Uriah Theodore McKay 1872-1949 - a biographical article by Jimmy Carnegie
CLAUDE McKAY'S BIG BROTHER, U. THEO McKAY, (1872 - 1949) by JIMMY CARNEGIE
Uriah Theodore McKay (better known as U. Theo) was already eighteen - an adult by many of our current social measurements - when his youngest brother, Claude was born in 1890. Their parents were not at all typical of rural black Jamaicans. Thomas Francis McKay, who married Hannah Ann (nee Edwards) in 1870 - little more than a generation after Emancipation and a mere five years after the Morant Bay Rebellion - had the vote, which in those days indicated not only clear and fluent literacy but also the ownership of property. Claude completed a potential sporting eleven of the McKay family which had begun with Uriah Theodore in 1872.
U. Theo was to be a surrogate father and a considerable influence on Claude during what were really formative years. In 1891, the year after Claude was born, U. Theo went off to Mico Teacher's College. He became in later years one of the best examples of 'the Mico man", a type which has made an immense impression on the country, especially in rural Jamaica.
After graduating from Mico, U. Theo probably taught in elementary schools in or near Kingston. Drawing on Claude McKay's My Green Hills of Jamaica, Wayne Cooper tells us that in 1897 U. Theo paid one of his infrequent visits to Sunny Ville, the family home in James Hill, Clarendon. That U. Theo's visits home were infrequent need not suggest that there was any filial estrangement. In those days, and many years later, when transportation within Jamaica was difficult and inordinately time-consuming, it was not unusual for members of a family to be away from their parents for several years. (My own father, in the early 1920s, after leaving Jamaica College where he had been a boarder, went to work in Morant Bay and did not see his parents who lived at the other end of the island, in Westmoreland, some four or five years after that.)
U. Theo's visit home in 1897 was to be seminal in the life of Claude, because their parents were sufficiently impressed with U. Theo to entrust the seven-year-old Claude to his care. U. Theo was going off to teach in rural St. James. With eight surviving children, the McKays may well have been glad to pass over the rearing of the youngest to the oldest of them all. According to My Green Hills, for "about seven years" from some tune "in [his] sixth year" Claude lived with U. Theo and his wife. Cooper observes that the confidence in U. Theo as a surrogate parent and educator "was not misplaced".
U. Theo and his wife were socially conservative. Claude was made to wear shoes, and was forbidden to ride bareback. He was required instead to learn to ride properly like the upper class children of the area. U. Theo was certainly strict on Claude, though Cooper notes that to Claude he was less forbidding than their father.
As a child, U. Theo had received private tuition from English missionaries, William Hataway and James Saunders, at the Bunyan School. As a young man at Mico he gained honours in his first year while also covering some extra subjects. U. Theo received a formal academic education in the natural sciences, mathematics, music and the humanities, with a grounding in Latin and French. One can perhaps see in his early education the source of the assurance with which he spoke and wrote on public issues in later life.
Wayne Cooper writes:
"An exceptionally able and well placed black such as U. Theo could reasonably expect to rise in the island's social structure. A tall broad-shouldered well-built young man with a keen mind, irrepressible self-assurance and abundant energy. U. Theo in the late 1890s stood on the threshold of a long and bril- liant career. He would eventually emerge as a highly successful planter, politician and civic leader well- known throughout Jamaica."
The assessment probably needs just some adjustment based on local knowledge. Much of U. Theo's achievement came because the "island's structure" was in large part restrictive; he and others worked to build institutions to tackle that very problem.
U. Theo's career included more than fifteen years teaching in rural Jamaica, almost half of these in Mount Carey in St. James and the rest back in his native Clarendon. He taught even after he had gone into farming (like his father) and had obtained property of his own. This was to become the foundation of his future life.
U. Theo, though a church leader, was an agnostic. His unusual private library, to which Claude was given access, contained many works by free thinkers such as Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. At Mount Carey U. Theo and his wife entertained many church people, including the rector; and one imagines there were some lively discus- sions. But U. Theo was politically shrewd enough, even in those early days, not make his views on religion public. As a head teacher he could not afford to offend the church; and he genuinely admired the culture of the church, especially its music. Claude was to claim that among U. Theo's achievements as a promoter of cultural activity (not the least of his claims on our attention as a significant figure in Jamaican life) was that he was the first person to arrange a performance of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" in rural Jamaica.
U. Theo was also the organiser of "An Evening With Jamaican Writers" in 1912. (Let us remember that we are talking about pre-World War I North Clarendon, not Urban Kingston, Mandeville, Montego Bay or even Port Antonio - which in those days were the scene of much tourist, business, and therefore expatriate activity.) In the early 1940s, when U. Theo - then close to 70 - organised another literary evening in Clarendon, be featured the young Louise Bennett. One wonders how many Jamaicans in his age group, or of his general background, would have taken such a step.
By 1904 U. Theo and his family had returned to Clarendon and had acquired enough money to lease a large estate called Palmyra. He is supposed to have rented some of it to local peasants, and Cooper describes him as "generating a whirlwind of excitement by energetically plunging into the management of his new estate.' This was a man who was later to be a fruit agent involved with the famous Jamaica Banana Producers Association. He was also to become a Vice-President of the significant Jamaica Agricultural Society (the J.A.S.) and to serve in several other organizations.
