Walter Rodney: ‘Groundings’ and the Jamaica ban forty years on
By Nigel Westmaas
It was forty years ago this October that Walter Rodney was banned from Jamaica and set off disturbances that came to be known as the “Walter Rodney riots.”
When Rodney left to take up a scholarship in the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica in 1966 signs of his later scholarly activism or ‘groundings’ were already prevalent and were being recorded according to declassified intelligence. The Jamaican security reports gave priority to Rodney’s activities from as early as his student days at Mona campus, between 1961-63. A partial trigger of security interest was Rodney’s several visits to Cuba and the Soviet Union in the same period.
In 1966 Rodney received his PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies for his dissertation A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 (published in 1970). Later in 1966, he took up an appointment as History lecturer in the University of Dar-es-Salaam, in Tanzania. He returned to Jamaica in 1968 to teach a course in African history at Mona campus. During this period he was very active in the social and political life of Jamaica and worked closely with the poor people and with Rastafarians in Kingston and other sections of the country.
There were antecedents to Rodney’s solidarity work in Jamaica. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) administration had a history of repression against black power activists and Rastafarians. The infamous Coral Gardens incident was a case in point. In 1963, under a recently elected JLP government there was mass repression against Rastafar-ians in the Coral Gardens near the tourist area at Montego Bay. In this incident over land rights, the state bulldozed houses and plots of land. In response, enraged Rastafarians attacked a gas station. Eight died in the resulting conflict, including three Rastas and two policemen.
Repression continued under successive JLP administrations. In his 1968 sojourn, Rodney worked in a society rigidly stratified and beset by economic problems, police brutality, and stagnation. On campus, he taught history with distinction, captivating hordes of students, some of whom even left other classes to attend his popular lectures.
Rodney’s depiction of the average academic as a static parasitic creature was radical for the time. It was clear that he had no intention, like many of his university colleagues after receiving cars, other endowments and large paychecks, of losing himself in middle-class inertia. Rodney wrote feelingly to his Guyanese friend Gordon Rohlehr of his disgust with academic life at Mona:
“There is no continuity in my life in respect of old acquaintances. We meet; I try to be pleasant; and I move on. For our generation too is adding its quota to the frightening sterility of the society. Living off campus is a great boon, for it reduces my contact with rum-sipping soul selling intellectuals of Mona…”
The term ‘Groundings’ although not fully defined in Rodney’s book Groundings with my Brothers, represented the nature and form of his political and social work in the gullies and shantytowns of Kingston. For Rodney ‘Groundings’ could be in a “sports club, it might be in a school room, it might be in a church, it might be in a gully… I have spoken in what people call “dungle,” rubbish dumps… I have sat on a little oil drum, rusty and in the midst of garbage, and some Black Brothers and I have grounded together.”
In any event, it was clear that Rodney’s ‘groundings’ were carefully monitored by the authorities. Inevitably, official suspicion and surveillance and Rodney’s solidarity activism could not reconcile. Matters were coming to a head. Rodney left Jamaica to attend the Black Writer’s Conference in Montreal, Canada. The Hugh Shearer regime, presented with an opportunity, instituted a ban on the historian. The aircraft bringing Rodney from Canada landed at 2.20 pm on Tuesday, October 15, 1968. He was informed on the plane that he could not enter the country. His ban came as a huge shock to the academic community, the Rastafarians and friends, supporters and the working people all over Jamaica and the Caribbean. There are conflicting reports at what time his closest constituents, the students at UWI were aware that Rodney was banned from entering. One source said that some students knew of the ban and were preparing protest action. On the other hand Ralph Gonsalves (now Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines) then a student organizer, seemed to suggest the students were in the dark. In his account he affirmed: “it was not until after 9 pm that the students learned he was refused entry and confined to the aircraft.” Gonsalves, Rodney’s wife Pat, Professor Norman Girvan and others were part of the demonstrations and spoke at rallies in protest against the ban.
The next day (October 17) found Kingston in upsurge. Large numbers of university students marched from the UWI campus to the city – a distance of some six miles. Their intended destination was the Jamaican parliament. By the time the university students arrived in the city their numbers had had been advanced by the entry of high school students, among them current University of Guyana senior lecturer Al Creighton. In the city, masses of people, including areas where Rodney was popular joined the demonstration in droves. By evening, the students and other Jamaicans began to drift away from parliament in batches and small groups. It was at this time that the violence assumed riot proportions. At a main street in the capital called Crossroads, batches of protesters began stoning motor cars, and buildings were also targeted. Cars began turning back and some rioters seized the opportunity to loot stores.
News accounts vary on the damage inflicted on the capital. The Gleaner of October 18 reported thirteen buses destroyed, seventy-two damaged, and ninety buildings either totally or partially damaged. Buses appeared to be identified for special treatment on account of the preceding fury of Kingston residents with the rise in bus fares and people’s anger with the transportation system.
The demonstrations were violently suppressed by the Jamaican security forces. The deaths of two persons were reported and eleven policemen were injured while twenty-three protestors were arrested on various charges. Many demonstrators including students and groups of Rastafarians were beaten.
The banning of Rodney had unleashed a reaction that shook the Shearer regime to its foundation. At first, despite calls to explain why Rodney was banned, the government blustered and refused to give an explanation. But as the protests mounted, Prime Minister Shearer was forced to go to parliament and give a statement. He played to nationalist sentiment in his speech and attempted to establish that “foreign” students inspired the demonstrations. He also sought to classify Rodney as a communist and terrorist out to subvert the society and overthrow the government. The Minister of Home Affairs was quite blunt and made the famous contention:
“In my term of office, and in reading the records of problems in this country, I never come across a man who offers a greater threat to the security of this nation than does Walter Rodney.”
A declassified US Department of State telegram said the “trouble seemed to be a spontaneous outburst of poor dark Jamaicans as a result of a long period of frustrating strikes and impotence…”
This was no surprise. Kingston, Rodney had said in his letter to Rohlehr, “is meaner than when you left it, and when you left it you did not know how mean it was.”
Regionally, the ban provoked angry responses. On the Trinidad and Barbados university campuses there were student protests. The St Augustine campus threatened Dr Eric Williams with removal as Pro-Chancellor if he did not take action on the Jamaica government action against the Guyanese historian.
In Guyana protests were widespread across ethnic and political affinity. The parliamentary opposition PPP, ASCRIA, and other organisations and individuals were loud in condemnation. Lecturers and students on the Guyana university campus held rallies and suspended classes. The Guyana Graphic reported that “some 300 students, lecturers and member of the public were involved in a protest march to the PM’s (Prime Minister Forbes Burnham) residence.” Among the chants were “No Rodney, no Carifta”; Up with Rodney, Down with Shearer” and “Academic Freedom , RIP.” The protesters called on Burnham to meet them. He eventually emerged from his Vlissengen road residence, met with representatives of the protestors and promised to seek information on the banning of Rodney.
The banning was extended. In 1969 two other Guyanese, Clive Thomas and Joey Jagan were also refused entry into Jamaica for explicit political reasons.