Sir Vere Cornwall Bird – National Patriarch

(Clockwise) Hon Sir George Walter, Rt Hon Sir Vere C Bird, Sir Alexander Bustamante.

(By Rawlston Pompey)

In its national development, there have been four significant periods that marked the nation’s ‘…history; …challenges and progress.’ The first period saw the enslaved engaged in rebellious activities, with shared experiences of ‘…arduous and restless toiling; …constant brutality and death.’ Those who have rebelled against enslavement had done so primarily to secure their freedom and to be treated as reasonable creature in being. While that period speaks to enslavement, three other periods speak to (i) ‘…Colonialism; (ii) …Pillaging of the island; and (iii) …the Difficult journey to political independence.’ The fourth period saw Sir Vere Cornwall Bird KNH faced with adversities; …encountered difficulties as he endured hardship.

Sir Vere had persevered. He surmounted colonial hurdles as he fought assiduously for ‘…an autonomous Antigua and Barbuda.’ A day prescribed by Parliament, called ‘…V.C. Bird’s Day’– December 9th had sparked national controversy. Different views have been expressed on the contributions of four other national heroes and heroine, ‘…Prince Klass ‘King Court’; …Dame Georgiana ‘Nellie’ Robinson; …Sir George H. Walter and Sir Isaac V.A. Richards.’ Carefully avoided contributory comparisons, a legislative Act, disguisedly aimed at eliminating the day, saw the Baldwin Spencer administration transforming it to ‘…National Heroes Day’ [Public Holiday Act: No. 8 of 2005]. This had angered family members and a wide cross-section of the society.

Neither knowing his status or lot, nor roles or responsibilities, a leader was born [December 9, 1910]. In a family of humble beginnings and modest means, as ‘affordability’ often determines ‘accessibility,’ tertiary institutions appeared to have been beyond such means. Yet full of pride and purpose, ambitious and determined, he had pursued and persevered in a discipline that had paved the way to national leadership and prominence. For sentimental reasons people had called him ‘…‘Papa or V.C.’ For heartfelt fondness, the great majority called him ‘Papa Bird.’ For nation building, all called him ‘…Father of the Nation.’

Even as he has no control of policy-making or governance, resentment and controversy continue to reign over the prescribed ‘Day, in recognition of his contributions to the nation’s ‘…socio-economic, political and cultural development.’ Specific to the building of a nation, there are ‘…roles and contributions.’ Roles that are played and contributions made, bears strong significance to its success. Conversely, there are concepts of ‘…quantity; …quality and comparison.’ Measured by substance and quality, Sir Vere’s role and contributions speaks to ‘…incomparability.’ Boldly put, such incomparability appeared to have made the contributions of those with similar national status, though important, quantitatively miniscule and qualitatively lower.

While he had been denied a commemorative day, as family and opponents bicker and snubbed, social commentator, Joseph Hunte ‘Calypso Joe,’ a non-supporter of Sir Vere’s administrative policies, sang him praises. He paid special tribute for contributions seen as immeasurable and exceptional roles played in the national life [1945-1994: Tribute to V.C: You Tube]. Reversing the egregious legislative ‘…Act of Denial,’ by another Act of Parliament by the Gaston Browne-led administration, the ‘Day’ was reinstated’ [Observer Media: August 19, 2014].

A resentful and contemptuous grandson Vere Bird III and former Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer had initially declared their organization’s non-attendance at gatherings and non-participation in planned commemorative activities. This had prompted wide public speculations of philosophical, political and/or organizational differences. In the case of the latter, participation will have been contingent upon inclusion of the other four ‘…National Heroes’ [Observer Media: October, 31, 2014]. This year’s commemorative proceedings take place, down-town St. John’s [December 11, 2017].

It is undeniable that out of colonialism, many regional nations were born. This is undeniably true of the nation of ‘Antigua and Barbuda.’ It has progressed from colonialism to an associated State with Britain [1967] to independent status that allowed for ‘…Full Sovereignty’ [November 1, 1981]. Previously feeling the effects of British colonialism, fundamental to the development of the nation was the attainment of independence. The people wanted national advancement; …educational reform; …economic development; …social justice and empowerment. Endearing himself to the populace and assuring them of a future of hope and economic prosperity, indigent and disenfranchised people ‘…gravitated, revered and followed him.’

