The young bookkeeper sat at his desk in downtown Kingston, brimming with excitement after his three months’ leave was granted. The time off would mean ninety days away from the aftermath of the 1907 earthquake, which even after a year still left its mark of devastation on the city.
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Nearly every building in the capital had been damaged, and more than a thousand souls were lost on that January afternoon. He could hardly forget the rumble of the tremors, the fires and explosions, or the sound of police guns shooting at looters once the worst was over. As May approached, just the thought of going up a ship’s gangway at the city’s passenger pier made him feel like things were improving, at least for him.
Gerald Foster was the epitome of Jamaican ambition, with the sense that one’s birthplace and modest origins were no impediment to doing great things. At fourteen, while still a student at Wolmer’s Boys, he tackled M.L. Ford, the national sprint champion, in a handicap race over 100 yards. Ford would start three yards behind the boy, but he should have thought better of it, because Foster beat him handily, and it wouldn’t be long until he would beat Ford in level “scratch” races. By the time ‘GC’ was 21, he had already won the national sprint championship four years in a row. Not only was he Jamaica’s best, but he knew from comparing performances of sprinters around the region that he was also the fastest man in the West Indies.
A tireless reader of whatever books or news he could find on athletics, Foster knew the names of the top coaches and personalities in the sport. He had a particular interest in Harry Andrews, an expert trainer and the man behind English runner Alfie Shrubb, who held multiple long-distance world records. Foster corresponded with Andrews, who encouraged the Jamaican to travel to England for training and competition – and a chance to challenge the world’s best at London’s 1908 Summer Olympics.
Andrews was made aware of Foster’s speed by Foster himself, who knew that his 9.7-second national record over 100 yards would get the Englishman’s attention. The fast men headed for London would also become familiar with GC, from Pennsylvania man Nat Cartmell and the Canadian Robert Kerr to British stars Henry Pankhurst and the outstanding Jack Morton, who had won British championships in the same years that Foster won his titles in Jamaica. Anticipating Foster’s impact on the athletics season, Andrews made preparations for him at Herne Hill, in South London, where the young man would be able to lodge and train.
London was already abuzz with activity as it welcomed the world to both the Summer Games and the Franco-British Exhibition, a bilateral trade and cultural event whose budget was so enormous that it also paid for the construction of the city’s new Olympic stadium at Shepherd’s Bush. The eight million visitors to London that season produced crowds so large they easily generated enough spectators to fill the marvellous sporting venue as well.
With his mind made up, Foster checked the Gleaner for the price of England passage. He researched the most economical vessels, the ones that took mail and freight – usually bananas – with about a dozen or so passengers on each trip. He chose one of the Jamaica-to-Bristol steamers from the Elder Dempster & Company line that sailed every other Thursday. After putting together the £32 for his return ticket, he marched down to the General Freight and Passenger Agency on King Street and booked his passage. When The Daily Gleaner of May 7, 1908 published the passengers list for Bristol aboard the banana boat RMS Port Henderson, included was “Mr. G.C. Foster”.
Once the three-mast vessel had cast off, there was no turning back from the plan: he would disembark at Bristol Avonmouth Docks, then take the Great Western rail eastward across the country to London. From there, coach Andrews would see to his lodging and training facilities. He wasn’t sure if he had enough money or gear for the duration – or if he would be included on any national team – but Foster began the two-week voyage determined to be first Jamaican athlete in the Olympics. He was destined to make a different kind of history.
Read about the Olympic quest of G.C. Foster and the greatest 50 performances by Jamaican athletes in Fifty Days Afire, the new book by Michael A. Grant and Hubert Lawrence, available in bookstores, on kingstoncomm.com and at bookfusion.com from November 3, 2022.