In the decades following the end of World Wars I (1914-1918) and II (1939-1945) the wind of change was being felt the world over, shifting the paradigm and altering the balance of power as never before. Territories had been lost and won, borders had been erased and redrawn, and for millions of colonial subjects the world over, the smell of nationalism was in the air. It was a time when, to quote a Trinidadian adage, “Any number could play.” The old guard had been shaken by the wars they had fought amongst themselves, and new voices were rising from the masses of the third world.
For Great Britain in particular, the parallels were stark. She had entered the century having the unassailable boast of commanding the most expansive empire ever known to man. Her coffers were filled by the bounty of India and the far East while the Jewels in her very crown had been taken from the Kimberley mines in South Africa. Her Majesty the Queen held sway over no less than 412 million people, scattered over a range of territories so vast that The empire was known as the one upon which the “sun never set.”
By the end of the second world war, however, such glories were fading fast. The realities of global war had proven to Britain that the sheer size of her Empire meant that she was incapable of defending it. In fact, her empire’s reach had proven to be both a liability and a vulnerability.
The Japanese conquest of Singapore had delivered to the British the greatest military embarrassment they had seen since Isandlwana while continuous bombing on British soil had destroyed hundreds of millions in domestic infrastructure. At the end of the Second World War, Britain was hundreds of pounds in debt to the United States, which itself had remained virtually untouched by the conflict, remote as it was from the theaters of war. Colony by colony the British Empire began to crumble as the irresistible Zeitgeist of Independence began to take hold.
The monumental fiasco of the Independence and partitioning of India seemed to strike the final blow to any lingering British aspirations at Empire. The bloodbath that had resulted from the virtual civil war between the subcontinent’s Hindu and Muslim masses, left a sour taste upon the British palate. By and large, they now wished to get the business of granting independence to its colonies over and done with, and that in a swift and orderly manner.
To the inhabitants of the British West Indies, these unfortunate series of events seemed to be working out in their favour. They had been agitating for autonomous government for quite some time. The early half of the twentieth century had been rife with a number of pro-independence movements that had met with varying degrees of resistance and success. By and large, the descendants of enslaved African and indentured Indian labourers, the people of the British West Indies saw independence and sovereignty as the final step to removing the yoke of colonialism and white supremacy from their necks.
It was with a wary eye that the British Crown observed the seething underbelly of unrest. A young black and Indian intelligencia had risen almost overnight, holding names that would soon become legends in their own right: Williams, Price, Gairy, Adams. Many of them former students of Oxford or other British Universities, they had written theses denouncing the very nation in which they had received their pedagogy. The seminal work of Dr. Eric Williams in particular, titled “Capitalism and Slavery”, was a scathing analysis of the colonial system that had generated most of Britain’s wealth. It was perhaps difficult to believe that these young men, the descendants of those who had been slaves and indentured labourers just a few generations before, were now agitating for control of the very territories that their ancestors had toiled upon. They were intelligent, resolute and ready to govern.
They were hardly the only source of concern. The egalitarian allure of socialism was widespread among the subjects of an Empire whose very claim to ascendancy was based upon a system of racism and systematic oppression. So great was the British and American fear of the Caribbean basin becoming a hub of socialism in their very backyards, that the British would stage a coup and overthrow, in 1953, the democratic government of what was then British Guiana, led by avowed Socialist Cheddi Jagan. In that same year, socialist agitator Fidel Castro began his campaign of guerilla warfare against the government of Fulgencio Batista on the island of Cuba.
The threat then, of the British West Indies falling to revolution, or yet worse Socialism, had become a very pressing reality, one that the British and their American allies wished to avoid at all costs. Thus, a solution was seized upon which would allow the Crown to relinquish its responsibility of these territories while also quelling the growing fires of unrest and discontent among them.
