The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Peter Josie

As a way of honour­ing his con­tri­bu­tion to agri­cul­tural de­vel­op­ment on the is­land, it would be highly ap­pre­ci­ated, Harry once told me, if an an­nual best farmer award was to be or­ga­nized and a suit­able prize for such a farmer be named af­ter him and some of the other Ja­maicans who served Saint Lu­cia. Per­haps a spe­cial prize for the most out­stand­ing grad­u­at­ing stu­dent from the School of Agri­cul­ture at Sir Arthur Lewis Com­mu­nity Col­lege could also be named af­ter these for­mer greats who gave yeo­man ser­vice to agri­cul­ture on the is­land.

Harry’s first job in Saint Lu­cia was to es­tab­lish new crops of rice, corn, cot­ton, veg­eta­bles and grass (for graz­ing pure­bred milk­ing cat­tle) at Beause­jour govern­ment farm in Vieux Fort. Af­ter he had set­tled in his new post he was sent to Trinidad with one Prout, a Bar­ba­dian na­tional, who was then in charge of all govern­ment farm ma­chin­ery in Saint Lu­cia. The mis­sion to Trinidad was to pur­chase ma­chin­ery for milling of lo­cally grown rice and corn at Beause­jour farm.

Pre­vi­ously, milling in Saint Lu­cia was done by hand and man­ual labour. I re­called that my grand­par­ents, who once grew rice and corn, were ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the new rice milling equip­ment. The govern­ment kept a por­tion of their pro­duce as pay­ment for the use of the mills. Not­with­stand­ing the suc­cess of me­chan­i­cal milling of rice and corn, it was Harry’s role in the trans­for­ma­tive ba­nana in­dus­try whereby he made his great­est con­tri­bu­tion to Saint Lu­cia. He was fully sup­ported by Lord Wal­ston and the many large and medium ba­nana farm­ers on the is­land in his ba­nana mis­sion. Ba­nanas were the most demo­cratic crop ever pro­duced on the is­land for ex­port.

Harry Atkin­son’s name be­came syn­ony­mous with ba­nana cul­ti­va­tion in Saint Lu­cia, from the 60s to the 80s. By the mid-50s he was cho­sen, along with Ms. Grace Au­gus­tine and G.M. Glas­gow, to travel to Mar­tinique, Guade­loupe and Do­minica to pur­chase plant­ing ma­te­rial for the es­tab­lish­ment of the first ba­nana nurs­eries in Saint Lu­cia. Later, Ron­ald ‘Speedy’ Miller and Sammy Gage, two other Ja­maicans who worked in the depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture in Saint Lu­cia, were sent to Do­minica to pur­chase more ba­nana plant­ing ma­te­rial to boost lo­cal ba­nana pro­duc­tion in Saint Lu­cia.

Harry re­calls that at the time they had to wait some forty-plus hours at port Roseau Do­minica be­cause the peo­ple of Do­minica were cel­e­brat­ing the birth of a child to the Bri­tish Royal fam­ily in Lon­don. Af­ter the cel­e­bra­tions, the Do­minica Cus­toms of­fi­cer, on board­ing the in­ter-is­land schooner to clear it for en­try into Roseau, apol­o­gised pro­fusely for his late­ness – of forty-eight hours, no less.

At the time each ba­nana plant which was brought into Saint Lu­cia cost the Bri­tish govern­ment fifty cents. These plants, af­ter mul­ti­pli­ca­tion on var­i­ous se­lected es­tates around the is­land were sold to lo­cal farm­ers, at twenty-five cents each. At that time the three ‘ex­perts’ from Saint Lu­cia had se­lected a va­ri­ety of La­catan ba­nana known as ‘Poyo’ which was then a pop­u­lar com­mod­ity of in­ter­na­tional ba­nana ex­port trade.

Fol­low­ing the growth in cul­ti­va­tion of ba­nanas in Saint Lu­cia, an as­so­ci­a­tion of grow­ers was es­tab­lished. Harry Atkin­son be­came the first chair­man of the St. Lu­cia Ba­nana Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion (SLBGA) at its for­ma­tion in 1953. At that time the chair­man­ship was ro­tated an­nu­ally and Ms. Grace Au­gus­tine be­came its sec­ond chair­per­son. Harry was re­elected to chair the board in 1956 and re­mained there un­til 1960 af­ter amend­ments to the laws gov­ern­ing the ba­nana busi­ness. He also served as chair­man from 1961 to 1967, then again from 1968 to 1980 and fi­nally from 1984 to 1989. Harry had ear­lier re­signed from the As­so­ci­a­tion in 1960, af­ter the pas­sage of hur­ri­cane Abby, in or­der to con­cen­trate on his prin­ci­ple job of re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing Mar­quis Es­tate in the north­east­ern part of the is­land where he was em­ployed.

Be­tween 1953 and 1983 when the ba­nana in­dus­try was the main for­eign ex­change earner of the is­land, Harry Atkin­son was in­ti­mately in­volved with all as­pects of that in­dus­try from grow­ing to pro­cure­ment of in­puts and mar­ket­ing. He may there­fore, with jus­tice, be con­sid­ered the cen­tral pow­er­house and in­spi­ra­tion around which the lo­cal ba­nana in­dus­try grew and pros­pered. It can truly be said that the ba­nana in­dus­try was his baby and he took care of it even though some oth­ers have at­tempted to claim pa­ter­nity.

