The most repressive period in modern Vincentian politics
As we begin to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the recovery of our Independence with the expected pomp and ceremony, we will do well to reflect on the rough road we had to travel. The most repressive period we had to endure was from Statehood to the period immediately after Independence. Admittedly, they were challenging years for Caribbean governments, but the true test was how individual governments coped with it. It was a period of decolonisation as Britain’s smaller colonies in the Caribbean attempted to join those that had earlier gained their independence. It was the time of the Black Power Movement. It was a period when ideas were contending as Caribbean peoples began to search for a post-colonial identity. The theme “Black is Beautiful” forced especially black Caribbean people to re-examine themselves and their history as people subjected to colonialism. Marxist and socialist ideas became part of the contending ideas. Unfortunately, we did not handle the situation properly and our governments felt threatened by these ideas and the groups that became their advocates.
Perhaps we can start with the John Cato affair. He was dismissed from his position at the Grammar School with no reasons given, except two adverse reports from the Ministry of Education and Inland Revenue. His case went before the Public Service Board which spotted irregularities in the case brought against him, but was forced to bow to the submission of the AG who claimed that the Crown had the right to dismiss any civil servant without giving reasons. A curious argument given the fact that the Statehood constitution gave us control over our internal affairs. There were other cases involving Mike Browne, Kerwin Morris and Parnel Campbell.
A dictatorial attitude prevailed with young persons being badgered and driven off the streets by 9 p.m. Persons who demonstrated against the visit of Princess Margaret were beaten by the police.
Books were banned. Casper London was charged for possessing selected writings of Ho Chi Minh. Renwick Rose was charged for possessing two copies of World Trade Union Report and the Soviet Weekly paper. This was after a search of his home by 18 armed policemen. For about two hours his yard was dug up and his house searched. Ralph Gonsalves, then a student at UWI in 1969, was heavily monitored on his return home where he gave a lecture on the banning of Walter Rodney at the University Centre. Hudson Soso, a strong supporter of the government, was forced to denounce it in the Vincentian, saying that he found no good reason for considering him a security risk. Persons who did not even indicate a wish to visit St.Vincent were banned. Among them Walter Rodney, Pat Emmanuel of Grenada, Stokely Carmichael, Peter Josie, Eusi Kwayana and Rosie Douglas. Calypsonians were harassed. De Man Age’s “This Society Needs a Spectacle” was banned from the airways. When the next year he sang “De Go Ban It”, they actually banned it. Sheller’s calypso “Big Jobs” was cut off the air while he was singing to defend his crown. De Man Age was eventually fired from his teaching job.
The 1971 Public Service Act was a draconian piece of legislation that muzzled civil servants, preventing them from writing anything expressing an opinion on any matter of a political or administrative nature. They could not take an active part in any meeting organised by a Trade Union which was wholly or partly political. This was one of the grievances that led to the 1975 Teachers Strike. During discussions around the issue of Independence teachers and public servants felt threatened if they participated since they could under the Act be charged. The Public Order and Safety Bill and Essential Services Bill were introduced two years after Independence. Among other things it was an offence “to have an intention to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite dissatisfaction against the Constitution or Government.” As with the other repressive actions the people protested. The March and Demonstration of June 16, 1981 was one of the largest ever experienced in the country.
What I have highlighted are only some of the repressive measures at an important period in the development of the society. It was surely repression at its uttermost.
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian