At the start of the month, Barbados’ former Prime Minister, Owen Arthur, officially departed the island’s Parliament and elective politics. Some weeks prior, he had indicated that he would not be running again in his St Peter constituency after the island’s legislature had been dissolved.
Uniquely, he is the only Barbadian Prime Minister to have sat in Parliament with every other Prime Minister of his country. He was also a participant in key national, regional and international decisions that have made the island and the Caribbean for good and ill what it is today.
His intellect, detailed interest in and knowledge of history and literature make him one of a small number of former Caribbean Prime Ministers well placed to record dispassionately the region’s recent history. That is to say, write from their particular perspective about what really happened on issues such as the end of preference, the decline of Caricom, or about relations with the US, UK and others.
They are also uniquely placed to describe the political battles within their own countries and parties, as well as the personality politics and petty nationalisms that have created the modern Caribbean.
In other parts of the world political leaders on stepping back from elected politics set down their experiences. So, for example, Barack Obama or the UK’s David Cameron are currently writing about their time in high office.
Unfortunately, in the Caribbean there appears to be little or no appetite to produce an autobiography or even encourage a biography explaining the detail or personal experience of being in government.
The absence of any recent Caribbean volumes of this kind ‒ Sir Shridath Ramphal’ s recent Glimpses of a Global Life is an exception – is unfortunate. Personal accounts and reflections convey not just information and explanations about why political and economic decisions were taken, but more importantly, enable the young in the region and the diaspora to know and absorb the recent past.
Put bluntly, the Caribbean’s first person recent political history as seen through Caribbean eyes is being lost.
It is of course possible to find analysis and reporting in recently opened archives in Washington and London which provide contemporary accounts of quite recent events. However, this is not the same as a first-hand Caribbean explanation. It means that Caribbean young people in particular who want to find and own their history and by extension West Indian or Caribbean culture in a rapidly globalising world, may find this impossible in future.
As far as I can determine, few if any of the current group of Caribbean Prime Ministers, or opposition leaders keeps a diary recording events and conversations of importance.
Unlike their predecessors or counterparts in other parts of the world, senior Caribbean figures now seem to lack the time, or desire to explain to history what drove them, or the reasons why decisions, domestic, regional, or international were taken or avoided.
It was not always so. Many internationally respected figures in the region’s past, including Michael Manley, Errol Barrow, and Edward Seaga, and some who came before, either wrote about their experience, their philosophy, or to a lesser extent their exchanges with colleagues and regional counterparts.
What this means is that there are relatively few authoritative primary explanations of modern Caribbean events. This is made worse by the fact that access to high level Caribbean government documents is at best sporadic, idiosyncratic or limited, with much that might have been recorded remaining unknown, withheld or destroyed.
This makes it difficult for those coming into Caribbean politics, or others who need to understand regional dynamics or those of a nation. It leaves them largely with political mythology, unable to grasp issues well, or if external to the region, able to respond in ways that understand and respect Caribbean sensibilities.
The result is that today it is far easier to know in great detail about slavery, reflect on the colonial experience, or follow the process that led to independence, than it is to understand through first-hand accounts the late twentieth century Caribbean history that followed.
There are of course reasons why this has happened. Some in the Caribbean’s political class have personal or political reasons for not wanting to reflect on past discussions in their lifetime; there is no money in such an enterprise; Caribbean book publishers largely focus on academia; the regional market for books is small and fragmented; there are few bookshops; and new technology is making traditional publishing unviable.
What also seems to be missing is any significant cadre of academics who have an interest in the recent past and are willing to secure archives, now held electronically, which will quite literally disappear as technology moves on.
This is not just an issue for former political leaders, regional officials, and others with important perspectives, but for the private sector as well.
In recent months, former leaders of the tourism, rum and sugar industries have indicated privately that they want to share what is in effect the recent economic history of their industries, and by extension the personal history of the many hundreds of thousands of workers in these sectors. They however confess that they are either not equipped as writers, or require an editor and publisher. Their interest in doing so is not vanity, but because they believe they have something important to pass on.
Just under three years ago Owen Arthur bade farewell with a “heavy heart” to the Barbados Labour Party. It is not to make a political point to say that whether in government or opposition he was one of the makers of the modern Caribbean.
I do not know if he or other former leaders are writing for future publication, autobiographies or reflections on where the region has come from and now is, but I very much hope for the sake of the Caribbean’s generations yet to come that they are.
Previous columns can be found at https://www.caribbean-council.org/research-analysis/