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Independence: Where is our patriotism?

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Each year the month of October brings with it some level of focus on the significance of the month for Vincentians, and a most welcome attention from the media to local cultural matters. Historically, October has witnessed some very significant milestones in our history, two of them very major, placing this month alongside the months of March and August in our march to political and social progress.{{more}}

Holding the spotlight for us in October is the achievement of political independence from Britain, on October 27, 1979, the second and final stage of a process which started with the quaint status of Associate Statehood, ten years before. Yet, it is not generally understood by our people that there may not have been this smooth and peaceful progression to independence, had it not been for sacrifices made by largely unsung Vincentians more than four decades earlier.

The events of October 21, 1935 and their aftermath are still to be etched on the national conscience or recognized in a manner as say, the corresponding events in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago in June of 1937 and Jamaica one year later. In these countries, there is a direct connection between those popular revolts against colonial rule, the disenfranchisement of our people and the dreadful social and economic conditions of the day and the achievement of both adult suffrage and later political independence. The anniversaries of those uprisings are marked with national holidays and the leaders extolled for their role in them.

In SVG, save for the never-ending debate as to whether outstanding labour leader, the late George A. McIntosh, should be made a National Hero, we politely ignore the place of October 21, 1935 in our political history. It was not only McIntosh who faced the wrath of the colonial authorities subsequently, ordinary folk like Samuel ‘Sheriff’ Lewis and several of his courageous colleagues were also prosecuted. Lives were lost and poor people in many communities punished severely.

Women like Bertha Mutt played important supporting roles, but whereas in Trinidad and Tobago, the powerful Oilfield Workers Trade Union remembers with reverence the role of some women of Vincy descent such as Elma Francois and Thelma Williams, Bertha Mutt’s name is not even whispered here. We like to talk a lot these days about ‘Unsung Heroes’, but not a word about these conveniently forgotten heroes and heroines of 1935.

All this contributes to our lack of understanding and appreciation of our own history and as a consequence is reflected in our low level of patriotism. Every year in the month of October, we stage the same battle for national consciousness, trying to whip up a positive sense of patriotism and love for our country. It is my own view that for some still unexplained reasons, Vincentians seem to exhibit a reduced sense of commitment to the national cause more than many of our neighbours.

There may be several reasons for this. Certainly, the circumstances under which we achieved independence may have contributed. There was much political turmoil leading up to contentious elections in December of 1979 and much of the economic and social life of the country was disrupted by the effects of the volcanic eruption of April of that year. But we were not the only people to raise our national flag amidst social and political unrest. Grenada too, was mired in problems when Eric Gairy led it to independence in 1974.

One very distinguished colleague of mine also attributes this weakness in our national consciousness to other historical factors, among them the relative brevity of sustained, direct colonial rule, as distinct from longer ‘settled’ colonies such as Barbados. This must have contributed as well, but even after independence we have failed to grapple with this unsatisfactory state of patriotism.

Worse, we have played political football with our independence, relating to official celebrations based on which party is in power. Both sides must share some of the blame. First, there was the birth of the nation in a context of straight political opportunism. Then, there occurred the unfortunate reaction from one who must have been embittered by the events preceding and following independence and elections in 1979 — Sir James Mitchell. Whether fairly or not, (history will surely be the judge), there was an impression of a less than fully enthusiastic embrace by Sir James of independence celebrations during his time in office. Even when he changed the national flag, rather arbitrarily, he was not even at home to raise it for the first time.

To the credit of the NDP’s term in office though, the early years saw some of the most meaningful community organising for Independence, under the Best Community programme, mobilizing villagers to take pride in their communities. Former Minister Herbert Young is still fondly remembered for this noble effort.

(PART II Next Week: COUNTRY FIRST)

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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