HARRY VIVIAN ATKINSON OBE (part two)
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!”