Percival William Gibson
By Dr Robert Moore and Gerald T Rayner
Nature has been decidedly frugal with the Commonwealth Caribbean in terms of physical size. With eleven sovereign states and four colonial dependencies the region constitutes a very small fraction of the earth’s landmass. And its population, some 5,000,000 in all, underlines this physical modesty. But by way of compensation, nature and history have lavished non-material gifts on the area’s people and their cup of talent runneth over. In many fields: politics, law, medicine, scholarship, administration, international affairs, creative writing, cricket, music; West Indians have proved that they are no strangers to the top. Indeed, three Nobel prizes have gone to them in the last 38 years. And their diaspora, mostly in North America and Britain but also spread across six continents have made outstanding contributions in crucial areas to their host societies.
Like his island home, Jamaica, and its region, Percival William Gibson was small of physical stature but gigantic of personality and purpose. He was born in 1893 to a lower middle class, African descended family of Anglican persuasion, where talent was more abundant than money. A scholarship took him to a Jesuit high-school his family could not afford his secondary education , and there he performed with enviable distinction. Paradoxically, this Anglican youth consistently topped the school in Roman Catholic catechism while developing a tenacious enthusiasm for his own church. His mentor, in his late teens, was Enos Nuttall, Archbishop of the West Indies, who had all the administrative gifts of a superb governor-general with a tremendous spiritual charisma to boot. His passion for education was to become Percival Gibson’s own.
Entering St.Peter’s College, the Jamaican Anglican seminary, in 1912, he set himself to acquire credentials commensurate with his appetite for theology. His three degrees, BD, BA honours and BD honours, were gained externally from London University largely by self-study, an achievement sufficiently impressive for others to emulate. Over time, Percival Gibson made himself Jamaica’s most learned Anglican cleric without a day on campus university experience.
With an omnivorous mind and strong Evangelical convictions he was priested in 1918 and the next year became curate of St.George’s Church in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital. With fire on his tongue and public and private morality on his mind, his Sunday night sermons attracted large crowds ready to be inspired or chastened by this prophetic young priest whose head could barely be seen above the pulpit.
But a future larger than a parish ministry awaited him. The then Bishop of Jamaica, in 1925, founded a downtown school for city boys and appointed Percival, aged 32, to run it. A wise move, as the young headmaster had already got groups of city youth hooked on drama, music-making and debating. The school’s beginnings were distinctly modest (49 students and 3 teachers) and some feared that modesty would remain its distinguishing feature. They need not have worried. With Percival’s spacious vision and his knack of persuading others to share it, his electrifying dynamism and a resource-filled mind, an inconsequential academy was not in the cards. His appointment, too, was a bold stroke. Principals of Jamaican secondary schools were white almost by definition but Percival Gibson was there to demonstrate that the definition had had its day.
The school, Kingston College, was created primarily to provide poor black boys with a secondary education. The end of slavery in the 1830s did not mean the beginning of a time of opportunity for the vast majority of black Jamaicans. They were still shackled by a social system that, with some notable exceptions, treated them more as pairs of hands than possessors of minds � even up to the 1920s. Let them have primary education but let them leave the secondary schools to their betters� that was the attitude fairly common among the white and light-skinned elites.
Percival Gibson saw his school as a remedy for this social deformity. He was convinced that there was a treasury of untapped talent among the black working and lower middle classes. Kingston College would nurture that talent and so take to another level the uncompleted process of full Emancipation begun in 1838. �K.C� as the school became known, admitted any boy, black or not, born in wedlock or not, who could satisfy the entrance requirements and pay the affordable fees.
He was, of course, swimming against the stream, something that Percival Gibson seemed created to do. Indeed, he was Victorian in his belief that the more daunting the challenge, the more compelling a Christian should find it. Victorian too, was his relish in tackling nettlesome tasks, and his dedication to afternoon tea. But he was Edwardian as well, especially in his preference for urbane etiquette and decorous formality. Jamaican he certainly was in his feistiness, his intolerance of cant, his flair for the dramatic and his cheeky humor always an arresting contrast to his magisterial personality. A superb and spell-binding orator in the best West Indian tradition, he could give lucidity to complex ideas and maturity to fledgling ones. Caricaturing society’s absurdities with creative impertinence came readily to him. And his greatness as an educator lay in his unswerving belief that, given the right opportunity, poor black Jamaicans would prove themselves equal to the best of the British.