He had spurred their imaginations with his ideals of a nation. Displaying a resolve, he accepted the arduous task in breaking the ‘…Shackles of Colonialism.’ Such feat had ushered in an independent nation of free men and women and free institutions. His unionized and political contributions and governmental roles,’ had undoubtedly, been the corner stone of nation-building. He had the opportunities in serving in the capacities of (i) ‘…Chief Minister [1960-1967]; (ii) …Premier [1967-1971 & 1976-1981] and (iii) …Prime Minster [1981-1994]. Though he had discharged his ministerial responsibilities with an appreciable measure of success, privileged elitist groups would have savored the moment, if there was ‘…an active press’ attacking his administration. Such group would have been satisfied, if his contributions were disposed forever, in some ‘historical dust bin.’

Research has shown that in the 1940’s, ‘…a white Jamaican national, Alexander Bustamante’ came to public attention with acclaimed prominence. He had looked at an autonomous Jamaica. He ‘…advocated autonomy and a more equal balance of power.’ Establishing the ‘…Bustamante Trade Union, and speaking passionately on behalf of workers, people gravitated to him. He had reportedly used organised labour in achieving the Union’s objectives- social justice, respect for the rights of workers. A significant development in his unionised role was said to have been the ‘…Labour unrests’ [Wikipedia: 1934- 1939]. These appeared to have marked the turning point in achieving that which he had advocated. It is undeniable that Sir Vere Cornwall Bird had also joined forces in breaking the stranglehold of, ‘…imperialism and colonialism’ on the regional island-chain as they fought to dismantle ‘…British Plantocracy.

Historical records have shown that among those who had presented decolonization views and the desires of the people to the colonial powers, included ‘…Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante [Jamaica]; …Dr. Eric Williams [Trinidad & Tobago]; …Herbert Blaize and Sir Eric M. Gairy [Grenada]; …Robert L. Bradshaw [St. Kitts/Nevis]; …Sir Vere C. Bird [Antigua & Barbuda]; …Ebenezer T. Joshua [St. Vincent & the Grenadines]; …Sir Grantley H. Adams, Hugh Cummings and Errol Barrow [Barrow]; …Cheddi Jagan and Forbes L. Burnham [Guyana]; …Frank Baron, Edward Le Blanc and Sir George F.L. Charles [Dominica]. Between the period ‘…1953 to 1966’ these leaders, had been the chief advocates for ‘…Autonomous Status.’ Most were labour unionists or activists. This period speaks to strong ‘…Advocacy for Autonomy.’

Emerging from that era, regional people shall have good reasons to commemorate leaders who painstakingly and tirelessly worked in transforming their nation’s status from (i) ‘…Colonialism; (ii) …Associated Statehood to (iii) …Independence.’ They have acted selflessly and purposefully in helping to shape their nation’s destiny. Successors simply built on the foundations laid. Though history has revealed their ‘…struggles against colonialism; …advocacy for autonomy and conquests,’ some regional intellectuals continue to argue that Britain had relinquished dominion over islands that had become less economically viable. They had fought against the colonial powers. In their respective capacities of ‘…Chief Ministers; …Premiers and Prime Ministers,’ they had all played critical roles in the formative years of nation building and political and social transformation. With some measure of success, they had seen social and economic conditions improved for the indigent.

Misguided on historical facts and/or engrossed in ‘…Figmental Imagination,’ such arguments tend to minimize the valiant efforts of these leaders. They fought assiduously and tirelessly in severing the umbilical cord of colonialism. Individually, upon their insistence, most regional States achieved political independence from Britain. In the case of Sir Vere Cornwall Bird, he had led protests, equally as much as he had organized crippling strikes against ‘…British Plantocracy.’ He demanded and obtained (i) ‘…Increased wages for workers; (ii) …Gained Adult Suffrage for the disenfranchised and (iii) …Achieved internal self-governance’ [Douglas W. Payne: 1951: 1956 & 1959]. As some choreographically sing for reparations, those advancing fallacies of relinquishment had neither experienced the ‘…Dark Days of Slavery’ [Sir MacLean Emmanuel], nor had ever been part of the struggle for autonomy. Most leaders came long after Emancipation [August 1, 1834].

Contrasting leadership, then and now, public officials will have shaped public perceptions that while past leaders fought to ‘…build nations, modern leadership scramble to build fortunes.’ Sir Vere administrated the affairs of State with little to do with modern science or technology. He applied wisdom, employing commonsense in guiding his leadership and making informed policy-decisions. He saw the nation progressed from a ‘…Sugar/agro and light industry-based economy,’ to a vibrant tourism-based economy. Likened to many nations, ‘…globalization; …unfair trade practices; …protectionism; …acts of terrorism; …natural disasters and domestic issues,’ have all impacted negatively on national economic growth, vibrancy and sustainability of a stable investment climate.

