“Patriotism… is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime,” as quoted by former United States Presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. And with a lifetime of dignified and distinguished service to Jamaica and the wider Caribbean, Professor the Hon. Ralston Milton ‘Rex’ Nettleford, established himself as the quintessential Caribbean patriot, whose contributions will forever be etched into the annals of the region’s history.
National patriot, cultural ambassador, international scholar, dancer, teacher, orator, critic and mentor; Professor Nettleford, arguably the Caribbean’s most eminent intellectual, was born on February 3, 1933 in Bunkers Hill, Trelawny in very modest living conditions. A very modest person himself, Nettleford rarely confided stories of his humble upbringing, but on a few occasions did speak of having to wear one pair of pants for the entire school week, then smartening up the garment for church on Sunday. In spite of all that, Nettleford persevered, holding his head high and focussing on his education, which he had been taught was the key to success and social advancement.
After earning a scholarship to Cornwall College, where he pursued secondary level studies, he maintained such a stellar academic record that upon graduating, he was one of a few students awarded a scholarship to the University College of the West Indies (now the University of the West Indies). Signs of Nettleford’s talent for choreography and dance were also evident during his time at Cornwall, having choreographed and participated in several school dance routines.
Nettleford began his over fifty year relationship with the University College of the West Indies in 1953, as he pursued a Bachelor’s degree in History, for which he obtained first class honours. For his stellar academic record throughout his course of study, he was awarded the Rhodes Scholarship, with which he pursued an MPhil post-graduate degree in Politics at the University of Oxford in London, England.
Returning to the island in 1959, he was immediately recruited by his mentor and founding father of the University College of the West Indies, Sir Phillip Sherlock, to head the college’s Extra-Mural Department (later the School of Continuing Studies), through which it sought to expand its influence both locally and regionally. He was also made Staff Tutor for the Eastern Caribbean.
A committed academic, Nettleford did not allow the new appointments to dull his research abilities, and immediately immersed himself in a study of the Rastafarian movement entitled, The Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica, alongside other noted Caribbean scholars, M.G. Smith and Roy Augier. This one of a kind study, published in 1961, was later credited with helping to give credibility to a social group which hitherto had been construed as vagrants and social outcasts.
In founding the Trade Union Education Institute at the University College, which he also headed, in 1964, Nettleford further proved that he sought to improve the lot of the nation’s underprivileged. The institute focussed on uniting factory workers, farm workers and other unionised workers with scholars, to help articulate the former’s interests.
In 1962, Nettleford gave life to another of his visions by founding the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC), an ensemble which focused on fusing together traditional Jamaican music, dance and rituals within the European balletic framework. He acted as its artistic director and prinicipal choreographer until his death in 2010. Using the NDTC he re-introduced several traditional religious rituals to Jamaica, including Pocomania and Kumina, portraying them as creative artistic expressions, and not solely abstract pieces of history. In doing so Nettleford believed the survival of Jamaica’s cultural retentions would be ensured, and the progression towards a national identity would be fostered.
The exploration of a Caribbean cultural identity would become one of Nettleford’s favourite subjects, and it dominated several of his academic pursuits. Giving a brief overview of the text, Rex Nettleford, His Works: An Annotated Bibliography, author Albertina Jefferson states, “Nettleford’s importance to the Caribbean derives from the fact that his master project in life has been the decolonisation of the Caribbean spirit and imagination. His writings and lectures reflect a profound conviction in the creative power of the peoples of the region, a power struggling to unleash itself from the conjunction of historical and neo-colonial forces.” That Jefferson’s text dedicates 194 pages to listing his scholarly works is a clear indicator of his academic prowess. Additionally, through his collection of essays entitled Mirror, Mirror, and his editing and compiling of the speeches and writings of Norman Manley, Manley and the New Jamaica, in 1971, Nettleford would establish himself as a serious public historian and social critic.
