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The biography of Marcus Garvey by Rupert Lewis, gives account of his humble origins and the influences and developments which transported him from the state of a young unworldly schoolboy in colonial Jamaica to an international icon in the movement for black empowerment. Rupert Lewis portrays Garvey as a self-made individual whose keen observations about the conditions of black folk in the Caribbean colonial era and in other parts of the world, spark his drive and determination to create opportunities that bring about fundamental changes and create a new black consciousness that attempts to erase the abuse of slavery on the black psyche. In retrospect, the impact of his contribution had far-reaching effects on the development of a post-colonial Caribbean identity, and many of the goals and structures he committed to writing and speech, were effectively used in the formation of the laws and institutional framework of the independent nations of the Caribbean. Rupert Lewis has used material in his account, from the perspective of Marcus Garvey’s second wife, Amy Jacques-Garvey, and has also used other supporting information including from Garvey’s writings and speeches. To examine the magnitude of his contribution to post-colonial Caribbean identity, first we must understand exploitation colonialism, the impact of slavery, post-slavery conditions, and his goals to retrieve black humanity, create economic wealth and create laws and legislative framework to advance the black diaspora.
Caribbean colonialist society was based on exploitation colonialism. To understand the impact of Garveyism on post-colonial Caribbean identity, one has to be apprised of the effect of colonialism on the identity of the black Caribbean national. The wealthy and powerful nations of Europe, in a bid to garner more power and wealth, set out to exploit the resources of the Caribbean countries which they inhabited and in the process decimated native populations. The Lucayan, Taino and the Kalinago populations dwindled severely through the introduction of diseases brought by the Europeans and the brutal exploitation of their labour. The discovery of the West Indies did not reward the Europeans with the gold and spices they sought, but instead they found wealth, first in the cultivation of tobacco and then when tobacco revenues fell prey to superior competition from the Virginia plantations, they turned to sugar.
Slavery was introduced upon the adoption of sugar as a cash crop. Sugar cultivation was a labour intensive undertaking and large workforces were required to make sugar production a worthwhile exercise. In the quest to maintain their new-found wealth, the European countries engaged the services of slave traders to transport thousands of Africans, who were captured and purchased and in turn sold to the willing planters at a low cost. Caribbean chattel slavery was a brutal and inhumane form of slavery unlike that of West Africa which afforded basic rights upon the enslaved individual. It was based on the concept of racial inferiority (Low Country Digital Library – College of Charleston). In West Africa no child was born into slavery, a slave could buy his way out of slavery and could acquire possessions and wealth. In the Caribbean however, the British authorities deemed the enslaved person as chattel or property subject to the whims and fancies of the planter. The Africans were stripped of their cultural identity and punished brutally for practicing any form of religion, customs or ritual originating from their ancestral home. Any child born to an enslaved person was considered a slave and children as young as six were put to work in the fields. Slave women were the subjects of brutal rape and abuse by their masters and made up the majority of the workforce in the fields. Men were emasculated, worked to death, beaten and denied the right to a family life, often being thrown into rooms to ‘breed’ the female slaves in order to make new stock (Morgan). According to John Campbell in his article “Fixed melancholy”, suicide was practiced among slaves as it was thought that death would enable them to return to their ancestral homes. It also became a form of resistance to the brutality of slavery. Physician Hans Sloane wrote during a visit to Jamaica (1687-1689) “…the negroes from some countries think they return to their own country when they die in Jamaica, and therefore regard death but little, imagining they shall change their condition, by that means, from servile to free …”.
Post-slavery conditions were not much better than slavery itself. Inasmuch as Great Britain ended the Slave Trade in 1807 and slavery itself was abolished August 1, 1834, the Apprenticeship system which was instituted to provide a transitional period from slavery to freedom for the former slaves, and to preserve access to a stable labour force for the planter, was in itself a means for the planters to prolong the period of slavery. In some instances there was nowhere else to work except on the very plantations from which they gained their freedom. They were subject to the brutal beatings experienced during slavery and worked for a pittance. Others, who were able to, fled the plantations and found the means to earn a living away from that setting. Treatment of the newly freed men was biased and the planters decried the loss of long work hours. By the new rules the freed men were only supposed to work for forty hours a week and the planters protested that it would cut into their profit margins. Even though they were no longer deemed property, the idea that the black man was inferior, continued to be upheld by the laws and institutions, resulting in unfair treatment and no recourse in the law and a crushed spirit.
