Bogle versus Jennings: Another Perspective

The presumed photograph of Paul Bogle

This article was originally published, in two parts, in the Jamaica Monitor, now Monitor Tribune, of September 4 and 11, 2022.

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.

Mr 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 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, using often 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 license.

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 from the moment it was unveiled, for several reasons. 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.

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.” (1965, 19). 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 thread 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.

Edna Manley’s Bogle at the National Gallery of Jamaica in 2010

As it needed urgent conservation, Edna Manley’s Bogle statue was in 2009 removed from its location in front of the burnt-out Morant Bay Courthouse to the studio of the sculptor Fitz Harrack, now deceased. The return of the restored statue has however then been resisted by activist members of the Morant Bay community, who have also its replacement with another statue, based on the photograph. The National Gallery of Jamaica’s exhibition Edna Manley’s Bogle: A Contest of Icons (2010) at the National Gallery of Jamaica sought to intervene into this debate. In this exhibition and the accompanying catalogue, the then Chief Curator David Boxer advocated for the acceptance of Edna Manley’s Bogle as the main representation of Bogle, and by implication its return to Morant Bay, and raised questions about the authenticity of the photograph.

The photograph which has served as the official image of Paul Bogle was first brought to the attention of the Jamaican public on the front page of the Sunday Gleaner of April 19, 1959, during the heady years around Federation and, ultimately, Independence, when ideas about how to represent Jamaican nationhood and history were being actively considered. The photograph had been discovered by W.G. Ogilvie, a member of the Jamaica Historical Society, who had retrieved it from Mr Reuben Ewen of Spring Gardens in St Thomas, whose grandmother was a niece of Paul Bogle and in whose family the photograph was preserved as a portrait of him.

The same photographic image was, at least to my knowledge, first used to represent Thomas L. Jennings by BET about a decade ago, as part of a Black History Month feature. If memory serves me well that was after the National Gallery’s Contest of Icons exhibition. It may well be Boxer’s questioning of the authenticity of the photograph as a representation of Bogle that created the opportunity for it to be “captured” as an image of Jennings.

There are technical and historical reasons why it is improbable that the photograph represents Thomas L. Jennings, who died in 1856 at age 65. Tintype photography was invented in 1853, when Jennings was already elderly, and only became commonly used in the 1860s and 70s, or well after Jennings’ death, as an affordable and more democratic alternative to earlier photographic technologies. Since the photograph furthermore represents a relatively young man, it is practically impossible that it is of Jennings. Paul Bogle, on the other hand, died in 1865 at age 43, around the time tintype photography first became available in Jamaica. The man in the photo could be that age, but the photograph is not entirely consistent with a contemporaneous description of Bogle, which describes his face as “pock-marked” (although this would not necessarily be visible in a formal photographic portrait.)

The photograph’s belated attribution to Jennings may, quite ironically, stem from the same impulse as the attribution of the photo to Bogle: the desire to attach a credible and engaging likeness to a historical figure of note. And somehow it stuck, even in Jamaica, perhaps because we tend to give more credence to claims made in the USA than in Jamaica itself. However, unless BET, or any other parties that have used the photograph as a portrait of Jennings, can provide incontrovertible evidence we can safely assume that their identification is wrong, for the technical and historical reasons outlined above. And, unless I missed something, we have as yet seen no such evidence.

While photograph’s identification as being of Bogle himself may have been a bit hasty, it is unlikely that the story published the front-page story published in the Sunday Gleaner of April 19, 1959, was some elaborate hoax. We can safely assume that the story about the retrieval was substantially accurate and that the photograph at least originated in Bogle’s family. David Boxer actually suggested that it may represent a younger Bogle family member, rather than Bogle himself, which would explain the figure’s youthful appearance. It has however not been ruled out that the image may indeed be of Bogle himself. The long and short is, thus, that the photo may or may not be of Bogle, but it is almost certainly not of Jennings.

Part of the problem is that the original tintype photograph, which was, it was reported in 1959, deposited at the Institute of Jamaica, is missing and that only copies are available at the National Library of Jamaica. If it is still around, it would be in Jamaica’s interest for the original photograph to be found and studied, as this would provide important information, such as the name and address of the photographic studio where the photo was taken and whether it originated in Jamaica or in the USA, that would provide a sounder basis for the identification issues to be cleared up. It would also confirm whether the original photograph was in fact a tintype, which has significant implications for its dating.

Until then, however, Jamaica faces the uncomfortable situation whereby the legitimacy of a well-established and well-liked image of a National Hero has been put into question. It is unrealistic, I believe, to expect that the Edna Manley Bogle can take its place, as that representation has been too controversial, especially in the Morant Bay community, for it to gain broadly shared acceptance. How a new, more consensual image of Bogle could be arrived at, especially with competing and contesting representations already in circulation, is however a question I cannot answer.

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