Arthur Lewis: Attempts to save the Federation of the West Indies
By Lloyd Rohlehr
Stabroek News
December 28, 2003

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It was forty-two years ago, and for a compensation of one dollar a year, a great West Indian patriot, Sir Arthur Lewis went forth trying to preserve the federation idea as the four-year old West Indies Federation lay weak from discord, but not yet dead. He proceeded personally to leaders in the small West Indian islands with a bright idea in mind: a 'Little Eight,' to use its nickname.

The Prime Minister of the West Indies, Sir Grantley Adams, supported him. He named him Special Adviser to the Prime Minister of the West Indies and chose me as his assistant. Like myself, Sir Grantley was based in Port of Spain, Trinidad, the capital of the West Indies Federation from which Jamaica seceded. To the north of us in this town the Premier of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr Eric Williams had his office, in Whitehall. He was keenly interested but was being careful not to commit himself, his party, or his government in any way. Additionally, he had a general election coming up. But Lewis kept in touch with him. After all, Dr Williams, while he had taken the attitude that the existing federation must be wound up, had remained silent on what should take its place.

Lewis was based at Mona in Jamaica where he was Principal of the University College of the West Indies. We would have business at Federal House, where I was a senior civil servant, but he and I would meet each other in the various islands concerned, with, on only a few occasions, a repeat visit.

On our part, the mission was unpublicized, and when the press approached me I gave information while at the same time keeping my mouth shut.

Sir Arthur Lewis died much later a world-famous personality. He was head of the University College of the West Indies when it earned academic independence from the University of London and became UWI, our regional university on its own. He went on to teach at an American Ivy League University, namely Princeton. And later he held for a time the chancellorship of the University of Guyana.

I had for some time held him in esteem as a world personality. I particularly liked his facility in writing simple English and, with my interest in development economics devoured his 1955 classic, The Theory of Economic Growth, which came out when he was still teaching at Manchester University in England. I also prized his Industrialization of the British West Indies, a lengthy essay published by the Caribbean Commission. Like Eric Williams, he had what looked like an inexhaustible appetite for hard work. Once during our mission we had left Dominica on our way to St Lucia and were taking advantage of a ride offered us in a small, light aircraft. The plane encountered strong winds and the journey was not smooth. But while the craft continued its bumpy way to Martinique (to wait for better weather) Dr Lewis was unconcernedly scribbling away on his pad.

Dr Eric Williams

He and Dr Williams were old friends and they had known each other since they were both students some thirty years earlier. They admired and respectedeach other and each of them knew that he could call on the other's talents in support of national causes. And in fact, he showed his report in draft form to Dr Williams when we had finished the mission.

In Trinidad itself he talked with Williams and also the Governor General, parliamentary opposition figures, as well as the head of the federal civil service. Away from Trinidad it was, of course, with the leading lights of the territory involved.

Having completed his visits to the governments of Barbados and the Windward and Leewards Islands to ascertain their views, he reported. This was November 9, 1961. Two very thin volumes contained his report, one of them with Trinidad as a participant and one without. The one we all know is titled simply, Eastern Caribbean Federation, and it is from this that I continue this story.

All these governments wished, said Prof Lewis, to continue in federation with each other and with Trinidad and Tobago. However, should Trinidad and Tobago proceed to independence alone, the units wished to continue in federation under the leadership of Barbados.

A new opportunity?

He saw general agreement that the departure of Jamaica "creates a new opportunity of fashion a strong federation. Indeed while there is everywhere profound sentimental regret at the loss of Jamaica, it is at the same time recognized that this makes possible in the Southern Caribbean a much more effective and practicable federation."

The proposals he was now making, "in the belief that they are in the main acceptable to the Government of Barbados and the Windward and Leeward Islands, actually constitute a stronger Federal Government than that which was proposed by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago in its memorandum, The Economics of Nationhood."

Several ministers, he said, had asked him to emphasise the extent to which the peoples of Trinidad and of the other islands already belong to each other. "A federation must fail unless its people are bound together emotionally," he observed, adding that "one reason for the failure of our attempt at federation with Jamaica was the fact that the peoples of Jamaica and of the Southern Caribbean knew little about each other and felt little affection for each other."

Lewis proposed federation, not a unitary state. And given recognition that all the islands "have the same interest in retaining some important initiatives in the hands of Unit representatives," he saw no major difficulty in securing agreement on a strong federal constitution.

