Bob Marley: The Untold Story

Excerpted from Bob Marley: The Untold Story by Chris Salewicz, published in paperback in June 2011 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Chris Salewicz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


The Caribbean island of Jamaica has had an impact on the rest of the world that is far greater than might be expected from a country with a population of under three million. Jamaica’s history, in fact, shows that ever since its discovery by Christopher Columbus, it has had a disproportionate effect on the rest of the world.

Book: Bob Marley: The Untold Story

Author: Chris Salewicz

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Publication date: 2011-06

Format: Paperback

Affiliate: (Faber and Faber, Inc.)

Image: the seventeenth century, for example, Jamaica was the world centre of piracy. From its capital of Port Royal, buccaneers under the leadership of Captain Henry Morgan plundered the Spanish Main, bringing such riches to the island that it became as wealthy as any of Europe’s leading trading centres; the pleasures such money brought earned Port Royal the reputation of ‘wickedest city in the world’. In 1692, four years after Morgan’s death, Port Royal disappeared into the Caribbean in an earthquake. However, a piratic, rebellious spirit has been central to the attitude of Jamaicans ever since: this is clear in the lives of Nanny, the woman who led a successful slave revolt against the English in 1738; of Marcus Garvey, who in the 1920s became the first prophet of black self-determination and founded the Black Star shipping line, intended to transport descendants of slaves back to Africa; of Bob Marley, the Third World’s first superstar, with his musical gospel of love and global unity.

Jamaica was known by its original settlers, the Arawak peoples, as the Island of Springs. It is in the omnipresent high country that resides Jamaica’s unconscious: the primal Blue Mountains and hills are the repository of most of Jamaica’s legends, a dreamlike landscape that furnishes ample material for an arcane mythology.

On the north side of the Blue Mountains, in the parish of Portland, one of the most beautiful parts of Jamaica, is Moore Town. It was to the safety of the impenetrable hills that bands of former slaves fled, after they were freed and armed by the Spanish, to harass the English when they seized the island in 1655. The Maroons, as they became known, founded a community and underground state that would fight a guerrilla war against the English settlers on and off for nearly eighty years.

When peace was eventually established, the Maroons were granted semi-autonomous territory both in Portland and Trelawny, to the west of the island. In Moore Town was buried the great Maroon queen, Nanny, who led her people in battles in which they defeated the English redcoats. Honoured today as a National Hero of Jamaica, Nanny’s myth was so great that she was said to have the ability to catch musket-balls fired at her – in her ‘pum-pum’, according to some accounts.

Jamaica has always been tough. The Arawak peoples repulsed invasions by the cannibalistic Caribs who had taken over most of the neighbouring islands. Jamaica was an Arawak island when it was discovered in 1494. ‘The fairest island that eyes have beheld; mountainous and the land seems to touch the sky,’ wrote Columbus, although he may not have felt the same nine years later, on his fourth voyage to the New World. In St Ann’s Bay, later the birthplace of Marcus Garvey, Columbus was driven ashore by a storm, and his rotting vessels filled with water almost up to their decks as they settled on the sand of the sea-bed.

Later placed into slavery by the Spaniards, the Arawaks were shockingly abused, and many committed suicide. Some were tortured to death in the name of sport. By 1655, when the English captured the island, the Arawaks had been completely wiped out.

Even after the 1692 earthquake, piracy remained such a powerful force in the region that a king’s pardon was offered in 1717 to all who would give up the trade. Many did not accept these terms, and in November 1720 a naval sloop came across the vessel of the notorious pirate ‘Calico Jack ’ Rackham anchored off Negril, in the west of Jamaica. Once the crew was overpowered – with ease: they were suffering from the effects of a rum party – two of the toughest members of Rackham’s team were discovered to be women disguised as men: Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who each cheated the gallows through pregnancy.

Those Jamaican settlers who wished to trade legally could also make fortunes. Sugar, which had been brought to the New World by Columbus on the voyage during which he discovered Jamaica, was the most profitable crop that could be grown on the island, and it was because of their importance as sugar-producing islands that the British West Indies had far more political influence with the British government than all the thirteen American mainland colonies.

