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December 9, 2005

Union remembers December 7 uprising

EDITOR: The date for this year’s general elections was accorded greater historical significance for Vincentians since it was shared with at least two other very important events which occurred on that date: the Union Island Uprising and the birth of the New Democratic Party.

On December 7, 1979, Union Island, which lies some 47 miles south of St.Vincent entered into the annals of history with its failed Uprising. Twenty-six years ago the Island, like the rest of the Grenadines, was practically forgotten by the Milton Cato Labour Party Administration. {{more}}The deplorable social and economic conditions were simply unbearable for the island’s 2000 inhabitants. And so, with the political crisis and economic instability sweeping through the Caribbean, Union Island renowned for its strong cultural heritage became known to the rest of the world.

The progress that was made in the few months across the tri-island state of Grenada, Cariacou and Petit Martinique following that country’s revolution, seemed to have had tremendous influence on the Union Island coup leaders as they attempted to remove control of Union Island from mainland St.Vincent.

On December 7, while the Caribbean leaders were still grappling with issues linked to the Grenada Revolution, a not-so-organised group of people led by Lennox “Bumba” Charles took control of the all-important government buildings and essential facilities which included the Police station, the Revenue/Post Office building, the Airport, the District Officer’s residence and the Cable & Wireless facility.


Charles’ extreme disposition could in part be rationalized by that sense of hopelessness and neglect which he, like all the other Unionites, experienced then. He was deeply concerned about the lack of basic social amenities, economic hardships and the apparent isolation by the Cato Government. In September 1978, Bumba represented Union Island at the Introductory Consultation Meeting on the Social Problems affecting the Grenadines held in Bequia.

More than one year later nothing was done by the government to bring about any social transformation and so the social and economic fabric weakened further. The take-over came very early in the morning with absolutely no resistance by the four policemen housed at the Ashton Police Station. The Station was bombed and the lawmen fled.


The Union Island uprising had become the first real political headache for the Milton Cato Government. Two days prior to the uprising (December 5), SVG held its first general elections after gaining independence on October 27, 1979. Labour Party’s landslide victory which was punctuated by a bitter and violent elections campaign, quickly twisted into a farce by its response to the situation. Still in constitutional “diapers”, the Labour Government found its new sovereignty threatened and with the Grenada Revolution still fresh, Milton Cato took no chances. Cato’s immediate response was to declare a state of emergency and impose a dusk-to-dawn curfew throughout SVG. Barbados responded to St. Vincent’s request for help and sent a detachment of Barbadian soldiers.


A group of 40 policemen under the command of Inspector Ruthford Cox, a Unionite, was sent to regain control of the island. They spent most of the day on nearby Palm Island since they were uncertain as to the exact situation and strength of the ‘rebels’. Control of the island was left in the hands of six or so young men guarding the airport, waterfront, Hospital Lookout and Police Station. Bumba apparently did not remain for too long on the Island following the overthrow. He fled to Carriacou and as word of his departure spread later that day, the other guards abandoned their posts and went into hiding.

One man was killed on Palm Island and another disappeared at sea under mysterious circumstances. Inspector Cox came ashore and quickly restored law and order. More than 40 innocent persons – including prominent senior citizens were arrested and imprisoned at Fort Charlotte. Among the prisoners were Wytcliffe and Van Hutchinson, the husband and son of the first parliamentary representative of the Southern Grenadines Constituency – Mary Hutchinson; Conrad and Amuthel Adams, the parents of the second parliamentary representative, Stephanie Browne; Anthony Stewart, the brother of the third MP for the same constituency; and Yvette Bentick, a former MNU candidate for the Southern Grenadines.

The police were making indiscriminate arrests on evidence of someone wearing ‘dreadlocks’ and on allegations of some informers. Most of them were released the following year having spent Christmas in the dungeon at Fort Charlotte. For all of them it was three torturous weeks of being beaten, drenched regularly with cold water, and made to lie on the cold floor with little sleeping materials and little to eat. Bumba was arrested by the Grenadian authorities and handed over in late 1980. He was then tried and imprisoned.


Much of the island’s physical and social infrastructure has changed since 1979. On a very sad note though, the historical Revenue and Post Office Building which stood intact for 212 years against all the forces of nature, was burnt down on December 13, 1995, almost ten years ago.

Some of the persons who were arrested have passed on; others have migrated; and some are still around. Retired Unionites who were living abroad are now returning home to spend their last days. While life is generally much better for the people of Union Island, economic hardship is slowly returning to the island and the youth do not have much to look forward to.

The person elected on December 7 will have a tremendous challenge in engaging the youth in a meaningful way. Many of them simply have nothing to do and the trend seems to be heading towards the illegal drug trade. There are quite a few lessons to be learnt from the December 7, 1979 event the new MP would be well-advised to consider.

Steve Stewart