s Apocalypse; more loosely, oppressive colonial society).

Until the advent of Manley, Rastafarians had been despised by the Jamaican establishment as work-shy, narcotically impaired troublemakers. No religion is more eccentric. Without scriptures and ordained leadership, Rastafarians are free to invent their own version of the creed and their own divinities. They usually revere the Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie, a black Jesus figure who one day will repatriate them to ancestral Africa.

Of the many Rastafari offshoots, the Bobo Ashanti is reckoned to be the most ascetic and uncompromising. While most Rastafarians have integrated in varying degrees within Jamaican society, the Bobo are not interested in accommodating (still less changing) Jamaican society, because they have effectively disowned it. As fundamentalists, they have withdrawn instead from the mainstream of island life and, having taken a Nazarene vow of poverty, currently live due east of Kingston, the capital, in a sort of kibbutz.

Myrtha Desulmé, a Haitian friend of mine resident in Kingston, accompanied me to the Bobo commune in Bull Bay. Black and strikingly stylish, Myrtha had fled Papa Doc’s tyrannous Haiti with her parents in the 1960s and I was sure she would impress the Bobo Ashanti. She had dressed for the occasion in a Kente print dress, madras scarf and gold hoop earrings, and looked like an Ashanti princess strayed into the Caribbean. Along the way, she teased me for my avowed interest in Africa and Afro-Haitian animist cults.

“You blancs always like to hunt for the dark – for the black, the alternative.”


“Yes,” Myrtha went on with a shrug, “you always go on about Africa’s supreme natural beauty – its capacity for intuition, spontaneity, the ancient wisdom of its customs and instincts.”

“Do we? And what about you? Do you believe in any of that?”

“Only a bit,” she said with a touch of coquetry.

The Bobo commune commanded giddy views all round and was encircled by wooden palisades like a US cavalry fort. Over the entrance there was the painted sign: “BLACK SOVEREIGN NATION”. A Bobo priest came to greet us, arrayed in a green turban and a green cape. Pinned to his cape was an outsize badge of Haile Selassie and another, equally big, of Marcus Garvey. The priest, assuming a grave hieratic manner, greeted me warmly, if disconcertingly, as “Lord,” while to Myrtha he bowed smilingly and said: “Blessed, my Empress.” These magnificently medieval titles have been adopted by the Bobo as opposed to the bourgeois convention of “Mr” and “Mrs”.

However, if Myrtha was “sick” (menstruating) she would not be allowed inside the commune. Women are rarely an elevated sex among Rastafarians and are viewed by the Bobo as virtual chattels or Delilah figures whose legs and arms must be covered in the presence of their “Lords”. Once a month, accordingly, they must go into menstrual recluse, when they are kept out of sight in a sickbay built for the purpose.

An elderly priestess now approached us carrying a wall calendar. The calendar was to determine the extent of Myrtha’s “defilement”. Here my resolution to be open-minded was stretched. Was it humane to subject a woman to a test like this in public? While the priestess consulted with Myrtha, I turned my back and looked out over Bull Bay. Minutes went by. Somewhere through the sticky afternoon came the bonfire whiff of burning marijuana. Way down below me, wonderfully, the Caribbean spread out a dark, deep blue.

Having passed the calendar test, Myrtha was allowed to accompany me into the so-called guardhouse. There, into a cardboard box, went our mobile phones, credit cards, iPods, tape-recorders, pens and other trappings of “Babylon”.

I looked around. On one wall was a brightly coloured relief map of Africa, on which the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa was symbolised by a huge, six-pointed Judaic-Rastafarian Star of David. Next to that were black-and-white photographs of Garvey and Selassie. Although Selassie had been condemned by Garvey as a “great coward” for fleeing Mussolini’s troops during the fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the Bobo revere him as a breathing – for them, he is not really dead – divinity. Even Bobo children, mere saplings in His Imperial Majesty Selassie’s vineyard, must answer to the authority of the Ethiopian Pope Almighty.

At the entrance to the Bobo temple we were instructed to take off our shoes (which I was happy to do, it was so hot). There were virtually no windows in the low-ceilinged, bungalow-like building. Three Bobo elders sat in turbans at a long table in front of us like a tribunal. Myrtha and I were gestured to sit down. One of the priests nodded for us to speak. Bearded, he wore a blue turban and Old Testament flowing robes and said his name was Harold Mitchell.

“Who are you?” Mitchell turned to me.

I was worried that I would not be welcome here. All the concentrated malignity of Satan – according to the Bobo adept and Jamaican reggae star Sizzla – is to be found in the white man. The white man is a demon, a Pharisee, a Philistine, part of the Pharaoh people and, as such, a potential emissary of “Babylon”.

“I’m a writer,” I replied.

“Books? You are a writer of books? What kind of books? Please tell.”

It did not seem the time or place to embark on a literary discussion.

“I’m writing a book on Jamaica,” I said, evasively.

Prophet Mitchell turned to Myrtha.

“Empress. Who are you? And where are you from?”


“The black nation?”

“Haiti was the world’s first black republic.”

Harold Mitchell lowered his head in a small (very small: Myrtha was a woman) gesture of respect.

And Myrtha, with assertiveness in her voice, asked him in return why the Bobo did not simply “get up” and go to Africa. Right now.

After a moment’s hesitation, Harold Mitchell answered her: “We’re ready to go back at any time. We’re only waiting for the ship to come from Africa.”

“But why”, Mrytha persisted, “has the ship not come yet? Where is Haile Selassie? Why are you not ready to go to Zion?” For Myrtha, the dream of a return to the “Zion” of Africa was just that – a dream. (Jamaica, she confided to me later, needed to put its own house in order; Africa was a distraction.)

