Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

"Now We Know": The Trial of Roger Mais and Public Opinion in Jamaica, 1944

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

"Now We Know": The Trial of Roger Mais and Public Opinion in Jamaica, 1944

Article excerpt

In 1944, as Britain and her allies were fighting against Fascism in NaziGermany and the axis, British colonials in Jamaica were agitating to end imperialism at home. On 11 July 1944, in the face of a new constitution consolidating British rule, Public Opinion, a progressive Jamaican newspaper, published an article written by nationalist agitator Roger Mais that began:

Now we know why the draft of the New Constitution has not been published before. The authors of that particular piece of hypocrisy and deception are the little men who are hopping about like mad all over the British Empire implementing the real official policy, implicit in the statements made by the Prime Minister [Winston Churchill] from time to time.1

That man of brave speeches has told the world again and again that he does not intend the old order to change; that he does not mean to yield an inch in concessions to any one, least of all to people in the Colonies. Time and again he has avowed in open Parliament that, in so many words, what we are fighting for is that England might retain her exclusive prerogative to the conquest and enslavement of other nations and she will not brook competition in that field from anyone.2

On July 12, the police seized the "Now We Know" manuscript in a raid on Public Opinion's office.3 On the next day, Mais' family home was also raided.4 The searches yielded fifteen summonses, five each, against City Printery and Osmond Theodore (O.T.) Fairclough, publisher and editor of Public Opinion respectively, and Mais.5 Along with seditious libel against the British and Jamaican governments and Churchill, the defendants were charged with breaching the Defence Regulations by publishing an article "that unlawfully tried to influence public opinion in a manner likely to be prejudicial to the conduct of the war".6

Public Opinion's major shareholders included several middle-class liberals and it favoured progressive ideas such as self-government, universal suffrage and constitutional change.7 That the paper published an article criticising Churchill's war policy as being aimed at the continued subjugation of British colonies was not surprising. Neither was the charge under the Defence Regulations. Fairclough, the managing editor, was acquitted, but Mais' six- month jail sentence and the company's £200 fine were upheld by the Court of Appeal.

This paper explores the prosecution and convictions of Mais and City Printery during World War II for speech that criticized both imperialism and the war. Mais was convicted on evidence revealing neither a "genuine threat" nor a "clear and present danger" to the war's success. The paper contextualizes his prosecution within the national movement that began in the 1930s and continued until independence in 1962.

In the absence of an official record of the trial in the lower court, the author juxtaposes coverage in two newspapers - the conservative Gleaner,8 and the progressive Public Opinion9 - to follow Mais' trial. There was no coverage of the trial in other contemporary newspapers.10 For the Court of Appeal's decision, the author buttresses the official report11 with news reports of the day.

A Review of the Literature

Most references in the literature to Mais' conviction focus on its impact on his later work. Journalist Winston Wright notes images of accused men being "stripped and scourged" in jail in Mais' first published novel, The Hills Were Joyful Together, written shortly after his release from jail.12 Wright suggested that middle-class Jamaicans were not familiar with the decadence, "misery, frustration, inequity in social justice" in the Jamaican yard that Mais portrayed.13

Daphne Morris, in a short biography on Mais' life, while noting that he was "deeply affected by the human degradation" he witnessed during his four months in prison, only briefly recorded Mais' relationship with the national movement.14 On the other hand, Bill Carr, while acknowledging Mais' contribution to the People's National Party (PNP), which by 1944 was at the forefront of the nationalist movement, did not see this connection as "a necessary context for a discussion of his significance as an artist". …

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