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Remembering Wilfred Domingo:a pioneer of our Independence movement

Published:Sunday | August 21, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Wilfred A. Domingo in this May 1963 Gleaner photograph.

Ken Jones, Contributor

In 1941 when Wilfred Adolphus Domingo went to New York Harbour to board the American vessel Veragua, on its way to Jamaica, he had been resident in the United States (US) for 31 years. He had visited his homeland only twice to press the case for Jamaican self-government; and his reputation as a political organiser so greatly impressed Norman Manley that he was invited to return to further develop the fledgling People's National Party (PNP), as well as to pursue his heart's desire, Independence for Jamaica.

Domingo was born 1889 in Kingston, son of a Spaniard, Francisco Domingo, and his wife Alice, a Jamaican from the parish of St Thomas. As a teenager, he showed keen interest in political matters and became active in the National Club, an aggressive movement led by a noted politician of the day, Sandy Cox. At meetings of the club, he was closely associated with Marcus Garvey; and he introduced the future Negro leader to the writings of Edward Blyden, whose thoughts soon influenced the formation of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).

a spectacular career

On turning 21, he gave up on his apprenticeship as a tailor and migrated to the US intending to study medicine. However, he soon changed his mind and began a spectacular career as a political and community activist.

In 1913, Domingo went on an extensive speaking tour through the US advocating constitutional changes for Jamaica. These included civil-service reform, adult suffrage, trade-union rights, and self-determination. Two years later, he was contacted by Marcus Garvey, who then had plans to visit Booker T. Washington. When Garvey arrived in New York, his long-time friend, Domingo, joined forces with him and provided introductions to many prominent black American activists.

Domingo never took out membership in Garvey's UNIA. However, he gave strong support and advice and was later named editor of Garvey paper, The Negro World. It was while he was writing for the paper that he and Garvey had a falling out. The bone of contention was that Domingo was embracing radical socialism and using The Negro World to further his arguments in favour of the doctrine. Garvey objected on the grounds that he was "writing and publishing editorials that were not in keeping with the UNIA programme". Domingo resigned, and, after the break, the two men never again found common ground on any public issue. Domingo went off to set up his own publication, The Emancipator, and established business as an importer of Caribbean foods.

In 1936, when Walter Adolphe Roberts called a meeting to form the Jamaica Progressive League and formalise the demand for Jamaican self-government, Wilfred Domingo was among the first to respond. He became vice-president of the organisation and was most aggressive in promoting the essential principles and basic aims, which included:

Universal suffrage in Jamaica and the removal of property qualifications for candidates for public office, and the right to form labour unions;

Preparing Jamaicans at home to fight for the right to self-government;

Study the economic and social problems of the island and press for necessary reforms;

Study the history, geography and literature of the island and give aid to all forms of artistic expression by the people;

Foster inter-Caribbean trade and commerce and strengthen cooperation between Jamaicans at home and abroad.

In the following year, Domingo accompanied Roberts to Jamaica. The two spent some six months campaigning to make people aware of the movement toward self-government; and they also acted as advisers to the group then considering the formation of a political party, later to be known as the PNP. At the formative stage, many of the senior members of the party were cautious about the demand for self-government. There were also other influential voices raised in disagreement. To them, Domingo declared on behalf of the Progressive League:

"We deplore the inferiority complex that causes such an idea to seem overweening and scandalous to some Jamaicans. We consider it one of our functions to furnish the necessary corrective - the rod of steel in the backbone and the starch in the shirt front - until Jamaica stops being humble and realises that after some 280 years under the British flag, she has every right to be a partner in the Empire; every right to stand beside New Zealand, which has been British a much shorter time than that."

Roberts and Domingo, along with W.G. McFarlane, head of the Jamaica branch of the Progressive League, were persistent, and at the PNP's first annual conference on April 12, 1939, the new party set aside the views of the more moderate members and officially accepted the proposals for self-government and universal adult suffrage. To ensure that the objectives were faithfully pursued, a decision was taken by the Progressive League to join the party and to lead the campaign. Domingo was in the forefront, using his passionate speech and writing articles in 'Public Opinion', a weekly newspaper founded by O.T. Fairclough and other PNP stalwarts.

It was this impressive performance by Domingo that led Norman Manley to invite his return to Jamaica as political organiser for the PNP; and this was the mission on which Domingo was embarking when he boarded the Veragua that day in 1941. He had promised to stay in Jamaica for just six months, but on his arrival, the governor, Sir Arthur Richards, ordered him taken from the ship at Port Royal and placed in detention at Up Park Camp. There he would remain for 20 months in company with Bustamante, Frank Hill, Ken Hill, Arthur Henry, Richard Hart and others considered threats to the peace and security of the country.

Domingo's detention was vigorously protested by organisations and individuals inside and outside Jamaica. The American Civil Liberties Union provided funds for the fight, and questions were raised in the House of Commons in England. The official response was:

"The governor of Jamaica has reported that he ordered the detention of Mr Domingo on 17th June, and that he was taken into custody on his arrival in Jamaica from America. Mr Domingo has been detained under the Defence Regulations, because the governor is satisfied that his detention is necessary, with a view to preventing him from acting in a manner prejudicial to public safety and defence."

Arthur Creech Jones, a member of parliament familiar with Jamaican affairs, asked the secretary for the colonies:

"Will my Honourable Friend give the closest attention to this detention, in view of the integrity of this person and of the excellent work he has done in the United States; and of the fact that there is no grounds whatever for any suggestion of disloyalty?"

Mr David Adams, another MP, wanted to know:

"Before this person is indefinitely interned, should he not be brought to trial?"

To these queries, the answer was:

"In reply to the three supplementary questions, the information received at the Colonial Office is that this man was engaged in anti-British activities. He has the right to make an objection against his detention, and that, I think, is the proper course for him to take."

Upon his release, Domingo attempted to return to America, but as he had not yet taken American citizenship, the US government refused him re-entry. Unable to return, he stayed in Jamaica campaigning for self-government and writing a regular column, 'Sparks from my Anvil', in the Public Opinion newspaper.

In 1947, Domingo was permitted to return to America, and there he continued his outspoken criticism of the move towards the West Indies Federation. When the referendum was called, he urged voters to go against the PNP, publicly declaring:

"Jamaica does not need any federation. Too many reasons are against our tying ourselves up with the other units. We have travelled well along the road to Independence without any help from the outside ... . We have led the way. Let us continue to do so ... ."

"The vote should be clean-cut. It will not be a party vote. A PNP-ite can with good conscience be for the domestic policies of his party yet be against its leaders' incurable determination to entangle Jamaica with islands a thousand miles away. ... ."

"A vote to take Jamaica out of the 'improbable' Federation will not be a vote for Bustamante or a vote against the PNP, it will be a vote for Jamaica."

Like Adolphe Roberts, Wilfred Domingo lived to experience the fulfilment of his life's ambition; and like Roberts, he received no official recognition in the time of glorious victory. Roberts died six weeks after the first Independence Day; and 16 months later, Domingo, unhonoured and unsung, suffered a stroke that left him permanently incapacitated. He died in February 1968 and is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.

In his homeland there is not a stone or monument to mark the memory of either of the two real pioneers of Jamaican Independence. Will this glaring act of omission be corrected when we celebrate 50 years of Independence?

Ken Jones is a journalist and communications specialist. Email feedback to and