Sun | Nov 18, 2018

Martin Henry: Orlando Patterson and the Musgrave Gold Medal

Published:Sunday | January 17, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Professor Orlando Patterson (left) poses with his Musgrave Gold Medal for excellence in literature during a presentation at the Institute of Jamaica on January 4. The Musgrave Medal is awarded in recognition of achievement in the arts, science, and literature.

Almost everybody else seems to have had their introduction to Orlando Patterson either through his first novel, The Children of Sisyphus, or his first scholarly book, The Sociology of Slavery. I first read Die the Long Day, another of his three novels, as a high-school student voraciously reading like the Westmoreland-born Patterson himself did while he was growing up in May Pen.

A feature story on him in the Harvard Magazine, November-December 2014, tells us that Patterson spent much of his boyhood in the small rural town of May Pen. One day when he was about eight or nine, a one-room library opened under a pavilion in the town park, and the boy was astonished to learn that you could borrow books there. "Borrow books?" he recalled asking the librarian, in a 2013 interview in Small Axe, a Caribbean journal of criticism.

"So I found myself going to this place with the smell of brand new books, and I could take any book I wanted. It was amazing! I used to go there, and read and read and read ... . That was a transformative experience. I just read. Instead of shooting birds or swimming in the Rio Minho river, I'd go to the library."

Set in 18th-Century slavery Jamaica, the main character of Die the Long Day is the unbowed slave woman Quasheba, desperately trying to protect her daughter from being given to an old syphilitic overseer on a neighbouring estate.

Quasheba confronts her master: "Ah come for me daughter, Busha. Ah not leaving without 'er. She is all me 'ave."

"Your daughter! Your daughter! You don't own her. You don't own anything. You insolent black bitch."

"She's me own. She's me own. An' you not going touch her. Ah don't care what happen to me no more. Ah kill you first. Ah kill you! Kill you!"

Quasheba tries to stab the white man with a knife but only manages to wound him. She runs away. It is the Maroons, pledged to capture runaway slaves, who take her out.

"As they raised their machetes together, a flash of light reflecting from the blades suddenly gashed through the dense green jungle. When they raised them again, they were liquid red, her blood flowing from the blades like the dust-stained streams of sweat down the arms of hoeing slaves."


In between The Children of Sisyphus, his first novel and first book, published in 1965 when he was only 25, and his most recent, The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth (2015), Orlando Patterson has put out a rich corpus of work, while being a historical and cultural sociologist at Harvard University. This body of work has given him this year's Musgrave Gold Medal in the field of literature. The musicians Sly and Robbie were also award gold for 2015.

Orlando Patterson has been a distinguished scholar of both slavery and freedom, and of race and black culture. But Patterson is no ordinary academician, declares a fellow scholar who participated in an academic conference marking the 30th anniversary of the publication of Patterson's Slavery and Social Death.

"Orlando is one of a kind the sheer scope and ambition of his work set him apart from 99 per cent of social scientists," says Loic Wacquant, a professor of sociology at Berkeley. "In an era when social scientists specialise in ever-smaller objects, he is a Renaissance scholar who takes the time to tackle huge questions across multiple continents and multiple centuries. There was another scholar like this in the early 20th Century named Max Weber. Orlando is in that category."

Studying freedom was an unexpected outgrowth of Patterson's study of slavery.

"I had gone in search of a man-killing wolf called slavery; to my dismay, I kept finding the tracks of a lamb called freedom," he writes in the preface to Freedom in the Making of Western Culture.

I have read with enormous pleasure and profit his monumental study of Freedom in the Making of Western Culture.

Fourteen years ago in 2002, I listened to Orlando Patterson speak at the UWI on the occasion of Jamaica's 40th anniversary of Independence, and in 2008 had the pleasure of organising a public lecture by him for the University of Technology, Jamaica on the occasion of that university's 50th anniversary as an institution. Patterson spoke for the UTech lecture on 'Democracy, Violence and Development: Do we pay too high a price for our freedom?'

I wrote in this space after the UWI lecture on 'Emancipation, Independence and the Way Forward': "I had already read Freedom and commented upon it with intense intellectual pleasure and satisfaction. It was with the same deep emotional and intellectual intensity of response that I listened to Freedom's author, the great Orlando Patterson, speak on 'Emancipation, Independence and the Way Forward' in the UWI Distinguished Lecture Series ... '.

Patterson had chosen to describe in musical terms the "triad of freedom" which he proposed. They are a chordal triad, creating a single harmonious whole, he said.

Patterson began his formal study of slavery and freedom at the UWI in 1962, the year of Jamaica's full independence from colonialism. As he moved away from the study of Jamaican and West Indian slavery to world slavery, the old nagging idea gelled in research that it was slavery that preceded freedom, that freedom was a response to slavery, that freedom was emancipation from slavery.


He describes, as we have seen, his metamorphosis in the preface to Freedom: "Originally, the problem I had set out to explore was the socio-historical significance of that taken-for-granted tradition of slavery in the West. Armed with the weapons of the historical sociologist, I had gone in search of the man-killing wolf called slavery; to my dismay, I kept finding the tracks of a lamb called freedom."

Freedom, according to Patterson, originated in the slave societies of Greece and Rome and has strong Judaeo-Christian ties. Freedom was a response to slavery to escape "social death", the theme of an earlier work, Slavery and Social Death.

The musical chordal triad of freedom constitutes, he proposes: Negative or personal freedom (the absence of restraint), positive or sovereignal freedom (freedom to do what one wants, to exercise power including power over others), and participatory or civic freedom (freedom to participate in the government of society and in public life).

The Musgrave medals awarded by the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) are named in honour of Sir Anthony Musgrave, the Antigua-born colonial governor of Jamaica (1877-1883), who established the institute in 1879 for "the encouragement of literature, science and art".

As a lasting tribute to its founder, following Musgrave's death while posted in Australia, the board of governors of the IOJ in 1889 decided on a motion by Rev John Radcliff, Rector of Scots Kirk, to award gold, silver and bronze medals to persons who made outstanding contributions in the areas of literature, science and art.

Musgrave was also the governor behind the establishment of a domestic telegraph service in the same year, 1879, that the IOJ was established. As the book I co-author, The Story of the Telegraph in Jamaica, records, "The first law enacted by the Legislative Council in 1879 was the Telegraph Law, on Friday, January 3." The Institute of Jamaica Law was the 22nd for 1879, enacted on May 7.

Under Musgrave's administration, the government purchased the Jamaica Railway Company from private interests and extended the line. He also initiated the Jamaica Scholarship.

The first Musgrave Medal was awarded in silver in 1893. No gold was awarded for nearly half a century until Edna Manley was awarded the first gold in 1941 for her distinguished work in the field of art and for her encouragement of literature.

Since Edna Manley in 1941, Orlando Patterson and Sly and Robbie for 2015 have joined more than 80 other individual and institutional winners of the prestigious Musgrave Gold.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and