Captain Boycott Loses War Against Poor People

IrelandBoycottCharles Boycott, the son of an Anglican priest, was a most unfortunate man. He’s the brand name for a very effective type of social protest. But he was on the wrong side of the struggle. Boycott was born in England in 1832 and served in the British Army. After retiring, he worked as a Iand agent in Ireland. Lord Erne, an Anglo-Irish peer, politician and absentee landlord, employed Boycott to manage his estate.

In 1880, harvests were very poor so Erne reduced his tenants’ rent by 10 per cent. But they were not satisfied and demanded reduction to 25 per cent. Erne refused. Boycott tried to evict 11 protesters. When word got out, the tenants took action.

They were guided by the advice of Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish landlord with a conscience. He was the first president of the Irish National Land League, founded in 1879. Their mission was to advocate for land reform: reducing extortionate rents, ensuring that tenants could not be unfairly evicted and enabling tenant farmers to purchase land.

Parnell recommended that when tenants took farms from which others had been evicted, the newcomers should be isolated. No violence; just leave them severely alone. Parnell’s tactic was first used against Captain Boycott. Workers went on strike.   Local suppliers of goods and services declined to do business with Boycott. Even the postman stopped delivering mail.

Boycott couldn’t get anyone to harvest the crops and, in the end, 50 members of the Protestant Orange Order volunteered to do the reaping. Even though there was no threat of violence, they were escorted by 1,000 police and soldiers. The cost of protection was much more than the value of the crops. It would have been cheaper to just give the tenants the 25 per cent reduction in rent.



James Redpath

Boycott’s name soon entered the English language, both as a verb and a noun. James Redpath, a journalist with the New York Tribune who went to Ireland to cover the Boycott story, was the first to use the new word in the international media. In an article published in the Magazine of Western History, Redpath tells how the word was coined:

“I was dining with Father John O’Malley and he asked me why I was not eating. I said that I was bothered about a word. ‘What is it?’ asked Father John. ‘Well’, I said ‘when a people ostracize a landgrabber we call it excommunication, but we ought to have an entirely different word to signify ostracism applied to a landlord or land agent like Boycott. Ostracism won’t do. The peasantry would not know the meaning of the word, and I can’t think of anything.’ ‘No,’ Father John said, ‘ostracism wouldn’t do.’ He looked downward, tapped his forehead, and then out it came. “How would it do to call it ‘to boycott him?’”

The rejected word ‘ostracism’ wouldn’t have been all that difficult for the peasantry to understand if they had been educated about its origin. It comes from the Greek word ‘ostrakon’, meaning ‘tile’. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that ostracism was “a method of 10-year banishment in ancient Athens, by which the citizens gathered and each wrote on a potsherd or tile the name of a man they deemed dangerous to the liberties of the people, and a man whose name turned up often enough was sent away”.  Pity we can’t banish some of our politicians in this way.



Jamaican hybrid

There were some amusing responses to my column last week, “Time to Boycott Britain!” BobbieP wrote, “And to get this Boycott off to a smashing start, Carolyn Cooper has just announced that tomorrow she will publically [sic] demolish her prized British Jaguar sports car using a sledge hammer! From now on, she will only drive an authentically Jamaican vehicle, a pushcart. Now that is putting your money where your mouth is, Carolyn!”

I decided to respond: “Tata Motors, an Indian company, owns Jaguar. And I don’t drive one. But facts don’t matter when people get emotional about issues like reparations”. BobbieP wasn’t the least bit fazed by his/her errors.   S/he gave a half-hearted ‘sorry’ and then pressed along mocking the proposed boycott:

“Sorry for my mistake, Carolyn. I was positive that was a Jag you were driving at UWI. Jaguar may me [sic] owned by Tata, but it is still headquartered in England. Designed and built in England. If you want us to get serious about this Boycott, you need to come up with a more robust definition of ‘British’. Even the Queen isn’t British, [sic] her family is actually German! Most major brands are now owned by multinational corporations, so your simple rule about ownership won’t work”.

Even in an age of multinational corporations, my supposedly ‘simple rule about ownership’ has validity. Take, for instance, the case of the Volkswagen Group. Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Audi, Porsche, SEAT, Škoda and Volkswagen are all owned by the company, which has both automotive and financial services divisions. The company operates in approximately 150 countries and has 100 production facilities across 27 countries. VW has two major joint ventures in China.

As a result of the recent diesel emissions scandal, there have been calls to boycott VW. Consumers understand their collective power. And they know what ownership means. It’s a pity some of us can’t ‘own’ the right to reparations.


Superpower Jamaican Accent for the Super Bowl

       images-11Don’t mind the IMF.  Thanks to Volkswagen of America, Inc., we’re been reminded yet again that Jamaica is a cultural superpower.   According to Wikipedia, “A superpower is a state with a dominant position in the international system which has the ability to influence events and its own interests and project power on a worldwide scale to protect those interests”.

       Of course, the meaning of ‘power’ in that definition is, essentially, political, economic and military.   Superpowers are the big guns of the world.  The British Empire in the bad old days of in-your-face colonisation was the first ‘modern’ superpower.  Britannia ruled the waves, captured lands far and wide and now evades reparations.  After all, Britons never, never, never shall be slaves – not even to fundamental principles of natural justice.

cold-war  Eventually, all across the globe, exploited colonies demanded independence and the sun finally set on the British Empire.  The Soviet Union and the United States of America both inherited the superpower mantle and aggressively fought for supremacy in the Cold War.  These days, China, India, Brazil and the European Union are all ready to claim superpower status.

