A tribute (not an obituary) to Jacques Compton
Jacques Compton, a former Director of Culture, would probably not have chosen to die on Carnival Day. But he did on Carnival Monday morning— and it’s probably more than just a coincidence. He simply loved and promoted the development of Carnival. He knew what it was and where it came from. He helped us get the National Cultural Centre for Independence, worked out of there for years and was still a Director at the Cultural Development Foundation (CDF) at the time of his death. Yes, it may very well be more than just a mere coincidence that he took his final walk on J’Ouvert morning.
Jacques and I last spoke in 2010, just ahead of a major article on the Nobel Peace Prize that I was about to write for a Chinese news website.
In all the history of the Prize, I wanted to let my world readers know, in clear terms, that St Lucia and the Caribbean have produced more Nobel Prize winners per head of population than any other geographic region. But in telling my readers about the Caribbean’s noble Nobel achievement, I also wanted to put certain facts straight— including that, contrary to conventional wisdom, St Lucia’s two Nobel Prize winners were not the Caribbean’s very first; and that as far as the Nobel Prize records go, there’s only one winner recorded from St Lucia. Ticklish stuff . . .
I know of no St Lucian who would want to be robbed of the opportunity to boast that “We are the only country in the Caribbean to have, not only one but two Nobel Prize winners.” But then, the truth prevails always—and the truth is different. But how does one explain that without being accused of somehow rubbing some of the shine off St Lucia’s most major accomplishments on the world stage?
I’d remembered hearing somewhere that even before Sir Arthur Lewis and Derek Walcott, another West Indian had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I knew it was from one of the French Caribbean territories, but wasn’t sure whether it was Martinique or Guadeloupe.
Who better to turn to than Jacques Compton?
I found him at his Barnard Hill home that Sunday morning. Letting his cat out to let me in, I was welcomed as if it had been an anticipated event. As if we’d been long waiting to meet and talk—and finally did.
Our long parley spanned reams of topics before we got to the matter of the Caribbean and the Nobel Prize history.
Spread out along an entire wall was his library, which, I’ve always been sure, is a masterpiece of a collection of some of the best works by the best Black writers in the English and French languages. He’d travelled all over Europe and knew all there was to know about African and European influences on West Indian and Caribbean culture.
After my first question, Jacques went immediately to one corner of his vast library and pulled out a collection of papers about Saint-John Pearce, the Guadeloupe writer who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. The writings in Jacques’ hands were all in French, including an acclamation of Pearce’s works by Allan Juppe, long before he became France’s Foreign Minister.
Jacques waxed poetic as he explained to me who Pearce was and what he was about. He proudly recalled visiting Pearce’s home in Guadeloupe, which was partly built with the remains of an American spaceship that had washed up on a Guadeloupe bay.
We spoke of the little known fact that Sir Arthur Lewis is not registered as a Nobel Prize winner from St Lucia. Jacques didn’t say that he thought Sir Arthur was registered as representing the United Kingdom because of any dislike or disrespect of, or distance from St Lucia. But he did understand the wish (of those who knew) that, like Walcott, Sir Arthur had registered in the name of St Lucia.
Jacques explained that Sir Arthur was resident in and working from the UK, and since his Prize was based fundamentally on work done in and out of the UK before St Lucia became Independent, it was understandable that he would have chosen to be registered under the “United Kingdom” rather than St Lucia.
It was the same situation with Pearce, who is registered as representing “France”, not Guadeloupe. Here too, though Pearce was born in and lived in Guadeloupe, his works were considered as being produced in and for France, of which Guadeloupe still is a colonial overseas “department”.
Walcott, on the other hand, though also largely resident abroad and working mainly in the USA at the time of his 1992 Nobel Prize award, is registered as the only Nobel Prize winner from St Lucia.
Ever the bard, Jacques found the way out for St Lucia and the Caribbean. “We just have to say that we produced two Nobel Prize winners from St Lucia.” And, “In the context of the Caribbean as an Antillean region, we can also say, with certainty, that these our islands have so far produced three Nobel Prize winners.”
But we didn’t speak only about the Nobel Prizes. We spoke of his failing health and the implications for his works. I couldn’t dare to suggest he should contribute his library to the National Archives or turn it into some sort of National Treasure. It would have been too insensitive. Yet I was concerned that if he were to go his way without doing something about it, Jacques’ rich archive could go the way of so many others that have disappeared from sight and remain inaccessible after their departure.
The closest I came to hinting about preserving his writings and library was to ask him what his plans were after he came out of his ailment. I told him I was interested in collecting his DBS Commentaries and producing them in related volumes. I also wanted to know whether he’d categorized his writings over the years. Jacques welcomed the DBS Commentaries idea, but while he knew what and which were best among his works, he’d preferred to have been able to verbally share his thoughts with “locals and visitors alike.”
We discussed a pet project I had in mind that would have seen Jacques lecturing daily and providing information about all aspects of St Lucia’s history and culture to visitors, students and anyone wishing to learn more about the island, the region and its historical links with Africa and Europe. His eyes sparkled as he rattled out the string of subjects he was prepared to be a daily teacher of in his latter days. It was as if he wanted an opportunity to offload some of the vast knowledge locked up inside him, lest he leave with it all.
His bright lights dimmed darkly during our talk, however, as he expressed some regret about his circumstances “in the post Sir John era.” He felt he’d been “denied a worthy pension” and “banished to a state of persistent poverty.”
I quickly changed the subject to literary matters— specifically, Arthur Lewis’ “Agony of the Eight”. I’d read it when I was too young to understand, but haven’t been able to put my hands on that seminal piece by Sir Arthur. Unfortunately, Jacques had lent it to a mutual friend who, to his regret, hadn’t returned it yet. If I could get it back, he promised, I could read it first —“and then return it.”
We parted with me promising to let Jacques see the end result of our discussion. He wasn’t online, so all he saw was what was published locally. But Jacques did contribute to my better understanding of some of the vicissitudes of the Nobel Prize phenomenon.
Usually bow-tied, suited and accompanied by a striking member of the opposite gender eons less his age, he maintained a public persona that was simply his—the effervescent intellectual who’s been there, done that and learned both this and that about who he is and where he came from.
As a writer, I admired Jacques Compton’s sartorial elegance, his dual linguistic fluency and his depth of knowledge. He shared his language and literary skills with young writers and poets at the Castries Library or wherever else they gathered.
Jacques was equally an advocate of culture who, after hearing of government’s alternative plans for the location where the National Cultural Centre sits, told another mutual friend he was prepared to—and would—be “a one-man army to protect and a lone protester to prevent them from replacing the National Cultural Centre with a courthouse.” Somehow, I’m glad he didn’t live to see his Cultural Centre pulled down. That would probably have done it to him.
Jacques lived the full life of a normal Caribbean writer—rich in intellect, poor in worldly wealth. But his life’s works are there, collected in one room in the house he last lived. Hopefully they be safely gathered, stored and subjected to the modern information technology treatment that will allow them to not just be preserved, but eventually shared with St Lucia and the world as he would have wanted, but was unable to ensure.