(Originally posted in 2005)
Today marks the 26th anniversary of the 1983 uprising in which Maurice Bishop, his companion and fellow minister Jacqueline Creft, other members of the cabinet and innocent civilians were killed by members of the People’s Revolutionary Army. The events of that fateful day would have profound social and political ramifications that resound in Grenada even now in 2009.
Maurice Bishop was the leader of the People’s Revolutionary Government (1979-1983). Whether you share his politics or not, one unmistakable fact remains – he was one of the most charismatic West Indian political personalities ever. He was much beloved by the Grenadian population, and his untimely death at a relatively young age has only added to his status as a people’s hero.
Just last night I caught a piece of Malcom X on TV. Bishop was quite a disciple of Malcolm, and I am always struck by the similarities in their oratory and their personal magnetism. Like Malcolm, Bishop had the power to move crowds to tears, or to anger, when necessary. Women flocked to him, men admired him, the elderly adored him. Their rhetoric was similar as well:
“The new society must not only speak of Democracy, but must practise it in all its aspects. We must stress the policy of “Self-Reliance” and “Self-Sufficiency” undertaken co-operatively, and reject the easy approaches offered by aid and foreign assistance. We will have to recognise that our most important resource is our people.” – Maurice Bishop.
You can read more about Bishop here.
In the latter years of the Revolution (or the Revo as it is still called), Bishop and his political partner Bernard Coard began to drift apart ideologically. As one writer would put it “One current of Grenadian socialism was egalitarian, democratic, and Jamesian; the other was hierarchical, statist, command-oriented, placing power above the masses..”
I remember that day even now. October 19th 1983. I was 12, and my grandmother kept my brother and me home from school. Days before this, Maurice Bishop had been placed under house arrest by the Revolutionary Army, under the directive of Bernard Coard and Hudson Austin.The citizenry was worried, confused and agitated. There were rumours of impending student demonstrations and strike actions.
At about 1pm we could hear the sounds of gunfire coming from St George’s, the sounds of car horns blaring, the screams and shots of people running out of town. I remember my grandmother being terrified for the safety of my uncle who was working in the heart of St George’s; thankfully he showed up unhurt and full of news later on that afternoon.
This is a synopsis of the day’s events from
Maurice Bishop, as Prime Minister, began to be criticized for his under-performance and lack of administrative leadership in relation to the crisis of multiple problems facing the country, including the deteriorating state of the economy. The period of criticism and conflict between Maurice Bishop and his supporters, and Bernard Coard and those of what is called the ‘Coard faction’ went back as far as the early 1970s, according to some accounts. No report of strife within the Party was printed in the official People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) newspaper, “The Free West Indian.”
Another interesting point is that the Central Committee was a collective body with consensus or near consensus decision-making. There is a concept that the needs of the collective soon supercede those of its members. The ‘Coard faction’ proposed that ‘joint leadership’ be shared between Bishop and Coard. They felt the marriage of the strengths of the two men would be beneficial for the country. The ‘joint leadership’ decision was unanimous. The decision was, according to some, a formalization of the responsibilities previously borne by Bishop and Coard. The consensus decision by this collective became the overriding factor which many concluded took precedence over Bishop’s decision change. Bishop had other ideas. The duties and responsibilities would leave, according to Bishop’s final feeling on the matter, Maurice Bishop only as a show piece, a front, a ceremonial functionary without real power. Bishop said needed time to think about how joint leadership would work itself out day-to-day.
When Bishop refused to accept the idea of ‘joint leadership’ as workable, and rumors and alleged threats seemed to throw the situation into a psychiatric state, the Prime Minister was placed under house arrest. The house arrest occurred the evening of 12 October 1983 by unanimous decision of the remaining Central Committee members. There were frantic efforts to resolve the situation. Mediators Michael Als and Rupert Roopnarine were called in. Michael Als’ press statement Crisis in the NJM gives an overview of the situation.
