Kenneth George Hill started public life in the 1930s as a journalist for Jamaica's largest newspaper, the Daily Gleaner. This was a time of ferment in Jamaica's nationalist movement, when important trade unions, political parties, and newspapers emerged. Hill played an important role in all of these.
In 1937 Hill founded a mildly nationalist organization, the National Reform Association (NRA). The NRA was a precursor to the early trade unions and most notably to Jamaica's first modern political party, the Peoples National Party (PNP), founded in 1938. Hill was also a vice president of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (led by Alexander Bustamante) but resigned in 1939 to become secretary of the Tramway, Transport, and General Workers Union, affiliated with the Trade Union Council, which was sympathetic to the PNP.
In 1939 Hill joined a Marxist group in the PNP, which became known simply as the left. One member, Richard Hart, wrote, "Ken Hill, by far the most influential, was more pragmatic and less concerned with political theory than most members of the left. He probably began to consider himself a communist both as a result of the influence of his brother Frank and also his observation of the course of world events" (Hart, 1999, p. 56).
In November 1942 the Governor of Jamaica, Sir Arthur Richards, ordered the detention of Kenneth Hill, his younger brother Frank, Richard Hart, and Arthur Henry (popularly remembered as the Four Hs), whom he regarded as subversives. Richards used his wartime emergency powers to single out Ken Hill as "probably the most dangerous subversive agent in Jamaica" (Hart, 1999, p. 202). Hill became second vice president of the PNP (1947–1952) and the colonial government's fears that the party was being taken over by communists increased. It also feared the influence of the left in the trade union movement and claimed that Ken Hill (among others) was a revolutionary communist, as well as anti-British, anti-American, and racist.
Upon his release from detention in 1943, Hill returned to trade union and political work, becoming president of the Garage, Foundry, and Allied Workers Union and general secretary of the Caterers and Hotel Employees Union. He was a PNP candidate in Jamaica's 1944 general elections, the first in which Jamaicans aged twenty-one and over exercised the right to vote (adult suffrage) after the removal of property, gender, and literacy qualifications. Hill lost to Alexander Bustamante, leader of the opposing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). Hill was a candidate again in the first local government elections under adult suffrage in 1947, again for the PNP, and defeated Rose Agatha Leon. He again won a seat in the 1949 general elections for the PNP and also became mayor of Kingston in 1951.
The PNP, however, had lost both general elections and sought to moderate its image in time for the next general election. The Four Hs were asked to resign in 1952. The PNP also disassociated itself from Hill's radical Trade Union Congress (TUC, formerly the Trade Union Council) to form a more moderate working-class union, the National Workers Union.
The PNP won the general elections in 1955 but Kenneth and Frank Hill ran as members of the National Labour Party (NLP), a party they formed in 1955. It ran four candidates but all lost and the party was dissolved.
Hill became a member of the Bustamante-led JLP after 1955 and was a candidate of the party's federal alliance, the West Indies Democratic Labour Party, for which he won a seat in the federal parliament in 1958 and of which he remained a member until the dissolution of the federation in 1962.
The JLP won Jamaica's elections in 1962 but Hill did not run. However, he remained a trade union activist in the TUC. By the mid-1960s, bridges with the PNP were rebuilt. In 1967 he was appointed by the PNP to the Jamaican Senate, signifying that he had once again become a member of that party. Hill served as senator until 1972, when he retired from public life. His picture is displayed at the headquarters of the PNP as one of the founders of the party.
Hart, Richard. Towards Decolonisation: Political, Labour, and Economic Developments in Jamaica, 1938–1945. Mona, Jamaica: Canoe Press, University of the West Indies, 1999.
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