Bishop, Maurice 1944–1983

views updated Jun 08 2018

Maurice Bishop 19441983

Politician, prime minister

At a Glance

Selected writings


The tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada is built on a range of dormant volcanoes and is known as Spice Island for its fertile land, which produces one-third of the worlds supply of nutmeg. The countrys 100,000 citizens exist in a maturing democratic society, which is also supported by light manufacturing and tourism. Grenadas political stability is a relatively new development, however. In March of 1979, leftist Maurice Bishops New Jewel Movement (NJM) overthrew the regime of Sir Eric Gairy and established the Peoples Revolutionary Government (PRG), with Bishop as self-proclaimed prime minister. After four years, Bishops government was upset by an internal rebellion, and he was executed. Chaos followed the coup, and U.S. troops were called in to restore order. Grenadians continue to hold Bishop up as a martyr.

Not much is known of the early life of Bishop, other than he was a native of the Caribbean, having been born in Aruba on May 29, 1944. What is known, however, is that Bishops popularity with Grenadas citizens long preceded the revolution. During the 1970s, Bishop served first as a barrister, then as a parliamentarian in the Grenadian government. Always an activist, Bishop carried out these posts in the interest of the common mans cause, one Grenadian man told the Wall Street Journal. When he was beaten and imprisoned in 1973 by Gairys gang, his credibility among Grenadians surged. Soon after his release from prison, Bishop formed the NJM and began to protest the regime of Sir Eric Gairy.

Bishop rose to power in 1979 when he seized power from Gairy in a bloodless coup, and named himself prime minister. Finance Minister Bernard Coard was his most senior colleague. Revolution was embraced by over 90 percent of the population, one Grenadian man told the Wall Street Journal. We thought injustice, immorality, and police brutality had ended. We welcomed the relief, the new life. While Bishop did not set up a democracy, he worked to satisfy citizens with a host of national improvements. Among Bishops accomplishments for the beleaguered island nation were free education and healthcare, better public transportation and banks, and 45 miles of new roads. Milk was freely distributed and a new eye hospital, a new maternity clinic, and new dental clinics were built. He instituted a successful literacy campaign, a teacher-training program, free secondary education, and enhanced higher education

At a Glance

Born on May 29, 1944, in Aruba; died on October 19, 1983, in St. George, Grenada. Education: Presentation College, Grenada, BA; studied law in London, England.

Career: Called to the Bar at Grays Inn, 1969; Movement for Assemblies of the People, Grenada, founder, 1972; New Jewel {Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education, and Liberation} Movement, Grenada, founder, 1973; Grenada government, opposition leader in Parliament, 1976-79, minister for foreign and home affairs, information, and culture, and for national security and Carriacou affairs, 1979-81, prime minister, 1979-83, minister for defense, the interior, and health, 1981-83.

and scholarship programs. Under Bishops rule, the islands economic infrastructure was bolstered. Fishselling centers were updated, feeder roads were built to aid small farmers in getting to market, and islanders began producing jellies and jams to encourage colonists, who were fond of imported foods, to buy local. Plans were in the works to accommodate and revive the tourist industry.

Many of the improvements instituted by Bishop were funded by Cuban and other Soviet bloc aid, which made him a target of suspicion among non-Communist governments, namely the United States. Despite Grenadas small size, U.S. officials feared its close links with Cuba and the Soviet Union would make it a gateway for Communist subversion in South America, James M. Wallace wrote in U.S. News & World Report. Bishop was an avowed pro-Castro Marxist and a critic of American imperialism. But Bishop was a moderate Marxist who was more concerned with the practical matters of his nation than he was with Communist rhetoric or Cold War politics. He even traveled to Washington for meetings to quell the heated antagonism between the United States and his tiny island. At the time, Wallace continued, he was already under fire in his own party for retaining too much private enterprise in the islands economy. Russian and Cuba also reportedly opposed his proposals to return Grenada to some form of constitutional government. Finance Minister Bernard Coard, Bishops top man, was a more conservative Marxist, however, and as Bishop was working on relations with America, Coard was devoutly anti-American. Reports of friction between the two were common. When Bishop accepted a $14.1 million loan from the International Monetary Fund, some conservative factions suspected that Bishop had agreed to shift his socialist tendencies in order to secure the money.

In October of 1983, infighting between Bishop and Coard came to a murderous head. Coard and his cronies managed to depose Bishop and replace him with a 16-member Revolutionary Military Council, made up entirely of army officers. The council immediately banned demonstrations, closed schools, and imposed a four-day, 24-hour curfew, with violators to be shot on sight. General Hudson Austin had led the coup, and the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan feared it had taken place with the collusion of Cuba or the Soviet Union. Austin would be placed as leader of the island, and observers feared Grenada would be doomed under the junta.

