Remembering Tom Redcam: Jamaica's first Poet Laureate - The National Library of Jamaica

Remembering Tom Redcam: Jamaica’s first Poet Laureate

In celebration of the birthday of Tom Redcam – 147 years ago today – we remember the legacy of Jamaica’s first Poet Laureate. J.E.Clare McFarlane once wrote that ‘any consideration of the poetry of Jamaica must, of necessity, begin with Tom Redcam‘.

Tom Redcam (Thomas MacDermot)

 

Thomas Henry MacDermot was born the third of five children in Arthur’s Seat, Clarendon on June 26, 1870. Growing up poor in Falmouth, he displayed both a love of reading and a gift for writing at an early age.

“He could not entertain the idea that life could be dull. Such a feeling he thought was the result of not realising that the mind has within itself whole continents of interest” (J.E. Clare McFarlane, Introduction to Orange Valley and Other Poems, pg xv)

After teaching for some years at the York Castle High School, Tom MacDermot opted to pursue a career in journalism. He came to Kingston to work as assistant editor of the ‘Jamaica Post’, then went on to be a special reporter at the Gleaner, before becoming head editor at the ‘Jamaica Times’ – a position he held for 22 years. A prolific writer, under the pseudonym Tom Redcam (which is MacDermot spelled backwards), his creative work gained him recognition as a great poet. However, Redcam never published a collection of his poetry in his lifetime.

Themes of patriotism and love of his native land recur throughout Redcam’s poetry. He was resolute in his commitment to Jamaica and the welfare of its people. One of his most well-known compositions, ‘O Little Green Island Far Over the Sea’, tells of his longing for home while in England – where he was led to remain for the last 11 years of his life due to illness.

“of the poetry that is undeniably Jamaican in its impulses, that draws its life and colour from Jamaica’s sun and air, its streams, its blue skies, its wooded hills and flower-filled valleys, Tom Redcam is the founder…” (Rupert Miekle, The Daily Gleaner, November 25, 1933).

At that time, the position of Poet Laureate was administered by the Poetry League of Jamaica. The Poetry League was established a branch of the Empire Poetry League, which had its headquarters at Abbey House, Westminster, London. It was fellow poet J.E.Clare McFarlane, the League’s founder and President, who championed the effort to bestow the honour on Redcam.

Before he could be receive the honour however, Redcam died in London, after a period of illness, on October 8, 1933. He was made Poet Laureate posthumously in October 1933 at a function held at the Ward Theatre, presided over by the Mayor of Kingston.

 

A clipping announcing the death of Tom Redcam from the Daily Gleaner, October 10, 1933

 

 

from The Daily Gleaner, November 2, 1933

 

Read two of Redcam’s most beloved poems below.

 

The Guava

 

I am the guava – never yet was I stranger here;

When by the eye of History found our Island did appear,

Columbus saw, like globes of gold, my fruit amid the green

That hung the Arawak village by, beside the Manioc’s sheen.

There near me, by the Cacique’s home, the Cotton burst and blew,

In snowy tufts, potatoes trailed, and red Annatto grew.

Not yet, on those wide plains of ours stung by the salt sea-spray,

Did logwoods to the dawning year gold flower tribute pay;

Not yet, amid the blue-robed heights of our famed watching hills,

Did the white blossom star slopes where the mournful trills

Of the lonely Solitaire were heard, nor yet did Bamboos sigh

Where, on the wide Savannah’s breast, swooning deep rivers lie;

They later came to vale and plain, sea-line and hill defile –

But I, the Guava, knew the land from its first dawning smile.

(from ‘The Torch-Bearers II’, Orange Valley and Other Poems, 1951)

 

 

O, LITTLE GREEN ISLAND FAR OVER THE SEA

 

O, little Green Island, in far away seas,

Now the swift Tropic shadows stride over thy leas,

The evening’s Elf-bugles call over the land,

And ocean’s low lapping falls soft on the strand.

Then down the far West, towards the portals of Night,

Gleam the glory of orange and rich chrysolite.

Day endeth its splendour; the Night is at hand,

My heart growth tender, dear, far away land.

 

For England is England, the strong and the true,

Whose word is her bond in her march through the blue;

For England is England, who mothers my soul,

Truth, bare in its glory, with her deep self-control.

With red in her flag, the white and the blue.

For England is England, brave, patient and true.

 

But my little Green Island, far over the sea,

At eve-tide, Jamaica, my heart turns to thee;

Then the querulous Hopping Dick seeks for repose,

On the white, winding roadway the lone peasant goes;

Pass flocks of swift White Wings, aslant the air way,

Where the West is aflame with the embers of Day.

Orion’s gemmed blade shall soon flash from the sky;

And the great Southern Cross shall be lifted on high.

 

Here I lie in great London, in her hugeness I rest;

An atom least heeded, I lie on her breast.

O London is London; she mouldeth the fate

Of the Mighty to ruin; to triumph, the great;

For London is London, she sitteth on high,

On her multiple ways do her millions pass by;

And Order, sure Order, is the pulse of her will;

Not till Day draweth nigh doth her labour grow still.

 

But my little Green Island, far over the sea,

At eve-tide Jamaica, my heart is with thee.

(from Orange Valley and Other Poems, 1951)