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Our greatest Jamaicans

Some great Jamaican names to remember

In Jamaica, we’re all about community and working together. There are, however, a couple of Jamaicans who have stood out, and shaped the creative and political Jamaica we live in today.

Una Clarke

Clarke was born in the parish of St Elizabeth in 1936, and went to the USA in 1958 to pursue a degree in Accounting and Business Management.

She became the first Caribbean-born person elected to the New York City Council, serving for ten years as the representative of the 40th District in Brookyln.

Founder of the Association of Caribbean-American Officials and Leaders, she helped New York’s West Indian community stand together and get involved in the political process.

From there, she went on to direct the Empire State Development corporation, where her goals were trade initiatives and increasing job creation for Caribbean nationales in New York.

She is passionate about her home, and the people of the Caribbean, influencing many others to get involved in politics.

The Right Excellent Paul Bogle

Born in 1822 in the parish of St Thomas, Bogle sought to advance the cause of his race by actively protesting against the system of bondage.

He firmly believed the poor social and economic conditions of his people could be improved by better governmental policies. He became the leader of a group, which believed that if they challenged the authorities, they could force them to implement well-needed changes to relieve the harsh conditions. He organised a protest march from his hometown in Stony Gut to the Morant Bay Courthouse.

Unfortunately, that peaceful march, turned violent, and in the confrontation, the Custos and several of his officers were killed. Governor Edward Eyre, who brooked no dissension, firmly put down the revolt with the militia. The Morant Bay Rebellion, as it became known, initially conceived as a peaceful protest, resulted in the execution of over five hundred persons and harsh punishment for countless others, including Bogle, who was hanged on October 24, 1865.

Paul Bogle has been immortalized in Jamaica with a commemorative bust at the Morant Bay Courthouse and a shrine at National Heroes Park. His portrait can also be found on the Jamaican ten-cent coin.

Today, Jamaica honours Bogle with the title of National Hero.

Cecil Baugh

Cecil Baugh, Jamaica’s master potter, was born in 1908 in Bangor Ridge, Portland.

Baugh was educated at Bangor Ridge All-Age School, joining the British forces serving as Sapper and Craftsman from 1941 to 1946.

In 1948 Baugh, having won a British Council scholarship, returned to Britain and studied with Bernard Leach, one of the greatest master craftsmen/potters of the 20th century.

On his return to Jamaica, Baugh tutored at Mico College. In 1950, he cofounded with Edna Manley the Jamaica School of Arts and Crafts (later renamed the Jamaica School of Art). He headed the pottery department and was tutor at that institution until 1974.

Baugh is recognized internationally, with many awards, and is a true Jamaican treasure.

He passed away on June 29, 2005 at the age of 96, but will never be forgotten. 

Louise Simone Bennett-Coverly

For Jamaicans, the name Louise Bennett-Coverly, cultural icon, folklorist and writer, elicits happy childhood memories of country outings, ring games and festivals in “the good old days”.

Jamaica’s most inspired storyteller, Miss Lou (as she is popularly known) was born on September 7, 1919 in Kingston. Educated at Kingston’s Excelsior College and at Friends College in St. Mary, she later received a British Council Scholarship to study at the Royal Academy (London).

For many Jamaicans, our most vivid memories of Miss Lou come from her performances in Ring Ding, a cultural hour for children on local television; in Comedy Hours, when she teamed with Ranny Williams, “Maas Ran”; and in several national pantomimes. A patron of the arts, Miss Lou was active with Jamaica’s Little Theatre Movement (LTM) and the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC).

Ms. Lou was, and still is, a favourite of Jamaicans both locally and abroad. Her fame propelled her from the Caribbean onto the international stages of Europe and North America, where she performed and lectured. She served as the British Broadcasting Commission’s (BBC) resident artiste in London hosting Caribbean Carnival from 1945 to 1946 and from 1950 to 1953. After BBC, Ms. Lou worked with the Jamaica Social and Welfare Commission as a drama officer and later as the director.

During her career, Miss Lou published several books including, Jamaican Verses and Folk Stories, Laugh with Louise, and her most famous Jamaica Labrish. Miss Lou has made several records of Jamaican folk songs and ring games, and was also the subject of a documentary, The Drums Keep Sounding.

Miss Lou was the recipient of two of Jamaica’s highest national honours – the Order of Jamaica (OJ), and the Order of Merit (OM). The Institute of Jamaica  bestowed on her the Silver and Gold Musgrave Medals and the Centenary Medal. Ms. Lou also received the Norman Manley Award for Excellence and, from the Chilean Government, the Gabriella Mistral Commemorative Award.