Sugar farming requires a significant labour force, and it was this that led to the large-scale importation of African slaves. For the remainder of the eighteenth century, the wealth of Jamaica was secured with the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession: one of its terms was that Jamaica become the distribution centre for slaves for the entire New World. The first slaves shipped to the West Indies had been prisoners of war or criminals, purchased from African chiefs in exchange for European goods. With a much larger supply needed, raiding parties, often under the subterfuge of engaging in tribal wars, took place all along the west coast of Africa. The horrors of the middle passage had to be endured before the slaves were auctioned, £50 being the average price.

Although the money that could be earned was considerable compensation for the white settlers, life in Jamaica was often a worry. There were slave revolts and tropical diseases. War broke out frequently, and the island was then threatened with attack by the French or the Spanish – Horatio Nelson, when still a midshipman, was stationed on the island. Hurricanes, which invariably levelled the crop, were not infrequent; and earthquakes not unknown. In the late seventeenth century Kingston harbour was infested with crocodiles, but it should be said that in those days inhabitants of the entire south coast of the island always ran the risk of being devoured by them.

Despite such disadvantages, it has always been hard for Jamaica not to touch the hearts of visitors, with its spectacular, moody beauty. The island contains a far larger variety of vegetation and plant life than almost anywhere in the world (as it is located near the centre of the Caribbean Sea, birds carrying seeds in their droppings fly to it from North, Central, and South America). Jamaica’s British colonisers added to this wealth of vegetation, often whilst searching for fresh, cheap means of filling the bellies of its slaves. The now omnipresent mango, for example, was brought from West Africa, and it was on a journey across the Pacific to bring the first breadfruit plants to Jamaica that the mutiny on the Bounty took place.

Slavery was eventually abolished in 1838. From the 1860s, indentured labour from India and China was imported; the Indians brought with them their propensity for smoking ganja, itself an Indian word (interestingly, sometimes spelt ‘gunjah’), as well as the plant’s seeds. In the 1880s, a new period of prosperity began after a crop was found to replace sugarcane – the banana. In 1907, however, this new prosperity was partially unhinged by the devastating earthquake that destroyed much of Kingston. The economy recovered, and the next wave of financial problems occurred in the late 1930s, as the worldwide depression finally hit the island. A consequence of this was the founding of the two political parties, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) under Alexander Bustamante and the People’s National Party (PNP) under Norman Manley, which would spearhead the path towards independence in 1962.

On 6 August 1962 Jamaica became an independent nation. The Union Jack was lowered and the green, gold, and black standard of Jamaica was raised. Three months previously, the JLP had won a twenty-six-seat majority and taken over the government under Prime Minister Bustamante. Paradox is one of the yardsticks of Jamaica, and it should be no surprise that the Jamaica Labour Party has always been far to the right of its main opposition, the People’s National Party.

Beneath this facade of democracy, the life of the ‘sufferah’, downcast in his west Kingston ghetto tenement, was essentially unchanged. In some ways things were now more difficult. The jockeying for position created by self-government brought out the worst in people. Soon the MPs of each of the ghetto constituencies had surrounded themselves with gun-toting sycophants anxious to preserve their and their family’s position. In part this was a spin-off from the gangs of enforcers that grew up around sound systems: back the wrong candidate in a Jamaican election and you can lose not only your means of livelihood, but also your home – and even your life. Political patronage is the ruling principle in Jamaica.

During the 1960s, Jamaican youth, who felt especially disenfranchised, sought refuge in the rude-boy movement, an extreme precursor of the teenage tribes surfacing throughout the world. Dressed in narrow-brimmed hats and the kind of mohair fabrics worn by American soul singers, rude boys were fond of stashing lethal ‘ratchet’ knives on their persons, and bloody gang fights were common. Independence for Jamaica coincided with the birth of its music business; in quick succession, ska, rock steady, and then reggae music were born, the records often being used as a kind of bush telegraph to broadcast news of some latest police oppression that the Daily Gleaner would not print.

An Island of Heaven and Hell

In 1972, after ten years in power, the JLP was voted out of office. Michael Manley’s People’s National Party was to run Jamaica for the next eight years. Unfortunately, Manley’s efforts to ally with other socialist Third World countries brought the wrath of the United States upon Jamaica, especially after the prime minister nationalised his country’s bauxite industry, which provides the raw material for aluminium – and had been previously licensed to the Canadian conglomerate Alcan.

