A brief chronological biography of the life of the
Right Honourable Sir John George Melvin Compton, SLC, OCC, KCMG, LLB. (Hons.) (London)
29th April 1925 – 7th September 2007
Chief Minister of Saint Lucia 1964-1967
Premier of Saint Lucia 1967-1979
Prime Minister of Saint Lucia 1979; 1982-1996; 2006-2007
Sir John George Melvin Compton, was the last among the pantheon of the great visionary political leaders of the Caribbean, among them Eric Williams, Forbes Burnham, Grantley Adams, Errol Barrow, Alexander Bustamante, T.A. Marryshow, Norman Manley, Vere Bird and Eugenia Charles.
His life is the classic one of struggles in the political arena, to which he dedicated his entire life, to become and regarded as the Father of the Nation of St. Lucia, which he brought through all the pivotal stages of the country’s history, from colonialism to statehood to independence.
In the course of his political life he fought many battles in his effort to drag St. Lucia from a moribund, slow-moving society, to a thriving bustling modernity.
He governed St. Lucia as head of state for more than a quarter century, the longest of any serving leader in the English speaking Caribbean.
His personality was described as reserved and shy, but his determination and resoluteness in battle were legendary.
He first asserted his resistance to the colonial status of social stratification which saw locals at the bottom of the social and economic ladder, by rebelling against the white sugarcane plantation owners of that era.
He attended the prestigious London School of Economics where he studied Economics, an extraordinary achievement at the time, and still today one of the most prestigious Universities for the study of Economics in the world. Sir John’s ideas and academic qualifications were way ahead of his political colleagues in St. Lucia at the time. On his return to St. Lucia he joined the St. Lucia Labour Party under Sir George Charles in 1953, but the educational difference between the two men would cause inevitable tension which manifested itself in a leadership struggle between Sir John and Sir George, culminating in Sir John’s departure from the S.L.P. in 1954, but rejoined in 1957, and left it a second time in 1961 to form the National Labour Movement. There are many parallels between the two historic figures who featured in the leadership struggles in the political life of St. Lucia, Sir John and George Odlum. It was the same sentiments of a more advanced education that drove Sir John’s political nemeses George Odlum to challenge the political leadership of the Labour Party after the election victory of 1979, for both men felt that they were better suited to lead the government and the country at the respective junctures in the country’s life.
The political contest between Sir John and Sir George Charles gathered momentum, and whilst both were engaged in representing the interests of the working class, Sir John was branded as a dreaded communist because of his ideas garnered from his education in England, which was a hot-bed of socialism following the end of the second world war. It was not the first time that vested interests would use the communist bogey to frighten the masses against more enlightened politicians who sought to break the entrenched privileges of the ruling elite at the time. And so Sir John was labeled a communist.
Political historians and observers of that era remembered vividly the political confrontation between Sir John and Denis Barnard, a white plantation owner, when sugar cane workers were called out on strike by Sir John in 1957 then a fire-brand politician, who became a hero in the workers movement for standing up to the exploitative plantation owners. These were tense times in St. Lucia, and Compton being the leader in these historic struggles became a hero to the working class of St. Lucia There were reports of workers marching and brandishing Cutlasses and threatening the lives and homes of white plantation owners, roads were blocked and trucks belonging to the Barnard family were prevented from traveling along the roads. Charges were laid against Sir John by the police, but with threatening crowds of workers gathered to support Sir John outside the court house, the colonial administrators imposed a fine instead of a prison sentence to avoid social upheaval in the country.
Many revolutionary leaders of the world have followed a similar path in order to win the hearts and minds of the people. Confrontation with the authorities and subsequent arrest and incarceration have always raised the profile and reputation of political activists, which demonstrates to the people that one is prepared to risk his life and reputation in their cause.
Sir John had several brushes with death during his political career, which he miraculously escaped, and his defiance and refusal to show any fear in the face of danger, made him a legend of mystical proportions in local folk-lore.
With the pre-eminent status of Sir John at the time, and what was perceived as the Backwardness of the Labour leadership in pushing forward St. Lucia’s economic and social development, Sir John persuaded the Bousquet brothers Allan and J.M.D (Joseph, Marie, Donald) to leave the Labour Party and form a merger with his National Labour Movement and the People’s Progressive Party to form the United Workers’ Party in 1964.
