John Barnes

The footballer traces his grandfather’s central role in the campaign for Jamaican independence

John Barnes

The footballer traces his grandfather’s central role in the campaign for Jamaican independence.


Growing up, John Barnes thought of his maternal grandfather, Jamaican journalist and broadcaster Frank Hill, as a little dull, a man who was always reading or typing. Football mad, the youngster, who went on to win 79 caps for England after coming to live in the country as a youngster, identified far more closely with his sporty father, a senior soldier who captained Jamaica’s national soccer team.

As John will discover, though, he has more in common with Frank than he initially realises. He begins his research by visiting his mother in Jamaica, where he learns that Frank and John’s great-uncle, Ken, were arrested and interned in 1942. Why? John learns that Frank, Ken, and their fellow activists Richard Hart and Arthur Henry, aka ‘the four Hs’, were nationalists and key figures in the People’s National Party (PNP). At a time when Jamaica was still a crown colony, governor Sir Arthur Richards regarded the quartet as dangerous subversives.

However, times were changing. Labour cabinet minister Sir Stafford Cripps took up the cause of the men and in March 1943 they were released. But where did Frank’s love of politics and writing come from? Before tracing the rest of Frank’s life, John researches the life of his great-grandfather, Stephen Hill. Stephen was associate news editor at the conservative Gleaner newspaper, an unusually senior position at a time when a white elite ran Jamaica. He also got involved in a famous spat with Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a controversial Jamaican politician.

Stephen, who liked a drink and horseracing, joined the upper middle classes, but his son was a radical. On a visit to Ward Theatre in Kingston, John learns that Frank’s play, Upheaval, which dramatised Jamaican labour disputes, was performed at the venue in 1939. It was also at the theatre that the PNP was launched, a year previously in 1938. The four Hs were key figures in organising the party at a grassroots level.

Frank’s role in the party wouldn’t last. In 1952, the four Hs were accused of being communists and asked to leave the PNP. A visit to Rachel Manley, the granddaughter of Norman Manley, the PNP’s first president, reveals a story of “completely idealistic people” put under huge pressure from the USA at a time of reds-under-the-bed hysteria. After negotiating this bump in the road, says Rachel, Frank and Norman remained close friends. In 1962, Jamaica achieved independence.

Thinking about Frank’s situation, John is reminded of the time he met Nelson Mandela. The ANC leader told him that “many good men, better than me”, key figures in the struggle to end apartheid, didn’t make it through to serve the new South Africa in government.

Taken overall, it’s a journey that’s transformed John’s view of his roots. In particular, he realises his love of a good argument comes from Frank, a man “much more exciting” than John ever thought. “I really am a Hill in all but name,” he says, “I’m finally admitting it.”