In the Headmaster.s reckoning, KC would be more than just an equalizer of opportunity. It was dedicated to the making of well-balanced Christian gentlemen, at home in the arts, the sciences and the humanities, au fait with the world as it is but committed to the world as it ought to be. His boys (�periwinkles� he liked to call them) were expected to be mentally agile, in levity as well as gravity, and physically nimble, their field-sports being as important as their studies and almost as important as their prayers. A sound mind in a sound body was their aim. And they should show their love of God not just by their worship but by their compassion for the under-privileged, their active concern for justice in society, their critical love of Jamaica. Above all by their incorruptibility in public life.
The decade of the school’s foundation was the �Roaring Twenties� when public morality in many countries was fragile and scandals in high places were common, even in colonial Jamaica. Percival Gibson saw his school as a nursery for guardians of public probity. He expected KC’s boys to become leaders of society at critical levels, reaching positions where their Christian integrity could set the tone for the institutions they served.
The era in which the school found its feet was an agitated one. The raucous 1920s were followed by the wrenching 1930s, what with the Great Depression, the Nazi and Fascist insanities and Stalin’s glowering Soviet regime. Empires and their ideologies were beginning to be questioned before 1939 and the Second World War set their dissolution in train. Many in Jamaica found this development exciting, some found it unsettling and others found it unpredictable.
All this deepened Percival Gibson�s appreciation of St. Augustine, the 4th century African Bishop of Hippo. His experience of uncertainty after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West prompted him to pen his classic work �The City Of God�. Here he told Roman citizens, devastated by the ruin of their apparently inviolable world, that no empire, not even a Christian one, was eternal. Christian security could only be found in the City Of God, that heavenly reality of which the church was an imperfect earthly foretaste. Citizens of that eternal City should be prepared to abide the passing of old political orders and the whirlpool uncertainty that often accompanies the creation of new ones.
With the great Church Father as his mentor, KC’s headmaster considered the school�s Anglican culture as just the thing to prepare young men for an era of escalating change, whether leading to a brave new world or not. That is why so much of the school�s activity was devoted to the development of Christian character �an inner stability and strength equipping young adults to live and work, productively and virtuously, amid flux and fluidity. Not surprisingly, when in 1947 the school chapel was completed it was dedicated to St. Augustine of Hippo. His name had become a household word to the students by that time.
With its defiant Latin motto “Fortis Cadere Cedere Non Potest.” The brave may fall but never yield, the school set out in 1925 to make a name for itself in the competitive world of Jamaican education. The 49 students who opened its doors had become 200 in1936, 300 in1943. By 1948, 500 were on the roll, a far cry from its first days. One of its students had won, in 1936, that most glamorous of imperial scholarships, the Rhodes, and the headmaster had been awarded the King’s Silver Jubilee Medal the same year. To top it all, the school was ranked in the highest grade by the Jamaican Schools Commission. Not surprisingly. The teaching staff were decidedly first rate pedagogues, people of multiple talents, some with eccentricities to remember, all with hobbies to share. Ethnically mixed, the majority were non-white, zestful about imparting their cultural and sporting enthusiasms to the students.
The �golden age�, from about 1947 to the mid-1960s, saw the school garnering a harvest of scholarships, some to the new University College of the West Indies in Jamaica, others to universities abroad. It also distinguished itself by cornering the Jamaica Scholarship, the Everest of awards, six times in eight years. Its prowess on the field was similarly stellar with a number of top trophies coming its way. First class cricketers and Olympic medallists also emerged from KC adding an international aura to the school’s name. By 1970, the number of students was 1,500 and still growing.
The event that was dearest to the hearts of the boys, old and current, was the consecration of their beloved headmaster as Suffragan Bishop of Kingston in 1947. Here was another milestone in the Emancipation process. For the first time in British West Indian history, a descendant of black slaves had become an Anglican bishop. Not that Percival Gibson was ready to give up his headmaster’s role. The school was too precious to him. In his perfectionist mind, there was still too much to do,
So he remained both suffragan bishop and headmaster, much to the delight of the alumni and the students who could hardly imagine the school without him. His eccentricities were too legendary, his compassion too heart-warming, his charisma too soul-stirring to lose. No one could forget the story of �Priest�, as they called him, rebuking a boy who had shouted unprintable expletives to another beginning with the words � You is � �. The headmaster reminded the young man that it was a grave offence against English grammar to say �you is�; �you are� was the proper usage. The expletives did not rate a mention !