Ms. Lou was married to Eric Coverly (who died in 2002) and the union produced one son.

Cecil Valentine “Sonny” Bradshaw

Jazz legend and musician extraordinaire, Cecil “Sonny” Bradshaw, was born in Kingston on March 28, 1926 to Edgar and Gladys Bradshaw. An intuitive musician who taught himself to play the trumpet, bass, organ, trombone and flugelhorn, Bradshaw has been a feature of the Jamaican musical landscape for more than fifty years.

Over the years, Bradshaw and his Big Band have entertained Jamaica and the wider Caribbean region with refreshing, original and upbeat musical compositions. Bradshaw, recognized as a major jazz force in the Caribbean, is the founder and director of the Ocho Rios Jazz Festival, an eagerly anticipated annual event, showcasing the talents of local and international jazz artistes and bands. 

Bradshaw was an arranger, composer, music historian and consultant. He was credited with training many of Jamaica’s leading musicians and performers. Bradshaw arranged and directed musical compositions for several of Jamaica’s National Pantomimes, the Carifesta Song Festival and many programmes for radio and television. He accompanied international artistes such as Sarah Vaughn and Brook Benton. Bradshaw also performed in many local and international music festivals.

Sonny Bradshaw served with the Jamaica Federation of Musicians (JFM), the Jamaica School of Music, the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC), and was a consultant to the Jamaican Government on matters of copyright and publishing. Bradshaw was the recipient of numerous awards including Jamaica’s Order of Distinction (OD) for his contribution to the development of music. The Institute of Jamaica also awarded Sonny Bradshaw the Centenary Medal and the Silver Musgrave Medal.

Mary Seacole 

Born Mary Grant in 1805, daughter of a free black woman and a Scottish soldier, Mary gained her greatest fame treating the wounded in the Crimean War (1854 – 1856).

Mary spent her early years in Kingston, helping her mother who owned a boarding house and was a well-known medical aid to soldiers stationed at Up Park Camp and Newcastle.

In 1836, Mary met and married Edward Horatio Seacole, godson of Lord Horatio Nelson, British naval hero. Shortly after her marriage, Mary suffered great losses in short order, for her husband’s death was quickly followed by that of her mother. Despite her tragedies, Mary showed great strength of character, taking up her mother’s duties. Although she had no formal training in medicine, her knowledge of remedies and treatments helped her fill a need for nurses in Jamaica, made even more urgent by the cholera outbreak of the 1850s. Her experience in treating those afflicted with cholera proved invaluable later in Panama, where she once again encountered the disease and the dreaded yellow fever, and also during the Crimean War.

In 1853, after assisting during an outbreak of yellow fever in Jamaica, Mary booked her passage to Europe to offer her services to the Crimean wounded. So determined was she to reach the wounded of the war that, after facing numerous refusals because of her colour, she sold her belongings, paid her own passage and on arrival opened a hotel where the wounded could rest and recuperate. Mary passed her time between the hotel and treating the sick and wounded in hospital and on the battlefield. Her ministrations earned her the respect of both doctors and soldiers.

The Crimean War ended in 1856 with the signing of the Peace of Paris and Mary travelled to England later that year. Destitute and in poor health, she received a great outpouring of assistance from the people of England after her work was highlighted in the London Times. Queen Victoria honoured her with the Crimea Medal and the government of France awarded her the Legion D’Honneur.  A year later, she published her autobiography, an instant bestseller.

Mary died in London on May 14, 1881. Her tomb bears the epitaph “Here lies a notable nurse who cared for the sick and wounded in the West Indies, in Panama and on the battlefield of the Crimea.”

Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds

Painter and sculptor extraordinaire, Mallica Kapo Reynolds was born in St Catherine in 1911. One of Jamaica’s foremost intuitives, a term that describes self-taught or “primitive” artists who have been influenced by some cultural form, often religion, Kapo is considered “one of the most original and powerful painters that Jamaica has yet produced”.

A spiritual leader of his Revivalist group, St Michael’s Revival Apostolic Tabernacle, Kapo made his home in Kingston and served in the capacity of Patriarch (Bishop) until his death. Although Kapo claimed his greatest inspiration came from religion, he also incorporated other snippets of Jamaican life into his work.

