Jamaica at Fifty
Reporting from London and Kingston
If there was ever a year to celebrate being a Jamaican in London, it is 2012.
The year of London’s 2012 Olympics has already made 100m record holder Usain Bolt its poster boy. And in August, Jamaica marks 50 years since it became the first West Indian territory to gain independence from the UK.
For Jamaica’s diplomatic team in London, it’s a PR timing made in heaven.
So it’s no surprise that Jamaica’s High Commission in London spent more than a year brainstorming to come up with celebratory plans. The programme kicked off at the start of 2012 and will peak on 6 August, Jamaica’s 50th Independence Day.
“The Olympics and our 50th – that’s an opportunity to celebrate our heroes,” Jamaica’s Deputy High Commissioner to London, Joan Thomas Edwards, told Caribbean Intelligence©.
The work of her committee comes at a key time for one of Jamaica’s oldest diaspora communities. The first main West Indian migration (there had been smaller migration groups for centuries) started in 1948, with the journey of the Empire Windrush steamship from Jamaica to London after World War II.
Today the Anglo-Jamaican community remains one of the largest Caribbean groups in the UK. Officially, there are 600,000 people with Jamaican passports in the UK. But unofficially, this figure could be close to a million.
Mrs Thomas Edwards describes the Jamaican presence in the UK as a “sleeping giant” and says her team are using the focus of 2012 to renew Jamaicans’ pride in their home country.
As officials at the High Commission in London’s Kensington area will be the first to admit, the 2012 promotions have to contend with the fact that many second, third and fourth-generation Jamaicans have lost touch with their roots.
“The loyalty isn’t there,” Mrs Thomas Edwards told Caribbean Intelligence©.
“There is a missing link and an identity problem,” she said, adding that this year’s events were a “deliberate outreach to them”.
A year of plans
A team representing a mix of ages and profiles from the Jamaican community has been meeting regularly to come up with a list of events.
The list is an eclectic one, ranging from councils around Britain raising the Jamaican flag on its Independence Day, to church services and community awards and even a dominoes tournament.
The events cover two areas – community and official.
On the community side, awards have been organised to honour outstanding Jamaican citizens, as well as a community information campaign on how to apply for a Jamaican passport.
The official side includes the expected mix of high-profile church services and lectures.
But amid these efforts to “big up” all things Jamaican, younger people of Jamaican origin are seeing themselves increasingly sidelined in recession-hit Britain.
Media images of Britain’s black community have often focused on Jamaica’s gang culture, black-on-black crime and deportations.
Some of the independence events include Jamaican business people, academics and others, from what the High Commission calls “the great and the good”, being invited to talk to young British people of Jamaican origin about positive images.
But will it be too little too late? “It’s a challenge,” admits Mrs Thomas Edwards. “We are making some difference.”
Some of the promotion will be aimed at encouraging young people to start up their own businesses and consider looking at investment in Jamaica.
The idea is that, after Usain Bolt and the Jamaican athletics team have left London with their presumed medal haul, the promotional effort will have done its work to “plant seeds” beyond 2012.
Many in the diaspora and back home in Jamaica agree that 2012 offers the chance to put across a broader Jamaican image.
Veteran writer and broadcaster Louis Marriott has lived on both sides of the Atlantic, working with the BBC’s original Caribbean Service in the early 1970s, then BBC London’s Black Londoners programme and documentaries on black Britain. He now lives back in Kingston and is Executive Director of the Michael Manley Foundation.
“That’s where we should begin,” he told Caribbean Intelligence©. “Selling to Jamaicans [in the UK] and to a wider Britain.
“They see the Jamaican heritage [as being] to do with great people in music and sports,” he added. “The heritage is much greater than that.”
Mr Marriott argues that examples of work by Jamaican academics and researchers, but also by producers of premium commodities and mineral production all need to be shown off during 2012.
He agrees that the Jamaican identity remains strong, even several generations later. He cites the example of Chelsea player Daniel Sturridge, British-born of Jamaican descent, who appeared in May on Jamaican television to talk about being part of a UK-based family that “eats Jamaican, plays Jamaican, thinks Jamaican, is Jamaican”.
Mr Marriott agrees that there is a level of alienation which forces the Caribbean diaspora to dwell on home. One of the documentaries he worked on in 1972, Born Black… Born British, had been one of the first to chart this lack of acceptance as equal members of an integrated society - a state which he and others argue still persists two decades later.
“There is a need, in my view, to communicate the many wonderful assets of Jamaica, to ourselves and to the world. That would engender greater self-respect in Jamaicans, the vast majority of whom are even ashamed of their own language, the greatest product of their collective creative genius fashioned over several centuries,” Mr Marriott told Caribbean Intelligence©.
He points out that, ironically, the Jamaican language has proven very attractive to non-Jamaicans, exposed to it largely through reggae and dancehall music.
Though they’re on different sides of the Atlantic, Louis Marriott and the Jamaican diplomats in London seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet.
“We have to strengthen what we have,” says Mrs Thomas Edwards in London.
The theme of the independence anniversary is “The nation on a mission”.
With other Caribbean nations seeking similar attention in multi-cultural Britain (Trinidad and Tobago marks its 50th at the end of August 2012), the Jamaican diplomatic team believe they have the added advantage of their independence celebrations just as the 2012 Olympics reach their peak.
“The eyes of the world will be on Jamaica,” says Mrs Thomas Edwards.