Bird, V. C.
Bird, V. C.
December 9, 1909
June 28, 1999
Vere Cromwell Bird, or "Papa Bird" as he was affectionately called by his Labour Party supporters, was born in St. Johns, the capital of the Caribbean islands of Antigua/Barbuda. He was the third of four boys born to laundress Amanda Edgehill. Despite his humble beginnings, "V. C." became one of the most significant Caribbean leaders of the twentieth century.
In 1943 Bird became the second president of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union (ATLU) after Reginald St. Clair Stevens, the union's first president, resigned. In 1946 the union under Bird formed the Antigua Labour Party (ALP), the people's first political party. Together the ATLU-ALP became the most significant institutions in the struggle for workers' rights and for political self-determination in the island nations. This was Bird's legacy in the region, the creation and management of the first of the Leeward Island institutions that fought and won the struggle for basic rights for the black and colored majority. Bird's political career began in 1939, when he joined other local activists Norris Allen, Reginald Stevens, F. O. Benjamin, S. A. Henry, Griffith Matthews, Randolph Lockhart, B. A Richards, Thomas Martin, James Jarvis, Stanley Walter, C. A. Perry, and Thomas Brooks in forming the ATLU.
As ALP leader, Bird would become the first chief minister (1960), first premier (1967), and first prime minister (1981) of the twin island nations. Bird created a true peasant class by dramatically expanding land ownership among rural Antiguans/Barbudans, allowing them to actually own the lands they worked.
Bird modernized the islands from the 1960s to the 1980s, expanding electricity and education and building housing and the infrastructure for a tourism industry that replaced the exhausted sugar industry. The partnered institutions system introduced by Bird in the 1940s became the symbol for progress for the island nation, but it also became the source of conflict. The ATLU-ALP existed unopposed by any other party or union/party alliance until 1967, when the Antigua Workers Union (AWU) was formed by former members of the ATLU. These union leaders, Donald Halstead, George Walter, and Keithlyn Smith, would form both a rival labor union and political party by 1968. The Progressive Labour Movement (PLM) became the political arm of the union to rival the ATLUALP partnership.
The two union/party teams, the ATLU-ALP and AWU-PLM, would engage in intense competition for control of labor and for political control of the islands until the decline and demise of the PLM in the 1980s. Despite the existence of a third party, the Afro-Caribbean Liberation Movement (ACLM) in the 1970s, the two-party system dominated. In the 1976 election and again in the 2004 election the ALP lost control of the Antigua/Barbuda government. In both instances political control of the government was ceded to ALP protégés who had become opposition leaders.
From the 1940s to the 1960s Bird directed the struggle against labor exploitation and social exclusion of the majority through the use of trade unionism, which had been introduced in 1939 by Moyne Commission member and Trade Union Congress (TUC) representative Sir Walter Citrine. Leeward Island trade unionists made the movement their own by the 1960s and used it to take social and political control from the British.
At age eighty-three, Bird retired from Antigua/Barbuda politics in 1994 after dominating it for fifty-five years. His retirement ended one of the longest political careers in the Caribbean region. His eulogy, written by journalist Leonard Tim Hector, highlighted his career and his single-minded focus on politics, which has rendered him invisible in some of the best known of Caribbean works, in particular Eric Williams's From Columbus to Castro. Writing in Outlet, a newspaper that Bird made numerous efforts to destroy, Hector opined, "Bird was all politics. His was the single-minded pursuit of political ends. Politics was his only occupation and pre-occupation. Longevity in power was his reward."
Hector, Leonard Tim. "Hail Bwana! Farewell Papa!" Published in Outlet (July 9, 1999). Available from <http://www.candw.ag/~jardinea/fanflame.htm>.
Smith, Keithlyn, and Fernando C. Smith. The Life and Times of Samuel Smith, An Antiguan Workingman, 1877–1982. 2nd ed. Scarborough, Canada: Edan Publishers, 1986.
"Vere Bird." Economist (July 17, 1999): 82.
christolyn a. williams (2005)