Most of Kapo’s works are characterised by a surrealist perspective of landscapes and a somewhat grotesque representation of the human form. Jamaica’s Governor-General Sir Florizel Glasspole and Lady Glasspole presented Kapo’s “Shining Spring” to Prince Charles and Lady Diana as a wedding gift. Kapo’s works can be found showcased in the Larry Wirth Collection at the National Gallery of Jamaica; his “Dark Madonna” at the Stedelijyk Museum in Holland and other works at the Museum of Modern Art of Latin America in Washington D.C.

The Government and People of Jamaica have bestowed on Kapo the Order of Distinction and he was the recipient of a gold medal from Emperor Haille Selassie. Kapo was also awarded the Institute of Jamaica’s Silver Musgrave Medal and the Norman Manley Award for Excellence in the Arts.

Kapo passed away on February 24, 1989. He was given an official funeral and
is buried at National Heroes Park in Kingston.

Dennis Emanuel Brown

‘The Crown Prince of Reggae,’ as Dennis Emanuel Brown was known, began his music career as a child growing up in Kingston, Jamaica.  In 1969, at the tender age of 12, Brown could be found recording singles at the famous Studio One with the then top studio producer Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd.

Studio One was, at the time, the hotspot for now famous performers such as Bob Marley, Alton Ellis, Wailing Souls, Marcia Griffiths and many others. In 1969 Brown had his first hit “No Man is an Island,” which earned him public praise for his unique, sweet, ballad style.

It was in the 1980s, however, that Brown received attention in the United States with the hit single “ Money in my Pocket”. In 1983 A&M Records signed Brown to their label. After doing two albums with them he decided to start his own record labels called DEB Music and Yvonne Special. Although dancehall was becoming popular, Brown stuck to his lover’s rock and conscious, culturally based songs such as “Here I Come” and “Revolution” done later for the Sly and Robbie Taxi label.

Over the years, Brown toured extensively, promoting reggae music around the world.  Prior to doing a tour of Brazil with good friend Gregory Isaacs, Brown fell ill and on July 1, 1999 the world lost a music icon. His contribution to Jamaican music, and music in general, continues to be appreciated as Brown’s talent and soulful voice place him among the best of musicians in history.

The Right Excellent Sir William Alexander Bustamante

William Alexander Clarke was born in Blenheim, Hanover, in 1884 to an Irish planter, Robert Constantine Clarke and his coloured Jamaican wife, Mary Clarke. At the age of fifteen he was adopted by a Spanish seaman and spent several years abroad in Cuba, Panama and the USA. Having changed his name by deed poll, he became William Alexander Bustamante.

On his return to Jamaica in the mid-1930s, Bustamante set up a loan company. During this period, recognizing the plight of the working class, Bustamante began writing letters to the media both locally and in the UK, expressing dissatisfaction at local working conditions. Frustrated by the level of representation accorded to workers, he founded and led the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union in 1938.
During a period of unrest in the 1930s Bustamante worked closely with his cousin, Norman Manley, St William Grant, Noel Nethersole and others, to change the social and political status quo. He was a member of the People's National Party (PNP) founded in September 1938 by Manley. In 1943 disputes between himself and Manley led Bustamante to form the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). Both parties contested Jamaica's first general election under universal adult suffrage in December 1944. The JLP won, a victory they repeated in 1949, but not in the 1955 elections. In 1955, the Queen honoured Bustamante, then leader of the Opposition, with a knighthood.
Sir Alexander Bustamante was a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee that drafted the Jamaican Constitution. His signature appears on the independence agreement concluded in London.  When in April 1962 the JLP won the elections, Bustamante was appointed Premier. On August 6, 1962, he became the first Prime Minister of an independent Jamaica. But just two years after taking office, Bustamante became gravely ill and retired from active politics in 1967. He died on August 6, 1977 at the age of 93.

Sir Alexander Bustamante has been designated a National Hero. A monument erected in his honour stands at National Heroes Park. His statue also stands at South Parade and his image appears on the Jamaican one-dollar coin. A port in the Newport East area of Kingston, a highway in the parish of Clarendon and the Kingston’s children's hospital, which Sir Alexander converted from an old army hospital, are also dedicated to his memory. Even a hard, local confectionery made from coconut and molasses bears his name, in testimony, it seems, to the great man’s legendary toughness and spirit.

The Right Excellent Marcus Mosiah Garvey

Marcus Garvey created a revolution of black nationalism and consciousness, unparalleled in his day. Born on August 17, 1887, the youngest of 11 children, Jamaica’s first National Hero overcame opposition in his own land to inspire millions and challenge the status quo of white supremacy worldwide. His motto and that of the UNIA, was "One God, One Aim, One Destiny".

At the age of 14, Garvey moved to Kingston where he became an apprentice in a printery. In Kingston, he came face to face with the plight of the labouring classes. Later, he used his publication, The Watchman, to advocate the cause of the island’s working classes. Garvey also travelled to Central America where similar conditions for labourers existed and, on their behalf, made several appeals to the colonial government in Jamaica.

His appeals bore no fruit and so in 1914, Garvey formed the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the African Communities League. In 1916 he took these institutions to the United States, opening offices in the Harlem district of New York and attracting popular support. Garvey also established the Black Star Line and the Negro Factories Corporation, in an attempt to inspire black industry, racial pride and self-reliance. Garvey used his platform as the UNIA’s leader to counter then current Darwinian theories that deified whites and relegated Africans to the equivalent of apes.

For his radical actions, Garvey was imprisoned in New York, where he served two years of a five-year term before being deported to Jamaica in 1927. In Jamaica, Garvey formed the island’s first political party, the People’s Political Party, in 1929. However, his party was unsuccessful because many of his supporters, under the colonial system, did not have the right to vote.

Garvey left for England in 1935 and died on 10 June 1940, near West Kensington. His body was finally returned to Jamaica in 1964 and re-interred, with full honours, as a national hero at National Heroes Park.

Garvey’s name is synonymous internationally with black nationalism and racial pride. His teachings were instrumental in the fight for independence in several African States as well as in social reform in the United States during the 1940s and 50s.

The Right Excellent George William Gordon

George William Gordon was born to a slave mother and a Scottish planter, Joseph Gordon, at Cherry Gardens in St. Andrew. As a self-educated and astute businessman, he made a significant contribution to the progress of our nation.

Gordon married Lucy Shannon, the daughter of an Irishman, and made his residence in Kingston. A store proprietor, he collaborated with several business colleagues to form an insurance company, the Mutual Life Assurance Society.

George William Gordon lived in a period of Jamaica’s history when white planters controlled the land and political power, and Negroes were slaves or freed peasants who endured inhumane conditions and poverty. Gordon recognized the injustices faced by the populace and his concern spurred him to take a more active role in local politics.

Gordon joined the Jamaica House of Assembly. He subdivided his own lands and sold them cheaply as farm lots to those who really could ill afford them. Gordon also wrote to Queen Victoria, expounding upon the conditions faced by the populace. His active protest of the social and economic systems of the day made him unpopular with his peers, and particularly with the Governor, Edward Eyre.

The Assembly was not the only opening for his oratory skills. As an active member of the Baptist Church, Gordon used this medium to educate his audience on conditions in the wider society. In his role in the church, Gordon was also instrumental in opening new chapels and ordaining deacons, including the infamous Paul Bogle of Stony Gut.

While Gordon was convinced the power of change lay in peaceful negotiation, Paul Bogle and his compatriots chose to take matters into their own hands. What began as a series of peaceful protests in St Thomas in 1865, turned into a full-scale uprising known as the Morant Bay Rebellion, in which the Custos and fifteen of his men were killed. Gordon, though innocent, was blamed for inciting the slaves to riot, court-martialled and hanged on October 23, 1865.

The Jamaican people have sought to preserve the memory of George William Gordon with the award of National Hero. The House of Parliament, Gordon House, bears his name and the Jamaican $10-dollar coin displays his image.

The Right Excellent Norman Washington Manley

Norman Washington Manley was born on July 4, 1893 at Roxborough, Manchester. An avid sportsman, Manley was educated at Jamaica College where he excelled in athletics and cricket, setting records in several athletic events including the 100 metres in 1911, record that remained unbroken until 1952. His dedication to his academic studies won Manley the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study law at Oxford.

During World War I, Manley interrupted his studies at Oxford to join the army with his brother, Roy. Roy was killed by enemy fire in France and, for his heroism and courage, Norman was awarded a Military Medal. Norman returned to Jamaica after completing his studies at Oxford and was appointed Kings Counsel in 1932. His brilliance and intellect later earned him the title of the “West Indies’ best lawyer”.
The 1930s were a period of unrest in Jamaica and Manley readily identified himself with the cause of the worker. He played a dominant role in the negotiations for workers in the banana industry, helping to organize them into the Jamaica Banana Producers Association. In September of that year Norman Manley formed the People’s National Party (PNP).