The legendary oratorical skill for which Nettleford was known, was often characterised in much the same terms as his dancing, namely a careful choreography of ideas which sought to captivate the imagination, as well as one’s sensibilities. This talent kept him in high demand well into his last days.
For his contributions to nation building, Nettleford was awarded the Order of Merit in 1975, even as he rose in stature at the University of the West Indies (UWI) due to his continued academic contributions. He was appointed Deputy Vice Chancellor of the institution in 1986, and served in this capacity until 1998, when he was appointed Vice Chancellor. His appointment became a historic moment for the University as Nettleford was the first ever graduate of the institution to do so. He acted in this capacity until 2004, when he retired, but continued to serve the university as Vice Chancellor Emeritus, Professor of Cultural Studies and advisor to the succeeding Vice Chancellor, E Nigel Harris.
Nettleford holds the distinction of having been called upon by virtually every Government in the Caribbean throughout his career, and has also acted as a consultant for numerous international organisations, including CARICOM, the Organization of American States, UNESCO, the International Labour Organisation, the World Bank, and the international Development Research Council, of which he was a founding director.
He has also received several honourary degrees from Universities all over the world, including the University of Toronto, and the University of Oxford, whose Oriel College made him one of its Fellows, of which there were only 69 at the time of his induction.
In 2008, Nettleford was awarded the Caribbean region’s highest honour, the Order of the Caribbean Community (OCC) for his years of dedicated service as a regional ambassador. This award cemented Nettledford as the quintessential Caribbean citizen and international cultural icon.
Continuing to work and travel well into his twilight years, Nettleford maintained a hectic schedule of speaking engagements and UWI-related activities. On January 27, 2010, while in Washington DC, United States, assisting with a fundraising activity for the University of the West Indies, Nettleford was admitted to the George Washington University Hospital after suffering a heart attack. After spending several days in the hospital’s intensive care unit, Nettleford died on February 3, four hours before his 77th birthday.
With a life story that has been characterised as a modern day rags to riches story, and a litany of academic and artistic achievements that have inspired countless individuals, Ralston Milton ‘Rex’ Nettleford has left an indelible mark on the history of Jamaica and the entire Caribbean. In describing his legacy it seems that no other words are more fitting than, “Rex Nettleford, a nation, his monument.”
Honours and Awards
Adapted from “Rex Nettleford, His Works: An Annotated Bibliography” edited by Albertina Jefferson, 1999.
- Student of the Year, University College of the West Indies, 1954/55
- Issa Scholarship, and Rhodes Scholarship for Jamaica, 1957
- International Labour Organisation Fellowship (Labour Education), 1967
- Associate Fellow, Centre for African and Afro-American Studies, University of Atlanta, 1970
- Founding Governor, International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada, 1970
- JAYCEES of Jamaica Outstanding Young Jamaican Award, 1972
- Order of Merit (OM), 1975
- Thelma Hill Dance Award, New York, for dance, ’Men In Black’, 1981
- Institute of Jamaica’s Gold Musgrave Medal Award for 1981 in the field of Arts (Dance), 1981
- Award of Honour, Joint Trade Union Research Development Centre of Jamaica, 1983
- Fellow, Institute of Jamaica (FIJ), 1989
- Living Legend Award from the Black Arts Festival, Atlanta, Georgia, 1990
- Pelican Award from the Guild of Graduates of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Jamaica, 1990
- Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation Award in the field of Culture and Arts for outstanding contribution to the advancement of Public Welfare, 1992
- Marcus Garvey Award from the Jamaica National Movement New York Inc, 1993
- Zora Neale Hurston/Paul Robeson Award from the national Council for Black Studies Inc., USA, 1994
- Sir Shridath Rampaul Award for Cultural Posterity presented by Irvine Hall at Culutrama 1995, UWI, Mona, 1995
- Trinidad and Tobago folk Arts Institute’s Citation, 1995
- Caribbean Writers Award, Carifesta VI, Trinidad and Tobago, 1995
- Order of the Caribbean Community (OCC), 2008
- Chancellor’s Medal of the University of the West Indies, 2009