On Bolívar, Resistance, and Revolution in the Midst of WWII: Claude Thompson’s “A Man from Jamaica”

Introduction

The text below is the short story, “A Man from Jamaica,” written by Claude Alphonso Thompson and published in These My People (Kingston, Jamaica: The Herald Ltd., 1943).

Thompson wrote this while living in London during World War II. The framing device sets the story in the wake of Dunkirk and the impending fall of Paris. It flashes back to 1815, when Simón Bolívar, the Great Liberator, was in exile in Jamaica (on his way to Haiti). The story asks readers to consider the big picture — to remember that there are many defeats in battle before the war is won.

A Man from Jamaica

That day at high noon everyone coming back in from lunch saw the next person looking up at the sky and looked also.  Right into the face of the midday glare they looked and there directly overhead was a circle around the sun:

Ah——It was an omen.  Something was about to happen.  Something — but what.  They all went in shaking their heads and then the heard ………..

“The British are surrounded at Dunkirk!”

“What ………!”

…………that then was the meaning of the ring around the sun, and now the news was coming ……..

“They are being evacuated …….”

“They have lost everything ……..”

…….. and there was a great hush over the land.  This meant disaster.  Liberty, freedom, justice …….. !  They were dead, and none dared to hope and through succeeding days the news became worse.

“The French have decided not to defend Paris!”

“The French have retreated outside Paris where they will make a final stand.”

Then ……..

“The French have capitulated!”

This was the end.  Everyone knew it was the end.  Men whispered in the shade–men looked at the sun–at the goodly earth over which a blight was creeping–a foul miasma that would soon blot out the light of day and none dared to hope in the months that followed.

None save ……..

* * * * * * * *

The señor Pedro Angello D’aquilla Y Mendoza sits in his piazza in Kingston high above the traffic of the street and dreams in the evening sun.  Nothing moves him — nothing.  Not the clanging of the trams — not the sound of the world falling to pieces around his ears. He is like God and he sits in the sun high above the clamour of the people.

You say to him ……..

“But a hundred million people die senor.”

He says ……..

“What of it? It is destiny.  What a beautiful aroma this cigar has, amigo?”[2]

You are enraged ……..

“But señor.  Are you a madman ……..”

He smiles ……..

“No, amigo.  A wise one I hope.”

And you still persist ……..

“But Liberty ……..”

“Liberty, amigo,” he replies, “Liberty never dies — never.”

It is as if a change has come over him.  He is no longer an old man sitting in the evening sun — a weak old man.  He sits up and he whispers like a man telling his beads ……..

“Liberty — por la Libertad.”

…….. and then he is turning towards you and he is talking and the words come fast ……..

“It is destiny — that men should suffer and die; even you and I, amigo.  It is thus we find ourselves — a man — a people.  Here on the outskirts of the ripple we feel only the dread of a thing, that has not come to us literally as yet, ten times as much as the thing itself.  But, if the innocents of Bethlehem cry out, know you that out of this travail to a better day shall come — a man — an idea.  Libertad — it cannot die.  I hear, amigo, that it is with us a canker of the heart — cowardice, greed, treachery and that disloyalty that is called the fifth column.  I sit here in the sun and to you and to the others I do not appear to hear or care.  I do not appear to hear or know what is happening  I hear that in America of the south where my fathers came from there is great evidence of the iron tyranny that has all Europe in its grip.  I hear and I am not moved!  I Pedro Angello D’aquila Y Mendoza! Ha — !  You do not know.  I am dreaming of another day — of another tyranny.  I am thinking that in another day the seemingly lost cause of the rights of man were won because of a single word — Libertad.  I am thinking of one man and an idea setting out with two hundred men to conquer a continent — to found five great republics.  I am thinking of a man who walked these very streets here in Kingston dreaming of the freedom of all men — of their right to live.  Dreaming for a year; dreaming and writing to men of like thoughts and then setting out to hurl the yoke of tyrant from the neck of the people.  You do not know of this man amigo?  You have never heard of him so your heart is faint because the odds are great.  You do not know that perhaps over the very spots on which you tread passed the feet of so great a man.  Over there — over that muddy hole passed the idea of Liberty — only an idea and yet it saved a continent.  It gave to South America the great countries that you now know as Columbia, Venezuela, [3] Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia.  Ah-Bolivia!  Sacred to the name of the Great Liberator–Simon Bolivar.

