Nationalist W. Adolphe Roberts resurrected
Last Wednesday, the National Library of Jamaica (NLJ) launched the just-published autobiography of Walter Adolphe Roberts, These Many Years.
There was a major traffic jam going down East Street where the NLJ, attached to the history-laden Institute of Jamaica is at Number 12, surrounded by the decay of the inner city, a product of our Independence.
By the sweetest unplanned conjunction of events, the visiting British prime minister, David Cameron, was at Parliament at Gordon House on neighbouring Duke Street, the cause of the traffic jam!
From his base in New York, W. Adolphe Roberts was the foremost agitator for self-government for Jamaica in the 1930s.
Allowing the possibility of multiple paternity, a very real possibility in Jamaica past and present, W. Adolphe Roberts was a father of Jamaican independence, although he had spent the bulk of his adult life abroad, first leaving at age 18.
Roberts is one of Jamaica's most prolific writers of any generation, although his copious output is now largely out of print, and out of memory like his political work. The autobiography launch is something of a resurrection, head of the NLJ, Winsome Hudson, put it at the launch.
While still a young boy, he won prizes for short stories and poetry in the literary competitions of both The Gleaner and the Jamaica Times, after which he became a regular contributor. At 16, he was on the staff of The Gleaner. A year and a half later, he was on his way to New York, which he had been advised was "the journalistic centre of the New World".
W. Adolphe Roberts would spend the next 46 years abroad before returning to live in Jamaica in 1950 at age 64.
Abroad, his literary, social and love life flourished. And there was a steady stream of Caribbean-related non-fictional and fictional prose, and poetry, from his prolific pen, or typewriter.
Roberts died suddenly in London in his hotel room in the early hours of the morning of September 14, 1962. He was 76. A key architect of Jamaica's independence, he had left the just-born state on another of his many trips only five days after its birth on August 6.
Manuscript of his completed autobiography in hand for his publisher, Roberts left a disillusioned man. Having devoted some 30 years of his life to advocacy for Jamaican Independence, when others felt we weren't ready, the last of those years vigorously battling against the idea of a West Indies Federation, his contribution had not been honoured, or even acknowledged, during the Independence ceremonies.
Running up to Jamaica 50 celebrations in 2012, the now badly faded Roberts got a little good press revival with the late Ken Jones writing in The Gleaner, calling him 'Father of the Nation'. And Louis Moyston also did a piece on Roberts in the Observer. These pieces prompted Professor Peter Hulme of the University of Essex in the United Kingdom and scholar of the Caribbean and of Roberts, to undertake the disinterment of Roberts' autobio buried in the archives of the NLJ from 1962.
Roberts founded the Jamaica Progressive League (JPL) in New York in 1936, September 1. He was 50. The JPL was founded to press for Jamaican self-government. And its founder can rightly be regarded as a Father of Jamaica, if not exactly the father as Ken Jones would have it. I was surprised at the book launch to hear that the League was still alive and representatives were in the audience!
Roberts wanted to call the organisation the Jamaica Self-Government League, but supporters of the venture, he wrote in the autobiography, "so feared to offend the Colonial Office by the use of the term 'self-government' in the name that we compromised on the Jamaica Progressive League."
Roberts' involvement in politics came late in life although he had been a paid-up member of the Socialist Party in his 20s and 30s in New York. But the autobiography, however, makes clear that his indignation with colonial rule had its roots in his first experience as a young 'pressman' for The Gleaner at the beginning of the 20th century when the paper sent him at 16 to cover meetings of the Legislative Council.
Roberts added an incongruous appendix to his 1933 biography of Sir Henry Morgan: Buccaneer and Governor. The appendix set out his case for Jamaican self-government and is reproduced fully in the autobiography.
When Roberts did a speaking tour to Jamaica for the JPL in 1937, a branch of the league was established and he advised members that "it was undesirable, if not impracticable, for a nationalist movement to be permanently directed from abroad. They must regard their organisation as the nucleus of a political party, the activities of which should soon take precedence over anything we could do in New York."
After the usual sharp character sketch of the "cadaverous" Manley, Roberts reports Manley's response in a meeting they had in 1937: "Manley summed up his reaction to my argument by saying that self-government necessarily would become an issue in Jamaica someday, but that it was premature to try to raise it now. If a political movement to that end started nonetheless, I asked, would he support it? He replied that he would ... . Would he be active in its leadership? Would he ... allow a popular party to run him for the legislature? He shook his head. Apart from his legal practice, his interest were almost wholly philanthropic, he answered firmly. He had no wish to enter politics."
The JPL never became a political party in Jamaica. And with Roberts' claim that by 1939 he was "regarded as one of the three principal leaders", along with Manley and Bustamante, "the men who commanded active vanguards," one wonders how our politics might have turned out had the League become a party.
Roberts mostly admired Manley and worked closely with the PNP. Bustamante he described as a "bizarre figure" and a "dangerous" man and set out to debunk Busta's stories of his foreign exploits in Spain, Panama and Cuba. Bustamante, he said, was "a consummate actor and knew instinctively what would be effective with a simple people." On a platform, "he would pour out a cataract of words, passionate and incoherent, empty of reasoning ... . The raving voice certainly had magnetism. [And] a considerable percentage of the ignorant accepted him as an unconquerable being ... ." [But] Bustamante "had no gift for organisation."
Back on another visit towards the end of 1949, Roberts found the country in election mode for the second poll under universal adult suffrage. People, he said, came to ask if he would back a new party based on the principles of the Jamaica Progressive League. Roberts quickly decided that such a party would stand no chance to win the elections and would only serve to draw support from the PNP and help Bustamante to a second victory. "An appalling prospect"! For I definitely preferred the PNP to the JLP." But the socialism which the PNP had declared in 1940, Roberts complained, had grown to be a "revealed religion" and "the clench-fist salutes which had "irked" him "in 1948 had multiplied to the point of seeming an exhibitionist mania".
W. Adolphe Roberts vigorously opposed the West Indies Federation."The anti-Federation campaign," he wrote as the very final words of his autobiography, "served to draw together the ends of the circle of my public life. If more is yet to be told by me," he closed,"it will first have to be lived."
Like Norman Manley, his political favourite despite sharp disagreements and negative assessments, W. Adolphe could well declare "mission accomplished", the mission of himself and the Jamaica Progressive League of achieving self-government, autonomy, sovereignty, and independence for his native Jamaica.
How the independent state has turned out over 53 years and the evolution of its politics in Independence are matters to be as frankly and crisply assessed as Roberts did pre-Independence politics. But more dispassionately and more accurately!
With Heroes' Month running, the 17th general election since universal adult suffrage in 1944 coming up any time now, the IMF in town, and the British prime minister come and gone, this is a particularly good time for deep assessment of the self-government which W. Adolphe fought for.
- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com