Last week we were reminded that September 7, 2016 marked nine years since the passing of Sir John Compton, first prime minister of Saint Lucia. As one who had observed him closely and had challenged him both in parliament and on public platforms, I paused to contemplate a different sort of tribute; one befitting a warrior and kindred spirit. This slant is not to minimize his contribution to the island’s improved communications and infrastructure, housing, pension plan and such like. Instead, it is to examine post-humus the mind of the man.
As a brash and fearless entrant into the political arena, I treated my opponents with scant regard. I saw them impediments to the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist revolution black people were forced to wage. There were, however, two saving graces in this all-or-nothing approach to cleansing the Augean stables of local politics, left behind by colonialism. If I say so myself, a willingness to learn and a burning desire to contribute to my country’s development were my saving graces!
A Saint Lucia delegation comprising Chief Minister John Compton and Opposition member Martin ‘Oleo’ Jn. Baptise and others were on their way to London via Barbados to discuss constitutional reform. I was on that LIAT flight en route to St. Augustine, in Trinidad. The flight to Grantley Adams (then Seawell Airport), was very bumpy and uncomfortable. Upon disembarking in Barbados, Oleo Jn. Baptiste invited me to join him and the Saint Lucia delegation at the bar to cool our frayed nerves. He lived at Rock Hall Road, Castries, a stone’s throw from me and had the year before sewn me a well-fitted suit.
The exchange of abrasive language between Oleo and Compton on their respective political pulpits had not prepared me for the camaraderie I saw exhibited at the airport restaurant that day in Barbados. On reflection that may have been my most important political lesson; that men can argue heatedly, passionately and at times even go off kilter. But they should never behave toward each other as enemies.
That lesson was re-enforced many years later when Hilford Deterville, who was more critical of Compton than either George Odlum or me, wanted an letter from Premier Compton for his wife Theckler in relation to a transfer from Barclays Bank, Castries to Barclays in Trinidad. Hilford had elected to do a Master’s programme (Economics), in Trinidad and needed the support of his wife. The bank in Trinidad demanded a letter from the island’s Premier before it would approve and seal the transfer deal.
Poor Hilford was at a loss. He came to me. Yes, of all persons, for advice. With careless scorn I suggested he boldly face Compton like a man, not as a seeker of forgiveness. Hilford was hesitant. He knew how scabrous he had been in his public criticism of the premier. In any case, Premier Compton received him cordially and within fifteen minutes Hilford came out, a broad grin on his face and a letter in his hand. That was the Compton whom even his harshest opponents got to know.
Still, I was taken aback during my first budget debate in parliament (MP for Castries East), listening to John Compton describe the conditions of workers in banana fields owned by Geest Estates Limited in the Roseau and Cul-de-Sac valleys. He hoped the banana industry would help lift the human misery in the former sugar cane valleys to new dignity. I was not impressed, seeing that it had taken Odlum and me to lift the level of consciousness in these workers through strike action for better pay and living conditions.
Stories of the young and radical Compton had led me to believe t he would have set those dark ‘hals’ in which the workers then lived on fire, and forced the British government and the sugar cane barons to provide better housing for these workers.
I left Parliament that day convinced that Compton had been aware all along of the island’s social and economic problems but had been powerless to do anything revolutionary about it. It had taken me thirty years or more to be fully convinced of the correctness of that early observation. I finally had to admit to myself that the man was unique. I knew in my heart that there was just one other person who might’ve equaled or bettered him. But I won’t name him for fear of being accused of arrogance!
In memory of the passing of John Compton on September 7, 2005 at least three questions came to mind which are relevant even at this late hour. What would Compton think of the proposed multi-billion dollar investment by DSH Star? Would he have insisted that the modernizing of Hewanorra Airport be part of that development deal? Like many others, I too have an opinion on this matter. But for now I choose to reserve comment.
I also wonder what Compton would think of the huge cost overruns incurred during the still incomplete repairs of St. Jude hospital, in Vieux-Fort. It appears the contractors had been hand-picked by politicians and given a free hand. Would Compton have put the matter in the hands of a forensic auditor and once the audit was complete pass the matter on to his Attorney General for due process?
Finally, what would Compton think of the present government of Saint Lucia and how it has gone about the nation’s business since its landslide victory on June 6, 2016. I think it was Bob Marley who reminded us in song that there are more questions than answers. What would Compton think is still a fair question to dwell on at this time!
The author is a former government minister who served under Labour and UWP administrations.