W. Adolphe Roberts (Peter Hulme, ed.), These Many Years: An Autobiography. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2015. xxxii + 436 pp. (Paper US$ 45.00)
Walter Adolphe Roberts (1886–1962)—author, poet, historian, journalist, and political activist—was one of Jamaica’s most prolific, skilled, and versatile political and literary figures, but also one of the most neglected. He died a few weeks after witnessing the realization of his life goal, the creation of an independent Jamaican nation-state.
Roberts’s biography fits the model for transnational Jamaican life today, but in his time frequent traveling was a luxury reserved for very few. For many years, he was based in the United States and visited various Latin American, Caribbean, and European countries. At age 50 he, a white Jamaican, joined forces with black radical activists of the Harlem Renaissance and founded the Jamaica Progressive League, the first group to demand political independence. His ideas heavily influenced Norman Manley and the Peoples National Party. In the 1950s, he eventually moved back to Jamaica for good.
In 1962, shortly after his dream of an independent Jamaica came true, he died in England on a trip to find a publisher for his memoirs. Roberts had appointed Bernard Lewis, Director of the Institute of Jamaica, as the executor of his will and his literary trustee. Upon careful consideration, Lewis took advice that his memoirs, which contained unsparing criticism of the developing political landscape in Jamaica and its leading protagonists, were too controversial for publication. Yet Roberts’s reflections are especially valuable, since the political history of pre-independence Jamaica remains sketchy, and so do many of the influential figures, such as N.N. Nethersole, Ken Hill, and Wilfred A. Domingo, who left no personal reflections.
Prior to the publication of Peter Hulme’s edited volume, Roberts’s memoirs were simply part of the 23 boxes of essays, letters, clippings, books, and pictures that constituted the Walter Adolphe Roberts collection at the National Library of Jamaica—not exactly a guarantee for wide circulation. But why should the memoirs of a man who died over 50 years ago and whose name does not even ring a bell for most Jamaicans still matter today? Hulme’s carefully annotated and thoroughly researched publication of Roberts’s autobiography allows fresh insights into the life and times of a pioneer of Jamaican nationalism and represents a valuable source for anyone interested in Jamaican political, literary, and cultural history. Persons with interest in a transnational history of the Caribbean that takes the North and Middle American mainland into account can also find precious evidence of the strong connectivity of the region.
Roberts, like many of his contemporaries, has been overshadowed by a focus on the founders of the two still-existing political parties, Norman W. Manley (PNP) and Alexander Bustamante (JLP), often glorified as patriotic leaders. In Jamaica’s de-facto two-party democracy, it is only recently that a critical assessment of the political history of the run-up to independence has surfaced. Research on twentieth-century Jamaica is sparse and has generally focused on more radical forms of resistance such as Black Nationalism, Garveyism, or Rastafarianism, while the Jamaica Progressive League has been almost forgotten. It was only around the country’s fiftieth anniversary that a few articles in the Jamaican press called for recognition of the pioneers of Jamaican nationalism and their influential involvement in pre-independence politics. Through Hulme’s keen explanations and recourses, Roberts’s ideas and political influence become accessible. His political and personal encounters form a colorful kaleidoscope of a fascinating political and literary life, allowing a better understanding of the transformations that accompanied the wave of decolonization and the birth of young nations in the middle of the twentieth century.
In Roberts’s thinking, Latin American freedom movements, the struggle of African nations for independence, the political activism of African Americans, and the developments in other Caribbean islands all provide the canvas on which Jamaica’s political history is created. Hulme’s annotations help to grasp the diverse influences and personalities that shaped his thinking. These Many Years sheds light not only on Roberts and his ideas, but also on those of his contemporaries, producing a valuable portrait of the complex process of decolonization and nation-building in Jamaica.