West Indies Federation

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West Indies Federation

The federal idea evolved from Britain's desire for administrative convenience in managing her colonial empire since its beginnings in the seventeenth century. From William Stapleton's General Assembly of the Leeward Islands of 1674 to the establishment of Robert Melvill's Government of Grenada of 1763, to John Pope-Hennessy's Confederation of the Windward Islands of 1876, Britain had, throughout the centuries, sought to rationalize the administration of her possessions in the West Indies. These attempts to impose federation by imperial fiat all ended in failure.

There was, however, an unofficial but no less real sense of unity among ordinary Caribbean people, particularly in the eastern Caribbean. They impeded the advance of European colonialism for the two centuries before 1763 and participated in each other's anticolonial, antislavery, proto-nationalist struggles at the end of the eighteenth century. Close bonds of friendship, trade, and consanguinity developed among them, despite the continued insularity and parochialism of the elites of their respective colonies. Few such relationships developed between the people of the eastern Caribbean and those of Jamaica, more than a thousand miles to the northwest, despite their common history of British colonial rule.

The experiences of Afro-Caribbean soldiers during World War I, leading to the formation of a "Caribbean League," brought about some semblance of a West Indian ethos to the forefront of the collective consciousness of the ordinary people. No less important was the granting of test status to the West Indies cricket team in 1928. By then, Britain had already regarded her West Indies possessions as a single unit. By the middle 1920s the British had also begun the gradual process of dismantling colonial rule by granting increasing degrees of self-government to the colonial constitutions.

By the 1930s the federation's chief ideologue was T. Albert Marryshow, the Grenadian editor of The West Indian newspaper, which carried the masthead, "The West Indies

must be West Indian." He used the paper to popularize both the causes of West Indian self-government and federation. A conference of British West Indies labor leaders in Dominica in 1932 then called for a West Indies federation. The cause was strengthened in 1933 by the West Indian intellectual C. L. R. James, who argued persuasively in his essay, The Case for West Indian Self-Government, for the British West Indies to be granted self-government, even if it meant freedom to make their own mistakes.

After 1945 the federal idea was entrenchedsomewhatamong ordinary West Indians, and somehow synchronized with Britain's postWorld War II exhaustion and a newfound disposition to relinquish her colonial empire. In cricket, the West Indies won its first ever series victory over England in 1950. Cricket had, by then, become a major theater in which the struggle for West Indian nationhood was fought. The West Indians' mastery of this complex, quintessentially British game demonstrated their ability to manage their own affairs.

In 1948 the University College of the West Indies was established, with a single campus at Mona, Jamaica. It was in a special relationship with the University of London. This brought the region's tertiary students together at a university in the Caribbean for the first time, and also brought together some of the region's best intellectual talent for teaching and research on primarily West Indian subjects and issues. It was not an independent degree-granting institution at the time.

The 1947 Montego Bay, Jamaica, Conference of colonial leaders produced the Closer Union Committee and the Regional Economic Committee. The former produced a draft constitution for a British West Indies federation that was accepted by all British colonies except the British Virgin Islands, British Honduras, and British Guiana, which eventually opted out of membership of the proposed body. This left a body of ten member units, all island colonies.

Follow-up conferences in London in 1953, 1955, and 1956 worked out the general details. The British Parliament then passed the British Caribbean Federation Act. Britain retained powers over external affairs, defense, and general financial affairs in the colonial federation. The constitution established a bicameral legislature, with a governor-general vested with significant executive powers. The forty-five-member House of Representatives was elected by universal adult suffrage, and the Senate comprised nineteen nominated members. The executive was a "Council of State," composed of and presided over by the governor-general, prime minister, and ten ministers. A supreme court and a civil service were also established. Chaguaramas, an American World War II naval base on the northwestern peninsula of Trinidad and Tobago, was chosen as the site for the federal capital.

The British continued the gradual constitutional decolonization in the major colonies, to the extent that the 1958 federal constitution lagged behind those of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados, all of which then possessed varying degrees of self-government. This policy was, however, not consistently followed in the eastern Caribbean. This continued after 1958, a policy that ultimately helped to undermine the federal body itself.

In the 1958 federal elections, the West Indies Federal Labour Party, an association of political parties with a socialist outlook, won twenty-six seats, with the Democratic Labour Party winning seventeen. Norman Manley and Eric Williams, two of the most prominent figures in British West Indian politics, refused to stand for election to the federal parliament. Their absence lowered the federation's legitimacy for many West Indians. This left them free to criticize the federation from the sidelines, while simultaneously pursuing their respective colony's particular interests independent of the federation's official authority.

In any event, the political arrangement after the elections left Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago underrepresented in the federal government, while the eastern Caribbean was overrepresented. Lord Hailes was appointed governor-general. The Barbadian Grantley Adams became prime minister, with most ministers from the eastern Caribbean.

