Fifty years ago, this summer, Jamaica along with Trinidad & Tobago became the first Caribbean countries to achieve complete colonial freedom from Britain.
In this blog Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer, will be focusing on ten factors that greatly defined this historic moment. Retracing steps made by the key protagonists towards a state of independence.
Delegates from across the Caribbean gathered at London’s Lancaster House in the winter of 1956 to finalise plans for a West Indian Federation that was initially proposed nine years earlier in the tropics of Montego Bay. This trading bloc binding together ten islands was cause for optimism yet there was no doubt from its inception that regional powerhouse duo Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago as main players held sway over proceedings.
The idea had been under discussion since Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Moyne recommended a form of self-rule in response to a growing political consciousness that intensified after World War Two. In the House of Commons Fenners Brockway MP praised its ‘federate by choice’ principles coupled with the initiatives encouraging extensive adult suffrage. Deferring from the British model by writing up its own constitution in which Article 118 Provision for Review proved telling in the following decade.
So, what made Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago the undisputed federation leaders? Being more heavily populated considerably helped however what made them stand out in an international trade arena was the natural resources at their disposal. Bauxite an essential element for asphalt production surpassed sugar as Jamaica’s most progressive export. This mass mining operation was recognised as the catalyst to move the economy into the age of industrialisation thus benefitting the all-important GDP (Gross Domestic Product).
In Trinidad & Tobago they still enjoyed the spoils of striking oil in the early part of the 20th Century as the industry equated for 40% of national revenue. Alongside the petroleum boom modern commodities such as cigarettes, gramophone records and Angostura Bitters were exported worldwide. Rural villages consequentially suffered due to a vast exodus to the metropolis where a wealth gap was easy to distinguish between the palatial hacienda mansions and shanty slums.
Friends Across the Ocean
Prior to the West Indian Federation coming into effect, the UK Parliament administration played a collaborative role in supporting the governmental formation of a bicameral system in Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago built upon a House of Representatives/Senate structure. Correspondence from the Commons Overseas Office during the forties and fifties details a professional dialogue that develops into something resembling a long-distance friendship.
For instance, Jamaican Clerk of the Legislature, Clinton Hart wrote to Clerk of the Table, Edward Fellowes for a Senate Library booklist. Fellowes obliged noting the importance of Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice. While the Trinidad & Tobago Speaker, John Savary inquired to his seasoned Westminster contemporary ‘do lady members wear hats in the chamber?’. A UK Parliamentary delegation certainly appreciated visiting the Port of Spain highlighted by a letter of thanks to legendary Trinidadian dancer, Beryl McBurnie for the hospitality she provided at her famous Little Carib Theatre.
Cult of Busta
Many observers of West Indian politics deemed it overly preoccupied by domineering personalities lacking the right acumen. An overabundance of charisma was no elective detriment as witnessed in the storied rise of Alexander ‘Busta’ Bustamante to the Jamaican premiership. Born of Indian descent a reputation enveloped around him as a ‘man of the street’. Finding renown leading a longshoreman strike that resulted in sedition charges.
Norman Manley felt it better to have Bustamante on his side recruiting him to his People’s National Party (PNP). The ‘Cult of Busta’ grew as passionate rallies at Kingston’s Edelweiss Park encouraged numerous column inches in the influential newspaper The Daily Gleaner. The Bustamante/Manley alliance was victorious in the December 1944 election until cracks started to show in the PNP hierarchy and Bustamante left forming the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) appealing to business as he sought to promote a broader vision for his country’s future.
The Good Doctor
A safe pair of hands is compulsory in the capabilities of any prospective Prime Ministerial candidate. Dr Eric Williams fitted that requirement hence the deep trust Trinidad & Tobagonians placed in his strong and steady style of leadership. An esteemed academic Williams seized power in 1956 with his People’s National Movement (PNM) overseeing vast improvements in education and housing policy. Despite a scholarly penchant for exhaustive five-hour budget speeches William’s balanced approach united the disparate cosmopolitan mix within the populace under one banner.
Retired cricketer Learie Constantine was undoubtedly the island’s favourite son and on taking office Williams invited him to return from England for a specialised cabinet posting as Minister for Communications, Works, and Utilities. An inspired decision that later saw Constantine become the ambassadorial Chief High Commissioner in London whose subsequent race relations activism led to the awarding of a Life Peerage at the end of the sixties.
Cuba & the Common Market
Geopolitics in this period centred almost exclusively on Cold War concerns. As the West tried to establish the next port of call for potential Soviet involvement in the developing world. Fidel Castro’s Cuban Communist takeover in 1959 prompted a red alert that the dreaded domino effect may ripple through the nearby Caribbean. The hope was that the ties that bound Commonwealth members to Britain would be enough of a deterrent for infiltration.