As yet there was no agreement on the departure to Africa. The Garveyite agenda for repatriation required money – lots of it.

Beyond the lure of Africa is another, equally unobtainable salvation. In 1884, according to a Jamaican legend, Queen Victoria earmarked £120 million for the repatriation of her West Indian subjects to West Africa. The project was never carried out, yet the Bobo believe the money is still owed to them. Prophet Mitchell had done his mathematics. “With accumulated interest, the figure now stands at £7,469,696,470,000,” he told us. Myrtha (who was beginning to embarrass me) said: “What?”

“Seven trillion four hundred and sixty nine billion, six hundred and ninety six million, and four hundred and seventy thousand pounds sterling,” said the priest.

“That’s what the British Crown owes?” I asked.

“That’s right,” Mitchell said. As this madness (if one can call it that) had slavery at its heart, it demanded something more than mere amazement as a response. Jamaicans had not asked to come to Jamaica: English slave traders had brought them here. The British Crown had a responsibility to redeem and compensate them.

After anxious consultation with each other, the Bobo elders asked me if I was Jewish. Why? Because only the black race are “true Israelites” – they, the blacks, are the true Children of Israel, the Chosen People who have long been denied their earthly Zion. From this it followed that the Jews eradicated by Hitler were merely “false Jews”. To brand those Jews as “false” struck me as callous, even contemptible. The millenarian creed of Rastafari, I had to conclude, was hardly something I could easily buy into, not just because of its illiberal traits (the nasty streak of misogyny) but because the absolutism of its blood-and-brimstone visions was temperamentally alien to the diluted Anglicanism into which I had been born.

The prospect of race war in Jamaica was never more real than in 1968, when the young Guyanese historian Walter Rodney gave a series of lectures in Kingston in praise of Rastafari and black political militancy. The lectures, delivered off-campus to groups of the urban poor, sparked the greatest upheaval in Jamaican society since independence from Britain in 1962. In the lectures, Rodney held up Jamaican “Syrians” (Lebanese, in fact, but in the West Indies, all Arabs are “Syrians”) and Jamaican Jews as “oppressors” and “lackeys of imperialism”. However, he concentrated his attack on Jamaican Chinese who, unlike their brothers in the People’s Republic of China (heroically “fighting against white imperialism”), were merely part of the “white West Indian social structure” intent on chaining black Jamaicans in a “Babylonian captivity”.

Chinese had first settled in Jamaica in the 1840s as replacements for African slave labour. At first, they did not “marry out” and their perceived standoffishness later helped to stoke riots against them. In 1965, Jamaica was convulsed when “Chiney” shops and homes were looted and set ablaze in Kingston. At this time of “black consciousness”, the Chinese, having little involvement in the movement, were seen by many black Jamaicans as “dog-eaters” or “bananas” (Oriental yellow on the outside, white colonialist on the inside). Significantly, the riots came just days after the “Negro Disturbances” (as the Jamaican Daily Gleaner construed them) had erupted in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles, until 1992 the worst urban riots in the US. In downtown Kingston, as in LA, Chinese were seen as the nearest approximation to white people, and attacked.

Rodney, lecturing just three years after the Kingston riots, said that if the Chinese did not relinquish their “privileges” voluntarily (meaning their shops and businesses), they would have to be “deprived” of them forcibly. Only then could they be reintegrated into a society “where the black man walks in dignity”, he judged.

As a Marxist, Rodney was hardly without bias, yet he was right to point out that the abolition of slavery had not led to a recognition of African culture and traditions in Jamaica (as it might have done), but to an intensification of European values and Anglo-Christian “imperialist” endeavour (Sir Walter Raleigh, Cecil Rhodes) as taught in Jamaican schools.

The Rodney lectures became a cause célèbre not just in Jamaica, but in all the West Indies. On 15 October 1968, after attending a black writers’ conference in Canada, the historian was banned from re-entering Kingston. Hugh Shearer, Jamaica’s conservative (but, ironically, first black) prime minister, proclaimed the Guyanese “firebrand” persona non grata. In retaliation, students at the Jamaican campus of the University of the West Indies threatened to boycott lessons unless Rodney was allowed to return. Rioting – the so-called “Rodney Riots” – broke out in Kingston over a period of two days. Rastafarians joined students in marches downtown, shouting “Black Power!” Accusations of police brutality were levelled and the Gleaner newspaper building – a symbol of Judaeo-Christian “oppression” – was besieged. One man was shot dead and cars were burned and overturned. Rodney decamped to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, where he was welcomed by President Julius Nyerere. (Twelve years later, in 1980, Rodney was assassinated in his homeland of Guyana, of whose government he had been no less critical.)

In hindsight, the “Rodney Affair” served to unite Jamaicans of all backgrounds in a black-white-mixed-race alliance that called for an end to foreign investment and, even, the nationalisation of certain key industries. After the riots, the authorities came to embrace a diluted form of Black Power and (preparatory to Manley’s social experiment of the 1970s) promote Jamaican cultural “self-awareness” on a national scale.

Yet, 40 years on, Jamaica remains riddled with social distinctions. Everyone in Jamaica (black, white, brown) prides themselves on their superiority, while at the same time everyone is uneasily aware that someone, somewhere (Chinese, Jewish, Lebanese), regards them as inferior. Thus the “browning” class will often have strikingly black maids, in order to highlight the “whiteness” of their employees, while wealthy black Jamaicans may choose to exhibit their parity with whites by employing white servants imported from Eastern Europe. For all the advances made in racial equality, in Jamaica a white skin still signifies elevated social rank. As the calypsonian Lord Beginner sang in 1952: “You can never get away from the fact, if you not white, you considered black.”

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