Ian Thomson’s The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica is a travelogue with an occasional sojourn into history that attempts capture the essence of post-independence Jamaica.
In 1962, Jamaica gained its independence from Britain along with dozens of other African colonies like Ghana, Zambia, and Kenya. Harold Macmillan’s “Winds of Change” were also blowing through the British Caribbean.
Exactly fifty years later, Jamaica is debating whether to finalize its independence by becoming a republic and removing Queen Elizabeth II as the nation’s head of state.
“Take Down The Union Jack” is the solution to the “post-colonial malaise” that Thomson proposes in the epilogue of this book. In his view, Jamaica suffers from a political system that is “fatally hidebound” by its colonial inheritance. The country needs to banish its “psychological dependence” on the mother country. The heritage of plantation slavery had “helped to make” the malaise.
I doubt Thomson really believes any of this. As the author of Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti, he certainly knows that neighboring Haiti has been a republic for 208 years. Haiti’s national flag was created by Jean-Jacques Dessalines who ripped the white out of the French tricolor. The French population of Haiti was exterminated and Whites were banned from owning property until a new constitution was ratified during the American occupation in 1918.
Africanization was tried in Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah, the Democratic Republic of Congo under Mobutu Sese Seko, Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, and Guinea under Sékou Touré. In each case, the result of Africanization was an economic disaster. Zimbabwe was even expelled from the Commonwealth over its atrocities against White farmers, but that hasn’t produced any miraculous economic turnaround.
In describing post-independence Jamaica, Ian Thomson carefully avoids drawing any compelling conclusions that might upset the boundaries of political correctness. Instead, he flitters around the island like a little bird, gawking at one disaster scene after another, while doing interviews that fail to provide any real theoretical insight into cause of the catastrophe.
Of course, if Ian Thomson had really started to theorize about what he was seeing in post-independence Jamaica, The Dead Yard wouldn’t have won the Ondaatje Prize. The book wouldn’t have been published and widely distributed in Britain and the United States. It wouldn’t have been reviewed in the New York Times, The Telegraph, The Independent, and The Guardian.
As The Derb recently found out, there are just some things you can’t say and remain “mainstream” or “respectable” in Britain and America. Since we are iconoclasts with no desire to be “mainstream” or “respectable,” we will say them here:
(1) You can’t say that Jamaica thrived under slavery. It thrived to the point where William Beckford was known as England’s wealthiest son. The sugar barons in Jamaica produced more wealth for Britain than the 13 American colonies combined.
To his credit, Thomson admits that Jamaica hasn’t thrived since the abolition of slavery. He admits that where there is now crushing poverty there was once great wealth on this black island. It is verboten though to evaluate slavery as a positive good that contributed to Britain’s rise as a world power in the eighteenth century. The first factories were on Jamaican sugar plantations.
(2) You can’t come right out and say that freedom failed in Jamaica. The first blow to Jamaica’s prosperity, while not a fatal one, was the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. The second devastating blow came in 1833 when slavery was abolished and five years later in 1838 when the temporary phase of apprenticeship came to an end.
Ian Thomson admits that the plantation system collapsed in the thirty years between 1833 and 1863. The liberated blacks were reduced to near starvation by their own laziness and refusal to work as productive wage laborers on the plantations. Free trade in Britain allowed slave labor produced sugar in Cuba and Brazil to destroy Jamaican sugar production.
(3) After the abolition of slavery, Jamaica, which had once been the crown jewel of the British Caribbean, was gradually transformed into a backwater of the Empire. During the “Crisis of Freedom,” Chinese and Indian coolies were imported to work on the plantations because free negroes had not responded to the incentives of the “Invisible Hand” as they had been expected to.
The planters had always believed that the negro was naturally lazy, prone to barbarism, and that coercion was necessary to make negroes behave civilly among themselves and work as productive laborers on their sugar plantations. The abolitionists may have won the war over slavery, but they lost their argument with the slaveowners.
(4) In 1962, Britain concluded that it would be a great idea to place the government and civil administration of Jamaica in the hands of free negroes, who although they had failed as free laborers (requiring the importation of Asian coolies to work as field hands), were now expected to succeed in their newfound capacity as politicians, judges, and police officers.
The Dead Yard is a journey into the world of modern Jamaica that was created by two catastrophic experiments in free society: the abolition of slavery and black independence. Thomson passes through Jamaica, takes some good notes, but fails to properly analyze his experiences in order to avoid controversy and get his book published.
Anyone familiar with post-colonial Africa will find the familiar world of the Black Undertow in Thomson’s account of post-independence Jamaica: an 80 percent illegitimacy rate, the third most violent country in the world, the inability to maintain roads and railways, systemic corruption of the police, judiciary, and civil service, high unemployment, sex tourism, colorful rural superstitions similar to voodoo, abandoned storefronts, teeming Third World slums like Trench Town, dilapidated plantations, planter homes used as a public lavatory by crackheads, barricaded neighborhoods patrolled by private security firms, garbage piling up in the streets, Afrocentric Rastafarian cults, exasperated farmers preyed upon the Black Undertow, etc.
As a failed state, modern Jamaica’s leading exports are drugs and its own people. Every year thousands of violent criminals from the United States, Britain, and Canada are deported to Jamaica. The majority of the black population dreams of escaping Jamaica to live as body servants to White people in Britain and America.
Like elsewhere in the Black Caribbean, there are pockets of prosperity like Montego Bay along the north coast which thrive off White tourism. These tourist resorts are barricaded from the Black Undertow to sustain the illusion that Jamaica is a “paradise.” The glittering prosperity of places like Bermuda or Montego Bay (the latter is significantly larger than the former) is wholly attributable to White tourism and White tax evasion.
In spite of its obvious flaws, I would recommend The Dead Yard to OD readers. I found it to be a great introduction to modern Jamaica. Among other interesting things, I learned that three of Bob Marley’s “One Love” bandmates in the Wailers were shot and killed in Jamaica, that Rastafarian fundamentalists believe that Idi Amin was the reincarnation of Marcus Garvey, and that Ian Fleming of the James Bond novels lived in Jamaica and that Pussy Galore was partially inspired by his Jewish lover.
I believe the overall effect of this book (while not explicitly stated) gives the American reader the impression that freedom has failed in Jamaica. This is the book that I would recommend to anyone considering vacationing there. Contrary to what Thomson says in the epilogue, Jamaica has finally achieved “true democracy” and this is the inevitable result of that experiment.
In 1655, Jamaica was conquered from Spain by England and 150 years of prosperity followed. It is not far fetched to imagine that one day this prostrate black island might be conquered again. In a destabilized post-Pax Americana world, White pirates might reconquer Jamaica and other tropical Caribbean islands. When the Romans left Britain, the multiculturalists tell us that the “Saxon Shore” was overwhelmed by peaceful Germanic immigrants.
Let us hope The Dead Yard (a metaphor for modern Jamaica) will one day be similarly reinvigorated.