True, there had been inter-governmental conferences, and changes and conclusions were reached in June 1961 and a White Paper was introduced.


Lewis worked from this White Paper on the discussions and he asked governments how they felt about matters which were controversial then. Also he assumed that anything which had been settled before the middle of the year would remain unchanged.

Accordingly, the matters now requiring consideration were: services to be transferred to the federal government, federal grants to unit services, industrial development, customs union, freedom of movement, and sources of federal revenue.

The judiciary and police "as it is felt that the maintenance of justice and order throughout the federation should be federal responsibility." Though the police would be federal servants, the Chief of Police in each unit would act in consultation with the unit government.

It was agreed that full customs union be introduced as soon as possible, without the delays which had been agreed at Jamaica's request.

Freedom of movement

The term 'freedom of movement' was so important that it should not merely be on the exclusive list but should be entrenched in the constitution.

When it came to taxes it was proposed that in the income tax field the federal government confine itself to taxing companies. And it was also proposed that the federal government retain 70 per cent of the import duties it collected.

Professor Lewis said that as he had stated publicly, the Premier of Trinidad and Tobago took the position that the existing federation would come to an end when the British Parliament enacted the secession of Jamaica. "It is my impression," Professor Lewis wrote, "that he desires that Trinidad and Tobago and the other islands should enter into a new association, rather that that Trinidad and Tobago should seek independence on its own. However, he is not prepared to enter any commitment at this time."


For the British Caribbean, as I see it, if this was an age of testing the federal idea among themselves, it was also a heady time of nationalism, of pride in enjoying one's own sovereignty and in the possibility of smaller nations making their way in the world free from British imperialism. It was long since (1955) the pivotal Bandung Conference raised hopes that emerging post-colonial states had a future, as a global political force, described as the 'Third World.'

Actually, the West Indies islands separated by a lot of water, had never been greatly in touch with each other. They were more in touch with Great Britain. World War II gave an impetus to inter-territorial air travel and this helped us to know each other better. The British government was in a decolonizing mood and suggested we might want to try federation, which could lead to dominion status and independence. We responded cautiously. It was eleven years between the closer-association conference at Montego Bay in 1947 and the opening of he federal parliament of the West Indies in 1958 by Princess Margaret and, at that, British Guiana, the largest territory, and also British Honduras chose to stay out.

Jamaican referendum and aftermath

And adding to the '/temporary' atmosphere was the fact that Port of Spain was the capital as a prelude to Chaguaramas.

On September 19, 1961, Jamaica held its referendum to find out whether or not to opt out of the West Indies Federation of ten territories. The voters said yes, and so the largest unit of this federal grouping seceded, thenceforth proceeding to national independence on its own.

Trinidad and Tobago had the choice of leading a nine-member federation, but the premier wanted first to hold the country's immediate general election, which he won handsomely by 20 to 9. He formed a 12-member cabinet. A local man - the first - Solomon Hochoy was already governor.

Williams had already studied the nitty-gritty of putting together a West Indies nation in his useful work, The Economics of Nationhood and he favoured a unitary state.

In his autobiography, Inward Hunger, Dr Eric Williams wrote that his cabinet would not even discuss the Arthur Lewis proposals. "It rejected them out of hand." Trinidad and Tobago would be, he observed, committed to paying 75 per cent of a federal budget when it was limited to less than 50 per cent of the federal population.

As it happened, the rejection by the cabinet was followed by the rejection by the party, the People's National Movement, or PNM, and events at that time had put the PNM under pressure to take a firm stand on the question. This it did at a meeting of its general council on Sunday, January 16, 1962, when it approved a resolution that Williams would put before a special party convention called for January 27-28, 1962.

The motion before the party convention, after much debate and amendment, Trinidad and Tobago's unequivocal rejection of any participation in the proposed Eastern Caribbean Federation and the proceeding forthwith to national independence.

These steps were proposed without prejudice to the future association of Trinidad and Tobago with any territory of the Eastern Caribbean whose people may so desire and on terms mutually to be agreed, but in any case providing for the maximum degree of local government.

A joint select committee was established to consider proposals for an independence constitution of Trinidad and Tobago. Comments were received from citizens on the draft constitution that was published and a report was adopted by the joint select committee. Inexorably, the territories were moving on to their own independence but with a great respect for group co-operation. The modern West Indies was in the making.

Years passed. A counter-current to insular fragmentation in the post-colonial period was brought into being in the form of a Caribbean Free Trade Area, or CARIFTA, in 1968. it evolved into the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM). All Commonwealth territories in the Caribbean have joined. The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, or OECS, has been formed. This is on a smaller scale.

