Wed | Mar 21, 2018

Carolyn Cooper | More art, less violence

Published:Sunday | May 15, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Suppose our politicians had not put guns in the hands of restless youth. What if they'd been given video cameras instead? To shoot films, not each other! Perhaps some of our notorious criminals might have become internationally acclaimed filmmakers, telling their own stories with compelling authority. How different our society would be today!

But, of course, most politicians really don't give a damn about the disposable youth they employ as enforcers to defend garrisons. And these politicians will sell their souls to devilish dons who act on their behalf. All that matters is control of territory. Sometimes the dons fly past their nest, flipping the script on the politicians. And then it's hell and powder house!

In the 1940s, the weapons of choice for the warring People's National Party and Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) tribes were sticks and stones. By the 1960s, guns 'came into play'. This is a shameless turn of phrase that is brandished in Jamaican courts all the time. It relieves the accused of all responsibility for his or her actions. It's as if weapons act by themselves without any human agent.

But guns didn't just come into play. And this play was certainly not a game. It was murderous reality. Politicians systematically distributed guns to buy loyalty. Now, we pretend as if we don't remember when and how it all started. We act as if the everyday violence of Jamaican society is caused by a strange virus like chik-V or Zika. It's not home-grown.




Of course, the history of violence in Jamaica goes back much further than the 1960s. This is a society that was founded on violence. First, there was the brutal murder of the Taino people who discovered Christopher Columbus on their shores. In 1494, there were approximately 60,000 people living on the island. A century later, the population was reduced to about 3,000, and that included Africans enslaved by the Spanish.

Although we were taught in school that the Spanish invaders exterminated the Tainos, this is not true. The Ghanaian archaeologist, Kofi Agorsah, who taught for many years at the University of the West Indies, Mona, edited an informative book, Maroon Heritage, that was published in 1994.

Based on archaeological research done in Nanny Town, Professor Agorsah argues that there may be evidence to "confirm the speculation that the 'Arawaks' were still inhabiting parts of the island at the time that the British took over the island and had, therefore, not been exterminated, as has often been asserted".




The next wave of predatory violence in Jamaica was the savage attacks on enslaved Africans. The punishments inflicted on those who resisted slavery were horrific. You could be hanged until you were almost dead and then you would be revived, disembowelled and cut up into four pieces.

The skin could be stripped from your body while you were still alive. You could be hung up in an iron cage until you died from hunger and thirst. You could be burnt to death. You could be beaten to death. Beating sounds like an easy death in comparison. But it was not. It just took longer.

The Recovered Histories website quotes an anonymous Jamaican planter: "To people in Britain, it must seem strange that there should be a necessity for a law to punish [by] mutilating and dismembering their servants ... . I know two men, whose neighbours say positively that each of them have murdered scores of their own negroes ... ; the wonder was not that they had buried so many, [but] that they had any above ground."

Black bodies had so little value that plantation owners could keep on killing off the 'stock' because it could be easily replenished. Capital punishment was, indeed, a favourite strategy for terrorising enslaved Jamaicans. Nevertheless, they kept on resisting against the system.




Jamaica's history of violence has deadly consequences. It seems as if we have inherited the murderous DNA of our savage European colonisers. Today, Jamaica is a society in crisis. In 1962, the murder rate was 3.9 per 100,000 citizens. In 2015, it was 37.7 per 100,000!

I see that the JLP Government is toying with the idea of bringing back the death penalty. This is a most peculiar way of taking the country from poverty to prosperity. We are going right back to the primitive Old Testament justice of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

National Security Minister Robert Montague seems to think that capital punishment is an excellent crime-prevention strategy. But is this true? Research conducted in many jurisdictions across the globe concludes that there is little evidence to support this claim.

We need to find crime-prevention strategies that do work. It's too late for most of our hardened criminals. We need to start with our children. And it has to be a long-term strategy. There's no quick fix for a 500-year culture of violence.

It might sound very idealistic. But I think arts education is one of the strategies we must use: teaching children to work together to create beauty. Art really does have the power to change how we see the world. And how we act. Instead of capital punishment, we need capital investment in an education system that can help us to reclaim our humanity.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to and