The U.W.P. defeated the S.L.P. in the elections of 1964, and would see the unbroken power of the party for fifteen consecutive years.
Immense changes took place in St. Lucia during that period. That period can be described as a Great Leap Forward for St. Lucia. Under the leadership of Sir John,
St. Lucia’s economy developed at a rapid pace, with major expansion of infrastructural roads such as the construction of the Castries-Gros- Islet highway and the dredging of the swamp at Gros- Islet to build the Rodney Bay Marina, which transformed the northern part of the island from a rural backwater to a modern mecca.
Under Sir John’s direction, sectors of the economy which formerly languished were given a new lease on life such as the tourism sector, and some manufacturing. This would form the economic tripod which he always talked about, for he felt the country could not depend solely on the banana industry, then referred to as “Green Gold”, which was the backbone of the economy. This was the period in which Many hotels were built and major international manufacturers such as the Heineken Beer Factory and the Winera cardboard box-making factory were established in St. Lucia. Between the period 1964 and 1979, St. Lucia made economic strides of unprecedented proportions, the likes of which may never be duplicated, but such rapid developments always come at a cost. For this period marked the entrance of three young fire-brands of the Labour Party led by Oxford educated George Odlum, accompanied by Peter Josie a university qualified Agronomist, and a young Accountant, Mickey Pilgrim. They accused Compton of abandoning the working class of St. Lucia and serving the interest of a small elite class led by a new black bourgeoisie, which had replaced the white colonialists.
The period 1964-1979 was marked by the most tumultuous and turbulent times in St. Lucia’s political history. That Sir John survived to the advanced age of 82 is a remarkable feat, as many of the politicians of his generation preceded him to the great blue yonder decades ago. He transformed the landscape of St. Lucia against the resistance of his political opponents and only today is it being acknowledged that he was a visionary without parallel even by his most bitter political foes of the past, and is hailed today, without comparison as “ The Father of the Nation.”
His death marks the end of an era in Caribbean and St. Lucian politics, an influence which has made an indelible mark and which will form the center-piece of political historians in the region for decades to come.
A poem which summarized his political career and attitude in life, which was a favourite he liked to quote, and which epitomized his triumphs and successes was Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “IF”
If you can keep your head when all about you
This poem encapsulated the philosophy by which Sir John lived his Life. Even to the end his habits were marked by his frugality, driving an old beat up vehicle as head of the country he led for a full thirty years, (1964-1979; 1982-1996; 2006-2007) in contrast to those who followed him who enjoyed the trappings of office and drove about in ostentatious style.
Sir John’s relationship with world leaders, princes and kings, went beyond the realm of the normal in political and diplomatic matters. The Prince of Wales,
Prince Charles of Great Britain, is the godfather of his daughter, Fiona. A gesture by a member of the Royal Family to a Caribbean politician that is without parallel.
During his illness Prince Charles called several times to inquire about Sir John’s health which is a manifestation of the affection and honour in which he is held.
The Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau became a personal friend to Sir John, and would visit St. Lucia on his holidays to go sailing with Sir John
Sharing his passion for the sea. A captain of industry, Leon Hess of the Hess Oil Corporation developed a personal friendship with Sir John that has been expressed by his son, who has continued the tradition.
Well known Caribbean entrepreneur Sir Charles Williams of the C.O. Williams conglomerate in Barbados, gave a tearful address of his respect for the extraordinary vision of St. John. Such men do not show their emotions in such public fashion. In all this, these men of influence would go beyond the traditional to give philanthropic assistance to St. Lucia which benefited the people of St. Lucia enormously, such as the many schools built by Mr. Leon Hess.
Sir John’s reputation went beyond the shores of St. Lucia, for he was highly respected in regional and international circles, and was among the pivotal architects and driving forces of Caribbean integration. He was one of the Initiators of the forerunner to the O.E.C.S., the E.C.C.M. (Eastern Caribbean Common Market), which comprised Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Lucia and St. Vincent, and which was established in 1968, four years after coming into office. He established the WISA (West Indies Associated States) with its headquarters in St. Lucia so that the smaller territories could cooperate on foreign policy and external affairs, as well as achieve economies of scale in their spending on foreign offices.
