A Tribute to Sir George F.L. Charles by Hon. Dr. Kenny D. Anthony
Peace in the Valley
A Tribute To Sir George F. L. Charles
Prime Minister of St. Lucia
Hon. Dr. Kenny D. Anthony
Saint Lucia – July 07, 2004
Be you content to lend your patience to us
And we shall jointly labour with your soul
To give it due content.
Hamlet, Act IV:Sc. 5
Death lends us pause. Visits us with both grief and wonderment. Reminds us of our fleeting presence here and the eternity beyond. Death lends us pause; to remember, to reflect; perchance even forget. And sometimes, forgetting is far easier. So, we let the noisy present fill the gaping spaces where in the past, our loved ones walked. In our own time, in our own way, we embrace the peace that comes with letting go. And, we move on.
But as a people, we cannot simply forget and move on. As a nation, we need to cherish those remembrances which have become our history. We need that foundation which is our collective memory; of who we are; what we were; and whence we came. And in that remembering, we cannot let Sir George go peacefully into some dark night, pretending that his passing will not leave a void; pretending that the void he leaves will be filled by distractions of the present.
As a nation, we cannot afford the luxury of amnesia. Far, too often we forget how privileged we are to live in an age where democracy prevails; where citizens rights are enshrined in a sacred constitution; where workers rights are enshrined in legislation. We forget that in our daily lives, the many things we take for granted now, were brought to us on the backs of those who went before; were won for us, with blood and sweat and tears.
We must pause therefore, if only during such ponderous moments as death provides, to acknowledge that the life we live today is not of only our making; to recognize that the peaceful valleys through which today we drive, were not always so tranquil. We must pause to concede that the prosperity all seek and many find, is not a thing that always was - but something prized from the clenched fist of our colonial past.
There was no peace in the valleys, when Sir George walked there in the 1950’s, defiant and determined that agricultural workers should receive a decent wage for the labour they provided. There was no peace when police bayonets were bared on Bridge Street, and thrust at the young trade unionist who would lead field workers to assert their rights; including the right to withdraw their labour.
There was no peace in 1945, when Sir George joined the wild-cat strike at Vigie Airport; the same strike that gave birth to the notion of worker solidarity on this island. This seed, germinated in the protest, soon took root in the fertile soil of trade unionism, and blossomed into a full political movement. That movement crystallised into the St. Lucia Labour Party, the mother of all political parties in our country. It is from the breast of labour that all others have fed.
So far have we come, and so much have we forgotten, that most of us would not willingly conceive of any system of government where the right to vote is reserved unto the rich, the privileged, and the powerful land-owning few. But so it was, until the peace was won by valiant and brave men of the ilk of Sir George.
Yet, there could be no resting on laurels while the working class still faced discrimination and injustice. And so, by then an elected member of the first Legislative Council, he led a series of constitutional reforms, laying the ground for the full Ministerial System that we enjoy today. Thereafter began, this nation’s first tentative steps toward political independence; walking out of a colonial twilight into the dawn of Associated Statehood.
That a fledgling political party, founded on principles of social and economic equity, could have so influenced and catalyzed fundamental political change, is of itself, remarkable. It is as remarkable as the determined, understated, unselfish man who championed the cause of the underprivileged.
Let us not forget him now. Let us not be ungracious or ungrateful. Let us not deny him his history. Let us not forget that the banana industry, introduced under his leadership, changed forever the economic landscape of this country, to consolidate the formation of a viable working class from which so many of us have proudly sprung.
Let us not forget that it was under his heraldic banner that St. Lucia first experienced universal adult suffrage, and that his earliest assaults on the colonial apparatus included a resolution for the legal recognition of paid leave. With that brave charge, began the legacy he would bequeath to generations of working-class people in this country. Many pieces of labour legislation, enacted during his tenure, are still subsisting laws on our statute books.
Besides the right to paid holidays, these laws protected wages, legitimised trade unions, and provided for the settlement of trade disputes. Such was his abiding concern for the rights of the poor and the dispossessed. No government since then, has enacted such a wide platform of labour legislation. So, it is not by accident that we have arrived here. It is not by private wisdom or singular good fortune; but by the sacrifice and selflessness of good men made in the mould of Sir George.
And how, you may ask should we best remember him? Not for vain rhetoric – although in his day, he was “Ti Hache”, his Party’s most formidable platform speaker. Nor do we remember him by any physical edifice on which he etched his own name. But we remember him by his contribution to the very institutions of democratic society which we inhabit every waking day.
Like friends, we might see him again as “Ti Jézi”. Or, we might remember him, as his family would: a loving father - to his children as to this nation; a committed worker - in his constituency as in his places of formal employment; a leader of men; a man of principle; unstinting; unselfish; unfettered and undefeated by the deceits of men.
Some will remember him as a lover of prose and music, who once lost his sight for a while, but never his vision. They will recall that there was not a spiteful bone in his body. Nor did he hold on to hatred; except perhaps in his abhorrence of dishonesty. Those were his burdens: honesty, humility, and a certain naivety which kept him sincere.
We should doubtless remember him, alongside other Caribbean visionaries; men like Grantley Adams, Norman Manley, and Karl La Corbiniere, and T. A. Marryshow, with whom he shared the hope of one federated Caribbean nation.
We should remember him as that rare man unchanged by power; for he remained without pomp or guile, and needed no ceremony. Even as St. Lucia’s first Chief Minister, he did not put on any emperor’s clothes, for he possessed a moral authority which was his only garb. In the words of a son, speaking of his father:
It was not a personal triumph to be Chief Minister…
It was the embodiment of a victory for the people of Saint Lucia.
He only regretted the limited vision of his successors.
Finally, as we lay him to rest, we should remember him as that brave knight, Sir George, who lived to see peace in the valley; and who might say to us today:
If you did ever hold me in your heart
Absent yourself from felicity awhile
And in this harsh world draw your breath in pain
To tell my story.
Adapted from William Shakespeare:
Hamlet to Horatio -Act V:Sc. 2.
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