Percival Gibson was quite capable of stopping a congregation in mid-hymn by saying “You are not singing like Jamaicans. Lift the roof with your voices and then asking the organist to begin the hymn again. A deft hand at tennis, �Priest�, with Edwardian propriety, played the game complete with clerical collar. At another level, several alumni remember that when their financial circumstances could no longer keep them at the school, the bishop paid their fees out of his own pocket or got a sympathetic business-man to do so .Also, he would not let regulations triumph over fairplay. For instance, when he had five boys, all brilliant performers, competing for one scholarship with scores only a hair’s breadth from one another, he awarded scholarships to them all. The school also became a rainbow community as Chinese, Indians, Lebanese and white students found themselves at home with their predominantly Afro-Jamaican brothers.
As headmaster of KC he was a strong disciplinarian and expected very high standards of behaviour. But his charisma persuaded the boys that nothing less would do them justice. They knew that he was the soul of compassion and that he cared deeply about them. In particular he was very concerned about the limiting domestic environment of the poorer boys, often seeing to it that his sympathisers in business fitted them out with the requirements for school. He usually found a way of providing a midday meal for those who could not afford one. In the classroom he insisted on teaching his touch was light, his manner mellow, He fired the student’s imagination and whetted their appetite for more of the subject. And he could convulse a class or a congregation, a synod, even assemblies of determinedly earnest folk, with laughter. He was a magic storyteller.
The Bishop never married but he adored small children and they gravitated to him with glee. They told him exactly what was on their minds, as children are wont to do, and his response was explosive laughter. He had a Pied Piper’s touch seen especially at Kingston College Fairs when he would be found marching a large clutch of small children off to the ice-cream stall.
Having previously declined an effort to elect him to the office, Percival Gibson became Bishop of Jamaica in 1955, amid much rejoicing. Here was a great educator turned diocesan bishop and a diocesan bishop who was a prophet. The educator in him prompted a vigorous programme to renovate and expand existing Anglican primary schools and to create two high schools in the interior of the island as well as an Anglican Teachers’ Training College. He was determined to win the nation back to Christ and, like the Jesuits, he believed that education was one sure way.
With the prophets Amos, Hosea and Micah in his heart and F.D.Maurice, Charles Gore and William Temple in his head, Percival Gibson put justice at the centre of his social thinking. And he made no bones about openly speaking against injustice wherever he saw it. Fittingly, he came to be known as the conscience of the nation. He greatly admired Norman Manley, the visionary and incorruptible socialist statesman who led Jamaica to the threshold of independence but did not become Prime Minister when it was achieved in 1962. It was at Manley’s suggestion that the bishop was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1954 and there he was prophetic, practical and perspicacious; at his most lucid when he was most angry. During his five year stint on the Council his chief concern was getting the government to improve the appalling housing and sanitary conditions of the poor in the slums of West Kingston. The Order of Deaconesses, which he refounded in 1956, brought compassion, caring and hope to the people whom the comfortable classes had forgotten.
By the time Percival Gibson became diocesan, Jamaica was humming with the expectation of an independent destiny, either as part of an envisaged West Indian Federation or on its own. The Bishop was acutely aware that the rhetoric of independence and the reality did not necessarily square. So Jamaica needed Christian values as never before to sustain its equilibrium when difficulties, expected or not, arose. Accordingly, he set the Church on a path of vigorous evangelisation to win the country for Christ. All the more urgent, he felt, because the powerful winds from the north were secular and consumerist and headless of social justice. By the time he retired in 1967 all the mainline churches, not just the Anglicans, were sensitizing Jamaicans to the need for a more equitable society, and with considerable impact. And yet Percival Gibson thought he had failed and said so publicly when the truth was that his standards of success were unrealistically high.
He died in 1970 and Jamaicans keenly felt his loss, even his long-standing critics admitting that the country would always need a figure like him to call it to its better self. No doubt about it: he was a complex person. Yet, serving 30 years as KC headmaster and 20 years in the episcopacy, Percival Gibson nurtured a strong resolve in an important part of Jamaican society to bring Christian principles to bear on the development dilemmas facing a small sociey in the late 20th century, His dream was to build a new Jamaica by developing Christain character in many of its future leaders. This laudable objective required audacity and courage, two ingredients that permeated his very being.
He knew the loneliness that is often the fate of prophets who dare to say the uncomfortable things that people would rather not hear. But he believed that he would be untrue to Christ, whose close presence he so often felt, if he kept silent or buttered his words. Many Jamaicans appreciated his fearlessness when he was alive and many more do so now. And the alumni of Kingston College, in Jamaica and in many other parts of the world, serving causes and societies with the dedication, intelligence, humour and humility they saw in him, have every good reason to revere this Audacious Anglican.