Hopes Unrealized In Independent Jamaica Nearly 50 years after Jamaica bid farewell to British rule, many Jamaicans are asking the same question: What has the island done with its independence? Author Ian Thomson chronicled his search for the answer in his new book, The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica.
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Hopes Unrealized In Independent Jamaica

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Hopes Unrealized In Independent Jamaica

Hopes Unrealized In Independent Jamaica

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At midnight on the 5th of August, 1962, Jamaicans pulled down the Union Jack for the last time and raised the new colors, black, gold and green, of independent Jamaica. Twenty thousand people gathered in the capital, Kingston, to bid farewell to British rule. It was a grand and a hopeful time. Britain's Princess Margaret attended the festivities, along with Lyndon Johnson, then the U.S. vice president.

But 50 years later, the question remains: What has Jamaica made of its independence? The writer Ian Thompson goes looking for an answer in his book, "The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica," published in paperback this month in the U.S. He joins us now from our London studio.

Welcome to the program, sir.

Mr. IAN THOMPSON (Author, "The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica"): Thank you.

ADAMS: The early hope for independence for Jamaica, tell us about that, please.

Mr. THOMPSON: After independence, there was a sense that this colony was still in many ways Britain's pride and joy. And a lot of more elderly Jamaicans still feel this very strong tie to queen and country, that's to say to Great Britain. I think that a lot of Jamaicans feel that since the Union Jack came down, there has been largely disappointment.

ADAMS: And you're wandering through the book asking this question, wandering the country, did it work? Did independence do anything good for the island of Jamaica?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, obviously, in many ways, the nationalist movement that grew up particularly in the early 1970s in Jamaica under the, I think, great prime minister Michael Manley, came forward in leaps and bounds. There was a whole sense there that this nation had to forge its own identity, a Caribbean identity, independent of Britain, had to go it alone.

Whether or not Jamaica, instead of falling into the independence camp, has fallen more into the sort of American camp now is another matter. And I think what's happened in some ways is that Jamaica is now a quasi-American outpost in the Caribbean. An estimated, I think, 55 percent of Jamaica's goods are imported from the U.S.

ADAMS: In many ways, the trips you would take from your various locations out into the countryside or into Kingston, for example, which is a town with a lot of drug violence, were dangerous for you as a writer, as someone - as a Scottish person, they would always ask you where you were from and what sort of person you were. The murder rate in Jamaica, your book says, is annually 1,500 people. Jamaica only has three million. Did you get into some pretty tough situations?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I knew that Jamaica is, you know, one of the most violent countries in the world, on a level, let's say, with South Africa and Colombia. I myself never saw evidence of any extreme violence. I was careful, as I think any visitor has to be when they go downtown Kingston, to go into the area with somebody who knows the area, who's respected locally. In my case, it was often a social worker or a priest.

But I think cruelty and violence has been implicit in the British imperial project in Jamaica for three centuries, so it's inevitable but - that some of this cruelty of the plantation and the lash should linger still in different ways. The communist thinker Karl Marx famously said that Jamaican history is characteristic of the beastliness of the true Englishman. While I don't necessarily concur with that, I can see where he was coming from.

But it's very important to stress that this violence that Jamaica has a reputation for, partly anyway, abroad is certainly not the whole picture by any means. And rural Jamaica, especially, has a staggering beauty, a natural beauty.

ADAMS: The name of your book is "The Dead Yard." What is that phrase? Where does that come from?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, the dead yard is the name for a funeral wake. When someone dies in a family, the person's home becomes the dead yard. That's to say the place where people gather to pay respects to the deceased and also in some ways to placate spirits from ancestral Africa that need to be sort of propitiated with food and drink and dance or else they'll not be properly laid to rest and they might come back to make mischief.

ADAMS: You talked to a lot of really fascinating, especially the older people, and including Blanche Blackwell, Jamaican Jewish ancestry, mother of Chris Blackwell, who started Island Records and, it's said, discovered Bob Marley. Among her lovers, Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming. Now, this woman's 95 years old, legally blind. This must have been a lunch.

Mr. THOMPSON: It was. She only announced halfway through the lunch that she couldn't actually see me very clearly because she was legally blind. That really surprised me. But yes, she's a biological miracle now, nearly 100 years old. And indeed, she did have these affairs with various, sort of tropical voluptuaries like Ian Fleming and Errol Flynn. She claimed to me that she was based on one of the characters in Ian Fleming's novel "Goldfinger," who has the typically sort of salacious name of Pussy Galore.

She's very much part of the old sort of Jamaican aristocracy. This old Jamaica is increasingly, I think, sort of no longer so visible. One of the great effects - benefits of independence has been the old kind of aristocracies of skin color, the old prejudices that were there under the British are far less evident today than they were pre-independence days, pre-1962, although they are still there for sure.

ADAMS: Blanche Blackwell, of course, left Jamaica, is now back in Great Britain. She left because she was fed up with the crime and the trouble there.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes, so she said to me. I think that there are quite a few Jamaicans I spoke to who did have this sense of despair about the country. I was very wary when I was writing my book that while Jamaicans themselves are often all too happy to criticize their own country or to draw attention to certain problems that it's experienced after independence, they don't take always very kindly to outsiders doing the same.

ADAMS: They always thought you were going to get it wrong, get it wrong about the sugar industry, get it wrong about the music, get it wrong about the drugs and the crime.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes, all of that. One of the things that I set out to do when writing this book was to look at the fabulous variety of this country. Jamaica is not only populated by descendants of African slaves but by white British, by Sephardi Jews, by Lebanese businessmen, by Chinese. So it's a whole kind of bewildering melting pot of different skin colors, different peoples, different religions, different creeds, backgrounds.

In that way, Jamaica's a very modern society, I think. So I was looking at that side of Jamaica in particular and celebrating it as much as I could, and particularly the music, reggae. And that's something I think that might come in these in-between areas too.

ADAMS: Do you hope to go back?

Mr. THOMPSON: I would love to go back one day, yes. I would like to go back there with my children. I would like to go back into the Blue Mountains above Kingston, which are absolutely ravishingly beautiful. I haven't actually been to such a wonderfully stunningly beautiful part of the world ever in my life before.

ADAMS: The writer Ian Thompson, his new paperback in the U.S. is "The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica," talking with us from London.

Thank you.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you.

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