Gairy, Eric

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Gairy, Eric

February 18, 1922
August 23, 1997

The trade unionist and politician Eric Matthew Gairy was born in Saint Andrew's Parish, Grenada, in 1922. He served as an acolyte in the local Roman Catholic Church and was educated in the island's public schools. He became chief minister in 1961, premier in 1967, and prime minister of independent Grenada in 1973. Initially a champion of workers' rights, Gairy later became a ruthless dictator whose actions led to a bloodless coup in 1979.

After leaving school, Gairy taught briefly before migrating, sometime between 1941 and 1942, to Trinidad, where he worked for the Americans who were constructing a military base. In 1943 he went to Aruba, where he worked for Lago Oil Company. He also taught at the evening school for workers operated by the Aruba branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Gairy first became involved in trade union activities in Aruba, and it was there that he forged a close friendship with another Grenadian, Gascoigne Blaize, who later became one of his chief lieutenants in Grenada.

Trade Union Activist

When Gairy returned to Grenada in 1948, his blend of charisma and messianic vision allowed him to position himself as the champion of the working class. His successful 1950 defense of peasants evicted by the new proprietor of an estate in the northern portion of the island boosted his popularity among workers and peasants. After registering as a trade union in July, his newly formed Grenada Manual and Mental Workers' Union (GMMWU) demanded wage increases ranging from twenty percent to fifty percent for laborers on various estates. By January 1951, discontent among other union workers provided him with the opportunity to visit additional estates and recruit more members for his GMMWU. These visits resulted in strikes on some estates, followed by a successful month-long, island-wide strike beginning on February 19, which was a complete victory for the GMMWU.

The strike was not entirely peaceful. Looting and arson were commonplace, and some destruction of livestock and property also occurred. Using the codeword "sky-red" when he wished certain places to be set on fire, Gairy undoubtedly encouraged the violence. On February 21, he organized a massive demonstration that included busloads of people from all parts of the island, and his rhetorical skills inspired the crowd, who nicknamed him Uncle Gairy. In addition to his following in Grenada, Gairy also received support from political leaders in Trinidad, Jamaica, Antigua, and Saint Kitts. With some six thousand Grenada workers supporting the strike, the island's economy quickly came to a halt. The acting governor eventually ordered the arrest and detention of both Gairy and Gascoigne Blaize. In desperation, the acting governor released Gairy and Blaize from detention after receiving a commitment that he would end the violence.

Political Activities

At the age of barely twenty-nine, Gairy had become the indisputable leader of Grenada's working class, and he soon transformed this popularity into success at the polls. In 1950 he had formed the Grenada People's Party, which eventually became the Grenada United Labour Party (GULP). His personal popularity was evident in 1954, when his party captured all but two of the seats in the general elections. This electoral success continued in subsequent years, with Gairy's party winning six of the eight elections held between 1951 and 1976.

Gairy's charisma and popularity emboldened him to attempt a transformation of Grenada's society, but he soon ran afoul of British-appointed government officials. In 1957 he was accused of campaign irregularities, suspended from the Legislative Council, and prohibited from participating in elections for five years. Citing violations of financial regulations after 1961 (uncovered in the socalled Squandermania Report ), as well as alleged browbeating of public servants, erosion of morale in the civil service, and illegal use of public money, the British government suspended the island's constitution and removed Gairy from office in 1962.

Power and Opposition

On returning to office as premier in August 1967, Gairy sought to perpetuate his power by victimizing his political opponents through the lawless actions of a special police force that he personally recruited; by giving selective concessions to business people he favored; and by creating a highly centralized bureaucracy in which he was the primary decision maker. By acquiring the property of his political opponents, he promoted his land for the landless program. Various statutory boards were disbanded and replaced with pliant civil servants or party supporters. Charges of misrule by opponents began mounting.

From 1972 onwards, Gairy faced increasing opposition from progressives in the recently formed New Jewel Movement. Through protests and marches, they gained support for their fledgling organization. Governmentsponsored beatings, imprisonment, and murders in 1973 resulted in the appointment of a commission of enquiry into the nature of law enforcement on the island. Protestors unsuccessfully sought to delay Gairy's plans for political independence without referendum. Island-wide strikes and protests in late 1973 and early 1974 led to the police killing of a popular businessman and the father of the New Jewel Movement's leader. Independence for Grenada came in 1974 amidst heightened violence and political polarization, and Gairy became prime minister under the new constitution. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1977, he used the island's new status to forge alliances to enhance the country's visibility.

Between 1974 and 1979, Gairy used his government majority to make a mockery of parliament by using his majority merely to rubberstamp his agenda without seriously considering the opinions of others. On the rare occasions when the opposition received advance copies of papers that were up for parliamentary discussion, they received them on the very day the items were being introduced. Because the speaker invariably ruled on Gairy's behalf, they were effectively able to silence and frustrate the opposition. It was widely believed that his party's 1978 election victory stemmed from deliberately faulty voting lists and practices. Convinced that he could not be removed by constitutional means, the opposition New Jewel Movement overthrew his government in a bloodless coup on March 13, 1979, while Gairy was in the United States. Although he returned to Grenada in 1983, the GULP won only one seat in the 1984 elections and two in 1990. Gairy died peacefully in Grenada on August 23, 1997.

The architect of the long-overdue social revolution, Gairy had raised the level of political consciousness among Grenada's masses. By positioning himself as their champion against the excesses of the white- and brown-skinned oligarchy, he gave to the black masses considerable self-respect and gained from them a fanatical hero worship. He failed to win over large numbers of the urban middle class, however, and they found a home in Herbert Blaize's Grenada National Party.

See also Blaize, Herbert; International Relations in the Anglophone Caribbean; New Jewel Movement; Universal Negro Improvement Association


Brizan, George. Grenada, Island of Conflict: From Amerindians to People's Revolution, 14981979. London: Zed, 1984.

DaBreo, D. Sinclair. The Prostitution of a Democracy. Barbados: Edgar Chris, 1977.

Emmanuel, Patrick. Crown Colony Politics in Grenada. 19171951. Barbados: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1978.

Singham, Archie W. The Hero and the Crowd in a Colonial Polity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1968.

edward l. cox (2005)