Story Of The Song | Miss Lou Pens Part Of Migrant’s Tale
Published:Sunday | July 24, 2016 | 12:00 AM Mel Cooke
On Tuesday, July 26, it will be a decade since the passing of Louise Bennett-Coverley, ‘Miss Lou, in Toronto, Canada. Her writing is part of an extensive engagement with the comings and goings of Jamaicans and the Story of the Songretraces one of these steps in an article first published in 2011.
Emigration is a huge part of the Jamaican story. Even before the first wave of post-World War II emigrants to Britain sailed from Jamaica in May 1948 on the Empire Windrush, which stopped in Trinidad before going on to England, Jamaicans were involved in building the Panama Canal, which was finished in 1914.
Writing in The Gleaner in June 2000, Professor Patrick Bryan said: “Between about 1850 and 1930, Panama, Cuba, and Costa Rica were the three most important destinations for Jamaicans. But there were other destinations as well – Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. In the 1920s and 1930s, others worked in the oil refineries of CuraÁao and Aruba. One folksong reminds us that ‘Solomon grandpa gone a Ecuador, lef’ im wife an’ pickney outa door’. Another tells us of the Panama man who returns with a substantial gold watch, which, unhappily, he cannot read.
That second song ridicules the ‘Colon man’, who has returned to Jamaica with the evidence of his prosperity (“One, two, three four, Colon man a come“), but although he has a watch on a chain, “you ask him fe de time an’ him look up pon de sun“.
From that time, then, Jamaican lyricists were engaging with the migration phenomenon, both those who had gone and left their offspring behind, at a time when the term ‘barrel children’ had not yet been coined, as well as the person who had come back – again at a time when a now common term, ‘returning resident’, was not a commonplace part of the language.
Bryan goes on to note that persons from the West Indies, including Jamaica, have carried their distinctive culture with them. He writes: “The sugar plantations of Cuba, the banana plantations of Central America, the railway systems of Panama, Central America, and even of Brazil and Mexico, by recruiting labour from the British West Indies, have ensured that in some of these areas, there remain nuclei of the descendants of Jamaicans and other West Indians, who yet retain some of the patterns of culture that they took with them early in the 20th century.”
Which is what the Windrush generation also did as Louise Bennett-Coverley captures in the very humorous Colonisation in Reverse. It starts with the news of the mass movement:
Wat a joyful news, Miss Mattie,
I feel like me heart gwine burs
Jamaica people colonizin
Englan’ in reverse
By de hundred, by de tousan
From country and from town
By de shipload, by de planeload
Jamaica is Englan-boun
However, it soon looks at the possible ill effects on English workers:
Oonoo see how life is funny?
Oonoo see da turnabout?
Jamaica live fe box bread
Out a English people mout'”
And Miss Lou closes with the fallout on England as a whole:
Wat a devilment a Englan!
Dem face war an brave de worse,
But me wonderin how dem gwine stan
Colonizin in reverse.
As purported lands of paradise and opportunity almost invariably turn out to be in reality, life in England was far from the proverbial bed of roses. In May 1948, a government statement printed in The Gleaner warned that “the prospects of employment in England for unskilled labourers are very slight”.
Although there was the prospect of financial hardship, it paled in comparison to the physical danger associated with building the Panama Canal. Writing in The Gleanerin June 1998, Dr (now Professor) Ian Boxill reported on the research of a Gerardo Maloney of the University of Panama, who pointed out that “although West Indians migrated to Panama to work as free people, the conditions of their work were not consistent with the terms of the contract, which they signed. Indeed, over 44,000 black workers (‘diggers’) perished during the building of the Panama Canal. Of all the workers, they were given the most dangerous jobs. Also, the level of compensation for these workers was significantly lower than that which was paid to white workers, even when the white workers did much less demanding work. Furthermore, these migrants and even their children, who were born in Panama and are now citizens of the country, have endured, and continue to endure, systematic discrimination and exclusion from the economic benefits which they helped to create in that country. Consequently, some of the most depressed areas of Panama are inhabited by the descendants of West Indian immigrant workers”.
There is one wave of emigration that has not made its way into literature and music to the extent of the Latin American and Windrush generation exoduses of largely unskilled labourers. As political turmoil hit a peak in the 1970s, many middle- and upper-class Jamaicans pulled up stakes amid fears of not only violence, but also that Michael Manley was taking the country along a Communist path.
In his 1978 book, Jamaica Farewell, former Gleaner columnist, the late Morris Cargill, writes about his life in Jamaica – the final chapter about his own emigration. He writes about returning from visiting his mother for what he knows will be the last time he will see her, and, crying, seeing a bumper sticker on the car in front of him: “Will the last person to leave Jamaica please turn out the lights.”