Critique by Jimmy Emmanuel - (4th February 2015)
George Griffith, author of the Gairy Movement has produced a timely and it may be said overdue record, coming some seventeen years after his death, of the life of Sir Eric Matthew Gairy, first Prime Minister of an independent Grenada. Some 390 pages in length, spread over 16 chapters, his book contains interestingly data on each candidate, constituency, contesting party and votes cast, from all the general elections which were held in Grenada from 1951 to 1995, the Gairy years except for the 1979-83 People’s Revolutionary Government(PRG), period.
Overdue in my opinion, because of the direct link with the period of rule of the People’s Revolutionary Government, its impact on Grenada,1979-1983, of which much has already been written, and because of the debate which still rages periodically, among Grenadians especially, about the benefits or not, of the two contrasting systems of governance. It should be widely read by persons interested in understanding the reasons behind Grenada’s turbulent history in the second half of the 20th century.
The author’s distinct advantage is that he was as he states a ‘long-time confidant and a high-ranking official in the Gairy administration’, serving as Head of Mission in Ottawa, New York and Washington (1974-79), and his book, he says, is as a result of a direct request to him by Sir Eric in the latter’s twilight years. I can myself confirm his close association with Sir Eric on the eve of Grenada’s independence in the early 70s since George and I were close colleagues and senior staff members of the department of external affairs in the premier’s office as it was then on the eve of independence, February 1974.
This book undoubtedly fills a sizeable gap in the history of Grenada, as no other record to date does, especially given the ‘insider’s’ perspective of the author. Griffith sets out, quite lucidly, the emergence of Sir Eric, ‘Uncle’ Gairy as he was more popularly known, as a trade union leader in Grenada at the age of 27, nurtured by his trade union experience among the oil field workers of Aruba; and his life as a political leader from 1951 until his death in 1997.
The author paints a picture of ‘Uncle’ Gairy as a liberator in the eyes of the plantation/estate and other categories of lowly paid workers, on whose behalf he fought fearlessly, using strike action for better wages and improved working conditions, starting in 1949 with his union, the Grenada Manual and Mental Workers Union (GMMWU). Additionally by 1951, Gairy was championing the cause of persons involved in the fishing industry calling for, among other things, better retail prices for fish, lower prices for fishermen supplies, and an effective patrol system to guard against loss of life and boats. Griffith also, highlights the events which were to lead in 1951 to Gairy’s arrest and detention on the sister island of Carriacou, due to his trade union militancy, by the then Governor with the full support of members of the plantocracy. An experience which only served to deepen the love of the workers for their beloved ‘Uncle.’
His contribution to the improvement of the living standards and most importantly, ‘view of their world’ of working class Grenadians in this period, may be described as revolutionary matching similar struggles by like-minded activists, on behalf of workers in the other West Indian colonies of Britain, stretching from Jamaica down to Trinidad and Tobago in the south. Uncle Gairy was an anti-establishment and fearless black man labouring on behalf of his black brothers and sisters, Griffith stresses. His achievements are all the more remarkable given the fact that they were grounded in a basic primary school education and a stint as a pupil-teacher.
To quote the author “Starting in 1949, Gairy brought a special awareness of politics to the citizens of Grenada, even the traditional middle and upper class citizens...” He supports this by quoting the respected political scientist Patrick Emmanuel who comments on “the revolutionary developments of 1951” against the background of ...”the bankruptcy of colonial welfare and its accompanying politics of social diplomacy and gubernatorial cooperation.” Emmanuel observes that Marryshow’s contribution to the political development of (Grenada) was ‘quite considerable’ while accommodating ‘the Crown Colony style.’ “... Gairy, contrastingly, seized the time and mobilised the political power of the black masses.” In other words, a new politics.(Crown Colony Politics in Grenada,1917-1951- Patrick A.M. Emmanuel, UWI, I.S.E.R, Covehill, 1978).
And it was this compassion as Griffith says which endeared him to rural workers and the working class in general, and ensured their support for him in the political world/kingdom in the decades ahead, with his Grenada United Labour Party (GULP) winning by convincing margins six of eight elections between 1951(the first universal suffrage election) and 1976, two years after independence, and three years before his overthrow in 1979. Gairy, lost in this pre-independence period, only two elections;1957 through a coalition of parties against the GULP; and in 1962, by six to four seats, to the Grenada National Party (the latter victorious on a platform of a unitary state with Trinidad and Tobago). And after the collapse of the People’s Revolutionary Government in 1983 his party was to contest elections, when he returned to Grenada from exile in the US where he had lived from March 1979 to early 1984 but now his political dominance was over. In the election of 1984, the first after the demise of the PRG, the GULP won one seat with 36% of the vote, an indicator that he still had substantial support and in 1990,four seats with 28% of the vote. GULP failed to win a seat in 1995, the last election before his death in 1997 by which time his health was failing and his eyesight fading.
