A Small Glimpse: Lewis & Walcott Shaping The Caribbean Narrative

Every year on January 23rd Saint Lucia celebrates the accomplishments of its two Nobel Laureates who have been credited with making significant contributions to the island and the Caribbean region. The date was selected as both men- Sir Arthur Lewis and Sir Derek Walcott share January 23rd as their birth date. The two also share an alma mater- St. Mary’s College. But most importantly, they share a reputation as two men from an island, which is regarded as a speck on the world map, who have been widely celebrated on the international stage. Sir Arthur Lewis was the first of the two to receive the highly prestigious Nobel Prize. In 1979, the year Saint Lucia attained Independence he became one of the first black men to receive a Nobel Prize when he received recognition for his contributions to the field of Economics. Thirteen years later, Derek Walcott would follow in his footsteps, when he earned the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature. Together, the two have played a significant role in bringing Saint Lucian global recognition and acclaim and shaping the narrative of the island and the region.

Derek Walcott is widely appreciated as a leading voice in Caribbean Literature who has published a body of work that encapsulates West Indian identity and heritage. His Nobel Prize-winning plays and poetry that are taught in Literature classes around the Caribbean focus heavily on his own journey as a West Indian. Thus, he has provided a body of work that Caribbean students can study in an academic context, as a means of gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of the history and heritage of their region. More importantly, it is material that students can identify with, a refreshing prospect for many students of Literature who are often relegated to studying material that does not reflect their own experiences as people from a diverse and vibrant region. The Nobel Prize committee has described Walcott’s Literary work as displaying great luminosity. In emphasizing the importance of his work, they noted that his material had “laid a course for his own cultural environment, but through them, he speaks to each and every one of us. In him, West-Indian culture has found its great poet”. This intrinsic connection between his work and his Caribbean identity is readily seen in various pieces, perhaps most notably his poem ‘The Schooner Flight’. He writes,

“I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation,”

Through such work, Walcott readily distinguished himself as a literary voice for his people- not just in his home country of Saint Lucia, but his region. By sharing authentic Caribbean narratives he has helped to deconstruct widely held stereotypes and misconceptions about the region which may have been attributed to the global community’s ignorance of aspects of the Caribbean, its story and its people.

Sir Arthur Lewis’ contributions in the field of Economics have helped to shape the economic policies and pathways of many of the region’s countries. From the early 1950’s the ‘Lewis Model’ of Economic Development heavily influenced the Caribbean. It would also go on to play a significant role in influencing economic patterns decades later. In some of his most famous works, ‘Industrialisation of the West Indies (1950) and Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour (1954) presented a novel approach to stimulating economic growth and development in Caribbean nations. His dual approach suggested the expansion of the region’s small industrial sectors along with the coexistence of a much larger agricultural sector which would pay subsistence wages. In this model which would eventually define most of the region’s subsequent economic policy, he proposed that maintaining constant wages would lead to growth in the industrial sector. He further suggested that surpluses would be reinvested and that excess labour would be obtained from the much larger agricultural sector. He proposed that through this approach, economic conditions and living standards would eventually improve and that countries in the Caribbean would be able to meet the food and employment needs of their populations. To complement this, he also suggested that the region should attract foreign investment since the Caribbean did not have substantial amounts of capital. Many have argued that to a large extent, this model continues to drive the region’s current economic policy.

Moreover, Lewis as a world-renowned economist is recognized as one of the founders of the Caribbean Development Bank, of which he was the first President. The bank was formed with the aim of fostering economic cooperation and integration among Caribbean states. During this initial stewardship, he helped pave the way for the organization to become an important agent of Caribbean development, with a particular focus on helping to stimulate economic growth in the least developed countries of the region. The Bank has since inception, contributed towards a number of key development areas through loans, contingent loans, equity and approved grants to member states. Between 1970 and 2017, 25.5 % of the Bank’s contributions to Barbados went towards improving social infrastructure, while 29. 37 % went towards enhancing transportation and communication services. Similarly, between 2012 and 2017, 65.03 % of the Bank’s assistance in Haiti went towards social infrastructure and services. 54.21 % went towards environmental sustainability and disaster risk reduction. These are essential areas critical to a developing country. This forms part of Lewis’ legacy, as the institution was formed with significant input and oversight from Lewis as one of the leading economists in the region and the world.

Sir Arthur Lewis and Sir Derek Walcott have both been widely celebrated at all levels- locally, regionally and internationally. Their legacies in their respective fields continue to shape the region in various ways and to illuminate the vast potential of the West Indies. Though they have both passed on- Lewis in 1991 and Walcott more recently in 2017- their inspiring legacies and informative bodies of work continue to live on, instilling a great sense of pride in Saint Lucia and the region.

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