By this juncture, HM Treasury advisors painted a gloomy long-term outlook for the British pound advocating a rethink of colonial development schemes as a solution. The Radcliffe Committee devised the dismantling of Commonwealth sterling areas as Britain cleared its decks to aid an application to join the European Economic Community (EEC). To Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s disappointment, it was eventually unsuccessful but the implication for Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago was that independence was firmly on the agenda.
The passing of the 1948 British Nationality Act allowed provision for the first wave of ‘Commonwealth Citizens’ to arrive in England to fill the surplus of vacancies primarily in car manufacturing and the NHS. Now known as the ‘Windrush Generation’ they settled in working class communities in English cities and towns regularly facing fierce antagonism from right-wing groups. The 1959 Notting Hill Riots were headline news in its aftermath Trinidadian emigrant Claudia Jones endeavoured to organise a carnival to stimulate local pride and positivity.
Fellow islander’s including restaurateur Frank Critchlow and musician Russell Henderson assisted on building the brand. By the seventies the homegrown Trinidad & Tobago calypso steel bands allied themselves with Jamaican Duke Vin’s vast Soundsystem pumping out dub reggae. This diaspora display of cultural idealism mushroomed into a treasured institution with identikit events staged from St Pauls, Bristol to Chapeltown, Leeds and remaining as popular as ever.
Breaking the Ranks
Once again West Indian officials converged on Lancaster House in the spring of 1961. The euphoria of five years previous was replaced by an overall mood of bitter resignation. Now Prime Minister, Alexander Bustamante formally requested that Jamaica hold a referendum to leave the Federation behind and seek full independence. Constant disagreements regarding customs tariffs and a general disenchantment had triggered the demand. A Yes Vote of 54.1% prevailed and the secession process began in earnest.
Dr Eric Williams was brutally honest in his assessment of the situation stating, ‘ten minus one does not leave nine, it leaves nought’. Inevitably Trinidad & Tobago decided also to exit on similar grounds emboldened by the slogan to ‘Proceed Without Prejudice’. The comparative draft statutes drew heavily on tenets laid down by the latest African independent nation, Sierra Leone. Denis Healey MP ominously urged Macmillan’s government ‘to not leave the smaller islands shipwrecked’.
No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs
Speaker Harry Hylton-Foster stood in front of a tense Commons chamber to declare that the ‘Ayes have it’ and the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Bill was controversially on the road to reaching the statute book. The race question had reared its contentious head in Britain and the government acted by imposing a limit on the free flow of Caribbean immigration. In the Second Reading Bill debate Charles Royle MP probed whether this was another form of ‘colour bar’ as the continually excessive Irish migration wasn’t placed under the same quota considerations.
Various Current Affairs programmes with the use of Gallup Polls noted that 90% of people questioned had agreed with the restrictions. A victory for the pressure tactics applied by an increasingly vociferous Keep Britain White campaign. An incensed Barbadian Premier, Sir Grantley Adams wrote to Parliament stating, ‘the proposed Act was regarded by West Indians as based on racial discrimination.
Time was of the essence for Jamaican legislators who delivered on signing off independence formalities and getting the party done and dusted before September’s hurricane season potentially dampened festivities. Further on, Five Year Plans got drafted, and the honours system abolished in favour of a new title ‘National Hero’ posthumously awarded to iconic activist Marcus Garvey. Hugh Shearer a graduate of the University of the West Indies emerged as a successor to Bustamante rubber stamping the construction of aluminium plants and tourist resorts.
Mary. Princess Royal was the monarchical representative in Trinidad and Tobago for the independence celebrations in August 1962 reading a message sent by the Queen relinquishing her reign heard by thousands in attendance at Queen’s Park, Savannah. UK Parliamentary relations remained intact as shown by the commemorative gift of a bookcase and gavel bestowed to the House of Representatives. The Land of the Hummingbird finally sung free.
HC/CL/OO/1/47 - Jamaica: General Correspondence, 1939-1960, Parliamentary Archives
HC/CL/OO/1/100 – Trinidad & Tobago: General Correspondence, 1949-1959, Parliamentary Archives
HC/CL/OO/1/111 & 112 – West Indies Independence Constitution: General Correspondence, 1960-1961, Parliamentary Archives
A Short History of the West Indies, J H Parry
Jamaica – A Historical Portrait, Samuel Hurwitz
Story of Jamaica, Clinton Black
Decolonisation – The British Experience since 1945, Nicholas White
There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack – Paul Gilroy
Hansard, Parliamentary Debates