He promoted tirelessly the importance of unifying the people of the English-speaking Caribbean, in recognition that single entities would be swallowed up in the competitive environment of world trade, with the benefits of the larger markets of the bigger countries. He agreed to join the smaller islands with the larger territories or M.D.C.s to form CARICOM, despite his reservations, because he believed passionately in the unification which would increase the standard of living of all the people of the region.
Like every human being, Sir John had his flaws, which was a lack of consultation with the people. His governance between 1964-1979 was marked by political tension, characterized by mass demonstrations, the introduction of what was considered to be repressive legislation such as the infamous Public Order Act, and the use of tear-gas against demonstrators. But he showed stubbornness and resolve in the pursuit of his economic plans and the reconstruction of St. Lucia, for which St. Lucians are proud today. He had the spirit of going against the tide.
History would be on his side, for St. Lucia’s development stands as a living testimony to the relentless pursuit of his development goals. All over St. Lucia is tangible evidence of his genius in such projects as the draining of the swamp in Gros Islet to form the mecca that is now Rodney Bay; the transformation of a
Single lane road from Castries to Gros Islet into the wide span Castries-Gros Islet highway; the determination to go ahead with the Hess Oil Terminal against the most vociferous opposition; the eradication of the Conway slum to create a picturesque waterfront to entice cruise ships to come to St. Lucia; the Roseau Dam which guarantees St. Lucia a repository of an abundant water supply; and the construction of several low cost middle income housing projects, of which the Sans Soucis Housing Scheme was the first such enterprise. He also introduced the National Insurance Scheme, now the N.I.C. to guarantee workers financial benefits on retirement in the percipient knowledge that many persons do not voluntarily save, and would be subject to forced deductions from their salaries so that their latter years could be spent in dignity and not mendicancy. His economic ideas were bold and uncompromising and in retrospect are regarded as actions of great wisdom and vision today.
After fifteen successive years in office, the U.W.P. lost the elections in 1979, under the relentless onslaught of the two political radicals labeled ‘revolutionary Brothers,’ George Odlum and Peter Josie. They were critical of Sir John’s emphasis on physical and infrastructural projects, and of neglecting human
development. They also accused him of selling out the masses. The two men ably assisted by Mikey Pilgrim, a young accountant, launched a successful campaign against Sir John. They succeeded, but this was short-lived.
Internecine squabbles within the new Labour government would cause the collapse of the Labour administration after only three years.
The man who projected himself as leader of the party George Odlum would insist that a secret undertaking to make him Prime Minister by Sir Allan Louisy, should be honored. So the Labour government collapsed and new elections were called in 1982 with a resounding victory for the U.W.P. and a return to power of Sir John.
Sir John’s Government would spend another fifteen uninterrupted years in office from 1982 to 1997. The main thrust of the opposition to Sir John’s second tenure In office came from a newly vitalized media emboldened by the work of the indefatigable Rick Wayne and the Star Newspaper. Some would say that it was the media which hounded Sir John out of office with exposes of corruption within the administration with which Sir John himself expressed his frustration in several budget addresses.
The media were relentless in their criticism, and it seems Sir John with twenty-nine years in office, with just a brief interruption, demitted office in 1996 to choose a successor, Vaughn Lewis, a professor at the University of the West Indies, who would demonstrate his inability to adjust from the protected halls of academia to the wiles and craft of electoral politics. The U.W. P. under Dr. Vaughn Lewis lost to a newly rejuvenated Labour Party under the leadership of a young leader in the person of Dr. Kenny Anthony, another university professor in law at the University of the West Indies. It was a humiliating defeat for the U.W.P. losing 16 seats to just one.
Sir John must have cringed from his party’s defeat. Sir John then retreated from active politics for ten years, representing the period 1996 – 2006.
After a second defeat by the Labour Party in 2001, but with a reduced majority, the end of a proud party which had contributed so much to St. Lucia’s development appeared imminent.
