The Science Library houses a reference collection of over 10,000 titles including rare publications, on Jamaica’s flora and fauna. The Library is open to the general public; the facilities are often used by visiting researchers, students of secondary and tertiary institutions and professional staff members of the Natural History Museum of Jamaica. The opening hours are: Monday – Thursday 9:00- 4:30 and Friday 9:00 – 3:30.
Black History Month Feature
Claude McKay 1889-1948
(Poet and Writer)
Claude McKay was born in Nairne Castle near James Hill, Clarendon, Jamaica. He was the youngest child of Thomas Francis McKay and Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards, well-to-do farmers who had enough property to qualify to vote. Thomas McKay’s father was of Ashanti descent, and Claude recounted that his father would share stories of Ashanti customs with him. Claude’s mother was of Malagasy ancestry.
At four years old, McKay started basic school at the church that he attended. At the age of seven, he was sent to live with his oldest brother, Uriah Theodore, a teacher, to be given the best education available. While living with this brother, McKay became an avid reader of classical and British literature, as well as philosophy, science and theology. He started writing poetry at the age of 10.
In 1906, McKay became apprenticed to a carriage and cabinet maker known as Old Brenga, staying in his apprenticeship for about two years. During that time, in 1907, McKay met a man named Walter Jekyll, who became a mentor and an inspiration for him and encouraged him to concentrate on his writing. Jekyll convinced McKay to write in his native dialect and even later set some of McKay’s verses to music. Jekyll helped McKay publish his first book of poems, Songs of Jamaica, in 1912. These were the first poems published in Jamaican Patois (dialect of mainly English words and African structure). McKay’s next volume, Constab Ballads(1912), was based on his experiences of joining the constabulary for a brief period in 1911.
McKay left for the U.S. in 1912 to attend Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. McKay published two poems in 1917 and became involved with a group of black radicals who were unhappy both with Marcus Garvey’s nationalism and the middle-class reformist NAACP. McKay soon left for London, England and arrived in autumn 1919. It was during this period that McKay’s commitment to socialism deepened and he read Marx assiduously
From November 1922 to June 1923, he visited the Soviet Union and attended the fourth congress of the Communist International in Moscow. McKay wrote the manuscripts for a book of essays called Negroes in America and three stories published as Lynching in America, both of which appeared first in Russian and were re-translated into English; McKay’s original English manuscripts have been lost.
McKay became an American citizen in 1940. Becoming disillusioned with communism, McKay embraced the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, to which he converted in 1944. He died from a heart attack in Chicago at the age of 59.
In 1977, the government of Jamaica named Claude McKay the national poet and posthumously awarded him the Order of Jamaica for his contribution to literature. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Claude McKay on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. He is regarded as the “foremost left-wing black intellectual of his age” and his work heavily influenced a generation of black authors including James Baldwin and Richard Wright.
- Institute of Jamaica – Arts and Sciences, Musgrave Medal, 1912, for two volumes of poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads.
- Harmon Foundation Award for distinguished literary achievement, NAACP, 1929, for Harlem Shadows and Home to Harlem.
- James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild Award, 1937.
- Order of Jamaica, 1977.