Tomorrow marks the 36th death anniversary of Maurice Rupert Bishop who led New jewel Movement members in the first – and only so far – revolutionary takeover of a government in the English-speaking Caribbean.
As was relayed during a recent symposium commemorating the tragedy of Bishop’s death, there are examples of discontent among the populations of many Caribbean countries, but none so provoking as the circumstances in Grenada that saw Bishop and NJM overthrow the administration of prime minister Eric Gairy and establish a People’s Revolutionary Government in 1979 until he was deposed and, along with a number of colleagues, executed by firing squad on October 19, 1983.
Head of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Campus Department of History and Philosophy, Dr Henderson Carter, said that the Grenada revolution is so important that it should warrant a lecture by Professor Brian Meeks (on which Barbados TODAY has already reported) and a symposium as well.
“There are generations of young people born after 1979 who have no idea of what happened in Grenada during the 1970s under Eric Gairy, and during the period under Prime Minister Maurice Bishop,” he said in opening remarks in the Cynthia Wilson Arts Lecture Theatre last week.
Panellists were retired journalist, Tim Slinger; Chair of Africana Studies at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA, Professor Brian Meeks; Senior Lecturer in Political Science, Cave Hill, Dr Wendy Grenade; and Associate Professor of Caribbean and Diaspora Studies, Arizona State University, USA, Dr David Hinds.
Testimony by Grenade, a Grenadian, of experiences from a pre-teen at the time of the revolution, perhaps more than other historical accounts, pointed to the uniqueness and lasting impact of the 4 ½ years of revolutionary government that ended in a dispute over the form of party and government leadership needed.
That dispute fractured NJM and saw militia of one faction executing Bishop and government ministers Fitzroy Bain, Norris Bain, Evelyn Bullen Jacqueline Creft, Keith Hayling, Evelyn Maitland, and Unison Whiteman.
“I was in a ‘Gairyite household, a Pentecostal household, but in the Anglican high school,” she said, adding that, “a contradiction of worlds produced me because at home you would be hearing this revolution is about anti-God. Then you go to school and you’re a 12-year-old little girl and you understanding Apartheid and imperialism in Form One.”
Stating that the Anglican high school’s revolutionary education “helped to bring balance to my little mind” she added: “it’s no surprise that a number of us who were high school children during that period, we end up questioning [colonial] empire and we are dealing with issues of social justice”.
“Something happened in that period that produced a particular type in me… in many of us.”
Hinds listed rebellion in Union Island; protests in Guyana leading to the assassination of Walter Rodney; insurrection that fell a Dominica government; a St Lucia radical vote for change to a leftist government; and revolution in Suriname, all in the 1970s and 1980s, as the influencing atmosphere for Maurice Bishop and the NJM.
“All of these rebellions and insurrections were happening in the Caribbean at the same time of the Grenadian revolution.”
While endorsing Hinds’ analysis, Professor Meeks offered that causal factors of the Grenada revolution were more and different.
Distinguishing between popular upheaval, a revolutionary situation, and a revolution, he said: “in the Anglophone Caribbean, in the 1970s, there was only one revolution. It was the revolution in Grenada”.
Meeks, a former lecturer in political theory, comparative politics and Caribbean political thought at four universities in the US, Suriname, and UWI, added Trinidad and Tobago to the list Dr Hinds had put forward.
He however said of the lot, except Suriname, “there was a period of upheaval but in only one country was there a revolution, an overthrow of the state and an attempt to reconstruct the society on entirely different foundations”.
“There were special conditions in Grenada which led to a revolutionary situation.”
He said that unlike most of the Caribbean that experienced labour unrest between 1936 to 1938 giving rise to trade unions and political parties, “this is postponed in Grenada and it happens in 1951” when Gairy was elected to the colony of Grenada’s Legislative Council.
“Gairy comes to the fore, but his very existence, his personage, doesn’t fit the bill. And the middle classes … are very unhappy with him. The upper classes are very unhappy with him.”
Discriminatory practices of Gairy, who was in and out of office, served as Premier and led the country to independence in 1974, was at the same time angering working class Grenadians.
“So what we were having is this crisis at the top in that the people who are the economic and social elites are not having the political leader. They’re hostile to him. There is no united top, a crisis from below as people are not seeing the benefits of Gairyism. This crisis at the top and crisis from below is the context in which the New Jewel Movement emerged as an organisation.” (GA)