The passing of revered local political icon, distinguished regional jurist and ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) stalwart Sir Frederick Gladstone Sleepy Smith, QC, at the ripe old age of 92, symbolically marks the close of an important chapter in the story of Barbados’ development in which he played a major role on the front line.
Never one to shy away from calling a spade a spade on public issues but whose humanity, down to earth and folksy style endeared him to people across the political divide, Sir Frederick was the last surviving founder-member and first president of the ruling DLP when it was launched back in 1955 as an alternative to the then dominant Barbados Labour Party (BLP).
As such, Sir Frederick’s political career spanned a critical period in Barbadian history – the 1950s through to the 1970s – as the island transitioned from 300 years as a British colony to a sovereign, independent nation which then enthusiastically embarked on the grand project of modernization, which was the overriding objective of other newly independent countries in the so-called “Third World” which too had emerged from decolonization.
Sir Frederick also would have been a front-row witness to the failed West Indies Federation experiment. Unfortunately, most other distinguished politicians of that era, including Barbados’ first Premier Sir Grantley Adams, second Premier Dr Hugh Gordon Cummins, first Prime Minister Errol Barrow, and first Deputy Prime Minister Sir James Tudor, departed this earthly life without leaving a permanent record of their experiences for the benefit of surviving and future generations.
Sir Frederick, however, is an exception. He devoted time to work on his memoirs in his twilight years and the fruit of his labour – an autobiography entitled, Dreaming a Nation: Sir Frederick Smith and the Barbados Journey – debuted internationally around the middle of last year. It is currently available online from global retailer Amazon, among others.
“Few nation builders, men that craft countries at their outset, live long enough to write their own story. Sir Frederick Sleepy Smith is one,” reads an introduction to the book on amazon.com.
Coming from a large rural family that has produced other outstanding Barbadians, Sir Frederick was first elected to the House of Assembly in 1956 and served as the island’s first Attorney General after Independence in 1966.
He also held the portfolios of Communications and Works from 1971 to 1975; and Education and Sports from 1975 to 1976. Many students of that era fondly remember him for giving them a few welcome days off on a number of occasions when inclement weather affected the island. He was Leader of the Opposition from 1976 to 1978 following the defeat of the DLP in the 1976 general election.
Following the introduction of single-member constituencies in the 1971 general election, Sir Frederick represented St Michael South Central until his resignation triggered a famous 1978 by-election that was won by the late Dr (subsequently Sir) Richard Haynes of the DLP. He went back to practising law after quitting politics, later becoming Chief Justice of the Turks and Caicos Islands, President of the Grenada Court of Appeal under Maurice Bishop’s People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) and a Barbadian appeals judge.
After retiring from the bench, Sir Frederick maintained a keen interest in public affairs, speaking out frankly from time to time on various issues. An active lay preacher in the Methodist Church for many years, he also sought in his retirement to use his legal training and wealth of public service experience to empower ordinary Barbadians by helping them to gain a better understanding their rights.
For a while, Sir Frederick hosted a hugely popular talk show on radio, Lawyer on Call, where he dispensed free advice, in his inimitable style, to Barbadians facing various challenges. The glowing and moving tributes paid by Barbadians from all walks of life in the past 24 hours since his passing are testimony of the great affection which Sleepy Smith, as he always introduced himself, widely enjoyed and the high esteem in which he was held.
Barbados is poorer as a result of his passing but, at the same time, richer because of his life devoted to selfless public service. This political brand, synonymous with the ‘good old days’ which many Barbadians yearn for, has all but disappeared. Sir Frederick leaves lots of good memories for Barbadians to cherish but this country is unlikely to ever see a politician of his likes again. In fact, there can and will only be one Sleepy Smith who, interestingly, has left us four months shy of our 50th Anniversary of Independence.
R.I.P. Sleepy! A grateful Barbados appreciates your contribution to bettering lives.