The first British West Indian parliament was inaugurated by Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret at Governor General's House, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, on April 22, 1958. Marryshow's death on October 19, 1958, boded ill for the fledgling federation. A member of the federal Senate and the "Father of Federation," Marry-show may have died happy in seeing his dream realized in his lifetime, but the federation was constituted contrary to his declared wish that self-government should be granted before federation.

Outside of the West Indies Welfare Fund, the University College of the West Indies, the Federal Supreme Court, and the West India Regiment, the federation's powers did not extend very far. In addition, its revenue base was narrow, largely due to the colonial legislatures' refusal to surrender the powers of taxation to the federal parliament. It could contribute little to real development, as such matters as education and economic development remained the preserve of the individual colonies.

Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, the two largest colonies and major contributors to the federation's operating costs, prevailed upon the British to overrule the eastern Caribbean representatives' objections and revise the constitution at a conference in September 1959well ahead of schedulewith a view to making the federal parliament more representative of these colonies' size and contribution. The membership of the House of Representatives was increased to sixty-four, with Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago allocated thirty and fifteen seats respectively. Cabinet government was granted and the governor-general's powers reduced. Overall, the federal constitution was brought on par with those of Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The conference that produced these constitutional advances could not repair the serious rift that developed over the two dominant colonies' rival and opposing concepts of federation. Trinidad and Tobago, or at least Eric Williams, wanted a strong centralized federation with powers over taxation and economic development and a customs union. Jamaica, or at least Manley, wanted a loose, weak union leaving economic development to the individual territories. The Jamaican delegation all but walked out of the 1959 conference and the federation itself.

Other tensions arose, particularly when Williams successfully negotiated with the U.S. government for the return of Chaguaramas to Trinidad and Tobago, independent of the federal authorities and despite the protests of the federal officials. There were also strong disagreements, particularly between Trinidad and Tobago and the eastern Caribbean territories, over the question of freedom of movement of people in the federation. The smaller, poorer, and densely populated member colonies desired freedom of movement, particularly after Britain imposed restrictions on immigration to the United Kingdom itself. Trinidad and Tobago, however, strongly resisted this measure.

The question of the free movement of goods was another issue. Trinidad and Tobago was in favor of the free movement of goods within the free trade area created by the federation and a system of uniform tariffs outside of it. Jamaica, whose government revenues depended heavily on customs duties, strongly opposed this.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty in the federation was that of economic development. The federal parliament desired control over the economic development of the federation as a whole. Jamaica opposed this on the grounds that this might be achieved at the expense of her own development. This was a crucial factor in Jamaica's eventual withdrawal from the federation.

Both the Jamaicans and Trinidadians were convinced that in granting federation, Britain had in fact transferred her liability for the eastern Caribbean to their colonies, which they saw was adversely affecting their own development. The passage of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act by the British Parliament, enacted to control immigration from Commonwealth countries, and Britain's decision to become a member of the European Common Market seemed to vindicate their concerns.

Unless some compromise was worked out, the federation was doomed. Unofficial discussions between Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica failed to produce a satisfactory solution. In a September 1961 referendum, Jamaica voted to secede from the federation, prompting Williams's calculation that "1 from 10 leaves 0." Ignoring all entreaties to continue a rump, Jamaicaless federation composed effectively of the eastern Caribbeanvirtually integrated alreadyWilliams followed Jamaica's lead. The British Parliament dissolved the federation effective May 1962. Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago proceeded to independence in August 1962, leaving the smaller colonies to work out their future individual relationships with Britain.

From 1958 to 1962 Britain held most of her West Indian colonies under a single administration, and for a brief moment their peoples glimpsed the possibilities of a West Indian nation. Representatives of the entire Caribbean with a common history of British rule met in one place and under one authority to address the issues that concerned them. The British West Indies received diplomatic recognition from the rest of the British Commonwealth and the United States. The federation's sportsmen participated in international events as a single unit.

The collapse of the British West Indies Federation was the result of many deep-seated causes. Perhaps the most important was the intercolonial rivalries, insularity, and parochialism that have characterized British West Indian politics for three centuries. For most West Indians, the island was the unit that held the first claim to their allegiance. Whereas in the eastern Caribbean, profederation sentiment seemed to have always been strong, it was not uniformly so in the rest of the Caribbean. This was particularly so in the case of Jamaica, which had more in common with her neighbors and North America than the eastern Caribbean.

Perhaps most of all, the British West Indies Federation was still a collection of British colonies not yet granted full self-government, and for which the United Kingdom retained ultimate control. There were left too many fundamental issues to be worked out between politicians who had no significant history of working together for a common purpose and who were more inclined to place the interests of their individual territories before those of a federated whole.

The British West Indies Federation was a shattered dream to many West Indian people. In the decades that followed its collapse, the West Indies cricket team and The University of the West Indies, which received its independence in 1962, have remained the most visible manifestations of the dream of a West Indian nation.

See also Adams, Grantley; Williams, Eric; West Indies Democratic Labour Party; West Indies Federal Labour Party


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