As Griffith points out in1984 fearing a return to power of the GULP several heads of government in the Eastern Caribbean, notably Eugenia Charles of Dominica played an active role in ensuring a merger of political parties to guard against vote splitting and victory for the GULP. Even the US was not in favour of his return to power, notwithstanding his fierce opposition to the left-leaning NJM/PRG. One may surmise that since it was his politics which had led to his overthrow, the US was now on edge about any possibility of his return to power! And likewise a number of regional heads of government it can be argued.
The reader will note that Griffith has carefully backed up much of his writing using mainly as a reference source the UK National Archives, Colonial Office Documents as well as other reputable sources. This is commendable as it speaks to his focus on a degree of objectivity in writing about Sir Eric, a controversial personality for some Grenadians and some non-Grenadians alike.
Griffith devotes time to addressing the very autocratic style of leadership of Uncle Gairy which was a striking part of the latter’s personality having negative implications for a wish to be the people’s beloved ‘uncle.’ And it may be added, a significant contributor to the civil unrest of the 70s and his eventual overthrow. That style was reflected in the internal structure, or lack of structure, of the union/ GMMWU and the party/GULP and ultimately in his roles as chief minister, premier and prime minister. Really one man rule.
As a former UWI teacher, Professor Archie Singham, author of “The Hero and the Crowd in a Colonial Polity (1968) observed ( Gairy, being the Hero) on the subject of party structure, which Griffith highlights to quote “ ... Gairy never appeared to recognize the importance of developing a central organisation of cadres to maintain a link with the local groups. The only link to local groups was through himself...’’(my italics).
In this record and analysis of the life of Eric Gairy, politician and trade union leader, Griffith treats with a number of important developments, some listed below, which should be of much interest to anyone studying the Gairy years such as:
-- His disenfranchisement for five years following on the 1957 election campaign when he paraded with a steel-band through a public meeting of an opposition candidate and even while his party lost the 1957 election GULP’s two candidates were still the victors in the elections held in 1958 for Grenada’s two seats in the House of Representatives of the Federation of the West Indies
-The suspension in June 1962 of Grenada’s Constitution, recommended to the Secretary of State for the Colonies by Administrator Jimmy Lloyd, based on charges of unauthorised expenditures by the Gairy government which had returned to power in March 1961,dubbed ‘squandermania’ by the local press
-Enactment of the Land Settlement Act ,1969, which triggered his controversial Land for the Landless programme which led to accusations of estate appropriations that victimised political opponents and without financial compensation, not to mention questions about the economic viability of such a programme for new farmers;
-The Nutmeg Board Dissolution Order Validation Act, 1975 which brought further protests/criticisms by nutmeg producers of political victimisation by Gairy. Not far removed from the truth by any means.
-Press freedom also took a blow in the early post-independence period with enactment of the Newspaper Amendment Act 1975 which introduced an exorbitantly high registration fee for newspaper publication.
The reader will no doubt have an opinion on some if not all of these developments referred to above as well as other ‘hot’ subject areas in Griffith’s record of Gairy’s political life.
Of far more than passing interest to the student of the ‘Gairy years’ would be the period of violent unrest preceding independence, February 1974, which is covered in great detail by the author. Griffith treats this period in great detail in an attempt, and rightly so, to give two sides of the story-the Gairy side and his opponents side. Many people, certainly in the Caribbean, would know of the incident known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ -18th November 1973- which saw the brutal beating with subsequent hospitalisation, of Maurice Bishop and five other leaders of the NJM by police and supporters of Gairy. The loud outcry of angry Grenadians saw the formation of the Committee of 22 a large mix of citizens of all classes demonstrating and calling on the government to resign.
The result was establishment of the Duffus Commission by Gairy to investigate the incident, in December 1973 with an expansion of its terms of reference to ascertain whether citizens had had their constitutional rights infringed by the actions of police, police aides(read Mongoose Gang. Emmanuel’s view) and the magistracy between January and November 1973. And in particular the role of Inspector Belmar in “Bloody Sunday.” Things were to get worse however with the murder of Rupert Bishop on 21 January 1974 in another massive protest demonstration in St.George’s. And Gairy himself was called to give evidence before the Duffus Commission in relation to these developments. Regarding the killing of Rupert Bishop, amid speculation about the person who pulled the trigger, who is believed to have been a policeman, Griffith disingenuously presents a view that it could have been a killing “arranged” by the NJM to whip up sympathy and support. A rather Machiavellian thought in my opinion! The less said the better.
The author covers the overthrow of Gairy in great detail, a subject which has itself been treated thoroughly by other commentators on this period of Grenada’s history.
In this useful record of Grenada’s experience under the GULP there is detailed coverage of Gairy’s rather ‘quaint’ fascination with the subject of Unidentified Flying Objects in particular at the UN.
For me of much greater significance in terms of the harnessing of the human resource potential of scores of young Grenadians with its impact on the country’s long-term social and economic development is his approval of the establishment of the St.George’s Medical School in 1977. An institution which has bloomed into the St.George’s University, an institution with an international reputation. This along with his contribution to the “emancipation” of workers starting in the early 50s constitutes, in my opinion a legacy worthy of commendation.