For almost a week, Radio Free Grenada aired conflicting reports of the coups and countercoups happening on the island; Grenada was in a state of chaos. Bishop was being kept under house arrest in the capital of St. Georges when a crowd burst past armed guards and carried Bishop out onto the streets and into the heart of a mob of protesters chanting We get we leader back. Almost immediately, truckloads of soldiers began firing into the crowd and recaptured Bishop, leading him away at gunpoint. That night, October 19, 1983, Bishop and five other officials were executed. A violent backlash against the new rulers was fueled in part by accounts of Bishops death. Grenadas popular leader was reportedly shot inside Army headquarters after surrendering with his hands in the air.

Six days after Bishops execution, U.S. President Ronald Reagan sent U.S. troops into Grenada on a mission to evacuate 500 U.S. medical students and defuse the chaos. In the process, 17 of those who instigated the coup and Bishops murder were captured, and stability was restored. October 25, the day U.S. troops landed on Grenadian shores, is celebrated as Thanksgiving Day in the nation. Bishop continues to be held as a martyr; his enormous popularity endures even in death. However, most Grenadians generally are aware of his governments abuses. Hundreds of his political opponents were imprisoned and never tried, the free press ceased under his administration, which refused to hold free elections and took over the countrys churches. Still, few will criticize him publicly.

When free elections were finally held in December of 1984, there was a lot of political cynicism, one Grenadian student told the Wall Street Journal. Lacking a charismatic candidate, many citizens refused to vote at all. But democracy eventually took hold on the island. In the following four elections, losing parties have turned over the country without incident. The nations clear appreciation for democracy is perhaps one of the most noteworthy legacies of those calamitous events of 1983, wrote Steven Griner in Americas.

Selected writings

Forward Ever!, Pathfinder Press, 1982.

Maurice Bishop Speaks: The Grenada Revolution, 1979-1983, edited by Bruce Marcus and Michael Taber, Pathfinder Press, 1984.

In Nobodys Backyard, edited by Chris Searle, Zed Books, 1984.



Bishop, Maurice, Forward Ever!, Pathfinder Press, 1982.

Marcus, Bruce, and Michael Taber, ed., Maurice Bishop Speaks: The Grenada Revolution, 1979-1983, edited by Bruce Marcus and Michael Taber, Pathfinder Press, 1984.

Seale, Chris, ed., In Nobodys Backyard, Zed Books, 1984.


Americas, May/June 1999, p. 54.

Atlantic, February 1984, p. 76.

Boston Globe, November 19, 2000, p. A8.

Monthly Review, June 1984, p. 59.

National Review, November 11, 1983; December 14, 1984, p. 35; June 5, 1987, p. 32.

New Republic, November 21,1983, p. 7; January 30, 1984, p. 16.

Time, October 24, 1983, p. 48; October 31,1983, p. 78.

U.S. News & World Report, October 31, 1983, p. 35.

Wall Street Journal, October 26, 1984, p. 1.

Brenna Sanchez

Maurice Bishop

views updated May 23 2018

Maurice Bishop

Maurice Bishop (1944-1983) was a leader of the New Jewel Movement which proclaimed the independence of Grenada in 1974. After a 1979 coup he served as prime minister of Grenada until his death in a subsequent coup in 1983.

Maurice Rupert Bishop was born May 29, 1944, on the island of Aruba, Netherland Antilles, of immigrant parents, Rupert and Alimenta Bishop. His parents had joined the intraregional migrant stream then taking advantage of the petroleum-based economic prosperity in the southern Caribbean islands. Returning to Grenada, where his father entered commerce, at the age of six, Bishop attended St. George's Roman Catholic Primary School. He then won a scholarship to Presentation College, the Catholic high school in Grenada. His high school career was distinguished. He won the Principal's Gold Medal for outstanding academic and general all-round ability; he founded the Historical Society and served as its first president; and he edited the school newspaper. On leaving high school Bishop worked for a short time in the civil service before going to London. There he attended Gray's Inn and earned his law degree from the University of London. He was called to the bar in 1969.

For two years Bishop practiced law in London, cofounding a legal aid clinic and demonstrating an active interest in campaigns against racial discrimination, especially against West Indians in England. But Bishop's political involvement began in earnest in 1970 when he returned to Grenada via Trinidad and Tobago. For by 1970 the Black Power Movement, originally begun in the United States, had already gained considerable appeal throughout the Caribbean. Trinidad found itself in the throes of an abortive revolution whose repercussions spread to the neighboring island of Grenada. At that time Grenada was in the firm grasp of Eric Mathew Gairy, a bizarre, corrupt, and paternalistic politician who had gained prominence through his role as a labor organizer. Gairy was also discussing the possibility of political independence for Grenada, despite the reservations of a large sector of the population.

