A Nation is Born

A nation is born

Lance Neita

Sunday, August 02, 2015

 The Jamaican National Flag.

As we approach Independence Day, it is always interesting to look back at the frenzied preparations that time forced us to make in 1962 to prepare Jamaica for that first August 6 celebration.

During the seven-year period following the general election won by the People’s National Party (PNP) in 1955, the people went to the polls four times, first in 1958 to determine party representation in the West Indies Parliament, then in 1959 when the PNP was re-elected, in 1961 to decide the fate of the Federation through a referendum, and in 1962 to decide which government would lead us into Independence.

By the time the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) was voted into office on April 10, 1962, the August 6 date had already been set and agreed on by both parties at the historic London Constitution Conference.

Not much time between April and August for a new nation to focus on the arrangements to be made for observing Independence and at the same time get down to the business of forming a new Government.

A new flag, a new anthem, new symbols, and the formal transfer of authority from Britain to Jamaica had to be planned. It was a hectic period, with many decisions to take.

The search for a Jamaican National Flag ended on Wednesday night, June 20, when all the members of the House of Representatives stood by their seats and shouted “Aye” in an unprecedented manner of approval for the design. But this came after a dramatic and emotional debate which ended a drawn-out period, starting with a national design competition announced on September 30, 1961, and a new flag agreed to on June 6, 1962, but rejected shortly thereafter.

The competition drew 388 entries, from which 12 were shortlisted by a joint bipartisan committee of both houses. Out of the 12, the committee selected a design with horizontal stripes, arranged with a centre black band with gold stripes above and below, with outer stripes of green at the top and bottom. This design was presented to the House in a ministry paper dated June 6, which announced that a joint parliamentary committee had reached agreement on a new flag for Jamaica. So we were off and running with what many thought would be the new flag. And there was need for speed. The design had to be sent to the Colonial Office for clearance with the Admiralty Office to ensure that there was no infringement on any existing flag. It turned out there was, and the original design was rejected because of its similarity to the then Tanganyika flag.

It was back to the drawing board, a new design was drawn, the colours maintained, and the House summoned on June 20 for what turned out to be an interesting and historic debate on the matter.

“You will notice, Mr Speaker,” opened House Leader Donald Sangster, “that the design has been changed, where instead of having horizontal stripes, it now has a diagonal cross of gold, the top and bottom triangles to be in green, and the hoist and fly triangles to be in black.” Sounds confusing, but that’s our national flag as we know it today. The design was passed around and Robert Lightbourne sketched the coat of arms on the sample and suggested that members consider putting the insignia in the centre.

It was then that Felix Toyloy stirred up a hornets’ nest by declaring he did not like the design “because black is a sign of distress”. He was challenged by Max Carey, who said emphatically that “this country is made up of a majority of black people…I do not see how you can take the black out of the flag”. Toyloy defended himself by saying he was not thinking of people, just of the colour, but B B Coke extended the argument with an impassioned plea for the black to remain: “Garvey has black in his flag, the Rastas have black in their flag, I like black, not for its beauty, but for its significance.”

Lightbourne re-entered the argument, pointing out that the “pigmentation of my skin is equally or even darker than my friend, and I am equally proud of it,” he said, “but the question of racial colour should never come into this discussion”.

Bustamante ended the debate with his usual incisive comments, stating that “if the colour was to be made significant, then we should not have a flag at all. It is that national feeling that counts. Every one of us cannot like the same colour. Every one of us can like the same woman, but she cannot like us all. If members had thought more deeply, we would not have lost so much time arguing.”

Argument done. The design was approved. And Glasspole, in a moment of history, asked that all members stand rather than sit, to say the “Aye”.

Then came the national anthem. Just about every member had something to say when Donald Sangster, as House leader, introduced the first resolution on June 21 to approve an anthem. Sangster urged the members to accept what had come out of a national competition as the most popular entry, because time was running out for Jamaica to select and popularise its anthem before August 6. But the House was not satisfied, and the great debate took up the entire afternoon. Keble Munn complained that the submission did not even sound like a sankey, while Herbie Eldemire said he preferred Bob Lightbourne’s version to “that thing” that was played earlier.

