A new formula for Caribbean unity

Dara E Healy -
Dara E Healy -

Culture Matters


People want to know why Jamaica run

From the Federation

Well they want to know why Jamaica run away

From the Federation

Jamaica have a right to speak she mind

That is my opinion

And if you believe in democracy

You'll agree with me

But if they know they didn't want federation

And they know they don't want to unite as one

Independence was at the door

Why didn't they speak before

This is no time to say you ain't federating no more!

– Mighty Sparrow, Federation

TO BE honest, until I wrote this article, the only information I had about the federation was these lines from Mighty Sparrow’s calypso. We may debate whether this is because of the huge gaps in our education system or Sparrow’s skill as a storyteller.

Either way, the result of the failed federation of 1958-1962 is the same – Caribbean nations did not succeed in forming a political union, depriving the region of the long-term benefits of unity. A deeper dive into the history reveals murky waters of rivalry between Caribbean leaders, a degree of distrust among Caribbean peoples towards each other and, at the core of the problems, British sabotage of the very union they said they wanted.

The notion of bringing together the islands of the Caribbean within a political union was actually considered from as early as the 17th century and revisited over the decades. This was a purely administrative undertaking by the British Empire – to rationalise its possessions in the Caribbean and make the region easier to manage.

However, during WWI, attitudes towards empire and regional identity began to shift as Caribbean soldiers endured negative and oftentimes racist treatment by the very empire they were initially so proud to defend. The labour riots of the 1930s in TT and other islands across the Caribbean further challenged the foundations of colonialism. The uprisings “discredited British colonialism internationally” and, it is said, helped to intensify calls for independence in African and Asian nations.

Globally, calls for independence were further complicated by heightened black consciousness, as Pan African conferences had already taken place in locations such as Paris and New York, spearheaded by TT national Henry Sylvester Williams, who organised the first Pan African conference in London in 1900.

In the 1930s, Caribbean attitudes towards political unity were fuelled by the advocacy of Albert Marryshow, Grenadian newspaper editor and later politician. His newspaper, The West Indian, carried the slogan “The West Indies must be West Indian.” His position was supported by powerful voices such as CLR James in The Case for West Indian Self Government, where James argued that Caribbean people were ready to take responsibility for their destiny.

For Lord Kitchener, federation was “a big occasion/Now we are united/And can't be divided/With this little combination/Soon we will declare a nation.”

Unfortunately, inter-island distrust contributed to difficulties with political unity. Local calypsonians expressed their resentment over the perception that people from the smaller islands were depriving TT citizens access to jobs and food.

Invader’s calypso was particularly graphic. “No flour, no rice in the island/Believe me, too much Small Island/Yes they come by the one, the two, the three/Eating our food and leaving us hungry/So Small Island, go back where you really come from.”

Politically, leaders were not blameless, as neither TT nor Jamaica put itself forward for election to the federal parliament, despite being the largest contributors to the federal budget.

But the reality is that political unity of the Caribbean required substantial support from the empire which had extracted resources from the region for centuries. Economic development demanded a system that allowed for independent taxation and other forms of economic autonomy, as pointed out by Dr Williams and other regional leaders. Instead, “Britain retained powers over external affairs, defence and general financial affairs in the colonial federation.” Counterproposals were put forward by the British for integrated regional social services and limited financial support, fundamentally diluting the effectiveness of political union.

For some, this was too much. Jamaica seceded from the federation first and TT followed soon after. Economist Arthur Lewis is noted for the view that “Britain ultimately chose to undermine the federation by means of financial strangulation.” As Dr Eric Williams fittingly calculated, “One from ten leaves nought.”

I now know that the collapse was more than Jamaica walking away. Sixty years after the demise of federation, the issues of reparations and financial support for development remain critical for our region.

To borrow from the Mighty Chalkdust, “War declare today/They owe meh grandfather backpay.”

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN


"A new formula for Caribbean unity"

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