Sun, 06 Mar 2005


Clarifying Jamaican identity, image

Mike Phillips, Guardian News Service, London

It was Bob Marley who laid the first stones in the edifice of caricature which stands for Jamaican culture in Europe and the U.S. He didn't mean to do it but he did. A huge swath of the British population got their first introduction to the Jamaican culture from the lips of Marley and his successors, or from corporate hype advertising their wares.

As a result, a specific, distorted view of the country and its region was established in the wake of their successful co-opting by pop and youth culture. Guns, drugs, Rastafarianism, reggae music, sunshine and amusing folk customs - for most people that's Jamaica. This impression is reinforced by an ingrained, racist view of Caribbean identity, which has been a reliable background to corporate salesmanship. For a variety of enterprises, ranging from tour operators through booksellers to stand-up comics, the imagery of kickback, dread-locked, hip waggling, gun toting, ganga smoking, backayard Jamaica is good business.

By contrast there has been a tradition of meticulous scholarship in the region, dating back to the 19th century, and providing a detailed exploration of the island's customs and social structure. In recent years this body of work centered on the English-speaking University of the West Indies, but it also drew on the discoveries of researchers, archivists, and archaeologists throughout the Francophone and Hispanic Caribbean. Olive Senior's Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage is a product of this tradition.

Senior begins by spelling out her definition of heritage under four headings: place, creative activity, history, rituals and traditions. She goes on to argue (with some relish) that "We are not newly minted and fashionably 'multicultural'. We have been the meeting ground, from our earliest history, the coming together of peoples (and their cultural baggage) from all over the world."

The Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage reflects this polyglot tradition. The text is well written, precisely factual, and illustrated by photographs and drawings on almost every page. Impressively, it relocates the Jamaican culture within historical time and as a part of its region, a valuable corrective to images of the island as an undifferentiated fragment of the African diaspora.

The Encyclopedia also approaches its dominant themes obliquely (there are no entries under the heading of history or politics). On the other hand, entries on education, language, religion and trade unions, along with biographies of such figures as Sir Alexander Bustamante, stitch together into a coherent narrative about Jamaica's development from the arrival of Columbus to the present day. There are few surprises, but Senior's rendering of historical events painstakingly separates myth and legend from recorded fact, and clarifies puzzles about contemporary Jamaican society. The book achieves a triumphant sparkle, however, in its treatment of individuals and their contribution to Jamaican life and the culture of the world.

Dr Cecily Williams (1893-1992), for example, left Jamaica to study medicine at Oxford University. In Ghana, she was the first researcher to describe the condition kwashiorkor (severe protein deficiency in children) in Africa. Captured by the Japanese in Malaysia, she served as camp doctor and commander, and spent the rest of the time in solitary confinement. Returning to Jamaica, she led a team which traced the "vomiting sickness" in children to the hypoglycaemic effect of unripe ackees, and was later appointed as the first maternal and child health adviser to the WHO. Not bad for a woman from a small island whose interest in medicine started in the clinic that her mother organized on the veranda of the family home.

At the other end of the scale,the Jamaican story is studded with extraordinary and extravagantly colorful figures - Plato the highwayman, Three Finger Jack, the Blue Mountain bandit; and Sergeant Gordon, second Caribbean recipient of the VC, whom Queen Victoria called her "Zouave boy", and decreed that he could never be tried by court martial "should such a contingency arise".

Another minor pleasure of the book is discovering the culture of the aboriginal Arawak (Taino) inhabitants. The people themselves only exist in the present day, as an identifiable group, on the South American mainland, although the names they gave to things persist. Cassava and canoe, for instance, and their sacred fruit ginepa or yagua, is known by the same name (guinep) throughout the region.

Underlying all the narratives, however, is the violent and sombre legacy of the African dispersal and Caribbean slavery. These events and the long shadow of their effects are the inevitable historical grace note in customary behavior, events, food, language, manners and social structures. African customs colored all kinds of creativity; and the history of relations between an African majority and a slave- owning plantocracy continues to reverberate in Jamaican.

The Encyclopedia handles these issues with a careful objectivity, but from time to time, its focus provokes some loose and populist generalizations. The section on language, for example, makes the claim ("the English language is struggling for survival in this country") that Jamaican patwa - the syncretic adaptation of African, Spanish, French, Hindi, Arawak words or grammatical constructions - somehow constitutes a new language. This has now become a familiar trope in nationalistic descriptions of Caribbean English, but the difficulty is that local variants of the notoriously flexible English language now exist in almost every corner of the world, many of them even more distinctive than the Jamaican. Arguing for the emergence of a "new language" would require rather more evidence than a smattering of bolted-on words and constructions. Perhaps a body of writing featuring a stable grammar and vocabulary might be sufficient, but at present, no such thing exists. Given the mobility of the region's population, along with the effects of global mass communication, the prospects seem unlikely.

In much the same way, it is possible, and perhaps necessary, to challenge a number of Senior's assertions about the thrust of Jamaican identity, but The Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage remains a considerable achievement. This book will tell casual readers everything they ever wanted to know about Jamaica and a great deal more besides.

NOTE: Mike Phillips's London Crossings: A Biography of Black Britain is published by Continuum. To order copies of The Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage, telephone +44-162 185 0450 or email

The Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage
Olive Senior
Twin Guinep Publishers
580 pp