The year 1979 began with the knowledge that the date originally selected for Independence was no longer on. 1979 however turned out to be one hell of a year as Sparrow reminded us in song- “The rule of the tyrants decline, The year nineteen seventy nine . . . Gairy is a wanted man, Idi Amin is a wanted man . . .” It was a politically explosive year with coups in Iran, Uganda and Grenada. At home a calypsonian reported “dat de suffrier ah boil” as the Soufriere volcano erupted on April 13. Elections followed in December and then to crown it all was an uprising in Union Island. What a Year!
With the postponement of Independence and the arrival of the Draft constitution on November 28, it was hoped that enough time would have been provided for public discussion and submissions on the proposed constitution. Before the debate in the Legislative Council in February, submissions were sent by the National Independence Committee that represented eighteen organisations, along with the St. Vincent Christian Council and the National Council of Women. Unfortunately, but true to form there was scant regard for the submissions and only a couple minor amendments were accepted.
Political activity was at a height with elections expected to follow Independence slated for 27th October, the date the British government had recommended to its parliament. On February 21, the Peoples Political Party of the Joshuas held a candlelight march from Sion Hill to the Market Square. Its focus was on government’s failure to give serious consideration to the peoples’ amendments. James Mitchell of the newly formed NDP had written to Ted Rowlands, the Minister of State in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office expressing areas of concern about the Constitution. In an interview with Radio Antilles, he indicated that his party would give its blessings to Independence once it was satisfied with the Constitution. In March there was a merger of Kenneth John’s DFM and Carlyle Dougan’s PUC to form the PDM (Peoples Democratic Movement). A few months later, July, Yulimo joined forces with the PDM to form the United Peoples Movement (UPM).
The eruption of the volcano on April 13 created some uncertainty about the 27th October date, with some 20,000 people having to be evacuated from the North Leeward and North Windward parts of the country. Shake Keane captured this in his Volcano Suite Poems – “The thing split Good Friday in two . . . Mysterious people ordered, other mysterious people, to go to mysterious places, ‘immediately’ . . .” Schools were closed as they were being used as evacuation camps. By June there were welcome signs with the evacuation camps closed by June 22, and schools reopened from June 29.
The decision had already been made to postpone carnival although on July 6 the country celebrated with a mini-carnival that saw large numbers of people jumping on the streets and dancing to X-Adus, despite the rain on that Carnival Tuesday. Vibrating Scakes was crowned the Independence Calypso Monarch and Shake Keane was the recipient of a top regional Cuban literary award – the Casas de la Americas for his book of poetry “One A Week With Water.”
Two other highlights of the year were- the start of Night Flights on July 10 and the Independence gift by the country’s footballers who placed second to Haiti in the Caribbean Football Union’s Nation Club. It was their first entry having only the year before been given membership in the CFU.
On the evening of October 26 thousands of Vincentians made their way to the Victoria Park to await the Flag Raising Ceremony as the country got a new flag and became an independent country and the 42nd member of the Commonwealth. Elections followed shortly after, on December 5 and the incumbent St. Vincent Labour Party was returned to power under Robert Milton Cato as the First Prime Minister. Two days later, like a bolt out of the blue, there was an uprising in Union Island. There were certain aspects of this that were comical( to be discussed at some other time). Our PM declared a State of Emergency, imposing a curfew and asked for Barbadian troops to be sent to St. Vincent. Calypsonian Lord Have Mercy’s “State of Emergency” captured the occasion. The Curfew was lifted for Christmas, but the State of Emergency continued for a while.
What stood out for me in 1979 was the scant regard given to public opinion and the failure to listen to the voices of the people and to get them truly involved in the process. An opportunity was lost by failing to unite the people around the country’s march to Independence. We are perhaps still suffering from this today!
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian