Dr. Kwame Nantambu

W.I. Federation: Failure from the start

"One from ten leaves nought"--- Dr. Eric Williams

by Dr. Kwame Nantambu
December 12, 2005


The idea of federation has been bandied about in the West Indies for a long time. From the early days of Settlement in the 17th century, the idea of juxtaposing two or more islands for administrative convenience or for mere economic expediency, had appealed to the British government but there had been minor unification in reality.

What actually transpired was that Governors who were Crown appointees, frequently shared power with Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Dominica, an amalgam known as the Windward Islands and another by Antigua, St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla and Montserrat known as the Leeward Islands.

Barbados had on diverse occasions in the past, shared its Governor with other islands of the Lesser Antilles and moreover, the Governor of Jamaica was for a time, Governor of British Honduras.

The Leeward Islands had a federal government of some sort which lasted from 1871 until 1957, when the federal government of the West Indies was about to be inaugurated. The attempt to coalesce Barbados in a federal union with the Windward Islands in the 1870s was defeated by a violent opposition which culminated in the so-called confederation riots of 1876.

After this blatant failure, the British government then shelved any federal experiments in the West Indies for seventy years until the end of WW II. However, the federal idea continued to have irresistible attraction for British Colonial civil servants acquainted with the West Indies.

Among the body politic of the West Indians, there was not much rhetoric about federation until the period between WWII. The West Indian leader whose name was chiefly associated with the idea of federalism during that period was Albert Marryshaw, a member of the then Grenada Legislative Council.

He played an important role in giving a West Indian slant and purpose to the political agitation for reform of the Crown Colony system of government with self- government as the ultimate goal.

Another important milestone in the evolutionary process of the federal concept in the lexicon of West Indian politics was the conference in 1932, at which a caucus of liberal and radical politicians from Trinidad, Barbados and the Windward and Leeward Islands, meeting in Dominica, decided that federation was desirable and calculated that "federation was the remedy for (our) divided weakness."

Subsequently, they presented their proposals to the Closer Union Commission of 1932-33, which rejected them on the grounds that public opinion was not yet ripe for federation.

However, between 1934 and 1939, a whole maze of riots, disturbances and strikes erupted in the British Caribbean, stretching from British Guiana (later called Guyana) to Jamaica. Out of these emerged a numerically potent and militant labour movement.

The leaders of the movement in the southern most territories loosely associated under the title of the West Indies and the British Guiana Labour Congress, held conferences in 1938 in Trinidad and in 1944 in Barbados. At these conferences, they passed resolutions favouring a federation of the West Indian territories.

The 1938 conference adopted a constitution for the proposed federation, drafted by Grantley Adams of Barbados. Thus, the dramatic changes in the West Indian political climate was enough to demonstrate to the British government that the time had come to press for early action on federation.

Federal Negotiations

Taking the cue that the West Indian political leaders had an overt desire to group themselves into a federation, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies announced British support for "the establishment of (a) federation at the appropriate time" and the colonial legislatures were called upon to voice their opinions.

The reaction was generally favourable and at a conference convened at Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 1947, the colonies, with the exception of the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands, agreed "to consider the formulation of proposals for closer association of the West Indies."

This conference accepted the principle of federation on the "condition that the association be a loose one." Although there were opposing factions, a compromise was arrived at regarding the federal resolution, with British Guiana dissenting.

The task of framing a federal constitution was then delegated to a Standing Closer Association Committee. The Committee's recommendations were approved in principle by all colonial legislatures, except those of British Guiana and British Honduras.

However, all other outstanding federal issues were settled with "some gentle prodding" by the Colonial Office at a London conference in 1956. It was this London conference, therefore, that brought some finality to the federal negotiations.

Final agreement to federate was reached in 1956 and the Federation was formally launched on 3 January 1958 with the assumption of duty of the Governor-General in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad.

