Obituary: Sir Eric Gairy

Sir Eric Gairy, Prime Minister of Grenada 1974-79, died at his home at Grand Anse on the south coast of the island he loved and tyrannised.

The wall-eyed Don Juan in the white suit, Gairy was one of the last of a generation of West Indian labour leaders who challenged the colonial plantocracy on behalf of their union members and eventually took political independence for their islands from the hands of successive British governments, Labour and Conservative, who were all too eager to get shot of the Caribbean encumbrances of empire.

The Antilles had long since lost that economic importance that their monopoly of sugar production gave them in the 18th century when Britain would bleed France to death for such patches of land as Grenada, St Lucia or Dominica.

Gairy was also one of the worst of that generation, a rotten apple in a barrel which included such large and often great figures as Alexander Bustamante and the Manleys in Jamaica, the Adams in Barbados, Eric Williams in Trinidad and Tobago, Robert Bradshaw in St Kitts and Ebenezer Joshua in St Vincent.

Gairy was born to a peasant family in 1922 in St Andrew's parish and was educated at the Catholic parish school in a strongly Catholic island. Early in his working life he emigrated to the Standard Oil refinery on the industrialised Dutch island of Aruba in search of the betterment his own island could not offer him.

He returned with a vengeance and in the 1950s set out to master and ridicule the conventions of the colonial establishment based in the capital St George's, in order to teach his growing number of followers self-respect.

In 1950 he founded the Grenada Manual and Mental Workers Union and later the Grenada United Labour Party (GULP) which aimed to roll back the deference that the people's former leader Theophilus Marryshow exhibited to the colonial masters and their susceptible wives.

For instance, on one occasion, Gairy led a terrified group of estate workers into a tourist hotel, where they demanded to be served a meal. He went on to incite domestic servants to revolt against a regime which required them to work 15 hours a day. They loved him.

As the historian Gordon K. Lewis put it in his magisterial Growth of the Modern West Indies, " . . . while the St George's respectability shuddered, the rural masses applauded each Gairyite indiscretion: the gaudy vanity of his appearances at meetings of the Standing Federation Committee, his enjoyment of his various secretaries as physical architecture rather than clerical aid, his preening self-esteem."

When in 1951 the Governor had Gairy put on a boat to the sister island of Carriacou, crowds blocked the roads and rioted till the Royal Navy was called and police reserves summoned from as far afield as Jamaica.

Scarcely had the union been born in 1950 than Gairy had himself elected to the Legislative Council, starting a career which was to lead him in 1957 to be the Chief Minister and Minister of Finance of the nearly independent island (where his peculation or "squandermania" caused him to be dismissed and the constitution abrogated by the authorities in 1962).

He returned triumphant as Premier five years later in 1967, staying on through Grenada's independence in 1974 to be its first Prime Minister.

His period in office showed the darker side of the playboy with a gleam in his eye for the ladies. He charmed his constituents when helping Jennifer Hosten (Miss Grenada) win the Miss World competition in London in 1970, but his publicity exploits were overshadowed by his ruthless authoritarianism. This was enforced by his Mongoose Gang of thugs at whose hands no one on Grenada was safe. He took to saying, "He who opposes me opposes God".

In April 1973 the police killed a young protester. Further blood flowed that year as the labour movement went against him, and on 7 February 1974 the island went to independence, marked by an electricity blackout caused by striking power workers and by hunger strikes against Gairyism.

The chaos gave impetus to the growing nationalist and left-wing strength of a movement which was eventually to oust him. He fought back, seeking support from the most unlikely and disreputable sources, including General Augusto Pinochet, the dictator of Chile, who sent Gairy the arms he could not get from anywhere else.

As his brutality and extravagances continued the New Jewel Movement (NJM), an amalgam of young social democrat and Leninist politicians, grew in strength, led by the remarkable Maurice Bishop whose father Rupert had been murdered by Gairy's men.

In March 1979 the NJM took advantage of his departure from the country for the UN General Assembly where he was striving to have flying saucers put on the agenda and ousted him.

Eric Gairy was not at hand when the NJM attempted to turn Grenada into a socialist state though, full of hope, he did seek the assistance of the British embassy in Washington for his reinstatement when the revolutionaries fell to feuding among themselves in 1983. He was still in US exile when Ronald Reagan launched his blitzkrieg invasion of Grenada a few days later. He returned to fight elections in 1984, 1990 and 1995 but his magic had left him.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy

Eric Matthew Gairy, politician: born 18 February 1922; Member of Legislative Council, Grenada 1951-52 and 1954-55, Minister of Trade and Production 1956-57, Chief Minister and Minister of Finance 1957-62, Premier 1967- 74, Prime Minister of Grenada 1974-79; Kt 1977; PC 1977; married 1949 Cynthia Gairy (two daughters); died Grand Anse, Grenada 23 August 1997.

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