Situating land in Reid’s ‘New Day’

V.S. Reid’s “New Day” (1949), explores the essence of land as an inheritance to be gallantly fought for regardless of class, religion and education, because to him a rebel with a cause is one who stands for what he believes in as being central to the collective struggle of his people, and not what he is taught or coerced to believe in.

The history of the West Indies in general, and Jamaica in particular, like that of Africa, as depicted in his other novel “The Leopard” (1958), is the history of struggle, which cannot be fully articulated without reference to the land issue, it being the major reason for colonisation.

Playing his artistic role as the voice of the voiceless, a recorder of mores and values, and memory’s defence, Reid interfaces literature and history through adept tapping into the unrecorded or downplayed historical aspects; physical and metaphysical, of the people of colour, in both Jamaica and Africa.

To bring the land issue into focus, it is imperative to situate events leading to, and following the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865, as depicted in the novel “New Day” within the broader ideas raised by Williams (1944), with the view to find synergies between the West Indies and Africa in the collective struggle against imperialism.

Reid’s aim as a writer is to instil an awareness of legacy and tradition among the Jamaican people. The myriad social and cultural malaise pervading the period between 1865 and 1944 could not escape Reid’s telescopic eye, prompting him to deconstruct the “distortions of history” depicted by the foreign press, which has the nerve to describe Jamaican and African radicals as criminals or rebels for advocating freedom and equality.

As the custodian of the mores and values that shape his people’s aspirations (Chinweizu et al 1985), like a teacher to his community (Achebe, 1973), Reid’s quest goes beyond chronicling of experiences, to implore his fellow countrymen to remain conscious of their unique identity, regardless of what the colonial master and his cronies propagate.

As portrayed through the British trained lawyer, Garth, Reid accentuates his desire to correct the Critical Race theorist inclination of the education system, tilted in favour of colonial distortions of history, to accord a chance to the people of colour to tap into their heritage and history, and derive pride from that, instead of remaining derided.

“New Day”, Reid’s first novel, reconstructs the history of Jamaica, as seen through the eyes of 87-year-old John Campbell, from his childhood days, until Jamaica gained independence from Britain in 1944. Written in three parts, the novel traces four generations of the Campbell family, articulating the heroic achievements in their different ways. Through foreshadowing, “New Day” opens on the eve (The evening) of Jamaica’s granting of a new constitution ahead of general elections to mark political independence.

It then moves to capture the genesis of struggle, rejection, deceit, exploitation and urgency through the eight-year-old dialect apt Johnny Campbell, who is caught up in the maelstrom of events leading to the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865, which leaves 500 people dead; blacks and poor whites believed to be rebels.

As the fictional experience premised on historical memory plays out over the course of a few weeks, Johnny’s father Pa John, is killed for siding with rebels, and his brother David, whom he affectionately calls Davie, goes through a metamorphosis to become a rebellious young man fleeing for his life with the colonial authorities in hot pursuit.

The abject poverty that lays base at the doorsteps of the Jamaican peasantry has been brought on by a relentless three-year drought, and the disruption of traditional food supplies, because of the civil war in America.

The desperate situation is exacerbated by the greedy white planters (buckras), who take advantage to obtain cheap labour, and the disdainful and brutal colonial governor, Eyre, who plays deaf to the people’s desperate pleas for assistance. The relatively secure, and near-white Campbell family is not in agreement on how the present crisis should be solved.

Pa John Campbell, the incorrigible patriarch, violently disagrees with his blond-haired son Davie over the latter’s joining Stoney Gut, a group led by the radical Baptist deacon Paul Boggle, whom Pa John’s Church of England pastor Humphrey describes as “a black Satan in human form . . . preaching sedition against the most gracious person of our Queen.”

Reid insists that both slavery and colonialism robbed the people of colour of their livelihoods and sense of being. However, to him the idea is not to remain cry-babies and keep on wishing that the erstwhile coloniser alter his garment to make it suit the expectations of the formerly colonised black people. He shares the same views with Foucault that agency is fashioned out of the realisation that the white man cannot change, because to him it is about us and them; a status quo he wishes to maintain.

Through four generations of the Campbell family, Reid explores the essence of collective suffering as colour blind. Though admitting that the race issue, skin tone and colour can be used in keeping the oppressed apart, especially through education and religion, Reid believes that the whole issue is not about the “somatic norm image”, where race is put at the centre of relations, and the dominated group endeavours to be identified with somatic markers of the dominant group. Rather the chromatic norm image theory applies to the pervading issues in both “New Day” and “The Leopard”, for human nature goes beyond race.

As has been highlighted earlier on, the Campbell family is wealthy; propertied and near-white, hence, could pass for white and leave their fellow brothers suffering, but through David, Johnny and Garth, they decide to be rebellious for the cause of the subjugated, impoverished, alienated and displaced black people.

