If, for some reason, you haven’t been already, you really should see the free exhibition Jamaica’s Hidden Histories, curated by Lorna Holder and on at the Oxo Tower right now. It would be hard to find a better expression not just of Jamaica’s contribution to modern London but of the tragedy, joy and potential of this very special island story. Aside from all that, it’s free.
I have been obsessed with Jamaica for 20 years, having played with a dazzling bunch of expats at my cricket club, Sinjuns, in Tooting. Thanks to my Indian heritage, I’ve always had a special interest in the empire. India and America aside, no country has deeper imperial connections to modern Britain than Jamaica. Holder’s exhibition shows the depth of that relationship.
It was Oliver Cromwell who, as British Lord Protector in 1655, took the island from the Spanish. A remarkable map from 1698, with which the exhibition opens, shows that as with all imperial conquests the people of Jamaica were seen as economic vessels first and foremost: “A significant economic resource.” That is indeed what Jamaica became to the British since, as its biggest Caribbean island, it produced the most sugar, with slaves to match.
The mid-20th century turned the narrative from exploitation to emancipation. The immaculately named Alexander Bustamante accelerated the process as Jamaica’s first Prime Minister. So too did cricket, whose heritage is of imperial inversions, in which the British are beaten at their own game by people they once oppressed. The other catalyst was reggae.
For all his countless faults — and he had too many to mention — Robert Nesta Marley is one of my greatest heroes. I’ve toyed with writing his biography — a proper one, that is, one that grapples with the grand irony of his life, which is that this godfather of black rights and emancipation was the son of a white Royal Marines officer (or so he claimed) with the splendidly Victorian name Norval Sinclair Marley, whose birthplace was Crowborough, East Sussex. Here too, then, the links between Britain and Jamaica are deeper than common history affords.
Naturally an exhibition that sets out to celebrate Jamaica won’t dwell too much on its failings. But when I was on the island for my honeymoon last year, there was a mournful aspect to it. Trench Town, in Kingston, which gave the world such amazing music, is a dump. Several people there told me that in the Sixties Jamaica’s GDP was equal to that of Singapore, which has since soared; and that a corrupt, ineffectual government can be traced back to the battles between former prime ministers Michael Manley and Edward Seaga in the Seventies.
Most recently, then, the story of this gorgeous island has been one of potential unfulfilled. Now, however, there is real hope. Current PM Portia Simpson-Miller’s economic reforms have been smart. Sprinters Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell and Yohan Blake, and cricketer Chris Gayle, have given Jamaicans their first post-Marley global superstars. And the decriminalisation of cannabis has already proved fruitful.
Holder’s exhibition gives London’s Jamaicans cause to look fondly on the past. Next time they visit their home from home, they’ll see new reasons to look fondly to the future, too.
Amol Rajan is editor of The Independent
Source – The Evening Standard