The spy who loved Jamaica

Ian Fleming was so enamoured of Jamaica that he set three of his James Bond novels there. Matthew Parker reveals how these books reflect the changes overtaking the beautiful island-colony in the dying days of empire...

A portrait of Ian Lancaster Fleming, the creator of the character James Bond

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Live and Let Die (1954)

For Ian Fleming, there was much more to Jamaica than sun, sea and sand. Part of what first attracted Fleming to the colony was its antique social structure. In 1946, when he built his house, Goldeneye, on the island, it almost could have been a hundred years earlier, during the heyday of empire.

Although a House of Representatives had been established, real power still lay firmly in the hands of the British governor. In addition, the people of Jamaica seemed to show the white British elite a deference that had been lost at home and elsewhere in the empire. Ramsay Dacosta, who worked as a young man as a gardener for Fleming, says: “We were scared, kind of shy of going near white people. If they say something to you harsh and so forth.” For empire nostalgists like Fleming, then, Jamaica seemed a delicious slice of the old imperial certainties.

There is a timelessness, too, about Live and Let Die, Fleming’s second novel, written at Goldeneye in early 1953 (and published in 1954). Ostensibly it is a Cold War story: a Soviet agent-cum-Harlem gangster, Mr Big, is smuggling gold from Jamaica to fund a communist spy ring in the United States. Bond is sent first to America, then to Jamaica to take him on. But really it is an old-fashioned boy’s own-style adventure story, complete with voodoo, killer centipedes, a damsel in distress and a literally larger-than-life “megalomaniacal” villain. The gold being smuggled, it turns out, is the legendary hoard of ‘Bloody Morgan’, Jamaica’s most infamous pirate.

Bond loves Jamaica, not just for its luxuriant beauty, but also for what he sees as its innocent backwardness, how it seems uncontaminated by the materialism he so hates in America. When he flies in from the United States, Fleming tells us: “Bond was glad to be on his way to the soft green flanks of Jamaica and to be leaving behind the great hard continent of Eldollarado.” At Negril, on Jamaica’s west coast, “nothing has happened since Columbus … Jamaican fishermen have taken the place of the Arawak Indians, but otherwise there is the impression that time has stood still”.

Bond’s sidekick in Jamaica is Quarrel, a figure again from an earlier, simpler time. He is an ‘innocent’ with a “reverence for superstition and instincts, and childish faults”. Fleming describes their relationship as “that of a Scots laird with his head stalker; authority was unspoken and there was no room for servility”. It is Fleming’s ideal of a colonial relationship.

Michael Manley
Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley walks through Spanish Town with a group of children at the time of Jamaica’s independence celebrations, c1962. (Photo by George Freston/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Dr No (1958)

By the time Fleming came to write his second Jamaican novel, in 1957, much had changed. Most importantly, there had been the disaster at Suez in 1956. “In the whole of modern history I can’t think of a comparable shambles created by any single country,” Fleming wrote to a friend. His neighbour in Jamaica Noël Coward saw it as the end of “good old imperialism” and the “British empire, a great and wonderful social, economic and even spiritual experiment”.

In Jamaica, significant power had been handed over to elected representatives, and the election of 1955 had seen the victory of the PNP, the more leftwing and pro-independence of the two parties. Its leader, Norman Manley, was committed to ending what he saw as the values of the plantation – the unthinking deference epitomised by Fleming’s Quarrel character.

Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of the local secret service officer Strangways and his secretary. Strangways had been looking into suspicious activities on an island, Crab Key, off the Jamaica coast. Here, a sinister Chinese man, Dr No, had established a guano business as cover, it turns out, for a plan to send American test missiles off course, then sell them to the Russians or Chinese.

The novel opens with what at first appears to be an admiring description of one of Kingston’s smartest streets, where the ‘best’ people live, on which is situated Queen’s Club (based on the real-life Liguanea Club), the “social Mecca of Kingston”, a large, handsome building surrounded by tennis courts and sprinkler-fed lawns. Here Strangways is playing bridge with three other stalwarts of white colonial rule.

Then comes a bombshell. Fleming suddenly declares: “Such stubborn retreats will not long survive in modern Jamaica. One day Queen’s Club will have its windows smashed and perhaps be burned to the ground.” Next, three beggars appear. They “would not have been incongruous in Kingston, where there are many diseased people on the streets,” Fleming writes, “but, in this quiet rich empty street, they made an unpleasant impression”. They murder Strangways, then the significantly named Mary Trueblood, Strangways’ secretary, in a scene Fleming describes with lascivious relish: “A man stood in the doorway… It was a big Negro… There was a gun in his hand. It ended in a thick black cylinder. Mary Trueblood opened her mouth to scream. The man smiled broadly. Slowly, lovingly, he lifted the gun and shot her three times in and around the left breast.”

But if the white colonial masters are under threat, it is in part their own fault. The governor is a time-server – “all he wants is to retire and get some directorships in the City”, Bond is told – King’s House, the centre of colonial rule, has been infiltrated by a spy, everywhere there is complacency, incompetence and drift. Although Bond wins the day, of course, the Jamaica of Dr No is an unsettling depiction of imperial decay.