For its part, the British government had always stated that its aim in the Caribbean was "the development of a federation which would help the colonies to achieve economic self-sufficiency as well as international status as individual states."

Participating West Indian territories in the Federation were Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Trinidad and Tobago.

W.I Federation: Politics of Failure

The Federation suffered its first public setback when Norman Manley, Premier of Jamaica, declined to stand for election to the federal Parliament. This decision had a discouraging effect on the growth of federal sentiment in Jamaica and it was one of the prime contributors of the dissipation of the federal system of government.

In 1958, there was only one legitimate choice for the federal Prime Ministership. That choice was not Adams; it was Manley. But Manley refused and Sir. Grantley Adams was "constrained to accept the post."

Sir Alexander Bustamante, the Jamaican opposition leader, rightly observed that "Manley had done a great dis-service to Jamaica in recommending Adams as Prime Minister."

Indeed, two basic qualities were needed for the Prime Ministership of the West Indies Federation, namely, belief in Federation and a legitimate claim to leadership of the colonial region. Manley possessed both these qualities. The job was his and no one else's.

His refusal to assist the West Indies through this round in its fight for political integration had a very debilitating, long-lasting and irreversible effect on the body politic of the region.

In terms of West Indian party politics, there were two opposing political parties, namely, the West Indies Federal Labour Party (FLP) which had the following territorial affiliates: Manley's People's National Party in Jamaica, Sir. Grantley Adams's Barbados Labour Party and several labour parties in the smaller islands plus Dr. Eric Williams's People's National Movement in Trinidad and Tobago "as an ally but not as a full member".

On the other side, there was the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) of Jamaica led by Sir. Alexander Bustamante.

In the federal elections of 1958, the FLP won only twenty-two of the forty-five seats in the House of Representatives, while the DLP carried twenty seats. This meant that the balance of power was held by an independent from Barbados and two Grenada United Party members.

From the outset, petty political skirmishes were rampant among the top West Indian political leaders. For example, in the FLP, Dr. Eric Williams denounced Sir. Grantley Adams as "a stooge of the Colonial Office" and Adams in turn accused Williams of making accusations which were deliberately "inaccurate, mis-leading and untruthful."

Norman Manley was criticized for excessive idealism or lack of political realism and his decision to hold a referendum to decide Jamaica's participation in the Federation was regarded as a "serious misjudgment."

In addition, Williams was "accused of achieving alienation through arrogance"; Adams "had an unfortunate way of making improvised statements which provoked vigorous rebuttals and often required lengthy revisions and explanations. A circumstance (which left) him open to accusations of lack of leadership."

Despite all these political pettiness, the attitude of the political leaders toward the Federation was quickly put to the test, for the federal constitution provided that no person could serve at the same time in the legislature of one of the unit territory and in the federal Parliament.

Thus, before the first federal elections, the politicians had to decide whether to stand for election to the federal Parliament or stay in local politics.

For many holders of island ministerial posts, moving from unit to federal government would have meant moving to a position of less responsibility and would have indeed signified an act of faith in the future of the Federation.

Whether or not some West Indian politicians showed some measure of affinity toward the Federation, the overall political climate of the Federation, per se, prompted observers to cite "erratic and arbitrary actions of certain political leaders as contributing to the downfall of the Federation."

The Federation was then termed the "ghost Federation." This qualification was apparent in the great hassle in locating the capital site, the limited powers of the federal government, and restrictions on migration between the islands and the free movement of people and goods.

One federal issue that could not be shelved indefinitely was that of the location of the federal capital---- an issue which aroused the most controversy and acrimony. The Standing Closer Association Committee proposed Trinidad but Barbados and Jamaica objected.

When Grenada was "tentatively" selected, that too evoked a "storm of protest." As a result, the London Conference ruled out the smaller islands, although in early discussions, the general opinion had been that the capital should be one of the smaller islands. The rationale was that it would be in a neutral position in relation to the larger territories and it would be able to inject some buoyancy into on of the poorer economies.

