Monday, October 5, 2009

Review of Jamaica Farewell by Morris Cargill (1978, Barricade Books, 1995)

Jamaica Farewell is an exceptionally touching memoir of a man in the process of leaving an island to which he belongs. It was the 1970s, politically a difficult time around the Caribbean, and many of the wealthy islanders were leaving because they saw no future there. For Cargill the situation was even more poignant because he was writing commentaries in the newspaper about the situation and it was getting him in trouble. Eventually he felt he had to go. This is his tribute to an island that he so obviously loves.

His writing is clear and direct, so it is generally easy to read. At the same time it is strongly opinionated – as the man himself obviously was. His columns in the Jamaica Gleaner were testament to that. But given that the pleasure of reading has a good deal to do with enjoyment too, it is important that it is shot through with generous good humour. It starts with – and then is peppered with throughout - the funny stories of happenstance and eccentricity that seem to occur more in Jamaica than anywhere else. Cargill is also a sharp observer, whether it be the curious lilt of Jamaican language or the learning behaviour of bananaquits (he sees them learning to hover like hummingbirds to get at nectar).

Viewed from the perspective of the early 21st Century, Jamaica Farewell can seem paternalistic, even patronising, but it doesn’t take long for the true spirit of the man to come through. Actually Cargill was a rebel and a radical in his day. He scandalised white Jamaican society by adopting a black child and he introduced radical new worker conditions on his plantation. And he was hard-hitting when he wanted to be, relentlessly pursuing causes in which he believed. He was known in the 1970s as one of the scourges of the Manley government for his columns in the Gleaner. At times you can feel the columnist warming to his theme in Jamaica Farewell, whether it be drugs or the remorseless purgatives in Victorian English medicine. Occasionally they jar slightly in the writing – perhaps because he knows he is being contentious – but mostly they are seamless and of course they often lighten the book with obvious good humour.

The key emotions of the memoir however are eternal. It is clear to feel the man’s love for a country which he can see going to hell in a handcart (then a very popular streetside vending platform in Jamaica) – shortages, election fraud and for him personally threats of prosecution for being anti-government in his writings. He has done what he can and so he decides to leave – for an uncertain future in New York.

Most of us are visitors to the Caribbean. While we are stunned by the beauty of the islands – and Jamaica is among the most beautiful - and we are usually impressed by the people, we only see the surface. Jamaica Farewell is very well written and an immensely touching book that will illustrate the attachment of West Indians to their islands.

Often it turns out to be an unavoidable bond. Two years after leaving, Morris Cargill returned, living out the rest of his life there.


  1. Adopting a "coloured child"? This is 2010; black people haven't been "coloured" for years. Really.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I'll hold up my hands straight way and say I didn't realise that the term was no longer used. I've changed it.

    I guess you know Jamaica. Perhaps you know the book itself. If not do read it as it is well worth it. Do you have any favourite Jamaican books, by the way? Always keen to hear of some.

    Best - James


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