At that time ba­nanas were re­ferred to as ‘Green Gold’. Harry also served for many years on the boards of the Co­conut Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion and the Co­pra Man­u­fac­tures As­so­ci­a­tion. He was made an Of­fi­cer of the Bri­tish Em­pire (OBE) in 1971 by Her Majesty Queen El­iz­a­beth in her birth­day hon­ours list. He told me he ac­cepted the hon­our with­out ask­ing why.

Be­fore he ac­cepted the job of­fer in Saint Lu­cia Harry worked as an Agri­cul­ture In­struc­tor in West­mor­land, Ja­maica. He first at­tended Mico Col­lege, one of the sev­eral schools built by Lady Mico in the West Indies which in­cluded one in the vil­lage of Mi­coud, Saint Lu­cia. Funds for these schools were al­legedly from the pro­ceeds of Lady Mico’s hus­band’s pi­rat­ing ac­tiv­i­ties in the Caribbean.

The young Harry Atkin­son was a com­mit­ted Agri­cul­ture In­struc­tor in Ja­maica, from Mon­day to Fri­day. How­ever, on week­ends he put away his agri­cul­ture work­ing clothes and trans­formed him­self into an itin­er­ant preacher, us­ing his Methodist faith in or­der to direct and save the souls of farm­ers he had ear­lier taught to feed their bod­ies. On see­ing how pop­u­lar he was among the peo­ple of his par­ish, the po­lit­i­cal par­ties in Ja­maica tried their ut­most to in­ter­est him in pol­i­tics but Harry would have none of it; he po­litely re­fused ev­ery en­tice­ment. He de­cided that pol­i­tics was too di­vi­sive a pur­suit for his all-em­brac­ing love of hu­man­ity and his blessed Methodist faith.

Harry was also a staunch Freema­son. He un­der­stood that the sym­bol­ism and al­le­gories of Freema­sonry were merely tools of ab­stract thought and as such they al­lowed for the de­vel­op­ment of one’s imag­i­na­tion. Fur­ther­more, the very best brains which have passed through the Ma­sonic porch agree that one’s imag­i­na­tion is a more po­tent tool of hu­man de­vel­op­ment than mere knowl­edge. Imag­i­na­tion is lim­it­less, whereas knowl­edge is cir­cum­scribed and lim­ited. Per­haps some peo­ple are born with the gift of ap­pre­ci­at­ing at an early age, the dis­tinc­tion be­tween knowl­edge and their lim­it­less imag­i­na­tion. Harry was one such per­son!

In our con­ver­sa­tions he once re­vealed an in­ter­est­ing story about Oleo Jn. Baptiste and Ge­orge Charles, two of the more fire­brand trade union lead­ers in Saint Lu­cia in the fifties. At the time Harry was work­ing on ex­pand­ing the grow­ing of ba­nanas at Mar­quis Es­tate. To that end, new farm ma­chin­ery (in­clud­ing crawler trac­tors) was em­ployed to open up parts of the es­tate that had hith­erto not been cul­ti­vated. He re­calls be­ing paid sev­eral vis­its by Messrs. Charles and Jn. Bap­tise who ac­cused him of us­ing ma­chin­ery to dis­place farm labour. Farm hands were then plen­ti­ful be­cause of the demise of the sugar cane in­dus­try. Harry tried as best he could to ex­plain to the two trade union lead­ers that the open­ing up of new lands would re­quire more man­ual labour at plant­ing and har­vest­ing, not less. “Of course, as the crawler trac­tors worked, idle hands in search of work stood per­plexed, gaz­ing and fret­ting,” said Harry.

“Pres­sure there­fore mounted on both trade union lead­ers to act. So there were sev­eral more vis­its from these two labour lead­ers to Mar­quis Es­tate. Soon, all was well be­cause the land was ready for plant­ing and car­ing for the young ba­nana plants. With the pas­sage of time, smaller farm­ers in the vicin­ity of Mar­quis Es­tate be­gan to grow their own ba­nanas so that farm labour at plant­ing and har­vest­ing be­gan to dwin­dle for large farms such as Mar­quis Es­tate. Of course the two trade union gentle­men who were so adamant in their quest to pro­vide jobs for farm work­ers were nowhere to be found, even for a friendly chat, once farm labour be­came scarce.”

All told, Harry Atkin­son spent 39 years (1955-1994) work­ing at Mar­quis Es­tate. He was the first non-white man­ager of that es­tate hav­ing re­placed Guy Pur­chase, an English­man/Ja­maican. At the time Mar­quis Es­tate milked 250 cows ev­ery day and sold fresh milk to Cas­tries. It also pro­duced limes, co­conuts (co­pra) and co­coa for ex­port. On lis­ten­ing to Harry Atkin­son one be­came con­vinced that it was time this is­land re­turned to the work ethic of by­gone days. As a for­mer leader of this coun­try liked to say, "We must not al­low work to be­come the new four-let­ter curse word on this is­land."

Harry Atkin­son passed away on 12 Oc­to­ber, 2011 at age 93, just short of his 94th. birth­day. Left to mourn are his sons An­thony, Michael and Ray and their chil­dren. He also leaves his sis­ter Olga who re­sides in Bar­ba­dos and of whom he of­ten spoke to me. He is also mourned by his care­giver Rolena who some­times con­tacted me when Harry was due a visit. He leaves many Ma­sonic brethren and friends in Saint Lu­cia and the Eastern Caribbean. May he rest in God’s eter­nal peace!

“Imag­i­na­tion is lim­it­less, whereas knowl­edge is cir­cum­scribed and lim­ited. Per­haps some peo­ple are born with the gift of ap­pre­ci­at­ing at an early age, the dis­tinc­tion be­tween knowl­edge and their lim­it­less imag­i­na­tion. Harry was one such per­son!”

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