Rueful remembrance of West Indian Federation
Guyana Chronicle
May 7, 2002

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YESTERDAY’s random airing on GBC of Sparrow’s classic calypso on the break-up of the West Indies Federation evoked in one writer’s mind a collection of rueful memories of the dreams and disappointments that pervaded the societies of the region just under 50 years ago. Perhaps it is because the territories of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are at the point of counting down to the moment when the long-dreamt of Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) will come into being. Perhaps, too, much of the innate pessimism of the CSME’s ever moving from blueprint to actual realisation has negatively affected the minds of some persons, although they basically believe that an economic free trade arrangement for the region is a necessary and good development.

The Bard’s succinct lines cut through thousands of words and speak directly to the heart of the region’s failure half a century ago to form a successful political union. “Jamaica have a right to speak she mind…no Bajan gon be Prime Minister for here…If they know they didn’t want Federation/And they know they don’t want to unite as one/Tell de doctor you not in favour/Don’t behave like a blasted traitor/ We don’t want no Federation no more.” The brilliant calypsonian was vocalizing some of the bitter recriminations, which followed the break-up of Federation. That institution was launched formally in 1958 and abruptly concluded in 1962 following a referendum in the island of Jamaica.

Gordon K. Lewis gives his thoughts on the “stillborn” West Indian Federation in his book, The Growth of the Modern West Indies: “For West Indian politicians, like all politicians in more or less popular systems, are representative men who reflect and who must reflect if they wish to survive, the basic general prejudices of their electorates. To use them as scapegoats - Manley ‘betrayed’ us, or ‘Busta’ deserted the sinking ship - is to indulge the easy temptation of blaming individuals instead of seeing that individuals reflect the social pressures of their time, that, in this particular case, both of the Jamaican leaders were merely mouthpieces for a Jamaican insularity, which as the 1961 referendum vote showed, was overwhelmingly the outlook of the majority of Jamaicans…Allied to the argument of ‘politics’ was the more general argument that the Federation died for want of a powerful spirit of Westindianism to give it drive and energy. That, of course, was true. But it was also largely irrelevant. For such a sense of federal loyalty, historically, has been the result, not the cause of federal enterprise. Indeed, it is precisely the absence of such a sense that necessitates in the beginning, a federal structure in any case, for otherwise a group of peoples seeking some form of amalgamation could proceed immediately to the stage of a unitary state. The absence of that sense, in the West Indian case, was of course compounded by other special factors. There was no history of popular revolt, of armed struggle against the imperial power to feed it. There was no fear of annexation by an alien power such as helped the Canadians after 1812 to grow closer to each other as they looked across the border to the growing expansionist spirit of American Manifest Destiny.”

Committed West Indian integrationists such as the late Dr William Demas argued for decades on the importance of these scattered territories pooling resources and complementing each other’s programmes for their overall economic development and social progress. He consistently gave the example of the highly developed Scandinavian countries, which in the 1970s saw the economic gains of sharing a single airline. Of course, with the collapse of more barriers to global trade and the increasingly free movement of capital, goods and services, trade blocs may no longer have the great advantages that obtained 20 years ago. Additionally, the aftermath of the tragedies of September 11 has witnessed a dramatic re-configuration of global business. In light of these developments, even the region’s leading Bard may view the brave attempt at a Federative West Indies as truly a pious dream.