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Edward Seaga | Who was Marcus Garvey?

Published:Friday | August 25, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Olivia Grange, minister of entertainment, sport, culture and gender affairs, salutes the Marcus Garvey cenotaph before laying a wreath on August 17. Looking on is Woman Corporal Danesha McEachon.

For the return of the body of Marcus Garvey to Jamaica in which I played a leading role, my tribute at the service included two poignant passages that will open the door to this presentation of Marcus Garvey:

"Garvey's stage was not Jamaica; it was the continents of coloured peoples. Yet he is a National Hero of Jamaica and his works carried a message that helped to shape and structure the whole character of the people of his own country, among millions of the other people throughout the world."

"Men shape, build and extend the boundaries of nations; some are the economic giants or ideologists who chart the relationship of man to man; others immortalise themselves in their contribution to art, science and technology; still others are heroes because they battle nature and extend the frontiers of knowledge; and then there are the national heroes, those who belong to no category because they are all. They shape the character of a nation and so build and unleash the spirit of the people that the germ of their works and thoughts affect all aspects of a nation's life. Of such was the man Marcus Mosiah Garvey."

At the shrine when the body was interred, 30,000 people thronged the park to witness the enshrinement of Marcus Mosiah Garvey as Jamaica's first National Hero. Every tree in the vicinity was covered with humans hanging on to limbs to get a view of the event.


Who was Marcus Garvey?


born in Jamaica;

withdrawn from school at 14 years due to lack of money;

worked his way up to master printer;

travelled in many countries in Latin America in which he observed the poor conditions of black people;

resolved to unite Negro people to make a stand full and equal recognition of their being and their worth;

organised 700 branches in 38 states and many more abroad with a total membership of, possibly, overstated six million people;

established investments in shipping, the Black Star Line, to fulfil his mission to transport black people to Africa. The Line failed;

Garvey was charged in the United States of America using the Federal Postal Service as a vehicle to defraud investors in a project which was a palpable failure. He was convicted to a five-year term in prison;

His sentence was commuted by President Coolidge after two years and he was deported in 1927 to Jamaica;

He continued to travel abroad and to give addresses on his life's mission to seek racial equality for his people and to unite them to return to Africa;

In Jamaica, he formed a political party and was successful in contesting a seat for the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation. He lost the seat while serving a term of three months in prison for contempt of court because of absence from council meetings. He was elected the next year;

He travelled to Geneva to present a 'Petition of the Negro Race', to the League of Nations;

He was charged with seditious libel because of an article 'The Vagabonds Again', published in the Blackman paper, which he published. He was later acquitted in the appeal court;

His followers were disenfranchised. Realising that the establishment had mounted insurmountable obstacles against him he left Jamaica in self-imposed exile in 1935 to live in London, where he continued to work for the rights of black people everywhere. He died in 1940.

Their deeds are background to the life of this great Jamaican. To understand the impact of Garvey and his message in reshaping Jamaica and the identity of black people, it is necessary to recognise the power of his mission in Jamaica.

In 1987, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Marcus Garvey, I presented in an address the reasoning for the decision to make Marcus Garvey the first National Hero of Jamaica:

"Economic concerns are often in the forefront of our minds these days, tending to overshadow the goal of racial harmony, which is much more than mere racial tolerance. The ideal of racial harmony is enshrined in our national motto: 'Out of Many, One People'.

It is a principle that lies at the very foundations of the society we have built in this country, and it emerged in response to our history which was regrettably characterised by intolerance and inequality.

Racial harmony, based upon a genuine respect for the individual as a unique and precious creation of the almighty, has over the ages been the goal of courageous Jamaicans who were far ahead of their times.

Marcus Garvey was one of the enlightened men whose unremitting work helped to shatter the last and toughest layers of that shell of intolerance, which had shackled, burdened, and retarded our society for generations. But Marcus Garvey stood on a pedestal of his own, which made his influence felt not only here, and in this region, but in many other places across the world.

Garvey's movement grew out of a burning passion to overcome the beliefs, prejudices, distortions, bigotry, half-truths, fears, conceits and propaganda of vested interests, which had progressively threatened and denied the humanity of people of African descent in this region for some 400 years.

Before 1930, they could not even be hired as overseers or in any other managerial positions on sugar estates. Even those who were rich enough to own estates had to hire European managers to run them.

Marcus Garvey benefited from the work and example of other men - two of them of African descent, one of Afro-European descent, (Edward Jordon and Robert Love) and one an Englishman (William Knibb). Partly because he was the beneficiary of their efforts, he went more boldly, more dramatically, and more directly to the heart of the problem than any other.




"It was not just a case," said Garvey, "of freedom, acceptance, tolerance or political rights, or of simple social justice. It was a case of having to flush out 100 years of misconceptions and errors.

The total product was wrong because the initial formula, equation or prescription were wrong; the conclusions were incorrect because the assumptions were faulty. There could be no compromise."

The new world had been built on a belief in the second-class character of the people of Africa: that they were a cheaper model made by God, a second-rate product devised from inferior materials and therefore not expected to give first-class performance, a less carefully designed instrument created specifically for menial work requiring little thought or skills.

And because every agency of education and communication in the New World tended to be tainted by this belief in inequality, the people of African descent themselves received a distorted image of their own humanity, directly or implied, in books, pictures, lectures, sermons and on social occasions, whether in school, at home, at the workplace, or in places of recreation and worship.

Being thus conditioned, there was a natural desire on the part of aspiring people of African descent to attempt to conform to the system of inequality. By adopting its mores, even when these were at odds with their own physical appearance, they hoped for some degree of acceptance. But Marcus Garvey would have none of that.

Having a clear insight into this dilemma, Marcus Garvey focused his campaign, not only on the oppressive system and those who ran it, but on the so-called victims as well:

"You will be victims as long as you believe that you are less than others. No matter how respected the fount of information may be, if it tells you that you are less, it is lying to you. Cast it out; flush out every vestige, suggestion or insinuation that your colour is a badge of inferiority," he counselled.

"Don't seek for acceptance at the expense of your self-respect, your soul. Why hammer at gates where you are not wanted? Build your own mansions, enterprises, nations and governments.Build them so powerfully that the world will have no choice but to acknowledge them and take them seriously. ... Create your own titles, symbols, uniforms, ceremonies and rituals, based on those things which uplift, ennoble, refresh and dignify your humanity and which glorify your achievements."

This was Garvey's thinking, and he put his thoughts into action. Marcus Garvey saw clearly that if 95 per cent of the people of Jamaica felt themselves to be inferior, the country was doomed. He began the process of flushing out the impurities and poisons from the collective consciousness, from the speech and beliefs, stories and images of the society.

- Edward Seaga is a former prime minister, the chancellor of the University of Technology, and is a distinguished fellow at the University of the West Indies. Email feedback to