Independence only brought crime and violence to Jamaica
The former colony’s attitude to power is the brutal one of the old plantation system
Whatever happened to Jamaica, for so many years Britain’s pride and joy? Since independence in the early
1960s, the cocaine barons have taken over.
In the capital of Kingston, where a state of emergency has been declared, armed gangs, police corruption and the indifference of politicians have created an inner city of turf wars and mayhem, where killings take place in daylight. With an annual murder rate of about 1,500 in a population of less than three million, Jamaica is one of the most violent countries in the world, on a level with South Africa and Colombia.
The reality, for most Jamaicans, is that independence from Britain in 1962 brought only disappointment. In downtown Kingston the poor no longer look respectfully to Britain as the “mother country”. Jamaicans, to their dismay, must now have a visa to enter Britain. The legislation, passed by Labour in 2003, was intended to stop Jamaicans entering the UK as drug couriers — Kingston is now the main transit point for cocaine in the West Indies. Yet most Jamaicans come to Britain to visit family and friends; the visa requirement is deeply offensive to them.
Instead, the US absorbs the majority of the 15,000 Jamaicans who migrate each year. Many of the drug kingpins in Brooklyn — “Little Jamaica” — had been apprenticed to ghetto dons in Kingston. American rap culture has made spectacular inroads. Customised wheel rims carrying Mafia-gangsta names such as “Soprano”, “Pistola” and “Vendetta” are all the rage in Tivoli Gardens, the Kingston housing project. Along with Nike footwear and spiffy track-bottoms, they have become an important part of the braggadocio among Jamaican youths who dream of US citizenship.
Jamaica is now a quasi-American outpost in the Caribbean. An estimated 55 per cent of Jamaica’s goods are imported from the US; these include not only sugar, cars and electrical goods, but also guns. America’s gun laws have fatally eased the transfer of firearms into Kingston.
For three centuries Jamaica had been the brightest jewel in the British slave colonies: a prized and inhumane possession. It prospered mightily during the sugar boom in the 18th century. The view that Jamaica was “better off” in the British system (even if that meant slavery) is held by those Jamaicans who argue that the new-born nation lost something when the Union Jack came down for the last time and the US began to strengthen its influence. As one Jamaican (certainly not an imperialist) asked me: “What has Jamaica done with its independence?”
After the hopes of 1962, a system of “clientism” evolved, in which patron-politicians provide their supporters with jobs, protection and a flow of money, as well as narcotics and firearms, in return for their loyalty. The attitude to power, it is often said, remains that of the plantation system, where brutality is meted out against the defenceless and every shanty-town Napoleon wants to be an overseer. In Jamaica, the link between politics and crime is pronounced. Politicians may choose to keep the poor in ignorance because it pays them to do so.
In a society burdened by three centuries of the plantation and the lash, strongmen like Christopher “Dudus” Coke have become the new lords of the manor, revered by some as Robin Hood figures. Such men may be lawbreakers, but they are lawmakers as well: men who are feared. The power held by Coke in Tivoli Gardens has evolved in the absence of proper government. The Church and police have long since moved uptown. Charities and free-food programmes no longer want to go downtown.
Cruelty had been implicit in the British imperial project (“Jamaican history,” wrote Karl Marx, “is characteristic of the beastliness of the true Englishman”), yet violence is not the whole picture. Rural Jamaica especially has an alluring atmosphere that cannot be guessed at from behind the walls of the all-inclusive tourist beach resorts. The mountains, streams and coastline linger in the memory. Jamaica radiates physical beauty. Yet the many wonderful things about the island — its music-making, its prowess in athletics — are shadowed by an endemic violence, in which God is a US-import Glock and murder has become the badge of honour.
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