Annie Paul | Garvey’s lesson
“Real leaders don’t care who they offend, if in offending they are serving the cause of humanity and working for the good of their country. Jesus Christ was the greatest offender when he was on earth, and we ought to take a leaf out of his book in this respect.”
Marcus Garvey, arguably Jamaica’s premier national hero, certainly knew what it meant to be considered offensive, for when he wasn’t being sued for libel, he was being denounced as a villain by powerful interests both at home and abroad.
\One of the more frivolous lawsuits he faced was in 1930 when a Mrs BarnesHaylett, a dressmaker who lived at the corner of Church and Beeston streets, sued Marcus Garvey’s newspaper, The Blackman, for libel, demanding damages of £1,000, a small fortune in those days.
At the time, Etheline Marjory BarnesHaylett earned only £3 a week, yet was represented by none other than his learned counsel, Norman Manley, while Marcus Garvey, in an effort to save money, as he did in the US, represented himself. The Gleaner carried blow-byblow accounts of the trial, with some of the in-jokes traded by Norman Manley and the judge at Garvey’s expense reminding me of the virtual heckling of the lawyer representing Tivoli victims by lawyers for the State at the recent West Kingston Commission of Enquiry.
The offending article in The Blackman described the formation of a new club at premises occupied by Barnes-Haylett, suggesting it was a place that might offer opportunities for whist drives and games of poker and twentyone. Appearing under a section called Night Life, the article said that the club had enlisted a large number of female members and that this, itself, should contribute to the club’s success promising ‘crazy’ times ahead.
The writer of the article, one Thoywell Henry, who affected an American slang style of writing, said he had acquired this information from Clifford Parker, a customs officer, and a member of the club whom he described as a ‘spree’.
Mrs Barnes-Haylett complained that this account had damaged her reputation and that of the Amateur Choral Union which she had founded at her home. The word ‘female’ suggested prostitution, she said, and there had never been any mention of whist drives or poker or ‘sprees’. The organist of the club confessed that the mandate of the Choral Union may have been extended somewhat.
“We ... may have ... sung secular songs, but the original intention of the organisation was to sing hymns and songs in church, and not on the stage.”
I was struck by the following exchange between Garvey and Mrs Barnes-Haylett, who argued:
“... That false statement about me should not be in The Blackman making attacks on my character and reputation. My character is priceless.”
Mr Garvey: We know that and would not take that away from you under any circumstances.”
Another striking thing about the reported exchanges is that it seems in those days witnesses were allowed to answer back and even question the lawyers cross-examining them.
Mr Garvey: You know that Mr Mends is a politician, don’t you?
Witness: What is a politician? (Laughter.)
Mr Garvey: A person who indulges in politics.
Witness: And what is politics? (Laughter.)
Mr Garvey: The science of Government.
Witness: I don’t know about that: I am only a dressmaker (laughter).
Clifford Parker, too, tried to claim damages of £100 but didn’t get very far with this. Marcus Garvey suggested that the entire libel suit was concocted by a group of people, including Barnes-Haylett and Parker, who, thinking that “Mr Garvey of Somali Court” was a man of means, had planted the story on one of The Blackman’s reporters.
What is curious is that the lawsuit did not allow time for The Blackman to publish an apology before proceeding to court. When a clarification was published after the fact, Barnes-Haylett complained that it had caused her more grief, as the police had come to her premises to investigate. She therefore was claiming aggravated libel. Marcus Garvey challenged her to provide evidence of the visit of the police.
After much court time was taken up deciding whether Garvey was even liable for the damages or not, as he insisted he was not the managing editor of the publication, the judge awarded the plaintiff damages of £30, a considerably smaller sum than the £1,000 she had demanded.
How interesting that today no one remembers Mrs Barnes-Haylett or her “priceless” character, while the ‘libellous’ Marcus Garvey is a national hero and widely acknowledged as a global leader whose influence far exceeds the shores of the country he was born in.
The fact that we keep repeating history suggests we’ve yet to learn from it. Perhaps, as someone once said, “The only lesson you can learn from history is that it repeats itself.”
- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @anniepaul.