As Jamaica reflects on 61 years of Independence, it also looks to its future

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On August 6, 1962, Jamaica became an independent nation, thereby ending its period as a British colony. The island recently marked 61 years of independence.

For some, Jamaica's freedom from its colonial shackles is inextricably intertwined with Emancipation Day, marked throughout much of the former British West Indies on August 1 each year:

Independence Day in Jamaica is celebrated as a national holiday, with one traditional activity being a boat parade that takes place along the island's southern coast:

X (formerly Twitter) user Wayne Chen explained:

Jamaicans have a lot to be proud of, especially in their battle for self-governance. Like much of the Caribbean region, the island first became colonised in the early 16th century, when the Spanish overcame the Indigenous Tainos. By the mid-17th century, British forces took control of the island and colonial plantation owners were deeply entrenched in the transatlantic slave trade. A faction of enslaved Africans determined to secure their freedom joined the community of remaining Tainos in an area called Cockpit Country in the island's mountainous interior. There, they created a society known as the Maroons which successfully battled the British in a war that lasted from 1728–1740.

Slavery was eventually abolished in the British West Indies, but the British still retained other forms of control. As the 20th century dawned, this status quo was challenged by Jamaican national hero Marcus Garvey, who advocated for Black people, in Jamaica and beyond. The long-planted seeds of self-determination were beginning to bear fruit and in the wake of World War II, the path to independence had been set, eventually happening on August 6, 1962, with Alexander Bustamante being installed as the country's first prime minister.

Post-independence, Jamaica has continued to excel in many ways, shining on the world stage in culture, sport and the arts, and routinely punching above its weight despite its size:

Grand Gala, the annual cultural showcase at the country's National Stadium, was oversubscribed, with Jamaicans scrambling for tickets. The event began with the National Anthem:

It came to an end hours later with drone displays:

As with any journey though, there are challenges. The day after Independence, blogger and Global Voices contributor Emma Lewis moderated an online (and in-person) lunchtime forum which sought to explore the question of identity:

[T]his is for some of us a time for reflection. Where have we reached? What is the Jamaica you would like to see when we celebrate the 65th anniversary? What is a Jamaican, and how do we see ourselves? We are grounded in the past, living in the present… but what about our future?

Panellists included Jamaican cultural historian Ainsley Henriques and U.S.-based Karen Y. Johns, CEO of Good Institute and Caribbean Connector — speaking of which, Independence Day celebrations also took place in diaspora communities like in New York City and the UK, with thousands turning out to mark the occasion.

Diaspora members who participated in the Zoom-based online forum reflected an optimistic tone during the discussion (which became increasingly lively). When asked to describe “Jamaica 61″ in one word, Jamaican-American businessman David Mullings said, “Promise,” while Jamaican-Canadian publisher Kwame Scott Fraser said, “Authentic.” Other terms used were “Potential,” “Innovative,” and “Legacy.” By contrast, civil society activist Joy Crawford linked two words together: “Resilient — but disillusioned.”

The discussion in Kingston touched on several hard-hitting issues, with commentator and economist Damien King observing that there is a tendency towards “self-deception” in discussing today's Jamaica, because “we don't have a common experience.” Growing inequality, the need to become more self-sufficient in agriculture, and the perceived failure of the education system were hot topics, with reggae singer and activist Aaron Silk stressing that there is “no hope” for many university graduates who cannot find work. Rebuilding communities (perhaps through technology) with a deeper understanding of the Constitution, civics, and especially the teachings of Marcus Garvey, were seen as solutions. Silk ended the event with an empowering song, after poet Ann-Margaret Lim had read one of her poems.

There were also some questioning voices online. In his weekly podcast, veteran journalist Franklin McKnight asked the same question:

“Who is a Jamaican? Do we like what we have become?”

One of the words that came to the mind of musician Yekengele during the Independence Day forum was “Republic!” Interestingly, Jamaica remains one of the few Caribbean territories that is not a republic, although Prime Minister Andrew Holness told the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during a 2022 royal visit that Jamaica is considering “moving on” in that regard. If and when it does relinquish the British king as head of state, Jamaica will follow in the footsteps of Barbados, the most recent Caribbean territory to have become a republic.

An opinion piece by Liverpool ECHO community reporter Patrick Graham, a British-born descendant of Jamaican parents, wondered whether, between Jamaica's lack of a local head of state and its reliance on the Privy Council as its final court of appeal (not to mention how shabbily Windrush-era Jamaicans were treated in the recent UK Home Office scandal), the country was indeed independent:

Jamaica is talking about becoming a republic and not having the British monarch and their head of state. This indicates they have never been truly independent, given their head of state is from the country [of] their former enslavers […]

Jamaica, when I visited as a child, had major poverty issues and still does to this day. I don't see any benefits of Commonwealth membership to the everyday people […]

For now, Jamaica should enjoy its ‘independence’ but recognise that it's a step in the right direction […] I will join in those celebrations, but will always have an eye on the future for the real celebrations of ‘true independence’.

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