As Chief Minister, Sir Vere saw the nation being granted ‘…Associated Status with Great Britain’ [West Indies Act 1967]. Almost two decades later, he saw the ‘…umbilical Cord of Colonialism’ severed [November 1st, 1981]. Every period showed that he and other regional leaders fought against ‘…Social Injustice.’ Nationally, he eliminated obstructionist barriers to gainful employment. He ensured that there were equal opportunities for people, irrespective of societal influence or status. Thus, where people with light shades of color had occupied positions within the banking institutions and commercial entities, he ensured that others with darker shades were given similar opportunities. His insistence saw workers being treated with some measure of ‘…equality, respectability and recognition for their dignity and worth.’

Sir Vere has made and left indelible impressions on the minds of people. Carving a permanent place in the nation’s history, he left unmatched ‘…Patrimony and Legacies.’ While he could not have done much to colonialism, he dismantled ‘…British Plantocracy.’ A most daring feat was the acquisition of hundreds of thousands of acres of ‘…Antigua and Barbuda Sugar Factory Limited and the Syndicate Estates Limited land,’ speaks to such feat [Law of Antigua & Barbuda: Chapter 240]. There was enough land for (i) …Domestic housing and infrastructural development; (ii) …Agriculture; and (iii) …Tourism development.’ Even with land aplenty, renowned social commentator Sir MacLean Emmanuel ‘King Short Shirt,’ appeared to have had concerns about ‘…Over lease of land.’ He confident that ‘…This land is enough for all to share,’ he said ‘…There is no reason for any man to live in despair.’ A fraternal colleague, Sir Paul Richards ‘King Obstinate,’ shared no such optimism.

Even with the existence of vast acreage, overwhelmed by feelings of discontentment,’ Kin Obstinate sang, ‘…With all the money me have, me and pickney blight; …Me can’t get piece of land to buy.’ He asserted that ‘…The black politician sell out me black birth right.’ During his official tenure, in an attempt to build and stimulate economic growth, Sir Vere had encouraged ‘…Foreign Direct Investments (FID’s). He had built several factory shells at a zone, naming it ‘…Coolidge Industrial Park.’ For a time the shells had usefully served the intended purposes of light manufacturing and appliance assembly. Global economic conditions appeared to have impacted on continued operations. While some shells have been put to other uses, modern generations may hardly refer to it by the industrial name. Remaining derelicts not only speak to the dynamic nature of change, but also associated difficulties in wooing bona fide investors.

Economically, the nation has created a controversial, but revolutionized revenue stream. This has often been an alternative, when normal revenue streams have dried up. In spite of militating administrative and global factors, from the grave, Sir Vere may defensively argue that he had left substantial national assets capable of bringing prosperity to the people and nation. Thus, he accepted no responsibility for those who remains oblivious to the changing national fortunes and the current state of ‘…Economic Misery.’ Creative minds shall think creatively. Thus, by an Act of Parliament, an economic initiative Billed ‘…Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP) was established. As there has been little visibility of development ventures or capitalized projects investments, public perceptions appeared to have been warped. It may have been for these reasons that the programme has been contentiously called ‘…Selling Passports.’ As contentious as it has been, the ‘…non-taxed revenue initiative continues to be supplemental to the tourism-based economy.

The British had exerted strong influences on regional leaders. They had taken principled positions in agreeing to the merging of the islands as a ‘West Indies Federation’ [January 3, 1958]. The merging was fraught with grave difficulties, including ‘…economic; …social; …political and ideological differences.’ While many regional leaders supported the initiative, others seemed to have harbored thoughts of other national options. This became evident when, by a carefully engineered Referendum, Jamaican Chief Minister Alexander Bustamante, with Trinidad & Tobago Chief Minister Dr. Eric Williams’ responded the withdrawal of his nation from the merged-grouping.

It was conclusively shown that the former had precipitated the Federation’s ‘Collapse,’ while the latter brought about its ‘Dissolution’ [May 31, 1962]. Using his superior intellect, Dr. Williams devised a ‘…Political Mathematical Formula,’ that ‘…1 from 10 leaves ‘0.’ Regional student bodies, then and now, would correctly state that the institutional mathematics answer is ‘9.’ Instructively, almost instantaneously, following the ‘…collapse and dissolution,’ the two disagreeable States exhibited evidence of their desire (i) …Charter their national courses and (ii) …to determine and be Masters of their destiny.’ Incidentally, mere months after the dramatic collapse and dissolution of the Federation, these States were granted political independence.’ Instructively, as if to show collusion, merely twenty five days apart, both became autonomous nations [August 6, 1962 & August 31, 1962].