Britain’s solution was to do what even nature and geography had proven unable to accomplish. She sought to unify the West Indies into a single body, a federation of states, with a single government and a single economy. By doing so, Britain would not only be able to grant independence to all territories involved in one fell swoop, but it would ensure against any individualistic attempts to form socialist governments within the region. Based loosely upon the Canadian Confederation, the idea was also looked upon favourably by most of the region’s leaders who saw this as an opportunity for the region to emerge as a major power on the world stage, freshly independent and ready to prosper. Thus it was that the West Indies Federation was founded on January 3rd, 1958, comprised of ten Island territories, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, the then St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, Saint Lucia, St Vincent, and Trinidad and Tobago.
This optimistic and rather naïve fantasy would soon be dispelled. The desire to unify was indeed strong, but the instincts of nationalism and insularity were stronger. The Federation was not to have a single economy, as the smaller islands feared being economically eclipsed by relative fiscal giants, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica. Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, in turn, ensured that freedom of movement between the states of the federation would not become a possibility, as they feared being overrun by the inhabitants of the smaller islands who already viewed these two territories as symbols of advancement and opportunity.
The Federal elections, carded for March 25th, 1958, would make only more glaring the divisions already present in the still-nascent Federation.
The parties that vied for the right to govern the fledgling Federation, both Jamaican in origin, were known as the West Indies Federal Labour Party ( WIFLP) and the Democratic Labour Party (DLP). The mandates of the two parties were by and large Identical, with the key difference being that the WIFLP agitated for internal self-government while the DLP did not. Taking into account the strong sense of nationalism that prevailed at the time, the WIFLP naturally proved victorious. The leader of the WIFLP, Sir Grantly Adams would become the Prime Minister of the Federation. This would ring the first death knell for the Federation for a reason that seemed almost trivial at the time.
Sir Grantley Adams was from the island of Barbados.
The Jamaican population was livid, had not the party been founded by one of their own after all? Jamaica, with its status as the largest economy in the Caribbean at that time, saw itself as the natural leader of the Federation, followed only by Trinidad. The problem was that Jamaica’s premier, Norman Manley had not even contested the election. Not it turned out, had Dr. Eric Williams, by this time Premier of Trinidad and Tobago.
The fact was that to accept Federal leadership was to lose a significant amount of power and influence, at least for someone who was already a leader of an island territory. Not only could the Federal Prime Minister not call individual states to task, but he also did not have the power to dissolve parliament, a necessary weapon that is a part of any self-respecting Prime Minister’s arsenal. The office then seemed little more than a symbolic one, a puppet office with the real power still held by the crown, who could veto any laws or policies created by the Federation. Thus the leaders of the two regional giants declined to contest the election.
This would have a profound effect on the perception of the citizens of their respective islands. It was obvious that their leaders did not take the Federation seriously, preferring to hold on to power in their own governments than to seek to govern a body that they did not foresee having a great deal of longevity. To the Jamaicans in particular, Federation became a word that was only spoken with scorn.
The second slight against Jamaican national honour was the choosing of the Federation’s Capital. Early in the conceptualization of the Federation, it had been agreed that the site for the capital should have been one of the smaller islands, as a means of striking a balance of power and ensuring that the larger economies would not become overwhelmingly powerful. The idea of selecting the island of Grenada had been flirted around with but ultimately abandoned after meeting with widespread opposition. When Trinidad was selected, however, Jamaican disenchantment was almost universal, for Trinidad was not one of the smaller islands that could perhaps have benefited from the increased economic drive that hosting the capital would provide. Trinidad and Tobago already had a stable economy and were Jamaica’s admitted rivals in the region. The prowess and influence of its Premier, Dr. Eric Williams was already known, and many feared his ambition. The Jamaicans believed that regardless of where the Prime Minister was from, placing the capital in Trinidad would ensure that Trinidadian interests were given priority. Chaguaramas, a coastal town, was chosen as the site of the proposed capital. However, the area had been leased by the British to the American Army during World War 2 and therefore could not be used. Port of Spain became the De Facto capital of the Federation.
This would prove to be another bone of contention that would convince Jamaicans that their interests were best secured alone. A natural opponent of any form of Imperialism, Dr. Eric Williams was adamant that the Americans cede the base to the Federation and leave Trinidad and Tobago once and for all. In this, he was supported by Jamaican Premier Norman Manley. These hopes, however, were frustrated by the Prime Minister of the Federation himself who, encouraged and supported by the US, prevented the acquisition of Chaguaramas, greatly angering the populations of Trinidad and Jamaica.