The Man with the Golden Gun (1965)

Fleming returns Bond to Jamaica in his last novel, The Man with the Golden Gun, written in 1964, by which time Fleming’s Bond-like consumption of alcohol and cigarettes had put his health in a parlous state. Once again, it is a very different place.

In early 1958, Jamaica had been part of the launch of the West Indies Federation, a political grouping of the British West Indian islands, which had been promised Dominion status within a few years. When this collapsed, Jamaica went it alone, achieving independence in August 1962.

Both Norman Manley and Jamaica’s first prime minister under independence, the JLP’s Alexander Bustamante, had gone out of their way to declare their allegiance to the west. This was a live subject, as not far from Jamaica’s north coast, Fidel Castro had established a Soviet-aligned communist regime in Cuba.

This new threat provides the context for Bond’s mission. He is to assassinate Scaramanga, the hitman of the book’s title and “possibly the fastest gun in the world”. Working for the Cuban and Soviet secret services, Scaramanga has recently been responsible for the deaths of a number of British agents in the Caribbean.

Bond infiltrates his enemy’s operation and discovers that Scaramanga, together with a group that includes American gangsters and a KGB agent, has on Castro’s orders been organising “cane burning and other small sabotage” on the lands of the West Indian Sugar Company (a division of Tate & Lyle). The aim is to increase the price of Cuba’s sugar crop. There are also plans to bribe a government minister into agreeing to allow casinos to be established. “This’ll be a cheap way of raising plenty of hell,” Scaramanga tells the KGB man. “That’s what your people want, isn’t it? Give the islands the hot foot one after another?”

Bond loves Jamaica as ever, calling it “the oldest and most romantic of former British possessions”. Best of all, he finds, reassuringly, that everyone he comes across in a position of authority – the boss of the sugar plantations, the manager of the hotel – is actually still British. Black Jamaicans, in theory now the masters, figure only as entertainers, waiters or comically self-important officials.

“For all her new-found ‘Independence’,” Bond muses, “he would bet his bottom dollar that the statue of Queen Victoria in the centre of Kingston had not been destroyed or removed to a museum as similar relics of an historic infancy had been in the resurgent African states.” The apostrophes are significant. Fleming is in denial: the independence of Jamaica is presented as something of a sham. Bond and the CIA operate there with no recourse to local authorities. The empire may be over, but reassuringly, Fleming suggests, its spirit is alive and well in Jamaica.


A brief history of Jamaica

c600 AD Taíno ‘Indians’ originally from South America colonise Jamaica. At the time of first European contact, there were up to 50,000.

1494 Columbus lands on Jamaica’s north coast. He declares it “the fairest island eyes have beheld”. The Spanish colonise Jamaica from 1509.

1655 As part of Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Western Design’, English troops attack Jamaica. Guerilla warfare follows until the final defeat of the Spanish at the battle of Rio Neuvo in 1658.

1692 An earthquake all but destroys Port Royal, British America’s second biggest city after Boston, and home of the infamous buccaneers. Two thousand inhabitants are killed.

1730s In the Maroon Wars, fighting between communities of runaway slaves living in the interior and British troops ends in stalemate.

1831 The Christmas Rebellion, the largest of all Jamaica’s many slave revolts. More than 300 slaves are hanged in retribution, but it has become apparent that slavery is no longer tenable and it is abolished later that decade.

1865 The Morant Bay Rebellion. Protests about hardship turn to riots, so brutally suppressed by Governor Eyre and the planter-dominated government that there is outrage in Britain. Eyre is sacked and London assumes control of the colony.

1938 Widespread protest and strikes lead to the formation of new trade unions and the creation of the People’s National Party (PNP) under Norman Manley, dedicated to achieving self-government.

1944 Full adult suffrage is granted. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), led by Alexander Bustamante, wins the general election. Britain starts the slow process of handing over power.

1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act ends mass migration to Britain. Jamaica wins independence within the Commonwealth, and joins the United Nations.


The Ian Fleming file

Full name: Ian Lancaster Fleming

Born: 28 May 1908, London

Died: 12 August 1964, Canterbury

His life: Fleming, whose father was killed in the First World War, attended Eton and Sandhurst, though did not complete either. First a journalist for Reuters, he then became a stockbroker before being recruited to Naval Intelligence at the beginning of the Second World War.

In 1942, Fleming visited Jamaica for an Anglo-American conference and fell in love with the island. In 1945 he started work as foreign manager at The Sunday Times. From 1946 until the end of his life, he spent two months a year in Jamaica, at Goldeneye, the house he built on the north coast.

On his trip in 1952 he married his long-time lover, Ann Rothermere, and also wrote his first Bond novel, Casino Royale. Each subsequent annual visit would produce another novel or collection of stories.

The books sold well. Then, in 1961, it was revealed that Fleming was one of President Kennedy’s favourite authors. A year later, Dr No, the first Bond film (shot partly in Jamaica) was released. Fleming suddenly found himself a megastar. However his love of alcohol and cigarettes meant that he hardly lived long enough to enjoy his success.

His best-known works: Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger and Dr No

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Matthew Parker is a historian and author, whose works include Monte Cassino (Headline, 2004) and The Sugar Barons (Hutchinson, 2011).