THE CONFOUNDING ISLAND
Jamaica and the Postcolonial Predicament
By Orlando Patterson
For a tiny island in the Caribbean, Jamaica has long enjoyed an outsize global reach — there are the songs of Bob Marley and the gold medals of Usain Bolt, as well as the millions of sun-seekers flocking to the island’s pristine beaches. It is quite an accomplishment for a nation “barely the size of Connecticut,” as Orlando Patterson notes in his fascinating study, “The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Postcolonial Predicament.” But shadows hang over this sunny picture, not least distressingly high rates of poverty and homicide.
Patterson is a Jamaican who has long lived in the United States, working as a sociology professor at Harvard University, which allows him both an intimacy with the island and a degree of distance through which to analyze it. Although he provides extensive citations and robust discussions of theoretical frameworks, he also offers a personal story of affection and frustration, perhaps most evident in the questions that form all but one of the eight chapter titles. These include: “Why Has Jamaica Trailed Barbados on the Path to Sustained Growth?” and “Why is Democratic Jamaica So Violent?” Indeed, these two questions are so significant, he devotes the first half of the book to them.
Patterson starts by comparing Jamaica with its fellow former colony Barbados, which is 25 times smaller in area and, with under 300,000 inhabitants, possessing only one-tenth the population. Yet Barbados has more than twice the per capita G.D.P. of Jamaica and none of the political violence. To explain this, Patterson pursues lines of investigation that are not strictly economic. The themes of slavery and freedom run through his analysis; it is impossible to discuss contemporary Jamaica without their inclusion. Although Patterson’s time frame is postcolonial, to get to Jamaica’s economic present he navigates the pothole-strewn road of its troubled past.
Jamaica’s dramatic and complex history starts with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1494. In 1655 it fell under English control, and was subsequently transformed into a sugar powerhouse fueled by enslaved labor, until full abolition arrived in 1838. The island remained under British control until independence in 1962.
Such a trajectory is not uncommon in the Caribbean, but Patterson notes crucial distinctions in Jamaica’s development, particularly the British perception that it was dangerous and disease-laden compared with Barbados. As a result, there were fewer absentee plantation owners in Barbados and a more stable colonial population, which influenced the development of the island’s political institutions. The social history of these institutions is key to understanding how they functioned after independence, and why the implementation of what were often similar policies had divergent results.
From there, Patterson turns to violence, while also issuing some useful reminders about the nature of democracy. Jamaica, as he writes, is “genuinely democratic,” with a very robust civil society, and yet is rarely described as such. This is, in part, because of the notion that democracies, by their nature, are not violent, an idea “inconsistent with the realities of democratic history and practice.” Still, Jamaica remains an outlier in terms of scale, consistently topping global homicide lists.
Patterson examines how the political clientelism that took root in independent Jamaica has led to deadly “garrison-based politics,” in which a poor neighborhood is bribed or coerced through the threat of violence into voting for a particular political party. This phenomenon, mixed with persistent poverty, has given rise to the urban gangs and drug-related brutality that continue to blight the island. Patterson also revisits his own part in the development of Jamaica, returning to his time as an adviser to Prime Minister Michael Manley, who was the democratic socialist leader of the People’s National Party, and to the failure of the poverty-reduction program they tried to implement in the 1970s.
It is not all doom and gloom, however, especially when Patterson turns to Jamaica’s extraordinary cultural production. In examining the athletic prowess of the island’s runners, he swiftly dismantles any racist notion that Jamaicans are genetically more gifted as athletes, and instead returns to institutions. He lays Jamaica’s success in track and field at the swift feet of Michael Manley’s father, Norman, one of the nation’s founders, likening it to “the effect on track’s prestige in the United States had George Washington been a track star.” Manley was a talented athlete, and he promoted track and field as part of the formation of an independent national identity. Around this grew a nationwide infrastructure of running associations. Where institutions failed the economy, they proved to be champions in fostering athletics. In a similar vein, Patterson also looks at how the music industry has had enormous success beyond Bob Marley’s hits, in spite of the island’s limited resources.
Topics covered in other chapters range from women in the workplace to cricket, and such breadth makes this an eye-opening volume. It is also illuminating because Patterson carefully explores the complexity of the structural machinery behind Jamaica’s dazzling successes and dismal failures, rather than just chalking these up to simple causes. Although at times Patterson is critical of and disappointed by his fellow Jamaicans, his admiration for the nation’s independent spirit shines through.