Yesterday was the birthday of the father of our nation, Sir Vere Cornwall Bird Sr. Were he alive today, he would have been 111 years. We are indeed grateful that the good Lord, in his infinite wisdom, lent Sir V.C. to us for a season.
He was our Moses, the man who led us out of the wilderness of colonialism, deprivation and despair. Dr. Natasha Lightfoot referred to those awful conditions in her book by the same name, TROUBLING FREEDOM. True, the good doctor was referring to the period immediately after emancipation in 1834, but those conditions have persisted, some, even unto this day. (See also Papa Sammy’s, TO SHOOT HARD LABOUR).
The wrongs, indeed, the enormous damage inflicted on us, cannot be whitewashed and made to magically disappear by a resolution in the English parliament and the stroke of a pen. The English and the many institutions in England that profited from the subjugation of our ancestors, ought to know that reparations are due. The institutions that financed and facilitated slavery, and those that profited from the same, must be made to pay for their epic crimes against humanity. (See the Antigua and Barbuda Reparations Support Commission and its efforts in that regard).
It was in response to those ghastly crimes that the British were forced to set up a Royal Commission under Lord Moyne to look into our intolerable socio-economic conditions that was leading to much unrest. For example, there was the famous 1918 riot for better wages and better working conditions. That riot, on Newgate and Popeshead Streets, was led by the Reverend George ‘Georgie Fowl’ Weston. He was a great Antiguan.
The Moyne Commission heard evidence from disadvantaged workers, the members of the legislature, the Lodges, the Friendly Societies, other NGOs and of course the Planters, from December 29, 1938 to January 2, 1939 in the venerable Court House on Long Street. Ambassador Lionel ‘Max’ Hurst gives an extraordinary account of those heady days in his biographical work, VERE CORNWALL BIRD – When Power Failed To Corrupt (See pages 65 – 69).
As you can imagine, the Moyne Commission proceedings resulted in damning evidence against the planters, and it inspired Sir V.C. Bird, and a number of other great Antiguan fighters, to take action to better the conditions of the people. Papa V.C. left the Salvation Army where he was a captain to help form a Trade Union, on the advice of Sir Walter Citrine, the visionary head of the British Trade Union Congress, and member of the Moyne Commission. The Antigua Trades and Labour Union (AT&LU) was formed on January 16, 1939. Mr Reginald Stevens was its first president, but he was replaced in short order by Papa V.C Bird. It was a great moment in the history of workers and their rights. After all, with due respects to Reginald Stevens, he’d defanged the fledgling Union by settling on a ‘no-strike’ pledge with the planters. Plus, he lacked the force and dynamism of Papa V.C.. He lacked the charisma of the tall, imposing figure, who was always dapperly clad with his trademark fedora. Papa V.C knew how to make an entrance, and his very presence filled any room. He spoke with the cadences and intonations of a fire-and-brimstone gospel preacher. Remember, he was greatly influenced by his church upbringing, as well as the fiery rhetoric of Marcus Garvey, one of the outstanding black leaders of all time, and an aspiring preacher in his own right. Garvey electrified Bird and others at the famous Anglican schoolroom. Ambassador Hurst, in the aforementioned Bird biography, gives a gripping account of the Marcus Garvey visit and his great speech entitled, THE POWER OF MAN TO SAFE HIMSELF.
In one of his literary gems, A BIRD’S EYE VIEW – Contemplations In Poetry, Sir Lester Bird, a son of Papa V.C., and a former Prime Minister, writes in Elegy To The Last Titan (Papa Bird): “…Did he not emancipate the social fabric that bound us in intractable rage / That bred a nation in twain, built on hypocrites and colonial tyrants / But rescued by Stevens and Bird, Lake and Williams and Hurst and Carrot and many warriors brave? / Did he not roar like a tiger in dark of night and on the blending of the noonday sun? / To make you tall and strong? / Indeed, of strikes and confrontations with legendary names of governors, administrators and syndicates? / Did he not implant in you the soul and thirst for freedom?/ Did he not make us drink from the clean waters of this land and eschew the ponds so filled with mud? /Were not our bellies and tongues swollen with the scourge of malnutrition and our feet with ‘jigger’ and our heads with lice?” He did. Papa V.C. certainly fought the good fight and kept the faith.
Sadly, we have strayed from the paths of righteousness. We have not been true to the trust that Papa V.C. left us – certainly not this incarnation of the Labour Party. Never mind that there are many scions of that party in this current administration, the Antigua Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) is an imposter. Whereas Papa V.C. fought for our lands, the ABLP is falling all over itself to give them away to the people who once enslaved our ancestors. Whereas Papa V.C. was not averse to using strikes, pickets, demonstrations and other forms of industrial action to better the conditions of workers, this ABLP fights against those rights, with threats and other strong-arm acts of intimidation and coercion. Whereas Papa V.C. fought against foreigners coming here to do as they like (see his rejection of the suggestion by Moody-Stuart that the Syndicate Estates be purchased by planters from Kenya), this ABLP gleefully rubs its hands and declares words to the effect, “Open sesame! Just bring your money and come and pee all over the frigate bird sanctuary, Palmetto Point, and the North East Marine Management Area (NEMMA).” (See John-Paul DeJoria and Zhang Yida). What a shame! Whereas Papa V.C. promised to “Leave the Barbuda people alone,” bowing with much respect to their long-held communal land rights, this ABLP is colluding with those who wish to dispossess the Barbudans of that which is rightfully theirs. Whereas Papa V.C. made every effort to spread the wealth around so that all could benefit, this ABLP is only concerned about its self-preservation and the enrichment of the one percent – the kith, kin and cronies of the administration. Everybody else can go to hell!
On his birthday, Papa V.C. turned in his grave.