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Back to Regional Unity

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Vincentians, like most other English speaking Caribbean people, went out to vote in March 1958, to elect members of the West Indies Parliament of 45 representatives. St Vincent and the Grenadines had two seats, Jamaica had 17, while Trinidad and Tobago had 10. 120 years after emancipation from British slavery, and 54 years before we set up the OECS Parliament, our grandparents had a regional government under Prime Minister Grantley Adams of Barbados.{{more}} It is worth a pause to just reflect on that easily buried fact.

Jamaica became an independent state in 1962, the same year that our British Caribbean (dominion) Government broke up. It was like “United we fall, divided we stand!”

Now, my business here is not to point fingers and say whose fault it is that “United we fall”. People who were there have written good books about it and others too. Perhaps the question we need to ask is this: What made a West Indies Federal Government actually emerge and succeed, what and who designed, formed, established and operated it? Permit me to speculate a little bit.

The Visions of Different Classes

Imagine a population of two million people scattered in units from British Guiana to British Honduras in the west and Bermuda and the Bahamas in the north. The “owners” of these territories, Great Britain, saw good sense in bringing this string of colonies into groups – if not into one group. For example, 350 years ago, in 1763, the British put Grenada, St Vincent, Dominica, Tobago and the Grenadines into one colonial unit, “the southern Caribee Islands”. However, by 1767-1768 /1771, each of the four islands got a separate local assembly, instead of being one unit. From the colonial top, unity in the region is an obvious answer to management and control. In the middle however, those who had some local power in the colonies, like the planters, they don’t favour any unity that will cut their style and limit their rule. What about those at the base, the bottom of the colonial or slave society, what was their vision of the region and their place in it? The most I would say is that those at the base would resign and carry out their dreams, struggles and confrontations in very local sites, but they could very well have broader visions connected to their African and Callinago roots, as well as the impressions, news and expressions of the conflict between the planters and the British. Their vision of a wider region would surely include the stimulation they received from reports of slave actions from runaways in the mountains and from overseas, as in the resolutions in St Dominique/ Haiti. Regionalism among the oppressed is a problematic conjecture.

What then can we say brought a regional Caribbean government to be set up 50 years ago in our islands? Whose visions and what did they have in mind?

100 years ago, the British looked at their colonies and decided that some of them had their kind of social apparatus and governance. They gave them the name “Dominions”. Their population had a good number of Europeans in control. There were places like Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Somewhere along the line, they looked at their West Indian colonies and imagined that although we had a majority black population, there were enough of us who could operate the social machine like whites. In fact, at British universities we had sons (and daughters?) who did better than their own boys and girls. “Let’s offer the West Indies a kind of dominion status. A federation led by the men we have trained, then independence.” They didn’t use my words. This is how I translate their colonial vision into words that make sense.

Of course it was the men and women in the British Empire’s middle, our West Indian leaders of 60 years ago, with whom they shared this vision of a British West Indian unity in their local hands. Our political, trades union, professional and social leaders bought the idea, but they had other visions too, based on the calculation that the power they could hold in their own small corner/ pond would be much more than in the bigger broader regional ocean. The two visions came together fitfully and we the people voted for this longed for unity, packaged by leaders from the colonial and local class coalition. From 1958 to 1962, the West Indies Federal Government operated, and then fell.

Since then, the local has been triumphing over the regional vision, and those who are at the base – a population that is growing wider and perhaps wiser, have too little opportunity and instrument to think “region”.

I would like your help to look for tools for envisioning and engineering a majority people’s region—something that can return cricket and other productive energies to our use.

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