Rachel Manley is known not only for her poetry, but for her non-fiction trilogy about one of Jamaica’s most influential families-her own. Manley was born in Cornwell, England, on July 3, 1947. She was the first child of Michael Manley and Jacqueline Kamelard Gill. Michael Manley was a charismatic man who served as Jamaica’s prime minister between 1972 and 1980, and then again between 1987 and 1992. Her parents divorced when Manley was two, and she was sent to Jamaica to live with her grandparents at Drumblair, the family estate.
Michael Manley was married five times, providing Manley with several step-mothers and siblings. Her grandparents, who were prominent citizens and led extremely active public lives, managed to provided Manley with the only family stability she had while she was growing up. As she told Maclean’s, “They were all mine.” Forced to share her father with several different families and his demanding political career, Manley often felt very distant from him.
Manley’s grandfather, Norman Washington Manley, was the founder of the People’s National Party, and one of the key figures in the Jamaican struggle for independence. An athlete and a Rhodes Scholar, Norman was also a World War I hero. After the war, he returned to Jamaica to practice law. Rising to the post of Jamaica’s chief minister in 1955, he became prime minister when Jamaica gained full independence in 1962. Manley’s grandmother, Edna Swithbank, a well-known sculptor, was also a prominent figure in Jamaica’s culture life. Edna and Norman were first cousins, and this fact caused much public discussion. To make things even more complicated, Norman was from the “brown” side of the family, while Edna was from the “white” wide of the family, thus producing a mixed marriage. Adding to family turmoil was the fact that Norman’s cousin, Alexander Bustamante, led a rival political group, the Jamaican Labor Party.
For Manley, it was not easy to be part of a family that was under so much public scrutiny. Nevertheless, most house visitors were Norman’s supporters, friends of the family, or Edna’s fellow-artists. In 1969, when Manley was 22, Norman Manley died. Three years later, in 1972, Michael Manley was elected prime minister of Jamaica, a position that he held three times over the following twenty years. In 1975 Manley moved to Barbados, and eventually settled in Canada.
Although Manley always perceived her father as a distant, elusive figure, in the 1990’s she moved back to Jamaica to be at his side after he became terminally ill with cancer. She wrote in Slipstream, according to The Antigonish Review, “After a lifetime of chasing my father’s attention like a fleeting phantasm, I needed to be with him now.” When her father died in 1997, Manley was devastated.