The islands then vying for the federal capital were Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad, in that order. Trinidad came last on the list because of the instability of that island's politics and the low standards accepted in its public life. Provoked by this "insult", the Standing Federation Committee promptly chose Trinidad as the capital site.

On the question of the powers of the federal government, Jamaica spared no pains in seeing that the federal government did not exercise any extraordinary powers which might encroach on her domain.

Jamaica was diametrically opposed to the federal government's power to increase taxation and in early 1961, "Jamaica's pressure defeated a proposal to increase the federal share of taxes on income and profits necessary to implement those powers, so that alternate revenue sources had to be considered."

The problem of internal migration barriers stemmed from the fact that Jamaica, Barbados and the majority of the other smaller islands were seriously overpopulated, whereas Trinidad and Tobago and perhaps Guyana were able to absorb modest increases in their population.

Indeed, one of Guyana's premises for opting out of the Federation was the fact that it was "anxious not to become a dumping ground for the overflow population of the islands."

On the question of migration, Dr. Eric Williams, Premier of Trinidad and Tobago stated, inter alia, that:
"No sovereign state could guarantee freedom of movement to its citizens without accepting the responsibility for central economic planning and development in order to increase productivity and incomes in territories which are the source of emigration and alleviate the social and economic problems resulting in the territory of immigration."
What Dr. Williams stated was that there should be a certain aspect of reciprocity with regard to the thorny problem of migration, but to all intent and purposes, the other West Indian leaders did not envision such a reciprocity on economic, political or any other terms. Finally, it was the London conference in 1953 which came to the rescue and decided that there should be no restrictions on migration on economic grounds.

Moreover, because of the escalating quantum of people emigrating from Grenada and St. Vincent especially, to Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Williams suggested that "there would be no freedom of movement of persons within a federation unless there were also a corresponding freedom in the movement of goods."

Jamaica rejected this proposal because it seriously aggravated its unemployment problem and this "double bind" was a major cause of the Federation's major difficulties and eventual demise.

Thus, at the outset, it was quite apparent that the unit governments of the federal structure were at logger heads on basic issues, with Barbados and some of the other smaller islands steaming over the federal exercise itself.

History suggests that with the attitude of the smaller islands being very anti-Federation, it was no small wonder therefore that the larger islands had serious after thoughts about the whole federal idea. This reality came to the fore when the two largest islands, namely, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, began to crystallize their respective attitudes toward the federal idea.

"Perhaps the greatest single threat to federal unity since the outset had been the dissatisfaction of Jamaica with the method of representation in the federal Parliament." Jamaica believed that "the economically poorer islands with rapidly increasing population and less development potential would drag Jamaica down to their level and nothing short of representational parity can safeguard Jamaica against this."

Jamaica thus desired a "less centralized Federation" and challenged the concept of a world-wide movement toward Federation, of which the West Indies should be a part. Jamaica premised that "the West Indies must devise a federal structure to fit its unique conditions (and) not the surrender of powers to the center."

Jamaica also had serious doubts about its position in the Federation and became more concerned with the desire of reducing the powers of the federal government in relation to Jamaica than with that of putting an end to its colonial status.

On the other hand, dominion status appealed strongly to Dr. Eric Williams and on the eve of the Inter-governmental conference, these two major islands were poles apart on basic issues: Trinidad and Tobago was bent on dominion status and proposed 20 April 1960 as the date for its implementation, while Jamaica sought to reduce the powers of the federal government.

Jamaica also insisted that the power of the federal government to intervene in its local affairs be severely limited. Jamaica further contended that the existing constitution gave the federal government too large an amount of power to interfere with the industrial development of each unit and insisted that its powers of taxation be pruned down.

In addition, to safeguard its particular interest, Jamaica "demanded that the constitution be revised so as to exclude the possibility of federal control and to leave in the control of each unit, the development of industry and the power to levy income tax, excise duties and consumption tax."

For the sake of the smaller islands that might desire to establish a closer relation with the federal government, Jamaica proposed that a constitutional formula be devised which would enable such units to entrust the federal government with greater latitude of power over their internal affairs... However, Jamaica was to be left free to have a looser association with the federal center and keep control over all matters which, in its view, she could take care of for herself.

Indeed, it can be concluded that Jamaica was only preoccupied in looking after its own selfish interests and not the interests of the entire Caribbean. Albert Gomes, deceased Trinidad/Tobagonian federationalist surmised Jamaica's overall attitude toward political integration very succinctly as follows:
"Jamaica seems to want everything out of the Federation and wants to give nothing to it and that's a plain fact. She wants maximum representation that will put her in a position where she will virtually supplant Whitehall. All it would mean is that Whitehall could cease to be and Kingston would take over."
The Jamaican government had always been preoccupied with the financial cost of participation in the ten members Federation. This issue stood at the top of the polls during the Jamaican referendum. Contrary to what his political counterparts publicized, Norman Manley argued that continued membership in the Federation was "not only practical but indispensable," for Jamaica; whereas the opposition Jamaican Labour Party insisted that "federation" would be too costly and would require increase taxation.

As a countermove, Manley's PNP premised that a large amount of savings could accrue to Jamaica from continued federal association. Manley contested that:
"The true costs caused by Federation will only amount to about half a million pounds (US$1,400,000), just a little over 1% of what (Jamaica) spends a year. The costs of independence are much greater. In about five years, they may well amount to 3 million pounds (US$8,400,000). It is much cheaper to share the cost of independence with other islands than to try to go it alone."
Manley also pointed out that Jamaica was currently paying 43 per cent of the federal expenditures and that it would increase to about 46 per cent during the next decade. In surmising his country's financial position, Manley stated that "it will cost Jamaica nearly I million pounds (US$2.8m) more going it alone than sharing in Federation. by leaving Federation we save 400,000 pounds (US$1.1m) and we spend about I million more."

Needless to say, his opponents rejected such statistics. They insisted that "an independent Jamaica would cost its taxpayers 200,000 pounds (US$560,000) less than Jamaica in the Federation."

As a result, Norman Manley was not reluctant to accept the "mandate of the people" and proceeded to take the necessary steps to resolve once and for all the question of Jamaica's further participation in the Federation. The eventual outcome was the holding of the Jamaican referendum--- an action which has been one of the many final nails driven into the federal coffin.

On D-Day, 9 September 1961, the "less intellectuals" supported the JLP and it also got support from the anti-federation campaign of the People's Progressive Party (PPP) which spoke for Black Jamaicans. All this proved too much for Manley's forces.

On the prescribed day, with only 60 per cent of the electorate participating, 55 per cent voted against remaining in the Federation. As a result, Manley, acting on the "mandate of the people" took the necessary steps that brought independence to Jamaica at the earliest date.

In September 1961, Jamaica withdrew from the W.I Federation.

Manley then led a team to London to ascertain whether the British government will countenance Jamaica's going it alone. After lengthy and fruitful discussions, the Jamaican constitution was revised and she became an independent member of the British Commonwealth on 6 August 1962.

Not to be outdone, Trinidad and Tobago adopted a similar attitude to that of Jamaica's. After the Jamaican referendum, the center of attraction shifted to Trinidad. One school of thought had it that Dr. Williams "could now seize the opportunity to rebuild the Federation along the lines he had always advocated.

However, Dr. Williams insisted that Trinidad and Tobago could not carry the burden if Jamaica were to withdraw from the Federation. His position was very clear: the withdrawal of Trinidad and Tobago from the Federation in January 1962 and the eventual dissolution of the Federation were inevitable consequences of Jamaica's secession; the government of Trinidad and Tobago took the principled stand that secession of one territory meant the abandonment of the 1956 compact for the Federation of ten territories.