A policy of destabilisation began that turned Jamaica into a battle-ground, especially after Manley was returned to power in December 1976 in the subsequent election. Soon the country was almost bankrupt. Bob Marley played a part in attempting to restore peace, forcing Manley and his opposition rival, Edward Seaga, to shake hands publicly at the 1978 One Love Peace Concert in Kingston, and bringing opposing gunmen together. But the 1980 election, won by Edward Seaga, in power until 1989, was the bloodiest of them all.

The story of Jamaica is that of an island that can be simultaneously heaven and hell – as indeed described in the Bob Marley song ‘Time Will Tell’, in its line ‘Think you’re in heaven but you’re living in hell’.

In recent years, a measure of peace seems to have been brought to the island. A positive relationship with the nearby United States has been forged, and there is a previously unsurpassed national pride, following the Jamaican soccer team’s qualification for the 1998 World Cup and an unprecedented run of successes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Still, the story of Jamaica is that of an island that can be simultaneously heaven and hell – as indeed described in the Bob Marley song ‘Time Will Tell’, in its line ‘Think you’re in heaven but you’re living in hell’; a country that could suffer the devastating economic bullying of the United States’ Caribbean Basin Initiative during the 1970s but that now, against expectations, is experiencing economic growth and a resultant rise in self-esteem that lets it serve as a model for developing nations in the first years of the twenty-first century. And at least its inhabitants rarely forget that Jamaica is a land whose blessings are surely God-given.

Bob Marley is seen by the world as the personification of the rebellious island nation of Jamaica – not without considerable justification. For Bob Marley was a hero figure, in the classic mythological sense. From immensely humble beginnings, with his talent and religious belief his only weapons, the Jamaican recording artist applied himself with unstinting perseverance to spreading his prophetic musical message; he only departed this planet when he felt his vision of One World, One Love, which was inspired by his belief in Rastafarianism, was beginning in some quarters to be heard and felt. For example, in 1980, the European tour of Bob Marley and the Wailers played to the largest audiences a musical act had ever experienced there. And as much as the late Bob Marley continues to personify Jamaica, so he also embodied the soul of what the world knows as the odd, apparently paradoxical religion of Rastafari, the only faith uncritically accepted globally as an integral aspect of popular music.

Bob Marley’s story is that of an archetype, which is why it continues to have such a powerful and ever-growing resonance: it embodies, among other themes, political repression, metaphysical and artistic insights, gangland warfare, and various periods in a mystical wilderness. It is no surprise that Bob Marley now enjoys an icon-like status more akin to that of the rebel myth of Che Guevara than to that of a pop star. And his audience continues to widen: to westerners, Bob’s apocalyptic truths prove inspirational and life-changing; in the Third World, his impact is similar, except that it goes further. Not just amongst Jamaicans, but also amongst the Hopi people of New Mexico and the Maoris of New Zealand, in Indonesia, in India, even – especially – in those parts of West Africa from which slaves were plucked and taken to the New World, Bob Marley is seen as the Redeemer figure returning to lead this planet out of confusion. Some will come out and say it directly: that Bob Marley is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ long awaited by much of the world. In such an interpretation of his life, the cancer that killed Bob Marley is inevitably described as a modern version of the crucifixion.

Although the disease probably did have its origins in assorted injuries to his right foot, conspiracy theories still persist. Was Bob’s body poisoned still further when going for medical check-ups in Babylonian cities, such as London, Miami, and New York? Were his hotel rooms or homes bombarded with cancer-inducing rays? Or, more simply, was Bob’s system slowly poisoned by the lead from the bullet that remained in his body after the 1976 attempt on his life? (All of these were suggested to me by his mother as possible causes of her son’s death.)

Prior to the US leg of the Uprising tour in the autumn f 1980, Bob Marley had been given a complete physical examination, allegedly passing with flying colours –though this is odd, as the musician was certainly in the latter stages of suffering from cancer. In Miami, before the tour kicked off, he played a game of football for America Jamaica United against a team of Haitians, in which his fluid skills seemed unabated.

But yes, you think, the cancer probably was the consequence of the injuries to his foot. And then you remember that this was a time when the forces of darkness thought nothing of killing a woman such as Karen Silkwood, who was endeavouring to expose a nuclear risk. How much more must they have been threatened by a charismatic, alternative world leader who in widely accessible popular art was delivering warnings about the wickedness of the world’s institutions?