After the Morant Bay Rebellion Garth is told by Doctor Creary that his father and brother’s names were listed under “Executed Rebels”, to which he responds: “Rebels? . . .What is wrong with men calling you a rebel? A body ever rebels against good? Did Jesus Christ and Wat Tyler and L’Ouverture rebel against good or bad? Eh — if Governor Eyre had put Executed Mice atop his list and had my father’s name under it, come talk to me Doctor Creary, and then I would sharpen my cutlass and go to St. Jago for his guts. But rebel? Is a good, good tombstone that.”

A rebel with a cause, in Davie’s view, is one, who in spite of his station in life, fights for the common good of his people, for it is his environment and race that shapes him and not his individuality. Of his father he says, “A rebel worse than me he was”.

When one of the Commissioners at the Inquiry tries to play the race ball with him Davie tells him off. The racist Commissioner says: “The-er-colour of your family made you also-er-well thought of in the community. We even understand that the late Custos had spoken of appointing your father a Justice of the Peace. In other words the point we are making is that you had everything which should make you sympathetic to er-rulers of your country. What made you join the rebels of Stoney Gut?”

To this attempt at divide and rule David responds: “Your Honours, because hunger came to my door and I was no’ blind”.

Yes, it is not a colour issue; it is about dispossession, displacement and alienation. It is about the land. History cannot lie, and Davie is not unaware that, “Man was no’ built for slavery”, because “in him are the Image and Likeness, and it is not of the skin. Inside o’ him there is the dignity of God, whether he was birthed in a hut or in a buckra’s mansion”.

But do Christian tenets matter to the coloniser, who uses religion when it suits him, for as Franz Fanon puts it in “The Wretched of the Earth” (1967), the Church in the colonies “is the white people’s Church, the foreigner’s Church. She does not call the native to God’s ways but the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor” (Fanon, 1967).

Davie delves into cultural, religious and historical memory to lash out at slavery, which according to Williams (1944) was not a result of racism, but rather a precursor to it. Reid interrogates Williams theory and somehow plays into it that, indeed, slavery, like colonialism, has little to do with race, but more with economic gain.

Both capitalism and slavery hinge on the commodification of production with the Hegelian material gain as the ultimate goal, which leans towards Williams’ idea of economic gain as the overriding motive behind slavery. However, a close analysis of the phenomena reveals the complexity of human nature where time, place and space determine class stratification, with variables shifting through “discovery” of “empty space” and “remote region” (Giddens, 1991), thus, problematising what constitutes class systems and ownership.

Following the Emancipation of 1838, freed slaves, who scantly understand the concept of freedom find themselves “with acres of rock and cactus”. Unable eke out a living from the barren land, freed black people find themselves back on white estates as labourers. Davie argues: “I do no’ say that they did wisely by leaving the land to starve while they lay in the sun; but show me the one who can say that men who ha’ been bonded for two hundred years, without wages, without rest, and under the lash, would act with wisdom when at long last the chains ha’ been struck off?

“Show me the one Your Honours?”

Indeed, such a man treads not the world. Freedom means more than just being free. Freedom comes with its own challenges, which is the reason why Booker T. Washington advocates “casting the bucket where you are”, until freedom begins to make sense.

Williams’ claim that the land, being abundant, a distinction should be made between free labour and coerced labour to determine profitability, in economic terms and not racial terms, finds a taker in Reid’s David. Realising that their poor land could not yield anything, they laboured on “buckras’ estates”, and “saved, so till one after another they bought their own pieces o’ good land which had no rocks and cactus”.

Wakefield, Merivale and Cairnes’ cited in Williams (1944) posit that where land is cheap and abundant “the natural inclination” to work on one’s piece of land as opposed to paid labour, becomes paramount, thus, voluntary labour becomes scarce. Consequently, coerced labour becomes the only way to go (Williams 1944).

David concurs thus: “One after t’other they became their own landmasters, and leave buckra estates. That time, then, there is no labour, and there is making of new laws in the House of Assembly, which will prevent people getting good land to buy, so they will return to buckra estates. There is even talk among the plantermen of bringing indentured labour from India and China”.

Reid, therefore, is in agreement with Williams’ view that slavery in the Americas and the West Indies, like colonisation in Africa was a matter of “a specific question of time, place, labour and soil,” with nothing to do with race, inferiority complexities and climate.

Land is a people’s inheritance, without which they are robbed of geographical and spiritual spaces, as Nilene Omodele Adeoti Foxworth’s writes in “Bury me in Africa” (1978): “A people without land are like cattle on naked ground with nothing to graze – they mope around hopelessly.

Davie, the rebel with a cause fearlessly drives his point home at the Inquiry: “Representative government will come back to our island one day, one day. And mark me Your Honours, there will be no buckras making the laws then, but the said poor like whom they have killed, and a Governor of the people will be sitting in St. Jago. For we will ha’ learnt that sympathy for the poor must come from the poor. Then who can say that time that St. Thomas people died in vain?”

How prophetic that Davie’s grandson Garth should become an enlightened rebel to lead the Jamaican people to Independence as the first black Governor in 1944! Chenjerai Hove avers in Palaver Finish (2002) that the best way to know of a people’s history is not to visit history books, but literary works, because fiction is not fiction. It is a true record of historical events.

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