The Life of Marcus Garvey, A Jamaican Activist


Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican political activist. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). He was a Pan Africanist.

Garvey was born to a middle-class family in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. As a teenager, he was an apprentice in print media. He worked in Kingston and was involved in trade unionism. Marcus Garvey founded the UNIA in 1914, and in 1916, he relocated to the United States and established a UNIA branch in New York. He emphasized the unity between Africans both at home and in the Diaspora. While on his numerous travels, he joined his voice in clamoring for an end to colonial rule across Africa. He also advocated for a unification of the continent.

Early Life

Marcus Garvey was born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, on 17th August 1887. He was born into the family of Malchus and Sarah Garvey. His father was a stonemason, while his mother was a domestic servant.
Their family was wealthier than most of their neighbors because of his father’s profession. However, his father spent recklessly and lost most of his Lands and assets as a result. Being self-educated, he also served occasionally as a layman at the local Wesleyan church.

His father was strict and never had a close relationship with his children. At age 14, Marcus Garvin attended a local Church School. Because his family couldn’t afford the fees, he couldn’t pursue his education further. When not in school, Marcus Garvey seized the opportunity and helped his uncle on his farm.

In 1905, Marcus Garvey moved to Kingston. He joined the print division of P.A. Benjamin Manufacturing Company. He rose quickly through the ranks, becoming their first African foreman. His sister and mother moved to join him in Kingston.

In January 1907, a terrible earthquake hit Kingston’s city, and the city was reduced to nothing but rubbles. As a result of the destruction that followed, his mother and sister had to sleep in the open for several months. His mother died in March 1908. While in Kingston, Garvey became a catholic.

Trade Unionism

Garvey soon became a Trade Unionist. He played a prominent role in the print workers’ strike in 1908. Several weeks afterward, the strike ended, and Garvey was dismissed from work. This reputation of being a troublemaker affected his chances of getting another job in the private sector. However, he secured employment with a government printer. These developments and experiences caused Garvey to become increasingly discontent with the inequalities in Jamaican society.

Marcus Garvey joined the National Club. He became the first assistant secretary in 1910. The group mobilized to oust the British governor of Jamaica. They also planned to put an end to the migration of Indian workers to Jamaica. They saw the Indians as a source of competition to the indigenous of Jamaica.
Together with another club member, Wilfred Domingo, Garvey published a pamphlet to express the group’s ideas and challenges.

In 1910, due to economic difficulties in Jamaica, many migrated elsewhere. In 1910, Marcus Garvey traveled to Costa Rica, where an uncle helped him secure employment in a large banana plantation owned by the united fruit company (UFC). Upon his arrival, there was unrest in opposition to the company’s attempt to cut workers’ wages. Although his duty was to oversee the workers’ activities, Marcus Garvey was unhappy with the way they were treated.

In 1911, he launched a newspaper that criticized the actions of the UFC. This struck a nerve with people in Costa Rican society’s dominant strata, and he was brought for questioning. Soon afterward, he closed the newspaper.

Marcus Garvey traveled through central America, undertaking casual work to support his travel. While in Panama, incorporated a newspaper called “La Prensa.” In 1911, Marcus Garvey took ill, suffering from a bacterial infection. He traveled to London, the administrative center of the British Empire, to advance his education.

In the spring of 1912, he visited the House of Commons, where he was impressed by David Lloyd George’s politician. He was also frequent at the Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, where he began to speak. At that time, there were only a few thousand black people in London. These were often seen as exotic and mostly worked as laborers. Garvey got some work at the city’s dock. In August 1912, his sister Indiana joined him in London, working as a domestic servant.

In 1913, Marcus Garvey became a messenger and handyman for the African times and Orient review. Duse Mohamed Ali was the editor of this magazine. He also took several law classes at Birkbeck College in Bloomsbury.

Back in London, he put up an article on Jamaica for the tourist magazine. Most of the time, he was reading in the library of the British Museum. In the museum, he discovered “Up from Slavery,” a book written by Booker Washington. Booker Washington was an African-American entrepreneur and activist.