There has never been ‘…Unionism without Activism.’ In a hostile industrial environment, these concepts mean ‘…Negotiations; …Solutions and Strikes.’ Sir Vere’s rise to leadership was much through ‘social activism,’ as it was to ‘unionism.’ A seasoned practitioner, conditions that were seen as inimical to the interest of workers, he stood closely with workers and firmly against stiff-necked employers. His unionized role appeared not to have allowed injustice to prevail; neither over human or worker’s rights, nor reasonably expected privileges at the workplaces. While he appreciated that ‘…responsibility of Unions and management; …employers and associations and employees’ requires full cooperation in settling industrial disputes, sir Vere may have been adamant that coercive tactics were also necessary. He was said to have employed such tactics.

It has always been the mantra of workers’ Unions that ‘…social injustice should not be allowed to stand before accepted civilized principles, while human beings and causes shall not be treated contemptibly. In most democracies, the industrial climate necessarily requires an environment necessary for ‘…harmonized employer/employee relations.’ Such environment also allows for constructive dialogue, consultations and negotiations and amiable dispute settlements. In a hostile industrial environment,’ the unexpected often occurred. Workers might provoke the ire in employers, while in turn they might incur the wrath of Unions. This is so, irrespective of the ‘…nature, terms and conditions of employment, contractual or otherwise.’ Thus, in hostile environments, prudence dictates ‘…Commonsense Approach’ in volatile situations.

In early times, ‘…Radicalized Unionism’ was the order of the day. Employer, then and now, know the consequences for delayed resolutions of issues affecting workers. Exponent of such trait, included, the Sirs Vere Bird’s; …George Walter’s; …Keithlyn Smith’s; …Adolphus Freeland’s. Insensitive and unyielding employers were often coerced into sitting at ‘…negotiations or resolutions tables.’ There is where pay negotiations or dispute resolutions ‘…starts; …deferred; …continues and ended.’ Back then, Trade Unions had inculcated in workers a concept universally known as ‘…Work to Rule.’ Such concept saw workers in many industrialized nations ‘…slowed down output and efficiency’ [Wikipedia: Britain]. For the most part, these were driven by threats and timidity and crippling strikes.

In human affairs, hostility has always been a barrier to civil discourse. Sir Vere knew that ‘…Organized Labour,’ often an act of hostility, was and still is an effective weapon against employer’s tyranny and insensitivity. The same is employable in today’s workplaces, as it has been for centuries. While modern civilization speaks to commonality of understanding in solving industrial matters, disputed parties also know the value of negotiations. As Britain exercised external and internal dominion over the islands, British plantocrats had ruled alongside British-installed Governors- usually high-ranked retired military personnel. Their mantra was to ensure that British economic interests and the interests of the plantocracy were not jeopardized.’

Research has shown that he, along with other regional trade unionists had ‘…fought to throw off the institution of colonial sugar planters and British colonial over-lords’ [Wikipedia]. A radicalized and anti-colonial Sir Vere reportedly used ‘…organized labor in confronting the planters and colonial ties that maintained power’ [New York Times: June 30, 1999]. This had brought consequences of ‘…lack of earning and hunger.’ British plantocracy, seeking to force striking workers and Union leaders into submission, their resistance had brought them to the ‘…Brink of Starvation.’ Showing resistance and resilience, they were driven into consuming an unpalatable dish of ‘…Widdy-widdy bush and cockle’ [Wikipedia].

In his role as trade union officer, a case that bears historical significance is that of ‘…Avery Wynter.’ Employed as a clerk at ‘…O’ Neal Drug Store’ [May 12, 1949], she was summarily dismissed [June 11, 1955]. Insulted with benefits of ‘…one week’s pay, in lieu of notices’ [Wikipedia], it was not only deemed ‘…an Injustice, but also an act of grave enormity.’ The dismissal dictated intervention and visitation by Union officials. Field officer John Ireland reportedly requested legitimate reasons for the dismissal. None was provided. Provoking industrial actions, the dismissal saw ‘12 persons joined the picket line that ran continuously from ‘…September 17, 1955 to January 3, 1956.’ Though the number was small, it was the manner in which it was conducted. The proprietor contended that it was ‘…hurtful to the business,’ as it was ‘…intimidating to customers and prospective purchasers’ [Bird v O’Neal: 1955]. Likened to medicine, such was the ‘….side effects’ of failed discussions and non-resolutions of disputes.