Manley was Jamaica’s first Premier. He was a visionary who recognized that the path to self-governance was the foundation for a modern democracy. As such, he supported the concept of a Federation of the West Indies. His loss in the referendum vote to Bustamante for withdrawal from the Federation did not dim this vision. Shortly thereafter, Manley organized and headed the Joint Parliamentary Committee that drafted the Jamaican Constitution and agreement for independence from Britain.

Even during his political years, Norman Manley still played a part in amateur athletics. He was a fixture at Boys' Championships, often in the capacity of referee, and he envisioned and directed the building of the National Stadium. Norman Manley was also instrumental in the formation of the Jamaica Olympic Association, which sent Jamaica’s first official team to the Olympic Games in 1948, the Jamaica Amateur Athletic Association (JAAA), and the Jamaica Boxing Board of Control (JBBC).

Norman Manley was a statesman who served with distinction and integrity. He became ill and retired from active politics on his birthday July 4, 1969. Norman Washington Manley died on September 2, 1969 at the age of 76. He was declared a National Hero and a memorial has been erected at the National Heroes’ Park in his honour. His memory is commemorated at the Norman Manley Law School at the University of the West Indies, the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston and by a statue at North Parade. Norman Manley’s image also appears on the Jamaican five-dollar coin.

The Right Excellent Nanny of the Maroons

The maroons have played a controversial yet integral part in the history of Jamaica. While many of the slaves on the plantations engaged in passive resistance as well as uprisings and open rebellions, the maroons hold pride of place in constant, unyielding attacks on the British planters and militia. These guerrilla warriors – slaves who escaped from the plantations and made their homes in the woodlands of the island’s interior – were a thorn in the flesh of the British colonialists.

Arguably the maroons’ most revered leader, Nanny was political and spiritual head of the maroons in the eastern parishes of Jamaica. Under her guidance, the group actively raided and plundered sugar plantations, and gave slaves their freedom. They also openly attacked and ambushed in ingenious traps the militia and planters, with little harm to their own numbers.

Both her followers and the British feared Nanny; probably because it was believed that she dabbled in obeah and black magic. Many folk tales and songs in the oral tradition of the maroons tell of her exploits. There are also documented accounts of her prowess as a military strategist in the First Maroon War, 1720 to 1739.

Although the facts surrounding Nanny’s death are somewhat vague, Jamaicans recognize her unique contribution to the struggle for full freedom of the enslaved population, finally achieved in 1838. Nanny has been given Jamaica’s highest honour, National Hero (Heroine). A portrait of Nanny can be found on the Jamaican five-hundred-dollar bill.

The Right Excellent Samuel Sharpe 

Caribbean history attests to the fact that Jamaica led the way in the fight for the abolition of the cruel system of slavery, with the most frequent slave uprisings and revolts. Samuel “Sam” Sharpe, one of Jamaica’s seven national heroes, was instrumental in the fight for freedom as the main instigator of the Christmas Rebellion of 1831.

Sharpe was born on a sugar plantation in the parish of St James. He became a Baptist deacon and was leader of the slave congregations in the area.  He used this platform to condemn slavery and the inhumane conditions existing on many plantations. Sharpe believed slaves could achieve success and improve the harsh conditions with which they were treated. He encouraged the participation of slaves from neighbouring estates.

Planning the Rebellion of 1831, Sharpe encouraged slaves to withdraw their services in a peaceful protest against the plantocracy on Christmas Day. Thousands of slaves in the parishes of Trelawny, Westmoreland, St Elizabeth and Manchester joined in the protest, which turned bloody with the burning of the Kensington Great House. Fourteen whites perished, and in the aftermath nearly five hundred slaves were executed. Despite Sharpe’s best intentions, the Christmas Rebellion, also called the Sam Sharpe Rebellion, evolved into the largest, bloodiest rebellion in Jamaica’s history. For his role as instigator Sharpe was hanged on May 28, 1832.

The Christmas Rebellion proved to be one of the main events to catch the attention of Britain, thus hastening the process of full emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies in 1838.

Sam Sharpe has been honoured by Jamaica for his role in the fight for the freedom of this nation and its people. A shrine commemorating his life can be found at Heroes Park in Kingston. A teacher’s college in his native parish of St James is named in his honour and Sam Sharpe’s portrait can also be found on the Jamaican fifty-dollar bill.