“But I should tell you, amigo.  I should quiet you my little one groping in the dark and so afraid to live — so afraid to die.  I shall show you that there are no lost causes if only a man believes.  I shall show you that even the weak in body can, for the love of the abstract truths of justice and freedom, do the deeds of blood thirsty fighting men.  I shall tell you of my Grandmother — May God rest her sainted soul — who killed a man that liberty might come to her people.  I see her frail hands and I wonder.  She, who could not kill a chicken for the table, killed a man!

“It is the year 1815.  There is a war in Europe and here on this side of the world an idea had begun to permeate men’s brains.  Men had begun to think that it was a good thing that men should be free — should be allowed to carve their own destiny, and already they had put their ideas to the test and had lost, so it seemed forever.  Simon Bolivar the champion of this lost cause is defeated.  It is treachery again. How do you call it today — the fifth column?  His ragged pescadores are scattered and in the minds of men is only the memory of ragged banners, blood stained battle fields and brave barefooted ragged men standing in the sun against a white wall, the muffled roll of drums and one last defiant shout.

‘Viva La Libertad ……..’

and then the crash of muskets and brown bodies twitching in the dust.  It is defeat.  There are no banners left to fight the House of Castile.  Bolivar will soon be caught. But no –.  Word comes –.  Word goes.  Bolivar is free.

“They who know how to do it have got him away and those who have got him away know what it means ……..

“The muffled drums and then — ‘Fire’

“There are dead men in the dust again but Bolivar is free.  He will come again.  Let Morillo and Morales do their worst.  Bolivar will come again and meanwhile it is 1815 and Bolivar is here in Jamaica.  He is at the house of my Grandfather after whom I am named Pedro Angello d’Aquilla Y Mendoza.  He writes and he reads.  He sends out that famous letter to the world known as “The Jamaican Letter” in which he lays down the principles of right rule, and men come and go by night for a whole year; waiting — waiting for the appropriate time.

“There are no lights in Kingston’s streets.  It is a fine place for desperate men, on desperate missions; who slip in under cover of dark from a ship anchored in the stream, to dream of liberty — to talk of liberty — to keep ever alight in their breasts its tiny flame. —

[4]

‘I have got the arms, senor.’

‘Bueno,’

‘When do we march, O Liberator?’

‘Not yet amigo.  Not yet.  No one must know. You must get them over to Santa …….. to the good Hernandez.  He must hide them and then soon — soon we will come.’

“And so he held them.  Husbanding them for the time when one man and an idea should become two hundred men and an idea and finally a continent and an idea.  An idea that would win the battles of Boyacá and Carabobo that would make them climb the terrible cordilleras of the Andes; that would make Cordoba jump from his horse and run it through and then shout ……..

‘Gentlemen, I have nothing with which I can retreat.’

“Yes, amigo.  Bolivar is at the house of my Grandfather, and my Grandfather Maria Angella Therese Y Mendoza — God rest her soul — she of the frail hands who cannot kill a chicken for the pot runs the house and does not know that here in her house eating at her table is the Great Bolivar.  She sits on the porch and bemoans the fact that none of her sons are as yet old enough for the revolution and my Grandfather looks at her and mumbles uneasily in his beard.

‘Silence woman.  Even the walls have ears.  Here you are happy.  Dream not of your unhappy land.

“And my Grandmother says —

‘You — Pedro Angello D’Aquilla Y Mendoza!  You — a coward!’ and covering her face with her hands she flees into the house.  My grandfather mumbles in his beard to the man at his side — ‘It is a flame.  It never dies.  Liberty for the people — Libertad!  Next month all will be ready.  Tonight the messenger comes.  Till then the walls have ears, O Liberator.’