It was then that members of the U.W.P. fearing the inevitability of another defeat turned to “Papa” as Sir John was referred to, at the advanced age of 82. It looked like the performance of a conjurer’s trick to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Sir John against all odds answered the call to return to the helm of the U.W.P. to save the party he had created and crafted over the years to prevent its demise.
He immediately became a lightning rod and motivational force for disheartened and demotivated U.W.P. supporters.
Inspired by the faithful of the U.W.P. he immediately set out to criticize the Governance of the country by the new administration. He railed against the unprecedented rise in the crime in the country which he promised to reduce, the erosion of spiritual values which he vowed to reinforce by the reintroduction of prayers in schools, and the extravagance of the Labour Party administration.
Sir John found a receptive ear in the people of St. Lucia, for just months later in an election called on December 11, 2006, in what many considered to be an improbable task, the grand old man of politics at 82, defeated a young and formidable opponent Dr. Kenny Anthony. It was a political miracle and shock defeat for an overconfident Labour Party. It demonstrated the country’s rejection of a regime that was characterized by boastfulness and an exaggerated estimation of the country’s Labour leaders. Sir John has always been marked by a modesty despite his extraordinary talents, that at this juncture in St. Lucia’s history are unsurpassed.
His achievements far exceed the relative small achievements of his successors, for Sir John was able to see things in a way that was marked by a progressive spirit which viewed things in a longer perspective, which is the legacy that he has left us.
Again, despite his advanced age and an exhaustive and debilitating campaign in which the opposition pulled out all the stops and armoury at their disposal, Sir John would deliver an almost four hour long budget, which again exhibited his tremendous scope and breadth of vision to issue another dawn of major development for St. Lucia. But that marathon budget presentation was to take a major toll on any human being, far less a man of 82. His health deteriorated soon after the budget presentation, and he was rushed to New York for a routine medical check-up, but the prognosis was not encouraging.
Sir John eventually returned to St. Lucia from New York, but the state of his condition was shrouded in secrecy, which gave rise to much public speculation.
The last public vision of Sir John was the signing of the HhhH Hess Oil Agreement at the Prime Minister’s official residence on Tuesday 24th July 2007. He was carried in a wheel-chair and looked pale and weak, and had to be assisted by his wife Lady Janice Compton. In all this Lady Janice had been Sir John’s loyal Rock of Gibraltor throughout his illness, a role she has played throughout the turbulent times of his political career. Her father is the late Sir Frederick Clarke,
St. Lucia’s first native governor, and a renowned medical doctor, well known for his services to the poor.
She bore him five children, Shawn his son, an outstanding architect chosen for the design of the flagship building in the centre of Castries, The Blue Coral, and his four daughters, Janine, Maya, Nina and Fiona.
He was the recipient of many honours, among them the St. Lucia Cross, awarded in 1966, The Order of the CARICOM Community for his sterling contribution Towards the integration of the Caribbean, and a knighthood, the K.C.M.G, Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George were bestowed On him by the Queen of England in 1997.
On 1st September 11:25am he was flown to Martinique for a deteriorating chest Condition. He was returned to St. Lucia on Wednesday 5th September and taken to Tapion Hospital. An era was about to come to an end. His death occurred on Friday 7th September, 2007 at 6:50 in the evening.
The tragedy in Sir John’s passing was that he couldn’t see the new vista that he outlined for St. Lucia, in his April 2007 budget presentation. But aware of his age and mortality he declared that he might not be around to witness the realization of those dreams for St. Lucia. It was a passing that was inevitable, but yet still the country believed it would be delayed.
St. Lucia and the rest of the Caribbean will mourn the passing of a giant of politics, who has left his indelible Footprints on the sands of time. Among his favourite poems was Longfellow’s a Psalm of Life which reads:
“The lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And departing, leave behind us,
Footprints on the sands of time.”
So it was with Sir John. Who will be the citizens chosen worthy to carry him on his final journey? His body will lie in state in the halls of the St. Lucia Parliament, where citizens will be able to look upon the man who fashioned the country that we live in today.
The nation will have to come to terms with the void that will be difficult to fill for generations to come.
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