ST. LUCIA’S ROCKY ROA
JRick Wayne ohn Compton had not always kept his promises to the electorate. Shortly before the 1974 general elections, the premier had taken a full hour to assure Radio St. Lucia listeners that the British government, having completed underground explorations at the island’s drive-in volcano, had promised to transform the area into a source of cheap geothermal energy. Soon, there would be work for everyone, he said—from truck drivers to construction laborers. However, the promised good times would materialize only if St. Lucians retained the Compton government. Foreign businessmen were chary of investing in a communist climate—such as would overtake St. Lucia in the event of a Labour Party victory.
Somehow the listing UWP ship of state had managed to survive the electoral storm of 1974, but no amount of hot air was sufficient to transform the hissing Sulphur Springs volcano into the promised horn of plenty.
By the end of 1976, several ominous messages had been delivered to—and ignored by—St. Lucia’s Premier Compton: Tourism, in which his government had invested much desperate faith, to the extent that agriculture had been allowed to plummet to a distant second place on the administration’s list of national priorities, was, to say the least, comatose. Poor hotel facilities, food shortages, unreliable water and electricity services, indiscriminate work stoppages, to say nothing of the island’s relative inaccessibility, had all contributed to the decline of the industry. Street and tourist-related crimes were up. Vandalism was rampant. And Castries rocked with the sound of almost nightly bombings. Hamstrung by undertrained personnel, barely functional illiterates and party politics, the St. Lucia police blamed the crime escalation on Houdini convicts at the Castries jail and on the burgeoning Rastafarian population that the government claimed was operating in consonance with opposition politicians, in particular, with George Odlum and Peter Josie. Before long the police had declared war on the alleged offenders—to the delight of the Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, banana production on the island had all but ceased. Obvious contributory factors included hurricanes, drought, the high cost of labor and fertilizer, to say nothing of rock bottom prices paid by England, the erstwhile “mother country.” St. Lucia’s banana industry had never fully recovered from the effects of strikes orchestrated in 1973 by George Odlum and Peter Josie. When Compton relieved George Mallet of his agriculture portfolio shortly before the 1974 elections, it was generally assumed that the premier, in private life a successful farmer, had decided to take charge of what was conceivably the government’s most important ministry. Instead, the job went to Ira d’Auvergne, who had twice been rejected by the electorate. Then Compton declared 1975 Agriculture Year. That announcement was followed by phatic noises about a revised school curriculum designed to “encourage a new appreciation of local food.” Thousands of tax dollars were swallowed up in the production of colorful newspaper advertisements, radio discussions and “consciousness-raising” sessions with the island’s farmers. Alas, seventeen special committees were not enough to bring about the muchadvertised grand food exhibition that was to have climaxed Agriculture Year. The baby that project manager d’Auvergne delivered to Daddy Compton was stillborn.
Meanwhile, George Odlum and Peter Josie continued to add to John Compton’s problems. At the conclusion of a libel case that centered on allegations the premier had acquired Crown Lands for his personal use, Odlum had been ordered to pay a record $60,000 in damages. Afterward, outraged Odlum supporters had taken to jeering at the premier and his wife at all public appearances. It was in this highly combustible atmosphere that the premier of St. Lucia had announced his intention to seek independence from Britain. Almost immediately, there was strong resistance from the opposition party— particularly from the radical Odlum-Josie wing. They called on the premier to settle the independence question by a referendum.
When he refused, the SLP radicals led protest demonstrations island-wide, which often resulted in clashes with the heavily armed Special Services Unit. At a meeting in London, opposition leader Allan Louisy had argued for an indefinite postponement of Compton’s independence plans. Plagued by its own social and economic woes, the British government seemed to have ears only for St. Lucia’s premier, who was soon crowing on local TV and over the government- controlled Radio St. Lucia that come February 22, 1979, St. Lucia would be an independent nation with its very own place at the United Nations General Assembly. Free at last! In retaliation, George Odlum issued a public warning that come Independence Day, St. Lucia might not be the safest place in the world, and unwittingly gave credence to the widespread rumor that he was behind the bombings that overnight had turned St. Lucians into early-to-bed chickens.
A visiting representative of the British government was rudely awakened from his hotel bed by an angry Labour Party mob determined to be heard on the matter of “Compton’s independence trick.” The SSU had to be called out yet again before order was restored. Later, charges were filed against the leader of the pack, George Odlum.
Through all of that, Premier Compton prepared for his installation as prime minister of St. Lucia—even as the Civil Service Association (CSA) was gearing up for showdown with the government over yet another pay dispute. At a government rally in William Peter Boulevard, the premier complained that greedy dissidents were holding a gun to his head and demanding ten dollars when they knew only too well that all he had was five. When striking public servants in his audience heckled, Compton reminded them that they were free to quit the service.
Finally, the premier ordered protesting government workers still serving their probationary period to return to their jobs the next day—or face dismissal. That ultimatum served further to swell the ranks of the strikers. By week’s end, more teachers had voted to skip classes in support of island-wide protest marches that often included the Labour Party’s George Odlum and Peter Josie. If the United Workers Party brass read the portentous signs, none was man enough to call their leader away from his Independence Day preparations. By February 19 Castries was teeming with journalists from all over the Caribbean, Canada, Europe and Japan.
The BBC’s Martin Bell arrived with video equipment and camera crew and fell in love at first sight of loquacious fellow Oxonian Odlum. Every explosive pronouncement that fell out of his radical mouth was dutifully recorded, replete with the supportive rhetoric of beaming market vendors and suitably intimidating dread-locked followers of Jah—for broadcast the next day in London.
While Odlum made headlines at home and abroad, the de jure leader of his party quietly went about his normal shop-keeping business in Laborie, his native village and his constituency. London’s Financial Times had clearly suggested Louisy was leader of the St. Lucia Labour Party in name only. The paper predicted the SLP would pose “little threat to Mr. Compton’s government” at election time, thanks to the opposition’s “contradictory and often vague policies.”
On the morning of February 20, 1979, some 100 festive individuals gathered at the West Indies
Prime Minister John Compton Independence Ceremony but it Party’s George Odlum who as f independent Saint Lucia’s fir