“It is then that my Grandmother comes out and she hears – ‘O Liberator.’

“She stares at the faces of her husband and the lean, high-browed, bearded face of their guest and she knows —

‘You!  The Liberator ……..’

‘She grasps his hand, while the tears run down her cheeks, and kisses it and then she hurls herself into the arms of her husband, my Grandfather ……..

‘A Pedro mio!  How can you ever forgive me?’

“Those are great days then.  In a month they strike a blow for liberty, and then it is a week — only a week; and men are coming and men are going and the watchword is —

[5]

‘Mañana.’

“The arms are being gathered.  The ragged starving people who live always with death are waiting to leap to life again — waiting for a man to come from Jamaica; and then it happens . . . .

“It is one of those nights when the stars are like a thousand gems in the firmament.  the wind is being wafted gently over the land from the hills and the cries of a “wake” come plaintively to the ear.

“Tonight will come the last messenger and then ……..  The Liberator and my Grandfather are closeted together.  They talk in whispers in the dark of the night.  They are men of destiny.

“My grandmother is in her room.  She cannot sleep.  She says her beads over and over again. She goes to her window and there she gazes at the majesty of the stars — she gazes at God who is like a great mountain from which a cool breeze comes and she is calmed.  There is the smell of Jasmine in the wind from under the Poinciana tree, where the red blooms cover the ground by day like a crimson sheet; from the far end of the garden a cricket chirps.

“She is about to turn back to bed when . . . .  .  What is that shadow at the end of the house — on the roof above the window that opens into the room that is next to the one in which the men are sitting!  The figure moves!  It is a man!  He is coming down towards the window!  He must be ……..

“In a flash it is clear.  It is an assassin.  Only an assassin would want to get into that room that way.  She must warn the men.  No — there is no time.  She must do something.  She grabs up a shawl and the stilletto [sic] that her husband keeps in the back of the chest of drawers in their room and she is out.  On bare feet she steals silently down the corridor and there by the door she waits.  The door is opening — a figure is coming through it — she leaps –.  She who could not kill a chicken leaps and sticks a stilletto into a man!

“The noise brings the men out of the room.  They are aghast.  My Grandfather gasps —

‘Maria Therese …….. You ……..’

— and all she can do is sob —

‘We are betrayed ……..’

— and the men looked on amazed.  All my grandfather can do is gasp and then the liberator speaks.–

‘Tomorrow I go to Haiti, to the asylum offered by the President Pétion.  I shall wait yet a little more and then I shall go forward never to return.’

[6]

— and through it all my grandmother is crying. —

‘We are betrayed.’

‘No, No, Señora.  We have been saved by your bravery.’

* * * * * * * *

There is silence.  The señor Pedro Angello D’Aquilla Y Mendoza is gazing across the street and then he speaks again —

“That is why I do not fear these times.  I know what men embattled can do.  I know that only against great odds men live.  I know that nothing is too hard for men who dream of liberty.  I hurl in the face of defeat an idea.  I give you a word — a word to conjure with –liberty — and I give you life.”

There is silence.  For a space you do not know where you are and then you feel the sun on your hands — can hear the rumble of the traffic in the street below your feet — can hear the newsboys crying out in the evening sun.  What is that that they are crying ……..

“Evening news!  Evening news!”

“Guerilla bands operating in Yugoslavia.”

“Pedro Angello D’Aquilla Y Mendoza turns his bright eyes from the street and looks at you.  In them is a flame.  He looks at you with a look that is a challenge — so high, so wide, so bold and he says —

“Liberty — Por La Libertad.”

 

About Claude Thompson

There is not much scholarship on Thompson, but he is primarily remembered as a short story writer. He was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica on 2 January 1907. He attended Wolmer’s School in Kingston. His first book, These My People, was published in 1943.

 

 

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