It was against this history that Garvey sought the retrieval of black humanity and the right to self-determination that had been stripped during several hundred years of slavery. His philosophy embraced race over nation. He felt that instilling black pride was the first step to effecting positive change in the circumstance of the black man. He agitated for the advancement of the black race on the global stage and an end to European colonialism (Lewis). Due to financial hardship, he was forced to leave school at the age of fourteen years and became a printer’s apprentice. Printing and the newspapers exposed him to the power of the written word which became one of his chosen instruments, to disseminate his message to the masses (Lewis). The other was by speech. He stated, “I trust that you will so live today as to realize that you are masters of your own destiny, masters of your fate; if there is anything you want in this world, it is for you to strike out with confidence and faith in self and reach for it.” After living and working in several other countries, he travelled to England in 1912 for two years, where he paid close attention to the conflict between England and Ireland regarding independence of the latter. His travels allowed him to see that black people in other countries were also hampered politically and socially and it spurred him to find ways to improve their lot. He also read the writings of other anti-colonial activists while there and his concept of independence from the white colonial masters took shape. He established the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914 on his return to Jamaica and its mandate was to promote black pride, economic self-sufficiency and the formation of an independent black nation. However, he encountered racism in Jamaica after founding the association and remarked, “I really never knew that there was so much colour prejudice in Jamaica, my own native home until I started the work of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The daily papers wrote me up with big headlines and told of my movement. But nobody wanted to be a ‘Negro’ (Lewis). He perceived that the coloured Jamaicans distanced themselves from the term ‘negro’ because by European standards it represented being savage and uncivilized and therefore inferior. His suggestion of freeing Africa from colonial rule was met with derision from his countrymen. In 1924 in yet another speech he stated,
“… The time has come for the Black man to forget his hero worship of other races, and to create and emulate Heroes of his own. We must canonize our own Saints, create our own Martyrs, and elevate to positions of fame and honor black men and women who have made their distinct contributions to our racial history.”
In the 1960’s and 70’s, the doctrine of Marcus Mosiah Garvey was incorporated into the teachings of organizations with large followings such as the Nation of Islam and the Black Power Movement among others (Lewis). These were organizations that existed to instill and promote black pride and improve the condition of the black race.
Garvey encouraged the development of black industry to create economic wealth for the black citizen. He believed that the most effective path to independence was through economic success. He was preoccupied with finding ways to reverse the mental grip that chattel slavery still had on its victims. He referred to it as ‘mental slavery’. He realized that the Caribbean cultural identity was based on the norms and values established by its European slave-masters. As a result the belief of black inferiority was pervasive. He expressed, “Liberate the minds of men and ultimately you will liberate the bodies of men.” Through the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Garvey pushed the idea of economic success by group economic endeavours. He established The Negro Factories Corporation to be the business arm of the UNIA. Here, businesses would be set up to employ Negroes and produce goods for negro people to allow them to be self-sufficient within their communities. In the same vein the Black Star Line was also set up to facilitate trade for black businesses between the United States, the West Indies and Africa. Black people of humble means were able to purchase shares for a modest fee of five dollars. Involvement in legitimate industry and business as owners and investors gave a displaced people a sense of empowerment and a way to take charge of their destiny and this is an example that is still relevant in the twenty-first century Caribbean. Even though these entities eventually failed, the concept and execution were many years ahead of their time and became a framework for social mobility and gave a bigger voice to the black citizen.
Garvey drafted laws and legislative framework to advance the black diaspora. He remarked that as a young man in Jamaica, he “started to take a keen interest in the politics of my country and then I saw the injustice done to my race because it was black, and I became dissatisfied on that account” (Lawler). At the UNIA convention in 1920, The Declaration of the Rights of Negro Peoples was drafted. In particular reference to the colonies in the British West Indies, it stated: “Negroes are secretly and cunningly discriminated against and denied those fuller rights of government to which white citizens are appointed, nominated and elected.” In his manifesto for Jamaica’s first political party the Peoples Political Party, launched September 9, 1929 he prioritized, “self-government for Jamaica, a minimum wage for workers, land reform, an eight-hour work day, free secondary education, a public library system, encouragement of local industries, protection for native labour, and a law to punish judges who act unfairly” (Lewis). For the most part, this is the framework for most present-day Caribbean legislation. His Universal Negro Improvement Association was followed by millions of supporters globally and his popularity threatened nations whose societies were formed on the doctrine of white supremacy such as the United States of America. There he was convicted on trumped up charges of mail fraud relating to the Black Star Line, the main drawing card for his supporters. Most notable was his resilience in rising above these challenges and creatively finding ways to further his agenda.
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