Bob Marley

In 1976, Bob Marley's career in music was just beginning to take off outside Jamaica. The previous year he'd had two albums and one single (No Woman No Cry) in the UK charts, and in 1976 he had his first Top 20 album (Rastaman Vibration).

But these were troubled times in his home country (where he was still living): Jamaica in 1976 has been likened to a war zone. Supermarket shelves were bare, power cuts were commonplace, and there were guns everywhere. Michael Manley's government declared a state of emergency, empowering the police and the army to seal off and disarm high–violence neighbourhoods; gun offences were tried in camera, with no jury, and sentences were draconian.

A general election was due, and Manley's People's National Party (PNP) was engaged in a bitter, bloody struggle with Edward Seaga's Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The PNP was widely believed to be backed by the governments of Cuba and the Soviet Union, while the JLP was similarly linked to the CIA.

Seemingly, the only voice for peace was Bob Marley – the cultural icon of Jamaica. He organised a free concert, dubbed Smile Jamaica, to help ease tensions. Sensing an opportunity, Manley moved the election to the same date – 5 December 1976. Marley was furious, as Manley had effectively hi–jacked his non–political event. A plain–clothed police guard was stationed outside his house, where he rehearsed with the new Wailers – the original line–up having broken up in 1974, for reasons that are not clear but are undoubtedly linked to the outstanding success that the band was enjoying.

On 3 December, while the guards were inexplicably off duty, a car drove through the gates of Marley's house. Bob's wife Rita was just leaving in her own car at the time, and as she passed the other car she was shot. She was lucky; the bullet grazed her scalp, but her injuries weren't life–threatening.

But of course it wasn't Rita that the gunmen were after. They were let into the house by Marley's unwitting manager Don Taylor, and led into the kitchen, where they opened fire with two automatic weapons each.

Taylor, heroically protecting his client, took the worst of the gunfire, but later made a full recovery. Marley was hit in the arm and chest, but he wasn't seriously injured. The gunmen, evidently believing that they'd done what they came to do, sped off in the direction of JLP headquarters.

The concert went ahead – Marley declared that the men of violence wouldn't be taking a day off, so he couldn't either. He agreed to play one song, but ended up performing a full set. The bullet remained in his arm for the rest of his life, as doctors advised that to remove it might mean the loss of the use of his fingers.

Bob Marley relocated to the UK after the shooting, and his career went from strength to strength. His next two albums (Exodus and Kaya) reached the Top 10; the first of those spent 56 weeks on the UK charts, and eventually produced four hit singles.

But it was also in 1977 that things started to go wrong. Like the shooting, the cause of Bob Marley's death is surrounded in confusion, urban myth and conspiracy theory; his medical records have never been made public. What seems to have happened is that he injured his toe while playing football with friends in France; the injury didn't heal as quickly as expected, and on examination the wound was found to be caused by a malignant melanoma (which would have been already present when he sustained the injury). Doctors recommended amputation of the toe, but Marley refused consent for religious reasons.

His health began to deteriorate at an increasing rate, and in late 1980 he sought treatment at a holistic clinic in Germany. But by this time the cancer had spread throughout his body and become untreatable. He wanted to die in Jamaica, but his health deteriorated even further during the flight home; there was a scheduled stopover in Miami, but he was too ill to board the ongoing flight and was forced to stay. He died in Miami on 11 May 1981, aged just 36.

Michael Manley had won the 1976 general election in Jamaica, but in 1980 Seaga had finally triumphed. Bob Marley was given a state funeral, and it was Seaga who delivered the eulogy, describing Marley as "an experience which left an indelible imprint with each encounter ... part of the collective consciousness of the nation."

© Haydn Thompson 2017