Sir Howard Cooke: Politician who went from teachers' trade-union leader to become the Governor-General of independent Jamaica


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The Independent Online

Sir Howard Cooke, for 15 years Jamaica's Governor-General, was the last surviving founding father of the party that propelled the Caribbean island to independence from Britain in 1962. Nicknamed "Teacher" Cooke, he sat on the seven-strong steering committee that set up the People's National Party under the leadership of Jamaica's acknowledged national hero, Norman Washington Manley, in the turbulent year of 1938, a turning point in the island's near-300-year history as a British colony.

Sugar workers' and dockers' strikes at that time prompted Britain, the colonial power, to set up a Royal Commission into conditions in the West Indies, and Cooke was one of those who heard the radical left-wing British politician Sir Stafford Cripps speak in their favour at the party's launch at the Ward Theatre in the capital, Kingston.

Cooke's entry to politics in that year sprang from his experience as a teachers' trades union leader, which gave him a place on the committee. The 23-year-old schoolmaster shared childhood origins with the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Cooke came from Goodwill, St James Parish, and Garvey from farther along at St Ann's Bay – also the birthplace of the musician Bob Marley.

But Garvey's American-influenced Pan-Africanism and doctrine of "Negro Improvement" was to be too extreme a path for Cooke to take. Inspired by Manley, a British-trained lawyer whom he regarded as his mentor, Cooke espoused the party's line in social democracy, and though the PNP lost an election to its rival Jamaican Labour Party immediately before the British flag came down, it was to prove the dominant ruling group for the independent island's first 50 years.

Cooke was an elected member from 1958 first of the West Indies Federal Parliament before independence; then, after the election of 1962, just before independence, he served until 1967 as an appointed opposition member of the Jamaican Senate; and afterwards sat in the lower house, the House of Representatives, for St James constituency. He helped implement the PNP's policy of spreading secondary education to the poorest in the population, by offering state-funded scholarships.

He rose to be a minister in the government of Norman Manley's son, Michael Manley. For its term between 1972 and 1980, Cooke ran the island's schools administration as well as its provision for pensions, social security and public services.

Yet Cooke was politically his own man. He astonished an interviewer towards the end of his Governor-Generalship in 2006, when he declared: "Even during slavery the British were sending some very good people out to Jamaica... missionaries, reformers... Jamaica's greatness was entirely due to slavery." The slave trade, he went on to say, had saved those brought to the island, and their descendants, from what he described as "night-black" Africa.

He explained in another conversation: "Look at the number of missionaries Jamaica has sent to minister in African countries and other parts of the world. Yet we tend to focus only on the sordid side of life."

Jamaica's best interests lay with holding on to her British heritage, and not being tempted by all things American, he believed. What he saw as the consumer culture of the United States was "oppressive".

He blamed the government of Margaret Thatcher, and its close relationship with President Ronald Reagan, for undermining Jamaica's identity: "After Thatcher we became more and more materialist... But there's more to life than cars and dollars." The solution was for Jamaica to revive an old spirituality that had been lost. Its natural place was in the Commonwealth,with the Queen as its monarch.

As the Queen's official representative – Jamaica's viceroy – Cooke enjoyed a degree of pomp, with a red-coated military guard at the broad, brilliant white palm-fringed official residence at King's House in Kingston and he and Lady Cooke, the former Ivy Sylvia Lucille Tai, were styled "(His/Her) Excellency the Most Honourable".

The couple, who married in 1939, raised goats, rabbits, cattle and chickens in the grounds of King's House as well as directing the care of the gardens. "People think that my job [as Governor-General] is a sinecure," Cooke once said. "It's far from the truth... you deal with everybody – if a person is opening a fried fish shop, you should go."

Cooke, who succeeded Sir Florizel Glasspole in 1991, was the fourth Governor-General of independent Jamaica. The Queen visited twice during his tenure, in 1994 and 2002. On stepping down in 2006, he became Chancellor of the International University of the Caribbean in Kingston.

His teaching career spanned 23 years. He then spent three decades as a manager of insurance company branches, and also served as a lay pastor and church elder. He attended private schools and Mico University College, Kingston, before, in 1950, going to Britain to study at London University. He and his wife had two sons and a daughter.


Howard Felix Hanlan Cooke, teacher and politician: born Goodwill, St James, Jamaica 13 November 1915; GCMG 1991, GCVO 1994, CD 1978; married 1939 Ivy Sylvia Lucille Tai (one daughter, two sons); died Kingston, Jamaica 11 July 2014.