Bishop established a law practice in St. George's, Grenada, and organized a demonstration supporting the Trinidad insurgents. Gairy retaliated harshly against the demonstrators, unleashing a security force composed of police, army personnel, and members of a para-military group called the Mongoose Gang. The security force showed scant regard for human rights or civil liberties. In November 1970 Bishop joined the protest by nurses against the poor conditions at the St. George's hospital and successfully defended them in court after their arrest. Bishop organized the Movement for Assemblies of the People (MAP) along with Kenrick Radix in 1972 to articulate the grievances of the masses against the Gairy government. As a result he was arrested and beaten several times. In March 1973 MAP merged with the rural-based group founded by economist and teacher Unison Whiteman, the Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education and Liberation (JEWEL), to form the New Jewel Movement. This well-coordinated opposition to the Gairy government declared independence for Grenada on February 7, 1974.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, November 18, 1973, Bishop and five leading members of the New Jewel Movement were in Grenville, the second largest town on the northeastern coast, when Gairy's Mongoose Gang attacked and brutally beat them. Bloody and barely conscious, they were incarcerated without formal charges and denied bail or medical attention. Eventually released, Bishop had to seek medical assistance on the neighboring island of Barbados. "Bloody Sunday," as the event came to be called, coalesced the opposition to Gairy. In January 1974 the New Jewel Movement and other groups called a general strike which lasted for three months and overshadowed the celebrations for independence on February 7. In one confrontation with the police on January 21, Bishop's father was shot and killed.

Bishop successfully contested the St. George's seat in 1976 and assumed the position of leader of the opposition in an ineffectual parliament. His New Jewel Movement controlled three of the six opposition seats won in a People's Alliance with the Grenada National Party and the United People's Party. Bishop used the parliamentary platform to publicize the program of the New Jewel Movement and relentlessly expose and condemn the actions of Gairy. At the same time, under Vincent Noel, an executive member of the New Jewel Movement, the Bank and General Workers Union was formed, enhancing the working class support of the political party. Apparently disturbed by the growing popular strength of the opposition, Gairy increased his repressive measures, especially those directed at the leaders of the New Jewel Movement.

On March 13, 1979, while Gairy was attending the United Nations session in New York, Bishop and his followers seized control of the government of Grenada. Proclaiming a People's Revolutionary Government, Bishop suspended the constitution. Promising new, democratic elections, Bishop became prime minister and minister of defense, and interior, information, health, and Carriacou affairs. Bernard Coard, a Brandeis University graduate in economics, became deputy prime minister, as well as minister of trade, industry, finance, and planning.

Bishop attempted to transform Grenadian society along the lines of the Cuban model. Voluntary mass organizations of women, farmers, youth, workers, and militia were established and declared to be a "real democracy," presumably making the holding of elections redundant. As a self-declared Marxist he demonstrated only a superficial understanding of the principles of Karl Marx. Nevertheless, he established close diplomatic relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union, and most of the island's development projects—including the new airport at Point Salines—were sponsored by the socialist bloc. With this support Grenada weathered the economic crises of the early 1980s better than most of its neighbors.

Bishop's government, despite its achievements, failed to hold elections and stifled a free press and the opposition. Despite the hostility of the United States, Bishop made repeated attempts to establish diplomatic ties with Washington. An active prime minister, he led delegations to meetings of the Caribbean Community, the commonwealth heads of governments, the United Nations General Assembly, the Summit of Non-Aligned Nations, and the Organization of American States. He established close personal friendships with Fidel Castro of Cuba and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.

By late 1982 a deep rift had developed within the central committee of the People's Revolutionary Government, mainly over the issue of Coard's desire to have coequal status with Bishop. Matters reached a head on October 12, 1983, when a meeting of the central committee accused Bishop of spreading false rumors of an assassination plot. The following day Bishop was placed under house arrest. On Wednesday, October 19, 1983, a crowd of supporters released him and marched to the military compound at Fort Rupert. There troops under the command of General Hudson Austin captured and executed Bishop, three cabinet members, two labor leaders, and nearly a hundred civilians. Within six days the United States invaded Grenada, arrested the leaders of the coup, established an interim government, and terminated the Grenadian experiment. Bishop's body has never been publicly identified.

Further Reading

Bishop is listed in Personalities Caribbean, 1982-1983. Background information on Grenada for this period may be found in A.W. Singham, The Hero and the Crowd in a Colonial Polity (1968); R.W. Jacobs and I. Jacobs, Grenada: The Route to Revolution (1980); David Lewis, The Grenada Revolution (1984) and EPICA Task Force, Grenada. The Peaceful Revolution (1982). □