Ian Fleming on Jamaica and Race Relations

On July 4,1952, Ian Fleming wrote ‘Pleasure Islands?’ for The Spectator shortly after completing the draft of Casino Royale, in which he discusses race relations in Jamaica.

Article by Revelator; first published here.

pleasure-islandsThere are several notable things about this article, starting with the date. Perhaps it’s true that “after forty it is difficult to start a new life,” but Fleming had obviously just begun a new life as a writer.

When Fleming wrote this, the Caribbean was a far more exotic and remote place. At first Fleming seems to have taken his own advice about laying off booze in the tropics, though by the early 60s he’d descended into alcoholism. Was he complimenting himself when he praised the Scots for being naturally patient and sober, wonderful colonisers, and possessing hardy and absorbing inner lives?

Though non-Bondian, this article carries several characteristic themes familiar from the novels: German-bashing, accidie (Fleming’s favorite sin), and the eccentric wonders of flora and fauna (the “zing of crickets” is a phrase reused five years later in Dr. No).

Lastly, we come to what might grab modern readers’ attention most–the racial attitudes. On one hand, Fleming preaches a message of embracing racial/cultural differences and tries to calm his white readers’ fears about black sexuality. But his praise of blacks (“they are loyal to good employers and sober and honest”) is also somewhat backhanded (“unless sorely tempted, but when they fall they fall heavily and far”).

And then we get sentences like “without patience you cannot live and work with coloured people,” followed by undeniably racist observations such as

“most black races have more fears than the whites” and “their physical strength is often undermined by weak nerves, and this makes them an easy prey to sickness or fear.”

Ian Fleming with gardener Felix Barriffe

Ian Fleming with gardener Felix Barriffe (Image Copyright: Island Trading Archive)

The praise about blacks having better sight, hearing, and sixth-sense will likely not please modern readers either.

In discussing these racial attitudes, we should take in mind that Fleming’s statements were deemed perfectly acceptable and publishable in a sophisticated mainstream magazine in 1952. His attitudes are thus of his time and class. For readers in the monocultural Britain of 1952, blacks were an exotic species, to be observed in the mock-anthropological manner Fleming used here and in Live and Let Die.

In retrospect, it seems ludicrous to make observations about an entire race of people based on the observations of lower class inhabitants of a small island, but Fleming and his audience had a view of the world that now seems as remote from our own as Jamaica did to Fleming’s readers.

Incidental Intelligence

Dr. No – The Turning Point In Fleming’s Bond?

Reflections in a Golden Eye

Dr. Jamaica Calling ‘Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica’ by Matthew Parker

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3 thoughts on “Ian Fleming on Jamaica and Race Relations

  1. I find this constant analysis and targeting of Fleming as a racist to be somewhat bizarre.
    For a man of his time, Fleming did more to embrace other cultures than just about anybody writing main stream fiction.
    He promoted Jamaica in a very positive way. He employed black people and featured black characters in his books both as heroes and villains.
    You have to remember the context. I attended a British boarding school in the early sixties that had one black pupil !
    Frankly, Fleming should be praised for opening up society.

  2. Hello David,
    I don’t think anyone on this site has constantly targeted Fleming as racist. And while I also get tired of other folks constantly lambasting Fleming as a hateful monster, some of his attitudes were undoubtedly racist (as pointed out in the above article). They might have been of their time, but Fleming’s contemporaries (Ambler, Greene, and even Waugh) don’t seem to have written as many problematic passages.
    It’s very much true that Fleming positively promoted Jamaica and featured black characters in his books, but Matthew Parker’s Goldeneye shows the limitations in his portrait of Jamaica and its black citizens.

    I can understand why fans get upset about discussions of Fleming’s racial attitudes, because many critics and journalists–many with no understanding of Fleming and a lot of deal ill will–charge racism in order to render Fleming’s work useless. The term is used to shut down any conversation about Fleming. I think we would all benefit if we proceeded differently by acknowledging instances of racism and then asking what its causes are and considering its relative effects. That would lead us into a deeper look at his work, and would perhaps remind some that a book like Live and Let Die is hardly as toxic as The Birth of a Nation.

    • Fair comment but I never found anything in Fleming that was not ‘of its time’.
      The irony is that I’m sure Ian would have considered himself a progressive in this regard.

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