Tue | Oct 16, 2018

The Gleaner: unfolding history at every turn

Published:Sunday | September 14, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry

Martin Henry

Last week, the appointment of Dr Carl McKay Williams as the 28th commissioner of police was a major news item and was The Gleaner's lead story on Tuesday. When The Gleaner and Weekly Compendium of News first appeared on Saturday, September 13, 1834, there was no Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) as we now know it.

The JCF is the work of John Peter Grant, who succeeded the disgraced and recalled John Eyre as governor after the Morant Bay Rebellion. Grant had a free hand to reorganise things under the newly introduced Crown colony government, the frightened local House of Assembly having voted to abolish itself and revert power directly to the Crown.

But the new paper did carry a small police item which included its first scoop: "We understand," it reported, "that Mr Burrowes of St Catherine has been appointed to the Office of Keeper of the House of Correction in the Parish; and it is rumoured that M. Lyons, Esq, a respectable and long residenter of Spanish Town [then the capital], is to be appointed as his successor to the Office of head of the Police."

There is perhaps only one other publication that can come anywhere close to The Gleaner as a recorder of the country's life and history for the last 180 years. And that is the Handbook of Jamaica, published annually between the 1880s and the 1970s, with only short gaps like during the Second World War. A mere half of The Gleaner's time up to now! This column, carried by the paper for the last 27 years, salutes the venerable Gleaner.

The Gleaner began with 'free Jamaica', slavery having ended only six weeks before on August 1, 1834. The paper, established from the vantage point of the urban merchant class and the rural planter class, in its first issue reported nothing directly on this momentous event. But the paper has been transformed with the country in freedom.


Just flipping through one issue, Wednesday's of last week (September 10), with one eye on the print or electronic version and the other on history, one can see the vast changes that the newspaper would have reported and recorded.

'Pressure on political parties: Proposed law threatens sanctions if political camps fail to disclose accounts', the lead announced. The Gleaner has carried the emergence of the political parties beginning with Marcus Garvey's People's Political Party in 1929, the development of the two-party state governed alternately by the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP) through internal self-government, and full independence. By the time of Independence, The Gleaner, then 128 years old, was such an important national institution (and politically neutral) that its famed editor, Theodore Sealy, was asked to chair the Independence Committee.

'Former Stone Crusher gang leader killed in MoBay' provides a flashback on the crime history of the country, on which The Gleaner has had so much to report, particularly since the later part of the 1960s.

'Parliament pays tribute to Roger' and 'Agri sector reviving as rains ease drought' pull up images of the long dominance of the economy by agriculture in a plantation colony and of the industrial and services transformation in a long swing from the 1940s and images of the declining fortunes of agriculture which The Gleaner has reported and recorded. Banana was yet in the future as an export crop (late 1870s) when The Gleaner started. Jamaica was once the world's leading exporter of bananas. Banana money financed Jamaica Welfare. Then came tourism and bauxite, covered by The Gleaner.

Mosquitoes and chikungunya featured on Wednesday last, going back to the long coverage of social conditions and health care and disease epidemics, like the cholera outbreak of 1851.

"Away with SLB - Bartlett, MP, wants universities to provide loans for students" encapsulates the post-Emancipation education history of the country. The long, slow growth of secondary and tertiary education, the establishment of The Mico in 1836, the advent of a university (the University College of the West Indies) in 1948, when The Gleaner was already 114 years old and firmly established as the people's university, and the subsequent explosion of colleges and universities, including the transitioning of CAST to UTech as the first public national (not regional) university.


And starting as a free-enterprise, business-reporting paper, The Gleaner continues extensive business and financial reporting. Among the items last Wednesday, news on economic performance under the International Monetary Fund (IMF), opening up recollections of politics and economy delivering us into the embrace of the IMF again, which The Gleaner has tracked and reported, and criticised in sharp editorials.

The start-up Gleaner was very interested in arts and entertainment, carrying a short story, not news, on the front page of the first issue, and the paper continues tracking and presenting in these areas of national life. The creative arts, particularly music, have elevated Jamaica to the world stage.

Along with its family of newspapers, The Gleaner Company, drawing heavily from the Handbook of Jamaica, has put out the now classic, The Gleaner Geography & History of Jamaica, which has gone into well over 20 editions. The little book is a compressed gem of geographical and historical data, much of which the mainstream Gleaner itself has reported on and recorded since September 1834.

We sample: In 1838 on August 1, Emancipation Day, there were demonstrations throughout the island to celebrate the first day of complete freedom. In Spanish Town, the capital, a hearse containing the chains and shackles ... put on rebellious slaves was driven through the streets and these symbols of slavery were solemnly buried. There were bonfires and feasting everywhere. Queen Victoria, who had lately ascended the throne, was blessed as the author of the people's freedom.

The railway and the East Indian indentured labourers came in 1845. The Chinese followed in 1854. Some free Africans came in 1841, who I believe may be more responsible for African retentions than survivals in slavery, but about whom we hear very little.

Cholera in 1850-51, poor sanitation, 32,000 dead. Smallpox outbreak in 1852 and again in 1887.

Great religious revival in 1861. Morant Bay uprising in 1865, followed by Royal Commission and Crown Colony government.

In 1875, a privately operated streetcar system was started in Kingston. Jamaica Exhibition, 1891, was opened by Prince George, later King George V, to advertise Jamaica. Five hotels to accommodate visitors were constructed.

Elementary education was made free in 1893. Secondary education, much expanded, would follow 81 years later in 1974.


Earthquakes, hurricanes, major fires, disease outbreaks reported as they occurred. In the aftermath of the January 14, 1907 earthquake, which threw down brick-built Kingston, killing around 800 people, the Americans, without permission, landed armed marines to assist. Governor Swettenham asked that they withdraw, sparking a diplomatic impasse between himself, the United States and the colonial British government. London instructed the Governor to apologise, which he did and then resigned.

We have just gone through yet another dry summer of water shortage. The Hermitage Dam was commissioned on May 4, 1927; the Mona Reservoir in June 1957.

Labour disturbances reported in 1938, in hindsight, the launch of modern Jamaica and its political system and trade union system. PNP, founded 1938, September 18; JLP, 1943, July 8; and in that same year the US Farm Work Programme started. Bustamante first gained national attention as a letter writer to The Gleaner.

A new Constitution was promulgated in 1944 with universal adult suffrage, providing "representative, though not responsible government". Progressively, more power was granted to the elected 'government' of Jamaica with constitutional changes in 1953, 1957, and 1959.

A West Indies Federation Conference was held in Montego Bay in 1947 and another a full decade later at Mona in 1957. The federation itself was established on February 23, 1958 and was dissolved on May 31, 1962, with Jamaica having voted by referendum in September the year before to withdraw, Premier Eric Williams of Trinidad & Tobago famously remarking, "One from ten leaves zero."

Full Independence came on August 6, 1962. The post-Independence period is better known, and, in any case, I have completely run out of column space. So I close with accolades to The Gleaner for having covered free Jamaica for its first 180 years with distinction.

Martin Henry is a university administrator and public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.