Sir James F. Mitchell — Servant of our people
A Tribute by Dr. the Honourable Godwin Friday, President of the New Democratic Party, Leader of the Opposition and Member for Northern Grenadines, December 15, 2021
When Sir James F. Mitchell died on Tuesday November 23, 2021, in his beloved home island of Bequia, we lost a dear, devoted servant of our people. We may never see another like him!
I feel privileged to have known him and to have worked with him and shared his counsel over the years. Like many others, I, too, am still comprehending the loss.
Growing up in Bequia, my first awareness of politics was simultaneously an awareness of the name “Son Mitchell”. In the early days, everyone called him by that name; many of the older heads still do. Most people now accord him the honour due in the title “Sir James” that was bestowed upon him for his exemplary public service. In truth, he happily answered to either.
His entrance on the political stage was a leap forward for the people of the Grenadines, whom he represented for over 35 years until 2001. (First the entire Grenadines and then Northern Grenadines, after the seat was divided into two constituencies.) Their hopes and dreams he kept with his own and made them together a constant part of his life’s work. He toiled tirelessly to transform those hopes and dreams into reality. And his efforts paid rich dividends for all of us.
Throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s, his legend took hold and rapidly grew. Back then, we followed his exploits in Parliament like cricket on the radio and revelled in his marathon contributions to the debates in the House. From the beginning, he was for us in the Grenadines our champion. Soon, he would also earn a place in the hearts of Vincentians all over the country, for they saw in him a man and political leader who wanted to make life better for them and had the ability and determination to do it.
His work as Minister of Agriculture in Milton Cato’s Labour Party government between 1967 and 1972, gave him broad appeal, especially on the mainland and provided a glimpse of his great vision to bring about land reform in the country. This vision expanded during his time as Premier from 1972 to 1974 and reached full expression when he brought his New Democratic Party to government and served as Prime Minister from 1984 to 2000.
The land reforms that he brought about led to a veritable land-owning revolution in our country which, in turn, transformed our agricultural sector. Large estates of traditional landowners were subdivided into small farms owned by ordinary people, who set about building their brighter future and making opportunities they had only dreamed of available to their children. The result has been an enduring legacy of economic empowerment of ordinary people in our country. Sir James was extremely happy about this because it confirmed in him his belief in the people and their capacity, given a chance, to transform their own lives for the better.
Sir James was a visionary of tremendous ability and courage. So much of the political work that he did in those early years, before he had an organization to support him, depended on his perseverance and on his skill in motivating people to join his cause. He traversed the country with trusted friends and fellow political aspirants. Those efforts built the political foundation upon which he stood thereafter.
During his time on the national stage, he saw it all and did it all. He was Minister, Premier, Opposition Leader and Opposition member, Prime Minister and retired politician. His political life spanned milestones in our nation’s history. He started out under colonial administration and in 1969, as part of the Labour Party government, saw our country move to internal self-government via the attainment of Statehood. A decade later, while in Opposition, he participated in the march to national independence.
Meanwhile, in 1975, with friends and like-minded Vincentians, he founded the New Democratic Party. Over the years, he built the NDP into a formidable political institution that won four consecutive general elections between 1984 and 1998, achieving in 1989 the unmatched distinction of winning all fifteen seats: and this, after only its first term in government. Today, his Party stands proudly on its record in government and in Opposition and continues to pursue his vision of a prosperous and free country that adheres to the rule of law and the principles of democracy, and that provides for all its people.
Throughout his long political career, Sir James remained committed to regional integration and unity. Indeed, the constitution of his beloved NDP, has as one of its objects the pursuit of regional unity. He collaborated with other Caribbean leaders over the decades defining what we must aim for and negotiating what was possible. His experience in regionalism and his understanding of the politics in each country made him invaluable as an advisor to political leaders in and out of government throughout the Caribbean. Likewise, his membership in the InterAction Council after his retirement allowed him to continue to discuss relevant matters with former world leaders like himself, who felt that others might benefit from their perspective. They, too, will no doubt play a part in preserving his legacy.
Sir James’ life was a life well-lived; long and productive. He never stopped working—educating others and recording our times for posterity. The last time I visited him at his home, he gleefully informed me that he had just finished writing his new book. Typing and editing was still to be done, he said, but the story he wished to tell was all there. He felt that it was important to continue to record his times for those who come after. I, therefore, encourage everyone to read his writings. They are easy and enjoyable to read, for Sir James was an excellent writer, who wrote not to impress, but to communicate.
As a nation, we were truly fortunate that Sir James chose public service and pursued it steadfastly over his long life. He was well-educated and possessed of many talents that could have taken him along other successful paths. But he chose, to our eternal benefit, to use his talents, training, and energy to serve his people and develop his country. He was a true nation-builder, who came at a time in our history when our newly independent nation was in its infancy and needed courageous and visionary leadership to instil confidence in our people that, indeed, our faith and works would see us through. He was made for such a time and the time for him!
While we are saddened by his death, we also know that we must celebrate his life. All of us, who knew him and benefitted from his work, have a duty to proclaim his achievements and preserve his legacy, for nowadays it has become far too easy for many among us to let go the past not realizing how much we owe to it, including the many things we now enjoy because of the efforts of Sir James and those who toiled with him.
Sir James, thank you from a grateful nation. Thank you for inspiring so many of our people, including me, to dream big and to go bravely, in God.
To his family, I extend my love and deepest sympathy. May God comfort you in your loss, and may He receive our friend into his loving arms