To be or not to be independent (a retrospective)

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate our government and fellow Antiguans and Barbudans on the 33rd anniversary of our Independence. May God continue to bless our fair land abundantly.

Having said that, I could not help but reflect on the events leading up to the day when we first became independent. The year was 1975 and the Progressive Labour Movement, under the leadership of the Honorable George H Walter, was in power. National elections were due the next year and Antigua was in a frenzy.

The question of independence from Britain was the talk of the town, albeit from decidedly different perspectives. The PLM claimed that the time was right for independence, and they pledged that, if re-elected, they would immediately sever all ties with Britain. With that in mind, the PLM began printing T-shirts with the image of George Walter and the slogan: “Vote George Walter for Antigua’s First Prime Minister”.

Needless to say, this irked the Honourable Vere C Bird and the Antigua Labour Party no end. They were mortified at the thought of George Walter usurping good ole ‘Papa Bird’ and snatching such an honour from him. This was Papa Bird’s birthright! His manifest destiny! After all, according to the Birdites, Papa Bird was the true father of the nation. He fought against Sir Alexander Moody-Stuart, drinking pond water and eating widdy-widdy bush along with the peasants. Bird was Antigua’s champion of the poor, much like Sir Alexander Bustamante, Dr Eric Williams, Sir Grantley Adams, etc. These fellas were stalwarts in the vanguard against colonialism and Bird deserved to carry Antigua into independence just like them.

Of course, George Walter’s perceived over-reaching was not the Bird people’s only opposition to independence. According to them: “This was not the right psychological moment.” Whatever that meant. To me, it was classic ‘bovine scatology’ or as they say, ‘bs’, but Papa Bird was adamant: “Arwe nuh ready foo independence! De ecanomy nuh ready! T’ings too hard! De Bubuda people an dem say dem nuh ready! Is going to be a catastrophe if aryou mek Selvyn and George do wha dem like. Dem a go be dictator lacka Papa Doc and Castro. Arwe nuh want dat!! Aryou see wha Manley an dem a do inna Jamaica? And Burnham inna Guyana? If nearga hab two tv, dem go tek way one. If nearga hab two car, dem ah go tek way one. Arwe nuh want dat!! Tell George an Halstead foo shove dat up inna dem %@&!!”.

Lester Bird, of course, feigned more polish because he had just returned from abroad so he was given to a lot of ‘big words’ and ‘grandiloquent’ blah, blah, blah. But it was the same stuff.

Of course, the ALP line of reasoning was the self-same line that white plantation owners used against slaves at emancipation. For their own selfish reasons, the planters claimed that upon emancipation, the slaves should stay on the plantations and serve a period of ‘apprenticeship’ because they needed to learn how to live like ‘civilised human beings’. After all, ‘black people are only one-third human’. According to them, the slaves are ‘dunce’ and stupid and they are not mentally ready to handle being ‘full free’; they will riot and burn down the place; their psyches are simply too fragile and immature to handle ‘the ways of freedom’.

Needless to say, this was a bogus argument as evidenced by the peace and quiet that prevailed in Antigua on Emancipation Day when the slaves were freed ‘outright’. They dressed up in their Sunday best, went to church services, danced in the streets and wined and dined in a spirit of forgiveness and unity. No riots. No burning and looting. No acts of retribution and revenge.

Nonetheless, the Bird people stuck to the script – Antigua was not ready for independence. Never mind that a host of barely functioning states all over the world were severing ties with their colonial rulers faster than you could say “London Bridge is falling down … and all the Queen’s horses and men can’t put the empire together again!” I mean, under our status of ‘statehood in association’ we were handling all our affairs except foreign relations and defence. Would it take rocket science to handle those on our own? Nay.

Anyway, in the months leading up to the 1976 elections, the campaigning was fierce and partisans on both sides adopted extreme positions. According to the Bird people: “Ah wha mek Antigua nearga so ungrateful; after all dat Poppa Bird done do for Antigua! Look, a he bill de sweet oil factory, de carnmeal factory, de deepwater harbor, potworks dam, de oil refinery an all dem public school. Ah wha wrong wid aryou? From Bird Road to Bird Islan, dis land belangs to Bird. He a de ongliest smaddie can run dis country. He deserve foo be de fuss prime minister’.

Not so fast responded the Walters people. “Dis is a democracy. Bird nar get no coronation by virtue of the fact dat he name ‘Bird’. Arweya nuh hab no ‘divine right of kings’ dong yah. Yes, Bird has done a lot. But what has he done for us lately? Arweya done spread de word an sweep out Bird! Dis ah wan new era. Bird roach out!”

“Ah wha dis? De Audubon Society? Me no kay wha aryou say. Bird flop, Walters pon top!”

Look, arwe nuh ready! Arwe nuh mentally prepare. Suppose Cuba invade? Suppose Tim Hector an dem tek over? Arwe nuh even hab wan deestant defence force.”

“Wha you mean we not mentally prepared? Arwe nyam foolie bush? How much brains you need foo beg from de IMF an gee two speech at de UN?”

Clearly, Antigua was deeply divided. For example, in Point, a Halstead stronghold, very few folks dared wear the colour red. So, too, in All Saints, a George Walter stronghold. From Cashew Hill to Fibrey, to Joe-Tony Corner, to Booby Alley to High Street corner to down by Dickie Lake, Antiguans cussed one another to their faces. I tell you, the two women that Obstinate saw ‘cussin on Greenbay Hill’ had nothing on “the way we cussed back in ’75. And some of it was real down and dirty.

“Lawd, ah wha mek Halstead so @#$ ugly? He too ugly foo get foo-me vote.”

“Anybody uglier than Papa Bird? Ah wha dat inna e face? A fly %&*?”

“Me too lub George Walter! He so hansome. Wid de light-skin an de good hair. He deserve foo be de fuss prime minister!”

Gal, ah wha mek yuh so damn fool! Walters an dem a do anyting for de country? Yuh cyan see how t’ings hard? Sugar garn up! Rice garn up! Flour garn up! Gas garn up! Oops! Oh Lawd! Ah whey de soap dey?”

And so it went. As we all know, “bs baffled brains” and we swallowed the Bird argument, ‘hook, line and sinker.’ In a shocker, the PLM was voted out of office in 1976. Of course, this fiercely contested election had nothing to do with whether we were or were not ready for independence; rather, it had everything to do with the personal ambition of two men. Bs, eh? It’s a helluva thing!

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