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Timothy White, the author of Catch a Fire, the wonderful Bob Marley biography published in 1984, the extent of the CIA files on Bob has become widely known. Chris Blackwell, who signed Bob to his Island Records label, had personal experience of this. ‘There are conspiracy theories with everything, especially out of Jamaica, because Jamaicans have such fertile imaginations. The only thing I will say is that I was brought in by the American ambassador in Jamaica to his office, and he said that they were keeping an eye on me, on what I was doing, because I was working with this guy who was capable of destabilising. They had their eye on him.’

Bob’s end was very sad. After his collapse whilst jogging in New York’s Central Park on 21 September 1980, he received radiation treatment at the city’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; his locks fell out, like a portent.

Even confronted by a future of such grim uncertainty, Bob Marley managed never to lose his wry view of life. Two weeks after his collapse, his death was being reported in the US media; he put out a statement in which his characteristic dry sense of humour was clearly still in evidence: ‘They say that living in Manhattan is hell, but …’

With a similar attitude, he strove to make light of his illness to his children. Whilst he was being treated in New York, they flew up from Jamaica to see him at the Essex House hotel on Central Park South, where he habitually stayed when in Manhattan. ‘He told us what was wrong with him,’ said Cedella. ‘His hair was gone. We were like, “Where’s your hair? ” He was making it to be such a big joke: “Oh, I’m Frankenstein.” We said, “That’s not funny.”

‘I knew Daddy had a bad toe, because I would have to clean it sometimes. But I just thought it was a bad toe. I didn’t expect anything else but for maybe the nail to come off.’

By November 1980, the doctors at the Sloan-Kettering admitted they could do no more. A number of alternative cures were considered: the apricot kernel therapy attempted by the actor Steve McQueen; a spiritual cure by journeying to Ethiopia; a simple return home to Jamaica – though this plan was abandoned when the island was seen to be in the grip of the most violent general election it had ever known.

After the options had been weighed up, Bob travelled to Bavaria in West Germany, to the Sunshine House Cancer Clinic in Bad Wiessee. A holistic centre, it was run by the controversial Dr Josef Issels, a former SS officer. Issels only took on cases that had been proclaimed incurable, and he claimed a 20 percent success rate.

The environment, however, was hostile and alien. The house of the dread who would never tour Babylon during the winter months was surrounded by thick snow. Bob would go to Issels’s clinic for two hours of treatment each day then return to spend time with the several visitors who flew in to be with him – his mother, his wife, members of the Wailers, old friends. Much of his time was spent watching videotapes of soccer matches, particularly those played by the Brazilian team.

But Bob never stopped songwriting. He seemed to think he could make it. His weight went up and for a time he seemed in better spirits. But the sterile, picture-postcard atmosphere of Bad Wiessee hardly nurtured Bob’s soul. ‘It was a horrible place,’ thought Chris Blackwell. ‘It must have been very disorientating for him. He had virtually no hair, just scraggly bits, and was so thin: he must have weighed a hundred pounds or something like that. He looked terrible. But there was something … He was still so proud. He chatted for a bit. He was very strong somehow still.’ 6

The atmosphere where he was staying was even worse: vicious psychological warfare was taking place between, as Mortimer Planner, the Rastafarian elder, described it, ‘the Orthodox and Twelve Tribes factions’. It seems demeaning to everyone involved, including Bob, to describe this in further detail. Sufficient to heed Planner’s words: ‘A terrible misunderstanding has gone on. For all these people loved Bob.’

He developed a craving for plantain tarts, and it was arranged for a carton of them to be flown to him from Jamaica. Before they arrived, he decided he wanted to go home. He had had enough of Bad Wiessee. He knew what was going to happen. Bob Marley asked Chris Blackwell to rent him a plane. Blackwell said he would send one for him immediately. ‘But even then, Bob hadn’t lost his sense of humour,’ smiled the Island Records boss. ‘Bob always thought I was kinda cheap, so he said, “ Don’t send me one with propellers now.”’

Accompanied by two doctors, Bob was flown across the Atlantic. He made it no further than Miami.

Judy Mowatt, one of the I-Threes, was at home on the morning of 11 May 1981. A little after 11.30 she heard a loud clap of thunder and saw lightning fork through a window of her house and flash on a picture of Bob on the wall. And Judy knew exactly what this foretold.

At a little after 11.30 a.m., in the Cedars of Lebanon hospital in Miami, Bob surrendered his soul to the Almighty Jah.

Chris Salewicz’s writing on music and popular culture has appeared in publications around the globe. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer (Faber and Faber, 2007).

© Chris Salewicz