Fri | Jul 19, 2019

Martin Henry | Emancipendence reflections

Published:Sunday | August 5, 2018 | 12:26 AM


Tomorrow we hit the Big 56.

What have we done with 56 years of independence? It’s been quite a mixed bag. While we have progressed to become one of the most murderous countries on the planet, we have maintained a stable democracy. Zimbabwe, a former sister Commonwealth country before President Mugabe pulled the country out under sanctions, has been wracked with political violence after its presidential election for which it took the Electoral Commission three days to announce the results.

We have had our own tribal fights but overall election results have never been contested. And the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, born in 1979 as the Electoral Advisory Committee as a bipartisan response to the drift towards political corruption and violence, has cleaned up the electoral system to ensure free and fair elections. We must protect its integrity.


On critical human development and well-being indices we have done reasonably well: Life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality, immunization, access to health care, literacy and access to education from the primary level up, malnutrition, access to potable water and to utilities…. But there’s a lot more fear and trauma in the land than in ’62.

Modernisation has been countered by decay in infrastructure and in community. The other day, I went through downtown Kingston again. It was shocking again to see the decay of the historically magnificent heart of the capital city which I have known since the 1960s. One-third of the population lives in squatter communities. But highways ring the country. There are schools and health centres everywhere, even as police stations and courthouses are falling apart across the country and are far too few for needs.

The economy looks like the rest of the country: Pockets of growth and excellence in the midst of ramshackle, stagnation and decline. Tourism and bauxite have emerged as world-class modern sectors, but manufacturing has experienced boom and bust.


 Agriculture has suffered near catastrophic decline which has not shocked us enough. There is less arable land under cultivation today than in 1962 with vast tracts of ruinate everywhere. Output is down for every single traditional commodity – sugar, bananas, coconut, pimento, coffee, cocoa, ginger, you name it. And yield per acre is down from sick soil syndrome, a looming national disaster which doesn’t get a tiny fraction of the attention it deserves.

Nearshore artisanal fisheries have also been shot in the general environmental decline that the independent country has experienced. We can add deforestation and pollution. The emergence of services, remittances, the migration valve – and the ganja trade which never gets counted in the formal economy -- have been saving us from disaster.

 The currency has experienced a 130-fold decline in value against the US dollar since the Jamaica dollar came on stream at parity in 1969 seven years into independence. The comprehensive studies on the human and economic impact of devaluation and inflation are yet to be done. As are those critical studies on the returns on investments in education and health care.

Jamaica has been a powerhouse in international affairs with not a single match, size for size. We have been a dominant player in music and sports. But we have also been a world-renowned exporter of crime centred on the drugs and guns trade. We just badder than most, abroad and at home, and more violent.


There is hardly a doubt that we have suffered significant declines in attitudes and values and the society is far coarser and more vulgar and less caring than at ’62. The efforts at fixes have been weak and sporadic.

The Jamaica Independence Conference held February 1-9, 1962, did a great job in selecting August 6 as Independence Day. For several years we suspended the August 1 Emancipation Day and fixed Independence “Day” celebrations for the first Monday in August. With the Patterson restoration of Emancipation Day in 1997, we now have Emancipendence for celebrations, remembrances and reflection – and a bit of extended rest from the daily grind of life on Jamrock.

Black as I am, every year I lament the overemphasis of culture as song and dance, and food and drink, and old time domestic artefacts, and things African. To the relative neglect of other crucial elements of culture which truly make us Jamaicans and not just majority Afro-Jamaican ex-slaves. Take that magnificent tradition of [British] parliamentary democracy out of which could come a ministerial resignation right on the eve of Emancipendence.

 When you read the deliberations of the bipartisan parliamentary Independence Committee, the desire for continuation in this most valuable tradition and to avoid experimentation comes across very clearly and very strongly. The Jamaica Constitution is the thoughtful legal expression by consensus of this desire.

Our jurisprudence anchored in the [British] Common Law and the principle of the Rule of Law is another grand cultural pillar, not out of Africa, and is the great guarantor of the freedoms in which Jamaicans revel.

The official language, English, has bequeathed to us the world’s lingua franca, although I want to see Jamiekan advanced to a formal written national language in my lifetime. The Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment, as Christian Scripture has done for many other languages, has provided a first text for the formalization and written use of the language. I have been struck by the similarities in cadence and earthy metaphor between Jamiekan and Hebrew (in literal English translation). Something the scholars should explore further. I can’t.

The dominant, if not predominant, Christian religion has been a prime shaper of Jamaican culture and the prime mover and shaker for Emancipation despite the historical revisionism which Black Pride demands. A revived and reformed Christian conscience coming out of the Great Awakening led the charge against the slave trade and slavery itself. Making Christian faith and culture the only one among the religions to have ever repudiated historically normative slavery on moral grounds.

On the night of July 31/August 1, 1834 (the correct year for legal Emancipation, not 1838) the dissenting churches and chapels were corked with worshipping slaves giving God thanks for freedom and refraining on Christian grounds from retributive violence.

The role of the Church in establishing freedom and the free peasantry is very well known. So it was really heartening to see a page 2 story in this newspaper last Thursday covering the Emancipation celebrations of the Longville Park Baptist Church in Clarendon. From what I gather from the reporting, the Seville Emancipation Jubilee, the national event, had little if any space for the presence of the Church as a critical emancipator.

A key organiser of the Longville Park Baptist Church Emancipation event, history teacher and member of the congregation Christine Monroe, told The Gleaner that the church must play its vital role in fostering the country’s culture. The National Anthem agrees: Eternal Father bless our land/Guard us with your Mighty Hand.

- Martin Henry is university administrator. Email feedback to and