Forming the UNIA

Marcus Garvey arrived in Jamaica again In July 1914. on arrival, he noticed his article for tourist republished in “the Gleaner.” He sold greeting cards and condolence cards which he had imported from Britain.

Also, in July, Gavin launched the universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). It declared its commitment to establish unity and Brotherhood among the black race. At inception, the group had just a handful of members. Many Jamaicans criticized the frequent use of the term “Negro,” a derogatory term often used to refer to people of African descent.

Marcus Garvey became the group’s president and traveling commissioner. At Inception, the group operated out of his Kingston hotel room. The group portrayed itself as a charity organization and not a political group.

In August 1914, Marcus Garvey attended a meeting of the Queen Street Baptist Debating Society. He met Amy Ashwood, a recent graduate from the Westwood training college. She teamed up with UNIA and secured better office space for them to use as their headquarters. She started a relationship with Garvey, to the displeasure of her parents. In 1915, they were secretly engaged. When she suspended the relationship, he threatened to commit suicide. She pleaded with him and resumed the relationship.

Marcus Garvey secured donations from many prominent patrons. These include the Mayor of Kingston and the Governor of Jamaica. He bypassed the middle class and appealed directly to Jamaica’s white elite.


Black Christianity

Grant Colin described “Garveyism” as a circular movement with a strong undertone of religion. Marcus Garvey had a vision of a form of Christianity specifically designed for black people. Reflecting on his own exposure to Catholicism, he wanted this religion to be as close to Roman Catholicism as possible. He had attended the foundation ceremony of the African Orthodox Church in Chicago. This church preached the orthodox tradition of Christianity with an emphasis on racism.

Reception and legacy

As a polarizing figure, Marcus Garvey was both admired and hated. Grant Colin noted that people’s views about him were divided into two groups. The first Group portrayed him as a charlatan, and the second group portrayed him as a saint and protagonist. By the time Marcus Garvey returned to Jamaica in the 1920s, he was about the most popular black man worldwide.
The Size and Scope of the UNIA have also attracted attention. Mark Christian described Garvey as the leader of the largest black mass movement in modern history. Marcus Garvey’s ideas influenced many black people who never identified with the UNIA.


Influence on Younger Africans


Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, said in a publication that Marcus Garvey’s book titled “Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey” inspired him the most. Nkrumah went ahead to name Ghana’s national shipping line “The Black Star Line.” The Ghanaian national team is also nicknamed the Black Stars.

In the U.S., Marcus Garvey faced a lot of criticism from prominent political figures. Many of these belonged to the African-American community and left-wing organizations. He was notably unpopular among the elites of the African-American community, perhaps out of envy. Perhaps they envied him because he attracted great support from the black masses. Or, they were concerned that he was leading them astray. Some critics regarded him as an idealist; some called him an egotist and a charlatan.

Some critics mocked him often because of his outfits and the bogus titles he gave himself. Some African-American middle-class members were also concerned that his violent language incited his followers to carry out violent acts.

Influence on political movements
In Jamaica, the people generally forgot Marcus Garvey in the years following his death. However, the Rastafari religious movement revived interest in him. His wife Jacques wrote a book about him after finding that no publishers were interested in it; she published it herself.

In 1962, when Jamaica became independent, the government recognized Marcus Garvey as a national hero. In 1975, the famous reggae artist Burning Spear released an album in his honor.

In the 1960s, interest in Marcus Garvey’s ideas was revived. Independent states began to spring up in Africa, and a movement emerged in the United States called the “Black Power Movement.” Marcus Garvey played an important role in encouraging Africans to see the African diaspora as an integral part of their own political destiny. His message gave an important psychological boost to African leaders clamoring for independence from colonial rule.



Related Posts

Illuminating the Promise of Africa.

Receive captivating stories direct to your inbox that reveal the cultures, innovations, and changemakers shaping the continent.