Bustamante impishly suggested that Vernon Arnett should sing it: “He has a nice tenor, and the public would go crazy over it.” Arnett, suspicious of Busta’s motives, declined. With members tiring, B B Coke suggested using one of Tom Redcam’s (Jamaica’s poet laureate) songs, God shield our island home.

What transpired next was a true accident of history. An informal House meeting on June 27, while the prime minister and Donald Sangster, who was in charge of the celebrations, were away, selected an anthem written by Bandmaster Edward ‘Ted’ Wade of the West Indies Regiment. The informal meeting closed with all members standing and singing the new Anthem with enthusiasm. It was headlined in The Gleaner and played on the radio as “The New National anthem”, two verses, the first reading: “Jamaicans proud we stand today, our homeland fair and free. Against the foe we will defend our liberty. Our island home, through years to come, our faith in Thee is sure. Jamaicans free, we’re proud to be, today and evermore.”

That one didn’t last long. Popular sentiment was against the idea that an Englishman, Wade, had written our national anthem. Under pressure, the House again met on July 19, two weeks before August 6, reversed their decision, and this time formally accepted today’s official anthem composed on a theme by Robert Lightbourne, music by Mapletoft Poulle, words written by the Rev Hugh Sherlock (and some amendments by Alison Poulle) and musical arrangement for band by Corporal Joe Williams of the Jamaica Defence Force.

With two weeks to go, minister in charge of information, Edward Seaga, organised a crash publicity programme which was immediately put into effect. The anthem aired frequently on radio, the public informed when and where it should be played, and musical scores distributed all over the country.

And that is the story of how Jamaica, land we love, came into being.

The Independence celebrations began in earnest immediately following the raising of Jamaica’s flag at the National Stadium at midnight August 5, 1962.The skies above Kingston and major townships were lit up with giant fireworks displays. Bonfires blazed on hills and mountaintops across the countryside. Jamaica was greeting its Independence with a spontaneous outpouring of joy and pride.

The top 10 tunes on the hit parade kept us dancing with lyrics and rhythms that reflected the mood and emotions of the people. Derrick Morgan’s Forward March, Lord Creator’s Independent Jamaica, and Al T Joe’s Independence time is here invited us from every jukebox and every bandstand to “Rise, Jamaica rise, and let us celebrate”.

On Monday August 6, 1962, Independence Day, Jamaicans poured out into the streets, schools, community centres, district commons, beaches, race tracks, playing fields, towns, and the city, to enjoy the holiday. The Ministry of Education had summoned all schoolchildren to assemble at their various schools that morning for flag-raising, tree-planting, reciting the Jamaican National Pledge, and singing the Jamaican National Anthem. Each child was given an Independence pack of sweets, aerated water, a pack of sweet biscuits, an Independence cup, badge and ballpoint pen, and a Jamaican flag.

There was celebration all across the island through a 1,000-village programme. Above Rocks in St Andrew hosted a picnic, dancing, foot and sack races, grease pig and pole climbing, and crowned Lilly Wall as ‘Miss Above Rocks’. Member of Parliament Tacius Golding presided over the Old Harbour celebrations. And in Port Maria, some 200 Maroons, led by Colonel Phillip Lattibaudiere, danced in the square before moving on to Richmond.

Jamaica was partying as never before. The newly opened Sheraton Hotel was the venue for the Independence Ball, where Prime Minister Sir Alexander Bustamante, known more for his extravagant Latin American sambas, did a formal waltz with Her Royal Highness the Princess Margaret. Fans hurried to catch the street dances or to enjoy the roadside concerts with Miss Lou (Louise Bennett) and Maas Ran (Ranny Williams). The partying paused on the morning of August 7 for the official opening of Parliament. It was a solemn moment as the prime minister received the constitutional Instruments from Princess Margaret, sister to Queen Elizabeth II, while Norman Manley, leader of the Opposition, seconded the address of thanks.

There was more to come. The largest crowd ever assembled in Jamaica, up to that time, turned out to watch the Independence float parade on August 12, where every conceivable aspect of the country’s life was depicted in a grand and colourful pageant.

On that first Independence Day — nostalgia be excused — the whole island was alive with the tempo of the occasion. Unfortunately, partying has taken on an entirely different meaning this Independence as our politics continue to divide us with little hope of the two leading factions uniting over anything.

Lance Neita is a public and community relations consultant. Send comments to the Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com.