In my last column, I took up an issue, seemingly buried but very much alive, in what may be another vain attempt in trying to get us collectively not just to look at pressing everyday problems but also to dig deeper and examine the constitutional and political constraints that we face in addressing these problems. I hope to continue the discussion in a follow-up next week.
However I divert this week in order to raise yet another fundamental matter, which, like constitutional and electoral reform, appears to be long-since buried but which is very much alive. It concerns the age-old aspiration of the people of the Caribbean for unification, not in a peripheral sense at a leadership level, but in a real, organic sense, involving the Caribbean people and their role in shaping our future.
The month of August is particularly important for Caribbean people as the month of emancipation from chattel slavery, that odious system which has left its cruel pockmarks on present-day society. But it is also significant for events which took place more than a century after the Emancipation Proclamation.
August 1962 marked the date of national independence for two of the foremost Caribbean countries. Jamaica took the first step on August 6 and at the southern extremity of the island chain,Trinidad and Tobago joined the growing throng of newly-independent states, when it too proclaimed nationhood on August 31. These two paved the way for a steady procession of independent mini-states in the seventies and eighties.
The irony is that Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago were lynchpins in the first effort of Caribbean nations at political unification. In 1958, both countries, the only ones in the island chain endowed with mineral resources, were major participants in the formation of the West Indies Federation. It was a long-aspired dream of Caribbean people, but this time crafted by the British colonial power and organized not so much to unify the Caribbean people and integrate their economies, but to placate the rising political elite and accommodate them in the emerging scheme of a new colonial structure, known as neo-colonialism.
The very structure of the Federation indicated its fragility. Though there was Federal government and Federal Parliament, the “big boys” of the region, in the persons of Dr Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago and Mr. Norman Manley of Jamaica, both chose to “bat on home pitches”, rather than participate in the Federal government thereby weakening this regional institution.
In piecemeal arrangements, the seat of the Federal Parliament and government was Trinidad but Sir Grantley Adams, father of the future Barbados Prime Minister, headed the Federal Cabinet. Federal elections arranged by the colonial power saw the overnight formation of regional “parties”, based on pre-existing political arrangements with, again, the “big boys” staying in their political creases. The Manley-led coalition won the elections and the PPP-led St Vincent government was part of the opposition federal Democratic Labour party of Sir Alexander Bustamante.
There were trappings of regionalism – a West Indies Regiment based in Jamaica, a regional shipping line (Federal Queen and Federal Maple) providing a valuable service for passengers and cargo on a weekly basis, and even joint sporting teams in netball and football mimicking the West Indies cricket team.
But with no independent powers, for the Federation was only a self-governing territory, no independent financial or political power base, and no structures for the involvement of the Caribbean people at base level, with squabbling political parties and colonial- created divisions between the “big islands” and “small islands”, the Federation was doomed to failure. Its British-appointed Governor General, Lord Hailes, a former personal secretary to arch-colonialist Sir Winston Churchill, had more powers than any of the Federal politicians. It collapsed under its own weight after Bustamante won a referendum in Jamaica on whether Jamaica should remain in the Federation. Dr Eric Williams responded with the infamous “1 from 10 leaves nought” and both left the Federation and the floundering islands to become independent in 1962. In a dog-eat dog atmosphere, they squabbled over “shark and sardines” seeking excuses to abandon the path of unification in favour of their own independence. Which politician of the day did not want to become “Father” of his country’s independence?
So, much as we congratulate these islands on their 60th anniversary of independence, what legacy have they left the region? A myriad of politically independent mini-states with an array of Prime Ministers, nearly all afraid even to remove the British monarchy as Head of State or to cut ties with the Privy Council?
How come there is no real education, much more public discussion on these topics? If, as is repeated so often in CARICOM circles, our ultimate aim is Caribbean integration and unity, why is there little mention of the experience of the West Indies
Federation and the chain of events leading up to 1962 and the present? How can we chart a successful future when we are ignorant of the past?
As far as I am aware, the year 2018, the 60th anniversary of our first tentative, and fatal, steps into regional constitutional advancement, passed with “not a drum was heard, not a funeral note” to quote the Irish poet, Charles Wolfe. Similarly 1962 is being remembered for the “Diamond Jubilee” of Jamaica and T&T, not for the insularity and treachery of our politicians.
How can we move forward together with an approach like this?
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.