This principle stand led to Dr. Eric Williams' epitaph: "One from ten leaves naught."

On 6 December 1961, Dr. Williams declared that Trinidad and Tobago had wasted too much time on federal councils instead of concentrating on the welfare of its own people. He further stated that Trinidad rejected "unequivocally" participation in any Federation of the eastern Caribbean and would "proceed forthwith to national independence."

Dr. Williams surmised the differences between Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago's attitude toward the Federation as follows:
"Jamaica wanted a loose confederation with limited revenues and limited powers based on a customs union...(She) advocated a federal government whose revenues were derived from import duties and which had no powers whatsoever over income tax and industrial development. Trinidad and Tobago led the fight for a strong central government with adequate revenues to carry out the inescapable responsibilities of a new independent state. (We) advocated customs union, freedom of movement of labour and capital, a single West Indian currency, a Central Bank and federal powers over income tax and industrial development."
The cost of reconciling these virtually irreconcilable positions and postures was ultimately to be measured in terms of bitterness, frustration and finally, regional disunity and disintegration.

On 31 May 1962, the W.I. Federation was dissolved by an order in-council.

Why W.I. federation failed?

Cynthia Barrow-Jiles in her book titled Introduction to Caribbean Politics (2002) postulates that the W.I. Federation failed for the following reasons: (i) "The central government was virtually powerless", (ii)"The leadership was too timid.", (iii)"There were differences between the leadership of the region, particularly between Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago on the structure and future direction of the Federation", (iv)"There was reluctance on the part of the mainland territories to join the Federation", (v) "The absence of a unifying force prompted by external danger and the want of a common struggle against a reluctant colonizer", (vi) "Parochialism, which was grounded in generations of isolated history and the absence of a sense of a common identity and insular pride amounting to parochialism," (vii) "Trade and communications between the islands was sporadic", (viii) "Infrequent personal contact between the inhabitants of the region", (ix) "Differences in levels of development . was viewed as a critical determinant in the failure to generate the will and desire to integrate", (x) "Delays and manipulation on the part of the government of the United Kingdom", (xi) "A complicating factor was the rapid constitutional progress after 1944 which made local political leaders eager to consolidate their local political gains and fearful that they may loose them in a Federation".

This writer's (xii) reason is: Trinidad and Tobago's caution, Jamaica's arrogance and Guyana's indifference.

Against this backdrop, Caribbean political leaders need to adhere to the belief that "Caribbean political unity is one major issue that must be kept alive by all those who can appreciate the importance of having the Caribbean as one nation to deal with the world at large in the 21st century."

The fact of the matter is that although Caribbean governments decided to travel the independence route, one wonders whether that insular process has achieved its perceived or intended goals.

In other words, has the pursuit of individual national political independence been more beneficial than collective political integration?

Deceased TnT political genius C.L.R. James answers this question as follows:
"No independence has been achieved because there is a substantial portion of people, many of them well-educated and of professional status, who realize that to really be independent they will have to open a struggle with .worldwide corporations who still control life in the Caribbean. The result is that the (Caribbean) middle-class(es) are doing the same things that the colonialists did."
Caribbean political independence is a farce at its zenith.


The W.I. Federation has been described as "the blackest thing in British history' and "one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of the West Indies."

History has shown that only when a people come together to address issues that affect them collectively can they ever hope to resolve their problems. Caribbean people have common problems so that common sense should dictate that the only way to solve those problems is to come together collectively to address them. There is no other option.

It is to be hoped that history will absolve Caribbean political leaders for the ashes of the 1958-1962 federal debacle and not to let history repeat itself when the Caribbean Single Market & Economy (CSME) becomes operative in January 2006.

Shem Hotep ("I go in peace").

Dr. Kwame Nantambu is a part-time lecturer at Cipriani Labour College and University of the West Indies.

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