David Thompson: London-born politician who became Prime Minister of Barbados

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A career which looked certain to last many years at the highest levels of Barbados politics has been cut short by the premature death of David Thompson, politician and lawyer. Cancer carried him off at the age of 48, after less than three years as Prime Minister of the Caribbean island, the sixth person to hold that post since it gained its independence.

Although it had been known for months that he was ill, there was still a sense of shock and dismay in many quarters when he died despite intensive treatment in the US. Bruce Golding, Prime Minister of Jamaica, said: "Ever since we became aware of David's illness, we hoped and prayed that this day would not come. We are deeply grieved that someone who represented so much hope should have been taken from us so soon."

David John Howard Thompson was born in England in 1961, one of seven children born to Barbadian parents. His father was a painter and porter and his mother worked as a secretary and nurse. When he was five, the family moved back to Barbados, where he attended St Gabriel's junior school and Combermere secondary school, and distinguished himself in debating and public speaking.

He taught for a year before entering the law faculty of the University of the West Indies, where he graduated with honours in 1984. He also received a legal education certificate from a law school in Trinidad.

In 1986 he joined the law firm of Trident Chambers, which was headed by Errol Barrow, a prominent QC and the first Prime Minister of Barbados, who saw that Thompson had both political and legal potential. Thompson became leader of the youth wing of Barrow's Democratic Labour Party.

His early rise in politics was a speedy one, and he became a cabinet minister while in his late-20s, just four years after entering the Barbados parliament. After a few years in charge of cultural affairs, Thompson moved on to the finance ministry, where he helped administer what is still remembered as a programme of particularly severe cuts at a difficult economic time. In retrospect, many regarded this as essential in building the later economic recovery. But it was highly unpopular and Thompson and the DLP duly paid the electoral price, languishing in opposition for 14 years.

In 1994 Thompson became leader of the party, but the DLP lost the next two general elections, in 1994 and 1999, and at one point he stepped down as leader. For a time he returned to his law practice before re-entering politics.

It was not until January 2008 that he and the DLP returned to power, winning a large majority in parliament. But he then encountered two problems which proved impossible to overcome: the global economic crisis and pancreatic cancer.

In May this year he announced that he had for several months been suffering from stomach pains, though he refrained from specifying that he had cancer. Rumours abounded, but it was not until September, after several visits to New York for treatment, that his personal physician confirmed he had a tumour in his pancreatic gland. The doctor said that intense chemotherapy had caused the Prime Minister to lose considerable weight and left him feeling tired and in need of rest.

Thompson resisted resignation. In early October he told the country in a radio broadcast that he hoped to carry on, saying he did not wish to appear on television because he had experienced obvious weight loss.

He added: "I would rather that you get the portent of my message rather than the picture; and be concerned about the message, not the medium." He reshuffled his cabinet to delegate many of his responsibilities to other ministers.

After his death, which came three weeks later, condolences were offered by both the Cuban leader Raúl Castro and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She said: "Barbados has lost a leader and the nations of the Americas have lost a friend and valued partner who was a champion for democracy and justice in the Caribbean."

St Lucia Prime Minister Stephenson King spoke of him as "a true renaissance man who had a solution-oriented, professional approach to leadership, thoughtfulness and humanity."

Perhaps the most poignant comment came from Thompson's wife, who said: "Barbados has lost its loyal son and faithful servant before he had the time to realise his lifetime dreams."

He is survived by his wife and their three children, as well as his mother and father.

David McKittrick

David Thompson, lawyer and politician: born London 25 December 1961; married 1989 Marie-Josephine Mara Graudy (three daughters); died Saint Philip, Barbados 23 October 2010.