This August, Jamaica celebrates the 50th anniversary of independence. Amid the bunting and parades, talk will be of Britain’s continued presence in the island and the role of the monarchy in particular. Jamaicans are often incredulous that Queen Elizabeth II should still be their head of state. The Jamaican prime minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, has taken steps to replace the Queen with an elected president; yet she vigorously embraced Prince Harry during his Jubilee tour.
Recently in Jamaica I went to see the outgoing governor-general, Sir Howard Cooke. Jamaican by birth, Sir Howard was known to love Britain. We met in the Jamaican capital of Kingston. Soldiers in khaki drill saluted me as the taxi pulled up at the entrance to King’s House on Hope Road. Inside, an aide-de-camp in Sandhurst red accompanied me upstairs. At the top of the stairway he knocked on a door, heard a response, opened it. Sir Howard, a big man, with a big bald head, looking well for someone over 90, was sitting alone in his semi-darkened office.
‘Please sit down,’ he said, indicating a chair by his desk. On the mahogany surface there was little else but a copy of the Times and a bowl of fading roses. Yet Sir Howard was no unthinking servant of the Commonwealth: he had a background in Jamaican black nationalism and Christian socialism.
‘I’m an old-world person,’ he told me. ‘I am what I am today because of my relationship with Britain, and the British way of life.’ It was at London University — where he went in 1950, on a scholarship — that he met other West Indians engaged in independence struggles, and was strengthened in his conviction that Jamaica could no longer be ruled autocratically by Englishmen. ‘Britain no longer had the strength to carry out its overseas responsibilities — change had to come.’
On 2 August 1962, amid suitable pomp, Jamaica was granted independence. If Cooke was to have his way, however, Jamaica would remain at heart ‘British’; by which he meant, in essence, non-American. And by American he meant the ‘oppressive’ (his word) consumer culture that had done so much to undermine the values of British Jamaica.
No doubt, America’s gun laws have eased the transfer of firearms into Jamaica. With an annual murder rate of about 1,500 in a population of less than three million, Jamaica is now one of the most violent countries in the world. Sir Howard’s belief that ‘progress’ might be maintained by turning one’s back on America was itself a very British presumption.
‘But your Excellency,’ I said (aware of how quaint the address sounded), ‘wouldn’t Jamaica be better off as an American-style republic?’
‘No! Even if Jamaica were a republic, we’d still be attached to the British Commonwealth; besides,’ he added with a smile, ‘we Jamaicans are not natural republicans.’
‘But aren’t younger Jamaicans,’ I said, ‘becoming more American and less bound to Britain and the idea of the Commonwealth?’
‘Well, until Thatcher came along’ — Sir Howard pointedly did not say ‘Mrs’ Thatcher — ‘until Thatcher came along we Jamaicans enjoyed so much of Britain and the British way of life.’ During Thatcher’s tenure, Jamaicans began to look to America for opportunities, as they had before the US tightened its immigration laws in the 1950s. ‘Our closeness to America is not good for us.’ The governor-general frowned. ‘After Thatcher — the special relation and all that — we became more and more materialist. We wanted only to boast of our new Lincoln, Malibu or Caprice or whatever. But there’s more to life than cars and dollars.’
There was a knock at the door. ‘Come, come,’ said Sir Howard. A waiter in a maroon tuxedo entered. Would we like anything to drink? Sir Howard looked at me. Tea perhaps, I said. The Governor-general addressed the waiter: ‘Tea for two.’
As we waited for the tea, Sir Howard began to speak in patriotic terms of Jamaica as a colony of ‘marvellous antiquity’, far older even than British India or Australia. ‘Now hear me on this. When Australia was just a convict settlement, Jamaica was an established outpost of British commerce and British civilisation.’ Civilisation? ‘Yes,’ replied Sir Howard. ‘Even during slavery the British were sending some very good people out to Jamaica — missionaries, reformers — but, as I said, to Australia, just convicts.’
‘But Jamaica was a brutal place — the plantation,’ I said. Sir Howard was not going to condone slavery, was he? ‘Well, neither am I going to harp on about the wickedness of slavery. Jamaica’s greatness was due entirely to slavery.’ Yes, the iniquities; yes, the horrors; but slavery, for all its manifest brutality, had rescued Cooke and his forebears from ‘night-black’ Africa and shown them ‘true’ — that is, British — civilisation. The ‘night-black’ remark of Cooke’s seemed to contradict his earlier black nationalism and struggle against the British imperial project; but the governor-general, I decided, was thoroughly West Indian in his complexities and contradictions.
The tea arrived: Earl Grey.
Sir Howard, sipping from his cup, was put in a religious mood as he spoke of Jamaica’s hoped-for ‘salvation’ — from gang warfare, drug crime and poverty.
‘What Jamaica needs now is to go back to the religious spirituality that we’ve lost… I’m talking about the old-time Jamaican spirituality. The Jamaican Churches — Catholic, Revivalist, Anglican — must disregard their differences and unite to save Jamaica.’
‘Yes, save Jamaica. What else can you do to save a nation that’s in danger of losing its way?’ The question, undigested, lay heavy on our conversation.
But now the governor-general was tired. He stood up, and took my hand in his. ‘It’s been so nice talking to you — it’s not often that I get a chance to talk about the things that really matter.’ And, as the aide-de-camp came to collect me, Cooke added with another smile, ‘Best of British.’ As I left the room the crimson-suited Sandhurst captain closed the door softly behind me. I was driven back to my hotel in a Bentley, the Union Jack fluttering defiantly from the bonnet.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 24, 2012