Clearly, Jamaica is not in this big league. We’re not in the ‘Group of Eight’: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia the U.K. and the United States.  We’re not in the ‘Plus Five’:  Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa.  We’re in no group.  We’re in a class by ourselves.


Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson image

Long ago, Marcus Garvey gave us the formula for our greatness:  “God and Nature first made us what we are, and then out of our own created genius we make ourselves what we want to be.  Follow always that great law.  Let the sky and God be our limit and Eternity our measurement”.

Garvey also wickedly said, “The whole world is run on bluff”.  But he certainly wasn’t bluffing when he conceived the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL).  Garvey had a grand vision of what black people could achieve.  Although he was born on a small island, Garvey was not insular. His consciousness was continental.

Peter Phillips and Miss Mattie

Like Garvey, Louise Bennett celebrated the unlimited potential of the Jamaican people.  In one of her most amusing poems, “Independance” – yes, “dance” – Miss Lou creates a raucous character, Miss Mattie, who gives a most entertaining account of what independence means to her.  It’s not the song and dance of constitutional arrangements.  It’s much more primal:

Mattie seh it mean we facety

Stan up pon we dignity.

An we don’t allow nobody

Fi teck liberty wid we.


Independence is we nature

Born an bred in all we do

An she glad fi see dat Government

Tun independant to.

Peter Phillips

Peter Phillips

Miss Lou here wittily suggests that so-called ‘ordinary’ people like Miss Mattie are way ahead of politicians in their understanding of power dynamics.  Perhaps Peter Phillips should ask Miss Mattie to come along to the IMF negotiations.  She would not be afraid of proposing her own conditionalities.

Indeed, Miss Mattie has a rather expansive view of Jamaica’s geopolitical location:

She hope dem caution worl-map

Fi stop draw Jamaica small,

For de lickle speck cyaan show

We independantness at all!


Moresomever we must tell map dat

We don’t like we position –

Please kindly tek we out a sea

An draw we in de ocean


Turning History Upside Down

black_britain   Miss Mattie shows up in another humorous poem by Miss Lou, “Colonization in Reverse”:

What a joyful news, Miss Mattie

Ah feel like me heart gwine burs –

Jamaica people colonizin

Englan in reverse

Taking our cultural “bag an baggage” to the stepmother country, Jamaicans turned history upside down, reversing the flow of influence.

These days, our distinctive Jamaican ‘Patwa’ is the preferred language of youth culture in England.  Last summer, in a moment of deranged grief as the embers of widespread riot died down, the British historian David Starkey lamented the success of Jamaica’s reverse colonisation of England:  “black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together, this language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that’s been intruded in England, and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.”


It’s not only England that’s been colonised by Jamaican culture.  It’s the whole world, as Miss Mattie would say.  Which brings us to the VW Super Bowl ad that had 4.6 million hits by Friday morning.

Why does it feature a white man from Minnesota speaking with a stilted Jamaican accent?


a)   The man was born in Jamaica, migrated as a ‘yute’ and hasn’t been back in a very long time.  But he tries his best to sound Jamaican.

b)   The man was born in the US to Jamaican parents and has never visited Jamaica.  But he tries his best to sound Jamaican.

c)   The man was born in Minnesota, went to Jamaica on vacation, fell in love with the language and tries his best to sound Jamaican.

d)   The man was born in the U.S., has never been to Jamaica except on the Internet, fell in love with the culture and tries his best to sound Jamaican.

e)   The man is a pretty good actor who was coached by a Jamaican and tried his best to sound Jamaican.

In an excellent interview with Jamaican blogger Corve DaCosta, the star of the VW ad, Erik Nicolaisen, said, “I have been a lifelong reggae fan, and as a voice actor I have tried to put a little patois into my repertoire”.  Jamaican popular music has been a potent medium for spreading our language across the globe. As Miss Mattie confidently asserts, Jamaica is not in the Caribbean Sea; we’re in every ocean of the world.

Adam Stewart

Adam Stewart

As was to be expected, some very clever Jamaicans have produced a brilliant spoof on the VW ad.  It was Adam Stewart’s bright idea.  As CEO of Sandals Resorts International, he knows a thing or two about VWs.  The brand is in the family of companies.  The creative team at Sandals ran with Adam’s idea.  The satirical remake features a happy-go-lucky black man speaking English with a German accent. He dances off-beat and gets everybody in the nightclub to follow suit; he eats jerk chicken with sauerkraut and inspires the jerk man to do the same; he arrives to work seven minutes early and, when he is chided by his boss, cheerfully promises to return in ten minutes.

The Jamaican dub version of the VW ad slyly mocks German efficiency.  It also takes a crack at our own willingness to follow fashion. We often copy others who are copying us.  But since the inspiration for the original ad appears to be the perception that Jamaicans set standards that the whole world can imitate – whether it’s exceptional happiness or inventive language – it’s all in good fun.

The Jamaican presence at the Super Bowl wasn’t just the VW ad.  It was Beyoncé doing the dutty wine, to the invigorating beat of Sean Paul.  And to makes things even more like home, there was that nicely orchestrated power cut!  Jamaica is a superpower. Be happy about it. Yeah, mon!