Some of these other organizations helped to make U. Theo eminent as though they were mostly parochial in nature, they were also to have national impact. He became the leading figure in both the Clarendon Old Boys' and the Frankfield Citizens' Associa- tions. U. Theo had become an elected member of the Parochial Board in 1912, but was to make his mark more as a community leader and activist than as a politician. He helped lay the groundwork for much that was to follow in Clarendon over the next quarter century and more. Clarendon produced J.A.G. Smith, probably the most im- portant legislator before 1944 and a figure considered by many to be worthy of National Hero status. Other notables from Clarendon included Sam Rumble, a legendary "roots" land reformer; Major Moxsy, a frequent newspaper contributor; and Edwin Allen (also from the Frankfield area) who became Minister of Education. Giants such as Sir Alexander Bustamante and Hugh Shearer became adopted sons of Clarendon.
U. Theo was a complex figure. Surprisingly for such an activist, he was a noted member of the Government's Conciliation Board, very probably the one set up after the labour troubles of 1919. His house was full of magazines and newspapers from England and, like any orthodox English upper-class gentleman, he informed Wbo's Who in Jamaica 19 12-24 that he was a member of the Times Club of London.
He had become independent enough, financially, to leave teaching in 1910, before he was 40. In 1911 he published in the Jamaica Times a letter in defence of the labourers who worked on the roads and railways. (The railways were to become a radical hotbed.) In later years U. Theo did more than contribute to the newspapers - he made the news himself on several occasions, and was recognised as one of the leading unofficial voices of rural Jamaica if not indeed the island.
In 1919, in a widely publicised statement, he objected to the Government's trying to discourage political discussions at J.A.S. branch meetings. U. Theo said that these meetings were precisely where "small men" should be given the opportunity to "pontifi- cate" on political and related matters. This was the kind of view that earned him praise from DeLisser in the Gleaner for developing "national" spirit at Frankfield. (DeLisser and the Gleaner were very much against Sir Leslie Probyn, the Governor of the day.)
In 1922 - some twenty-two years before the new constitution of 1944, bringing adult suffrage and the first national elections featuring political parties - U. Theo, on the platform of the Jamaica People's Association, advocated self-government. His state- ment does not seem to have caused much of a stir though, unlike some of the other "radicals" of the time, U. Theo could not have been dismissed as a man of little substance or as eccentric ( like some of his substantial associates in the J.P.A. such as Jack Palache and John Soulette).
In 1935, just after the period of Marcus Garvey's greatest local impact, and at a time when Rastafarianism was growing, U. Theo McKay claimed publicly - with consider- able coverage - that colour bitterness was caused more by the whites than by the coloured people in Jamaica. It was a brave truth, coming from a "respectable" leader, a man then over 60 and something of a patriarch in his community.
Finally, we can look at U. Theo's continued correspondence with his brother - which may have influenced the development of both. U. Theo made direct and indirect contributions to the education of Claude. In addition to providing an intellectual environment for the budding writer, he provided Claude with an important opportunity to develop his articulation, by having him serve as a young assistant teacher. Claude in turn, in later life, encouraged U. Theo in cultural activity, specifically writing - though he asked him not to write anything for Mary Gunard, whose anthology of essays on black culture appeared in 1934. She had been given "glowing hospitality" by U. Theo when she visited Jamaica, but no written work by either U. Theo McKay appeared in the anthology. There was, however, a picture of U. Theo, by then a man of considerable girth.
U. Theo treated Claude as an intellectual peer. The tone of the correspondence between the brothers suggests that U. Theo was not given to pulling rank, despite his greater age and experience. In a 1929 letter to Claude quoted by Cooper, U. Theo wrote: "I believe in independence, especially intellectuall independence." He continued "I still stand as a free man where revealed religion is concerned. Try as I may, I cannot regard the teaching of priest and pulpit as anything but superstition."
U. Theo seems to have seen it as his duty to keep Claude up to date with what was happening in Jamaica. In a letter to Claude in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression in both the United States and Jamaica, U. Theo reported that his own earnings as a fruit agent had dropped by some 90%; yet he was able to keep the balance of the teacher and thinker. At present,' he wrote, "we are going through a very severe depression the equal of which has not been experienced as far as the memory of living man records. Very heavy winds hit us in November followed by drought that was [as] prolonged as it [was] intense. ..[Tjhe immediate future shows little or no better prospect. World conditions" - note the lack of parochialism in the man from North Clarendon - "are not only appalling but very puzzling. It is rather a strange phenomenon that prices should fall so dramatically now, that there should be so much unemployment in spite of the terrible destruction caused by the Great War. And yet the world seems to be more given to sport than ever and life is not held sacred as heretofore.'
There was, as we know, almost a full century between the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865 and the granting of political Independence to Jamaica in 1962. During much of that time, the teacher, the parson and the agricultural instructor were to be perhaps the most important pillars of rural life. U. Theo McKay was to be important in education, in church affairs (although he was not a believer), and in agriculture. He was a businessman, a politician, a cultural promoter, and (perhaps most important ultimately) a community leader who had national impact. His work in Clarendon clearly opened the way for others. Claude McKay, on whom he had considerable influence intellectual- ly, has become something of a father-figure in two related and significant literatures, West Indian and Afro-American. There has been a brother, also deserves some attention.
My Green Hills of Jamaica by Claude McKay (Kingston: Heinemann Caribbean, 1979), pp. 13-22.
Claude McKay: Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance by Wayne C. Cooper (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), pp. 7-8, 11, 13-20, 28, 49, 57, 64, 282-3. In these sections, Cooper relies heavily on Claude McKay's My Green Hilts of Jamaica for the factual information.
Some Aspects of Jamaica's Politics 1918-1938 by James Carnegie (Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1973), pp. 27, 73, 100,109, 116, 122, 138, 164. Carnegie relies heavily on the Jamaican newspapers of the day, especially the Daily Gleaner and The Jamaica Times.
Who's Who in Jamaica, 1921.4, p.168 Entry on U. T.