Continuing in his ‘…unionized, political and executive capacities, Sir Vere’s troubles became daunting and innumerable. First, he had to contend with a breakaway faction of the Union, led by unionist rival, Sir George Hubert Walter [May 16, 1967]. A ‘…War of Attrition’ had began. Likened to a hungry lion ready to prey upon any animal for its meal, Sir George was ready to shorten the longevity, dominance and rule of Sir Vere. Dwindling support for his embattled administration became troubling to all incumbents. There were ominous signs of heavy electoral defeats. A lengthy and distinguished political career was nearing calamitous end. Whoever had coined the cliché ‘…Spread the word; …Sweep out Bird,’ supporters and followers of Sir George had popularized it by frequent use and symbols of brooms.

Great following saw Sir George concretized his position as the next (unofficial) national Premier. Political tension heightened. Exerting extraordinary ‘…mobilizing influence’ on the people, eventually saw it culminated into a riotous street battle. When it was all over, several persons were slightly injured [March 1968]. By the time the elections were called; …polls closed and ballots counted and verified, the electorate had not only swept out the ‘…Vere Bird incumbent administration,’ but also struck Sir Vere a telling constituency defeat. Riding the crest of popularity, the George H. Walter elections candidates had overwhelmingly trounced the incumbent Vere Bird administration with an unassailable ‘…13 parliamentary seats to the negligible 4 seats. It had amassed a total of ‘…9, 761 or 57.7%’ of the popular votes. Not only that a Bird had been ‘…Swept Out,’ but also ‘Stripped’ of political power [February 11, 1971].

In administrating the affairs of State, Sir George showed no tolerance for ‘…ministerial malfeasance.’ That which he had made sufficiently clear, was that there was intolerance to ‘…dishonesty or wealth acquisition and practices that speak to bribery and corruption. Mindful of the predictability and unpredictability nature of humans, he had taken the position to look over his administration with ‘…hawk’s eyes. He was also mindful of behavior that might affect his administration and/or the public good. The electorate knew the reasons for ‘…Sweeping out Bird.’ Thus, there had to be a paradigm shift in administration. As such, there were to be no considerations to ‘…Cronyism; …Nepotism or Favoritism.’ It was not to be ‘…business as usual.’

Sir George had embarked upon a style of leadership that speaks to inflexibility and a rule that appeared almost iron-fisted. Building the nation was about ‘…efficiency and productivity.’ Workers and Ministers were under administrative and executive radars. Lazy and non-productive workers were holidayed into retirement. When ministerial behavior gave rise to public perceptions, Sir George may also have harbored suspicions of misconduct. Seemingly wary of conduct inimical to the interest of his administration, people and his administration, he sacked his sibling ‘…Selvin Walter and Home Affairs Minister Donald Halstead’ [1973].

In life there are ‘…Glorious moments, equally as much as there are ‘…Worrying moments.’ Likened to many leaders, Sir Vere would have experienced both.’ Manifestations of this were evident early in his administrative and twilight years. Likened to Sir George, he would have enjoyed the moment when he returned in kind, the humiliating defeat previously inflicted upon him [February 11, 1976]. Restored to the enviable position of Premier, he went on to become Prime Minister [1976-1994]. In later years, it was clear that ‘…personal ambition; …treachery and miscalculation’ of his will and resolve, saw an overly-ambitious ‘…Gang of 8 Ministers,’ (including Sir Adolphus Freeland, Hugh Marshall Sr and Sir Lester Bryant Bird), attempted to unseat him from office. He knew that this shall be legitimately and democratically achieved through the electoral processes. Averting the unprecedented treacherous plot, he expressed no animus feelings. For love of peace, humanity and country, he spared the plotters his executive wrath [March 1991].

Even as Sir Vere Cornwall Bird KNH, has been quietly laid to rest, ingratitude and scant regard to his national accomplishments, continue to provoke animosity among people with ideological or political differences. A day to commemorate his national contributions and roles as ‘…Trade unionist; …Chief Minister; …Premier and Prime Minister,’ had been mired in controversy. Even at another place, he would wish to see capitalization on the legacies he had left behind. He would wish to see sustainable economic growth and development; that which brings prosperity, and that ‘…it is so distributed as to serve the common good’ [Constitution Principle B]. While he has long passed into historical eternity, opportunities shall be given to posterity to learn from history ‘…his foresight and ideals; …his sacrifices and struggles; …perseverance and resilience; …his victories and defeats and even his folly and fate.’ Most of all, he would like to see the spirit of nationalism permeate the society; …respect for the dignity and worth of the human person; …commonality of understanding and approaches to national issues and inclusion of the people in the affairs of State.’ These, he believes, shall prevail over trivialities and animosity; and that which hinders progress and promotes disharmony among the populace and their leaders. From the grave, he cries for a unified approach in building a better nation- Antigua and Barbuda.

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