But a 'Little Eight' never came to fruition. The West Indies Federation, which was dissolved in 1962, amounted to a springboard. Other territories moved on to national independence on their own, Guyana and later Trinidad and Tobago opting for a republican form of government. Some territories are twin or triple-island states. A handful remain tiny dependencies of the United Kingdom.

Many outstanding individuals can justly claim to have thrown in their talents, energy and patriotism to the making of the modern Caribbean.

Certainly, Sir Arthur Lewis was one of them. The life and death of the federation

The British government had engaged in federal experiments in the West Indies many times, and then there were the so-called Confederation Riots in 1876. After this failure it attempted no more federal experiments in the West Indies for seventy years - until the end of the Second World War. But the idea did not die, even though between the two world wars there was not much talk among West Indians themselves about federation. When they did stir, a group of liberal and radical politicians were involved, and a conference was staged in Dominica in 1932.

The Great Depression brought maturity to the growing working-class movement. Seasoned public figures and rising stars allied with them, and the federation idea was revived to the point where in September 1947, amidst the active interest of Britain, official representatives of the West Indian governments met with the Secretary of State for the Colonies (Arthur Creech-Jones), and they agreed in principle on federal union.

This resulted in the federation titled the Federation of the West Indies. Its Governor General, Lord Hailes, who took office at Port of Spain on January 3, 1958, immediately called for elections to the House of Representatives, and Sir Grantley Adams was pressed into office as prime minister with the slimmest of majorities. His role demanded considerable political and parliamentary skill, for the West Indian spirit was at a low ebb, despite institutions being set up, and the fact that the goal of dominion status was close. But this federation was dissolved after four years on May 31, 1962, Jamaica by a small majority having voted on September 19 of the previous year to come out.

Meeting held with legislators

In his mission to save federation with a possible union of eight instead of ten as before, Sir Arthur Lewis, an academic, then Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University Collage of the West Indies, held meetings with legislators. The practical matters concerning a smaller grouping were discussed in a working atmosphere in private with no policity. One of the things which exercised the mind of Sir Arthur in the early stages was: would the old federation cease to exist after March 1962? His take on this was, not so; that the federation goes on for ever despite the changes in combination, just as the British government goes on for ever through Scotland comes in and Ireland goes out, or the United States goes on for ever though it began with 13 states and now has 50. He deduced from remarks by Dr Eric Williams that he felt he would not have to come out of the federation because the federation would simply dissolve itself and leave him a free hand.

Dr Lewis remarked to me that the view that the federation was formed by a contract between 10 states and that the disappearance of one breaks up the entire contract is legal nonsense. The federation was not created by contract, but by an act of parliament, and the consent of the 10 territories was not needed since they were merely colonies and thus had to do whatever parliament required them to do.

Freedom of movement was a practicality that some legislators favoured, subject to some years of grace. Others held, variously, that it should be entrenched in the constitution. Still others thought that no breathing space ought to be granted, but the federal government should examine any difficulties as they may arise, i.e. there should be no postponement as a matter of principle.

The Guyana question

Should British Guiana (as it then was) come in? How did island legislators involved feel about this? Professor Lewis kept the question open all the time, and received from the legislators he saw, different responses.

Do not want British Guiana in the federation because of the 'Indian problem'

In favour of bringing British Guiana in? Well, no, because of the 'communist business.'

Yes, said one legislator, who added that he was disassociating himself from 'racialism.'

Another: Do not wish the federation to be burdened with the 'socialization' that would come with it...

The recruitment of Kelshall by British Guiana is an ominous sign.

...Yes, to British Guiana said another participant-legislator, largely because of its large amount of undeveloped lands...

One legislator thinks Jagan is an opportunist rather than a communist and does not expect any strong socialist measures on the part of Jagan. Hostile to the accession of British Guiana in the federation 'for Castro reason.'

Albert Gomes, whose party, the Party of Political Progress Groups (POPPG) had lost to Dr Williams's People's National Movement (PNM) but had been elected to the Federal West Indies House of Representatives said he was looking forward to the opening of this parliament, which would give him an opportunity for an attack on Williams. Gomes was very pessimistic about the course of events in Trinidad if Trinidad became independent. He thought that his political life would become unbearable and he spoke of emigrating.

(Albert Gomes did indeed emigrate with his family to England.)