Inside Story: The Jamaican upbringing that created the knight in shining Palmer

Sir Geoff Palmer
Photograph Credit: Marjorie H Morgan

Amazing and most satisfying news!!

Jamaica’s honorary consul to Scotland Professor Sir Godfrey Henry Oliver Palmer DSc OBE (otherwise known as Sir Geoff Palmer) has been named the new Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh Scotland.

It’s almost a year since one of the U.K.’s most distinguished personalities spoke to me ahead of the online event he was about to attend to discuss the impacts of structural racism.

‘Black Lives and Climate Justice’ took place last September 8th. One of many high-profile events Scotland’s ‘First Black Professor,’ had featured in during year.

His 2020 diary included guest appearances on Sky News and Euronews Now. 

Add to that his exclusive interviews with Jambo! Radio, Channel 4 News, Bella Caledonia, Edinburgh Evening News and BBC News plus his participation in several live-streamed events including Windrush The Panel Discussion, hosted by race and human rights activist, Lee Jasper. 

‘Black Lives and Climate Justice,’ was hosted by Transition Edinburgh. The organization is a community-led, local initiative that is advocating for a zero-carbon capital city by 2030.

And for the organization’s Convenor, David Somervell, the eminent Sir Godfrey Palmer, was an ideal speaker.

He explained, “We recognize this concept of intersectionality. That many of these injustices, whether it’s social, economic, environmental or racial injustice, are systemic injustices, which is to do with power. We recognize, as those advocating climate justice, that all these issues are interconnected.” 

“He [Sir Godfrey] is a wonderful advocate for careful thought and reflection on how we work through these things. He is a highly respected colleague in Scotland who has been consistently doing a lot of work.” 

It’s been an amazing journey for the man, also affectionately known as ‘Sir Geoff Palmer.’ 

He was born in St Elizabeth, Jamaica, in 1940, coincidentally the same year that Scotland appointed its first female professor, Margaret Fairlie.

His parents grew up in neighbouring Jamaican parishes. His father was from St. Elizabeth and his mother from Manchester. 

Though he spent the earliest part of his childhood in Munro College District in St. Elizabeth, it wasn’t long before his family moved to Kingston, where his father, a shoemaker, ran his own business. For this reason, Sir Geoff will tell you that he considers himself more of a Kingstonian if asked about his Jamaican heritage. 

He remembers his time there vividly and feels that it shaped his life as a Jamaican.

“Whenever I speak, or I think,” he told me, “I remember my time as a child and it’s very important – a very strong sense of belonging – because it helps you. It gives you stability later on even though you don’t live there.”

After his mother and father separated, he went with his mother to Allman Town, a place he describes as a “tough part of Kingston,” and from 1951 (the year that his mother moved to England) to 1955, he was raised by his aunts. 

The future Professor Emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot University would eventually join his mother in London. 

The years that intervened, he now sees as being some of the most crucial in his life.

“What is important about that is, she [my mother] had about six or seven sisters, and they were tough. They went to work,” he continued, “and earned when they could. We all lived in the same house, I slept in the dining room with my brother, head to tail.”

“I had to go to school, but I also had to go to church. Church was a very important part of my life. You had to read the bible a lot, and [on Sundays] you went to morning service, then you walk back home and then you walk back for Sunday School, and then you stayed after Sunday School – until my aunt arrived for Night Service.”

The church’s value in Sir Geoff’s early life can’t be understated. For him, alongside learning about the bible, “It got you to read.” 

Scotland’s first black Professor didn’t receive a private nor formal education. It was basic but effective but it also meant that he left school in Jamaica without completing an exam. 

It’s a factor that makes his academic achievements in the U.K. and the scientific breakthrough that earned him worldwide recognition and a host of honours, such as his knighthood, all the more astounding. 

Despite this, going to school, like going to church, was crucial and often interlinked.

Sir Geoff explained, “My first school was the North Street Congregational School. So, it was a church school. So, you had the link between the church and the school. So, some of the people involved with the church were also involved with the school. So, some of your teachers would be in the church.”

“I can remember Miss Robinson; she was the headteacher at the primary school in North Street. She knew my aunt because they all went to the same church. So, being at school was like being at home because Miss Robinson would be keeping an eye on me. I couldn’t misbehave in school because Miss Robinson would tell my aunt.”

We laughed this off as he explained why the relationship was so positive and saw his correspondence with the teacher re-ignited years after he’d moved to the U.K.

“You get a sense of belonging when you know people well and you know a situation well. And therefore, you are not frightened or put on the back foot. You have a very positive attitude to life because you have people who you know support you. A sense of belonging comes knowing exactly where you belong, where you are and where you can turn to if you need support.”

Palmer was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2003 and knighted in the 2014 New Year’s Honours for services to human rights, science and charity.

“I am a product of where I lived.” he said when I asked him to explain his success. “Once I got into the [U.K] education system, I did what I could, but my imagination and being able to look at things the way I looked at it, came from Kingston, Jamaica.”

He added, “My local senior school in Kingston, which was a tough school, and the church school got me ready for 1955 when I left Jamaica, for London.”

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