Power of one

By Philip Nanton

Beyond the Islands: An Autobiography, by James Mitchell
Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN-10 0-230-02220-0, ISBN-13 9788-0230-02220-1, 463 pp

James Mitchell at victory parade in St Vincent

Victory parade after the 1984 general elections in St Vincent and the Grenadines, with James Mitchell in the crowd. Photo courtesy Macmillan Caribbean

Is James Mitchell a Caribbean hero? The achievements stack up. Knight of the Realm, four consecutive terms as prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, some forty years a parliamentarian serving the Grenadines. His new autobiography implicitly makes the case. As such, it can be read, to advantage, as an extended dialogue with A.W. Singham’s now classic 1968 analysis of small-island Caribbean politics, The Hero and the Crowd in a Colonial Polity. Singham argued that the terminal stage of colonial rule in the Caribbean ushered in a new type of political leader, “the hero.” He (invariably) was charismatic with caesarist tendencies, combining a host of contradictory traits; these included anomie, rage, compulsion, and withdrawal.

Other characteristics of the Caribbean hero conventionally include leadership of national resistance; usually a radical anti-colonial campaign; a rise from humble origins; and the adoption of self-styled charismatic behaviour. The fit for Mitchell is by no means a perfect one. But there is more than enough evidence in his autobiography to engage the debate.

In 1931, James “Son” Mitchell was born in Bequia, the second largest of the island chain that comprises the state of St Vincent and the Grenadines. He comes from a family of seafarers who also had interests in land, and so, in Caribbean terms, was relatively well off. He won a scholarship enabling him to complete his education abroad, first in Canada then in Britain, where he trained as an agronomist. After his formal education, his hitchhiking through Europe in the early 1960s contributed to creating a cold warrior whose politics was that of an outspoken anti-communist liberal. (For example, described as “one of the sensible ones” by Margaret Thatcher when he was invited to Britain on an Official Visit.) There is some irony here. He is close in appearance to Fidel Castro, and was prone to similarly long public speeches. He is also a man of old-fashioned belief in hard work; he writes, “There is no doubt in my mind that the worst thing slavery did to the Caribbean’s people was to leave behind the lingering notion that hard work is to be despised.”

Mitchell entered St Vincent politics in 1966. He first joined the St Vincent Labour Party, serving as an effective minister of trade. He then was elected as an independent (1972–74). He held the balance of power in the island’s parliament after the 1972 election, and negotiated to become premier of a short-lived coalition. In 1975, he founded the New Democratic Party, and was the sole member of the parliamentary opposition till 1984. In 1979, the territory became politically independent. Mitchell led his NDP to victory in 1984, held the post of prime minister for sixteen years, and retired from the country’s parliament in 2004. At the regional level, Mitchell was a resolute advocate of economic and political unification, especially for the Eastern Caribbean. At the local level, his passions were land redistribution for small farmers and infrastructural development.

His autobiography ranges from the minutiae of St Vincent petty politics to issues of international mediation and electoral observation. He rubs shoulders with many political leaders on the world stage through his participation in numerous Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings. Simultaneously, he pushes his case for small island development, from negotiating loans for infrastructure to pleading the case for small-producer banana farmers at the World Trade Organisation. He is invited to observe and monitor elections in Nicaragua and Hungary, and to play a similar role for Commonwealth missions in the Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Lesotho.

The first sentences of chapter one proclaim the immense self-belief of a man of influence, one who is close to power and is at ease among the global political elite of his era. He states, “Every time I see a gruesome picture of the amputees in Sierra Leone, I wonder if I made a mistake. Could I have done more during my involvement with West Africa? Could we have stopped the carnage?” He maintains the reader’s interest by moving his text backwards and forwards in time, linking local politics with asides on his involvement with international events, his contacts with the rich and famous, and the ups and downs in his own family fortunes. There is room also for a considerable splattering of blunt polemic and, unfortunately, the overworked Caribbean stand-by of “wise sayings” and good advice based on the importance of hard work, religious calling, and the benefit of experience.