Many Grenadians were alarmed by what was termed ‘Bishop’s house arrest.’ They demonstrated and marched to Bishop’s house to release him on 19 October, 1983. He was freed by a very large crowd with some reports at 4-5,000 people. Many supporters were waiting for a speech from Maurice Bishop in Market Square. For an uncertain reason, Bishop and a large group went to Fort Rupert, the headquarters of the People’s Revolutionary Army. The soldiers there were persuaded to disarm. The weapons were handed out from the armory to Bishop’s supporters.
A PRA assault unit in three BTR-60 armored personnel carriers headed on to Fort Rupert. An unidentified person, either on the Fort or off the Fort fired the first gunshot. There is controversy over who fired first. Many civilians died, either by bullet or by trying to get off the Fort. In the melee, people sought to escape from Fort Rupert by jumping off from its heights. Because of the elevated placement of Fort Rupert, citizens all over St. George’s stood on their balconies and viewed bodies falling to the ground. The photo below captures some of the horror.
Whatever opinion you have about what caused the internal power struggle within the Government of Grenada, here was a situation of the deepest national tragedy. The hard consequences of that conflict resulted in the deaths of the following eight people who were lined up facing a courtyard wall in Fort Rupert on 19 October 1983, in the following order from left to right:
- Keith ‘Pumphead’ Hayling from the Marketing & Import Board
- Evelyn ‘Brat’ Bullen, a pro-Bishop business supporter
- Foreign Minister Unison Whiteman
- Prime Minister Maurice Bishop
- Minister of Education Jacqueline Creft (pregnant at the time)
- Evelyn Maitland of Maitland’s Garage
- Minister of Housing, Norris Bain
- Fitzroy Bain, President of the Agricultural and General Workers Union
This is the wall that they were lined up against and executed.
An overhead shot of Fort Rupert (now known as Fort George, it’s original name)
The total civilian casualties from that day have never been accurately assessed. What had become apparent is that there were definitely some young people who were never seen again, but whose families have NEVER reported them missing, for reasons I don’t know.
American visitor: Why did Grenadians, who are friendly, courteous,gentle, fun loving and proud people, end up jailing and shooting each other?
Unidentified Grenadian: I don’t know. We ask ourselves that question all the time.
– from an introductory page of Frederic L. Pryor’s book “Revolutionary Grenada”
Despite the best, and often grossly misguided, efforts at delving into the truth about what really happened that day, who was to blame, etc., the events of October 1983 have left a brutal, sad and violent scar on the psyches of Grenadians. This is still evident in 2009, when the last of the Grenada 17, which included Bernard Coard and Hudson Austin, were recently released from Richmond Hill Prison, a sensitive topic for Grenadians on either side of the issue. There are too many wounds, hurts and grievances have been left unattended, paramount among which is the question of the whereabouts of the remains of Bishop, Creft and the others who were executed. Additionally, because of the poignant silence from the families of the others who died or disappeared on that day, it is still unknown if there are other bodies as yet un-recovered or accounted for. There is so much about that day we don’t know; a lot we probably don’t want to know.
Bishop’s daughter Nadia issued this statement in 2008, formally “forgiving” the Grenada 17; as with most things pertaining to that period, her statement ironically served to further salt the wound, deepening the wedge between those who can’t forgive and those who would prefer to close the book on this period. For, as it is rumoured, even though Nadia Bishop has forgiven, her grand-mother Alimenta Bishop, has not. This is a link to an interview Bernard Coard gave to the Trinidad Express on his release; just reading the interview fills me with fury, and I lost no friends or family on that day. I can barely imagine what some other Grenadians must be feeling, my heart aches for them.
As we continue to struggle with the repercussions of one of the darkest moments in our nation’s history, the words of the rallying cry of the Revolution come to mind – Forward Ever, Backward Never.
May the fallen rest in peace. May their families and their countrymen someday find peace.
Some additional photos of Maurice Bishop.
The back of Fort George where many jumped, fell or were pushed to their death. In ’83, there were bamboo stools and huge boulders all around here. Click for the large version.