Bogle versus Jennings: Another perspective

The controversial image
The controversial image (Photo credit: Jamaica Information Service)

Part 1

A recent article by Richard Hugh Blackford in the Jamaica Monitor called for a credible image of National Hero Paul Bogle and asserted, as a few other, mostly American, sources have done, that the photograph which has become the official image of Bogle is, in fact, of one Thomas L. Jennings, the African American inventor of dry cleaning. He also suggested that Edna Manley’s controversial Bogle statue might be a more accurate portrayal, as Manley used a Bogle descendant as her model. I wish to provide another perspective on this debate, in which I question the re-identification of the image as Jennings as well as the feasibility of Manley’s artistic impression as its replacement.

Blackford raises an important point about the need and desire for credible images of foundational historical figures. Such images are important tools in the cultivation of a sense of shared nationhood, as the proliferation of images of Jamaica’s national heroes on banknotes and coins, stamps, school wall murals, and public monuments well illustrates. Some such icons are based on actual images of the national heroes, while others had to be “imagined”, in the absence of extant images, often using very vague and even problematic descriptions.

Photography has made portrait images widely available in the modern era but before that portraiture was, with few exceptions, an elite pursuit and only the wealthy and socially prominent could have their formal portraits painted or drawn. In Jamaica, photography was introduced in the 1840s and became popular, and more affordable, from the 1860s onwards. There are, consequently, no contemporaneous images of Nanny or Sam Sharpe, and, perhaps, also, not of Paul Bogle. How such figures are represented is, however, a high-stakes matter, that comes with significant social baggage and differences of opinion, as the regular controversies about official monuments and certain other official images in Jamaica well illustrate. There are unspoken but important popular perceptions of what such images should be like and there is clearly a preference for “likenesses” and historical specificity over artistic licence.

One such controversy has, in fact, been the ongoing debate and community agitation about Edna Manley’s 1965 Bogle statue. The full body, ciment fondu version of this statue was for many years on view in front of the Morant Bay Courthouse, where key events of the Morant Bay Rebellion took place, but is now in storage at the National Heritage Trust. The second, half-body, bronze version remains on view in the Morant Bay Rebellion Shrine at National Heroes Park. The Morant Bay version of the statue was controversial, for several reasons, from the moment it was unveiled. One was that the statue represented an artistic impression, and not a traditional likeness, and its symbolic iconography which represented Bogle as a holy warrior failed to resonate with many. That Edna Manley used a descendant of Bogle as her model matters little here.

The presumed Bogle photograph

Many letters to the editor were written in response to the statue and some are very instructive, in terms of the disconnect between the artist’s intent and how it was received by community stakeholders. The Rastafarian self-taught painter and politician Sam Brown, in a 1965 letter to the Gleaner, questioned Edna Manley’s suitability, as a light-skinned, foreign-born woman, to determine how Bogle should be represented: “Paul Bogle’s statue depicts a fear-ridden, harried and hunted undersized field slave, about to invoke his master’s pardon for being a truant. […] It takes a black mind to comprehend dignity, fear or courage in the stature of a black man, even as the akete of Congo is remote from the waltz of Vienna, so are the minds of the European and the African.” A 1971 letter to the Gleaner editor by West Rural St Andrew MP Emile Joseph, who hailed from St Thomas, expresses some of the community concerns in equally pointed terms and laments that with the decisions about the statue being made unilaterally by the authorities in Kingston:

We only know one picture of Paul Bogle, the same as that which appears on our $2 bill. The monstrosity placed before the Court House to us is an insult. To begin with, no one ever knew of Bogle dressing in the manner the symbol portrays in Morant Bay, and no one has ever seen a Jamaican, whether labourer or otherwise, carrying a machete in the manner depicted in the present statue. […] We have been referred to as cultural ignoramuses [but o]ne thing I know is that the people of St.Thomas are fully aware of their history, justly proud of it, will defend it at all times and will not allow anyone, I repeat, anyone, to try to distort it in any way or fashion.

The latter quote also expresses a strong preference for the photographic image as the sole legitimate image of Bogle. It is easy to see why: the man in the photograph is handsome, youthful and self-assured, and, dressed in a three-piece suit, presents an image of Black middle-class respectability and comfortable leadership. The sculpture, on the other hand, represents Bogle as bare-chested and -footed – a type of representation that, despite Edna Manley’s quite different intentions, is strongly associated with a lack of conventional social status in Jamaica. Just think of the “no shoes, no shirt, no service” signs in many shopping plazas and commercial establishments.

The anthropologist Peter J. Wilson, in a 1969 essay, proposed that there are two competing value systems in Caribbean popular culture that determine individual status, what he labelled as “respectability” and “reputation”. The former represents status in the formalized hierarchies and notions about propriety of the middle class – the pastor, the teacher, and the civil servant – and the Church while the latter represents status in the informal, action-driven world of the poor, and, specifically, poor black men (and, less commonly, women), who live outside of “the system” and depend on braggadocio to establish their status – the don, the deejay, the “badman”, and the rebel. These competing concepts are also closely associated with how leadership is understood. While Jamaica’s official and unofficial national heroes, especially the rebel-leaders among them, were initially exemplars of “reputation”, their national consecration introduced them into the realm of respectability and the public seems to expect to see this represented visually. This does not mean that the two value systems are entirely mutually exclusive and Caribbean politicians often tread a difficult line, trying to reconcile both. Prime Minister Holness’ controversial adoption of the “Brogad” epithet perfectly illustrates the appeal of “reputation” in politics but his recent official Christmas photograph with his family was the epitome of aspirational respectability. As for the presumed representations of Bogle: the photograph represents him as respectable with, perhaps, just a hint of reputation in the self-assuredness, while the sculpture elides the codes of respectability altogether.

Dr Veerle Poupeye is an art historian specialized in art from the Caribbean. She works as an independent curator, writer, researcher, and cultural consultant. Her personal blog can be found at

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