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'Jamaican Greats' chronicles like no other

Published:Sunday | August 17, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Glenville Ashby

Glenville Ashby REVIEWER

Title: Jamaican Greats: Lives of famous and notorious Jamaicans

Author: Thibault Ehrengardt

From the opening salvo, Jamaican Greats simmers, boils and explodes. It is a hell of a literary ride - a juggernaut of an undertaking that demands detail, reflection and literary bite. And author Thibault Ehrengardt nails it.

He chronicles stories of Jamaica's legends and historical personages, some of whom are carved in depravity. Some are tales of sociological complexity; others are journeys into the psychopathological fabric of the human mind, while others resound of bruised souls that yearn for salvation. Religion and the spirit world are bound to matter. Separation is unthinkable. This is a world of visionaries, spiritual hustlers and people bent on believing. Voodoo politics abound and politicians are not abashed to inject the supernatural on to their platform. Edward Seaga, ever enthralled by the 'other side', returned to Jamaica to learn the art of obeah before plunging into another murky world - that of politics. Shades of Papa Doc ring through.

The dons and the brutality of gangs exporting and ruthlessly plying their trade in the diaspora are all showcased. But not for long, as street thugs realise that they are being manipulated by politicians. In an era when politicians openly courted drug dealers, Jamaica teeters on self-destruction. Jamaica's history is built on plundering, piracy and the social injustice - experiences that have meandered through every stage of its development. The people have always lamented, sometimes bathing in religious placidity, as depicted in the early days of the Rastafarian movement when repatriation was the clarion call.

Yes, this undertaking examines Jamaica through a grass-roots prism. Every strain of the Rastafarian movement is given a large stage - Prince Emmnauel and the Bobo Ashantis, in particular. And when Ehrengardt is through, the reader has a firm handle on this inimitable movement that was hijacked and sullied by the spurious dealings of Leonard Howell, Claudius Henry, and others.

Who is a Rasta? It is never really answered. The ambivalence and the scathing attack on the movement are encapsulated in the words of columnist Clinton Parchment: "The majority are lazy, dirty, violent and lawless scoundrels … . The banning of their sect and the repression of their habits is something that no Jamaican government with claims to public service ought to hold back from."


Throughout, there is a sense that the Jamaican spirit is never bowed. It is unyielding and can turn on a dime. Resistance can be genuine. Ehrengardt's details the philosophical depth of Marcus Garvey, his ability to galvanise millions of people to his cause, and his regrettable downfall. But this is all too familiar. Add his father to the mix and you have a fascinating story that catches the reader's attention at the outset. A pugnacious, callous and aggressive man, he reads voraciously, a trait that his famous son no doubt adopted.

Sure, there is Bob Marley and that good ol' buccaneer-turned-gentleman, Sir Henry Morgan. In Ehrengardt's world, even 17th-century history comes alive and should serve as a psychological compass. But there is much more. Jamaican Greats also shares the exploits of the island's first serial killer, Lewis Hutchinson. It also explores the short and electrifying life of Vincent 'Rhygin' Martin, whose legend lives through the iconic movie, The Harder They Come.


The inclusion of these undesirables adds colour and originality to Ehrengardt's work, especially his portrayal of Rhygin, a street thug who garners sympathy for going head to head with the establishment, even promising to assassinate Prime Minister Alexander Bustamante at a funeral. The shoot-out at the Carib Hotel, the panic, the overall tension and suspense are well captured with stunning effect. The almost real-life, minute-by-minute commentary proves to be breathtaking and trumps every other story told.

Jamaican Greats has little to do with morality or ethics, as we know it. Greatness is defined by zeal for pragmatism, a thirst for survival at any costs, and an uncanny ability to pour on the sacred or the profane, at will.

In truth, Sir Henry Morgan lives in many of today's politicians, in the same way Rhygin does in every 'bad bwoy'. Interestingly, Ehrengardt lines up the uncompromising, stoic and musically talented Vivian Jackson next to the commercialised Bob Marley. It is a loaded and telling statement. He shuffles his players well and his message is discernible. His political sentiments, though, appear shrouded with a vicarious veneer.

Remarkably, the intrigue never abates. Ehrengardt, ever the provocateur, piles it on, offering a riveting and bewitching exposé of a high-voltage, complex society that intimidates, frightens, and fascinates.

Rating: Essential

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