The official programme of exercises marking the 50th Independence anniversary, stamped with the logo that calls to mind Soca Monarch or a section of moko jumbies, or both, is only slowly coming into focus. But a popular response to a national commemoration should be upswelling somewhere.
Sourly, CLR James once suggested that T&T went to Independence as if going to a funeral. Some other writer noted, however, that as the red, white and black unfurled in the Red House yard that midnight, a spontaneous and uproarious cheer arose among those crowded inside Woodford Square.
The truth is somewhere in between. I was with them, certainly sloshing around, if not cheering, in the mud, squelching the turf inside the Square; it had been a rainy period. Bicycle-borne teenagers, getting around town over succeeding days, appraised the exhibitions, the presentations and the free entertainment, all amid unfamiliar décor, soon though due to be recognised as patriotic. Boys met girls, also attending the freenesses, but not really by chance.
As Sir Shridath Ramphal reminded us last Saturday, the actual passage to Independence of then self-governing British colonies had been a sprint. Independence, with British acquiescence, was always going to happen, as a matter of not if, but when and, most critically, how.
The West Indies Federation was to be the how—an orderly and dignified passage by ten member states. But one morning, that option ceased to obtain.
Jamaica and T&T, shrugging off the sudden-death consequences for the Federation, more or less said, "To hell with it," and made a dash towards the big I. Jamaica, bespoke homeland of world-beating sprinters, got there first.
By August 1962, Jamaica was for T&T a distant, foreign, rival entity. The other eight were left to tread Caribbean Sea water as the Independence ship went down.
Where the Independence action was in T&T, new music and new lyrics had to be learned; new symbols had to be revered. One species of flower and one brand of bird were designated "national". (It was as yet inconceivable that a familiar, down-home "instrument" could also be so identified.) Overnight, it seemed, special trappings of nationhood were invented and acclaimed.
Some of the flavour of the moment was ersatz, a word I picked up at the time and understood to mean force-ripe or artificial. But people thereafter heeded the call to wear the national colours, on appropriate occasion, if not always. Some men made a point of regularly sporting neckties in red, white and black, a practice still carried on by Arthur NR Robinson, former prime minister, former president.
T&T had long developed the practice of making music addressed to the moment. Carnival required an annual renewal of music and fresh words addressed to the occasion. The 1962 Independence events included a calypso competition.
Sir Shridath, assistant attorney general of the Federation, living in Maraval at the time, missed the flag-raising and cheer-raising moment. He had left T&T for Harvard University hours before.
His lecture evoked the revisionist background that represented T&T Independence as an eventuality that wasn't supposed to be. Sir Shridath's was the latest in the Central Bank series named after Eric Eustace Williams, who became T&T's first prime minister after unforgettably writing off the Federation once Jamaica had voted itself out by referendum.
The referendum ended an agony of Jamaican indecision over participation in the Federation. Sir Shridath recalled that Norman Manley, then the widely admired premier of Jamaica, had vowed to offer himself as prime minister of the independent Federation. During the referendum campaign, the pro-Federation party counted active allies among regional students and academics (among them, Trinidad's Lloyd Best) at the Mona university campus.
In a formulation worthy of calypso, Dr Williams concluded that one from ten leaves nought: without Jamaica, nothing was worthy of salvaging in the name of a Federation, an integration enterprise in which West Indian hopes, including his own, had been heavily invested.
Sir Shridath thus reminded us that the Independence being commemorated here marks a rising up 50 years ago from the ashes of a failed Federation, or the abandonment of a brave, New World enterprise. The venerable diplomat forbore interrogation of why Dr Williams, at the moment of the referendum reversal, chose to echo Jamaica's "To hell with it", rather than to urge "Let's stay together" to rally the nine remaining members to make a go of the Federation enterprise.
One from ten leaves nought is thus the road march theme for a big what-if moment in history. Well, two such moments, really.
Sir Shridath speculated fascinatingly on the prospects for an independent Federation with Norman Manley as first prime minister, which would have marked its 50th anniversary last May 31. Another, harder question is now due to be reopened: was it own-way Jamaica that ditched the Federation, or was it not the premier of T&T, location of the Federal capital, who determined that without Jamaica, nothing had been left worthy of rescue.
—Correction: An error of fact in last week's column confirmed the pitfalls of over-reliance
on (aging) memory. Contrary to what appeared
in this space, the "tax clearance" requirement
was deleted under authority of Finance
Minister Wendell Mottley in the first
Patrick Manning administration.