At this point, Jamaica began to look outwards. They were now three years into the Federation and the proposed Independence was still not forthcoming. Meanwhile, some former British Colonies on the African continent, such as Sierra Leone had already secured independence. Besides this, the Federation was constantly requesting that Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago contribute more finances to the Federation, even though they already collectively provided about 85% of the Federal budget. The Jamaicans felt, not unjustly, that the smaller islands were leeching off of them and hampering their acquisition of Independence. Jamaica had had enough.
In September of 1961, unrest among the citizenry and agitation by the local arm of the DLP led to the holding of a referendum on whether or not Jamaica should remain in the Federation. The ballots cast, the matter was decided: Jamaica would leave the Federation and pursue Independence on its own, and on August 6th, 1962, Jamaica would become fully independent.
The ire and disappointment that was felt by the remaining members of the Federation were raw and palpable. How could Jamaica turn its back on her sister states in such a manner? It felt like a betrayal. The Grenadian born but Trinidad based Calypsonian, Slinger Francisco, sobriquet “The Mighty Sparrow”, took to verse to explain his contempt of the Jamaican secession, going so far as to label them as “Traitors”. His words, immortalized by time, in his song “Federation” are delivered with almost heartbreaking anguish.
The deed was done and now all eyes would turn towards the Trinidadian premier, Dr. Eric WIlliams. As the leader of what was now the Federation’s most powerful country member, its continued viability and survival were dependent on him. However, the continued insecurity of the smaller island states regarding the ascendancy of Trinidad as the region’s supreme power would prove to be the Federation’s detriment. They were eager to stipulate that in the absence of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago would now have to provide an astounding 80 percent of the Federation’s revenue. On the other hand, they sought to limit Trinidad’s influence in the Federal Parliament to less than half of the seats even though Trinidad now represented 60 percent of the Federal population. Other leaders were adamant that they would maintain their sovereignty at all costs, as they feared that Williams wished to create a single federal state, with Trinidad and Tobago at its fore.
Things had now come to a head for Dr. Williams. He had nursed plans of unifying the region into a single state as he had mentioned on occasion, but the projected financial burden and loss of power that would be occasioned by Trinidad’s remaining in the Federation was unacceptable to him. Having also been recently re-elected as Trinidad’s premier, he judged that the time was ripe to seek his nation’s independence, independently.
Shifting the blame to the Jamaicans for leaving the Federation in the first place, he pronounced the now-famous words that were to prove to be the final nail in the Federal Coffin.
The statement was logically, if not Mathematically, sound. With Jamaica’s exit, the situation had become untenable, at least from the Trinidadian point of view. Too much was being asked of them with very little provided in return. Thus Trinidad and Tobago seceded from the Federation in January 14, 1962. It would go on to secure independence from Britain on 31st August of that same year.
Deprived of its primary financiers, the Federation began to crumble, much like the Biblical fable of the feet of iron and clay. The remaining islands turned to Barbados, who staunchly refused to accept the Federation’s financial burdens. There followed a sad episode where several of the fledgling states searched desperately for a protector, with Antigua and Grenada exploring the option of becoming Trinidadian subsidiaries. All would be left to fend for themselves however, becoming independent in their own right at their own pace.
In spite of the failure of the Federation, the prospects of the benefits of increased regional integration were not lost upon the newly independent states of the Caribbean. Throughout the decades, they have taken several strides forward in this direction, with the formation of the Caribbean Community, or CARICOM in 1973. The University of the West Indies also lives on as a reminder of the Federal aspirations of the region. But perhaps it is in the West Indies Cricket Team, that one can truly observe the beauty of the Federation that might have been. Unified in a common cause, the Islands would go on to make a name for themselves on the World Cricket scene, dealing defeat several times to England, their former colonizer. Such victories signaled a coming of age of the West Indian psyche that went “Beyond the Boundary” as stated by veteran historian and socialist, Trinidadian C.L.R. James. In spite of its hurdles and failure to unify, one is still moved to sing along with Calypsonian David Rudder: