JO - Knighthoods have long passed their 'best-before' dates
Knighthoods have long passed their 'best-before' dates
Saturday, October 20, 2007
WHEN Kenneth Hall was appointed governor general, it seemed that Jamaica had taken another step towards ridding itself of one of the most visible symbols of British colonial baggage - the knighthood.
It was refreshing to see at last someone bearing a title - Professor - that he had actually earned by his own efforts.
It resulted from swotting night after night, sitting exam after exam, and then working his way up the ranks at the region's flagship institution of learning, which stands in stark contrast to being conferred with a musty, tradition-encrusted title, redolent of old European class structures and bearing little relevance to a modern, post-colonial nation of predominantly African origin.
It came as no surprise, but with some resignation and the stifling sensation of 'here we go again', to learn that the eminent professor would now join the ranks of the previous governors general and become a Knight of Her Majesty's Realm. Ironically, the news came in the very same paper that carried the story of the newest inductees into the various orders of honour and merit, which this country very properly instituted after gaining independence.
Even though Jamaica has produced its share of Sir This and Sir That over the years, it always had the air of an artificial artifact grafted onto the body politic, rather than something which sprang naturally and organically from that body. Jamaicans, of course, love spectacle and grand titles, so it was not without enthusiasm that they greeted the Sir business and the panoply of MBEs, OBEs and the other mentions in the various King's or Queen's honours lists, together with the fancy uniforms and plumed hats.
Man, indeed, does not live by bread alone. We do need sustenance for the mind, the soul and the spirit. Honours and titles fulfil the feeding of the spirit, something that the British learned early on and have exploited to the maximum.
That is why people in that country are honoured every year with honorifics they can put before their names or letters they can add after.
Other countries do the same thing, with varying levels of enthusiasm and importance attached to them.
The institution of knighthood goes way back into human antiquity, being based on man's relationship with horses and the military. The ancient Greeks often added the words for horse to their name to denote nobility.
The Mongol raiders descended on their targets on horseback, as did the Assyrians, the Huns, the Cossacks and the myriad other warrior groups who relied on the speed and stamina of equine animals to accomplish their bloodthirsty ends. They developed codes of conduct to separate themselves from ordinary mortals who went about their business on foot and, quite often, in their service.
Most of the names used to describe knights in various languages at various periods of history are derived from descriptions of riders or horsemen. France has its Chevaliers, the Hispanic countries Caballeros or versions thereof, Germany its Ritters, and so on. Many European countries still have some form of knighthood, although the military connotation has long shrivelled away.
It remains strongest in Britain, and alas, among many Commonwealth countries, although in several while you may accept honours from other countries, you cannot use the associated titles. There was a celebrated case in Canada a few years back when a pompous and bombastic newspaper proprietor named Conrad Black wormed his way into the British establishment by buying one of its major newspapers, The Daily Telegraph.
He cosied up to the Conservatives who were then running the government, and soon found himself nominated for a seat in the House of Lords. But he stumbled on a small hurdle - an obscure Canadian legal precedent which prohibited Canadian citizens from doing such a thing.
Black, through his creation, the Toronto-based National Post, had criticised almost everything Jean Chrétien's Liberal government had done, and was also stridently critical of what he saw as Canada's underperformance in comparison with the great powers based in London and Washington. Chrétien invoked the obscure law and in a huff, Black renounced his Canadian citizenship in 2001 and became a Brit in order to sit in the upper house as Lord Black of Crossharbour. (Right now he is cooling his heels in an expensive mansion in Florida while awaiting sentencing by a court in Chicago after he was found guilty of business irregularities.)
In our case, the first contacts with the knights of the British realm were not auspicious - they were, for the most part, thieves, cut-throats and brigands. People like Henry Morgan, who began his career as a buccaneer, raiding Spanish and Dutch outposts in the Caribbean and Central America before being taken to England in chains. When things again heated up with the Spanish, he was knighted and sent to Jamaica, where he became a wealthy planter and deputy governor.
Then there was the infamous John Hawkyns, who was the first Englishman to traffic in slaves. He became treasurer of the Royal Navy and was knighted for his service while battling the Spanish armada. He linked up with another privateer who made good in the eyes of the British crown, Francis Drake, and died in Puerto Rico during one of the voyages with him.
Those were rough times, the men were rough and the British crown liked what rough men accomplished, so the knighthoods came without hesitation. Nowadays, they grant knighthoods to people who climb mountains, like the Everest conquerors, John Hunt and Edmund Hillary (though not the Nepalese Sherpa guide, Tensing Norgay), a long line of movie and stage stars, and musicians like Neville Marriner, Simon Rattle and Paul McCartney.
After 45 years of independence, it is long past the time when Jamaicans should be represented at the highest level by someone bearing a foreign-bestowed title - in fact, there shouldn't even be such a post as governor general, who doesn't exist in his or her own right, but as a stand-in for an unelected English woman who heads the former colonial power.
The founders of independent Jamaica were still too tied to the British skirt-tails to cut themselves totally free, and subsequent leaders have tied themselves in knots rather than get on with the business of building indigenous social systems with appropriate symbols such as a president who swears allegiance to the Jamaican people.
But if they haven't been able to foster the development of a modern economy, and a healthy social structure, why should we expect them to do the much easier symbolic things? Well, at any rate, we now have Bruce, who, it seems, understands these things. Will he, as they say, be able to bell the cat?