But Beyond the Islands is more than finger-waving about how to wield power. A chapter consisting of diary entries reveals the fundamental tension between the public life of a successful hotelier and politician, and a life of solitude. The latter is imposed first by his upbringing and his religious faith. He often returns to comment in one form or another on being alone. At first, he claims that “being alone in opposition is not loneliness.” Later, when he is prime minister, the demands of public life reinforce his solitude. “For all my sixteen years, the Prime Minister’s residence was a lonely house, not a home. My children and friends were only occasional visitors. It was a work station.”

The writing here is without editorial help, and so benefits from being less refined. It reveals the contradictions and tensions underneath the trappings of state; the solitary existence, a broken marriage, and family schism. In 1990, he is tempted to abandon his political career. He feels rejected by his children from his first marriage when his second partner gives birth to their daughter. A diary entry for that year is both heartfelt and self-pitying: “I who have given my life, my intellect, my time unreservedly for others and in the service of my children now find myself rejected, accused of sinning and accused of abandonment, judged without a trial . . . I am, as I have always been for much of my life, alone. I struggled alone. I wandered over the face of the earth looking for my destiny.” But he soldiers on in politics for another fourteen years.

Beyond political ideology and the nature of the Caribbean hero, this book illustrates two fundamental themes. The first is how personal is the practice of Caribbean politics. Alongside his political career, Mitchell owns and manages a successful and well-appointed Bequia hotel called the Frangipani. The hotel played an important role in his politics, as he used it to woo many, including regional and international politicians. These international contacts were to provide access to loans and grants for economic development. However, there was also a downside to personal politics. These involved at least one threat to his life, rough-house political campaigning in St Vincent, and harassment of his family.

The second theme is the importance of leadership in the management of a country and its resources. In a discussion of the politics of Guyana, for example, he observes: “I knew that my Bequia could vanish in the Essequibo jungle of Guyana, but the diminishing quality of life in that country in the midst of such vast resources was, to me, yet another indication that the quality of life in a nation depended on leadership and policies and had nothing to do with natural wealth.”

Mitchell’s observations on leadership return us to Archie Singham and his perspective on the hero. Singham suggested that, in trying to impose change from the top, leadership of this type is either doomed to failure, or else the efforts result in short-term superficial developments. Mitchell would probably disagree. In 1969, a few years into his involvement in local politics, one critical independent study (the University of the West Indies Development Mission’s Report on the Development Problem in St Vincent) noted of St Vincent that “its material and environmental conditions could scarcely be far removed from the situation as it was under slavery.” Under Mitchell’s leadership, much changed; he can indicate the development of roads, airports on Union, Bequia, and Canouan, a cruise-ship port, and his land settlement schemes aimed at creating a buoyant middle class. He is proud that during his long years in office an independent World Bank review claimed there was “much to praise, little to fault.”

At the same time, Mitchell’s two passions, regional unification and land redistribution, for all the bluster, are not without problems. The former has long been weakened by Caribbean island nationalism. As he himself notes, “the truth is that succeeding generations of leaders want their individual taste of power and can’t imagine power on a regional scale.” Local land subdivision in St Vincent has been achieved at the price of poor regulation and management. In St Vincent and the Grenadines, the debate on Mitchell’s legacy will continue. His political opponents are probably now warming up their computers.

This autobiography is an important contribution to an understanding of late twentieth-century Caribbean political practice. At its heart is a close-up of a Caribbean prime minister’s world. At the centre of that world is a politician toughened by the rigour of small-island Caribbean politics, with a sense of humour, an ability to negotiate, and considerable humanity.


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2007

Philip Nanton is based in Barbados. He teaches cultural studies and is a freelance writer. He is joint editor of a forthcoming collection of essays on Henry Swanzy and the BBC’s Caribbean Voices programme.