However, as the attainment of this 28th anniversary milestone is celebrated, the occasion must also call for a time of reflection and retrospect.
The journey to independence for the twin islands of St. Kitts & Nevis spanned some 359 years, from colonization, slavery, colonialism, West Indian Federation, Associated Statehood and finally political sovereignty.
Back in 1983, Dr. Kennedy A Simmonds, (now Sir Kennedy), who became the First Prime Minister of the new nation, told citizens that, “The attainment of independence must be a time for merriment and it must be a time for rejoicing, for the end of the uphill road to nationhood is the beginning of a new sense of freedom.”
Sir Kennedy agreed that, “The wheel of fortune has come full circle. Our forefathers hail from a land of a proud heritage and an indigenous culture, where men were once free. And having been taken into slavery, and having been fashioned into an amalgam of African and Caribbean elements, we have struggled our way through to freedom once more. It is not so much that we have become free at last, rather, it is that we have become free again.”
A flash back to Monday 19th September, 1983, is a moment that still injects a sense of pride and joy in Kittitians and Nevisians. They would fondly recall the brief showers that poured as the heavenly skies opened its reservoir to administer its blessings on the birth of the world’s newest and smallest nation.
As the rain showered the parade square at Warner Park, the old Statehood flag and Union Jack gave way to the spanking colourful flag of the new independent nation, while in the background, the debut of the new anthem, O’ Land of Beauty, was belted out by the mass choir and the over 10,000 people who were present, including scores of Prime Ministers, Premiers, Chief Ministers, Governors, Governor Generals, ambassadors, and the Royal Highness, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon-representing Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom.
Representatives of 52 States and 20 International Organizations were on hand for what (former) Prime Minister Dr. Simmonds described as, “The greatest moment in our nation’s history.”
Basking in the glory of the moment, as the instruments of sovereignty were handed over by Princess Margaret to Dr. Kennedy Simmonds, was the country’s First Governor General, Sir Clement Arrindell, who in an earlier Independence Address in 1983, reminded the nation that, “Our earlier attainment of internal autonomy and now national independence, is irrefutable, and evidence that those who toiled politically, while others slumbered, have not toiled for nought; neither was it in vain, the suffering of those intrepid few, who were persecuted for trying to prod the masses into a semblance of wakefulness.”
Were it not for the unique political skills of Dr. Simmonds, who found the right structure that would satisfy the concerns and aspirations of the Nevisian people, St. Kitts & Nevis may not have existed today as one independent nation.
Despite the earlier efforts of leaders like Moore, Southwell and Bradshaw, in the end it was the charismatic medical doctor, (Simmonds), who succeeded in uniting the political forces in both Nevis and St. Kitts, to finally deliver the promise of independence.
Neither Bradshaw nor Southwell lived in an independent St. Kitts and Nevis. However, they must be given credit for their earlier attempts and recognition that the country was ready.
Even our First National Hero and First Premier, Robert Bradshaw, in 1970, some 13 years before independence, had also recognized the contribution of leaders before him. Bradshaw said at the time, while addressing students of the (then), College of the Virgin Islands, (now University of the Virgin Islands), that “The late nineteen twenties to the early thirties, saw the beginning of agitation for constitutional reform. Men like …Manchester, Sebastian and Halbert of St. Kitts spearheaded the struggle.”
Bradshaw went on to share, “I say nothing of myself in all this, save to say that I became active in the struggle in 1940.”
Commenting on the movement for change, Bradshaw argued that, “The process for constitutional reform never let up until it brought Universal Adult Suffrage, as well as a majority of elected, over nominated members…in 1952: the black man had arrived at the threshold of political power! He now had limited power with which to discharge his responsibilities to the voters”
Bradshaw continued, “But even with this power in our hands, we continued to agitate: this time for independence of all the British Caribbean territories, together as a Federal entity. Federation was achieved in 1958 but was destroyed in 1962.”
By 1967 the Cabinet system of government was allowed in St. Kitts and Nevis and the rest of the Leewards and Windwards, when Associated Statehood was introduced, with Bradshaw serving as the first Premier of the State of St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla.
Bradshaw had described this system as an emasculated device, introduced by the British at a time when Britain was anxious to rid itself of colonies that had lost their former economic and strategic value. The new system was actually copied from the Cook Islands’ association with New Zealand.
In his comments at the CVI, Bradshaw told Kittitians, Nevisians and Anguillans in the audience, that the ultimate step in the escalation of political power for these Associated States will be independence: either each State on its own, or in various combinations with each other. As we would recognize, since then in 1970, there have been many attempts to unite the islands in the Leeward and Windward Islands. The current efforts at OECS unity are therefore in pursuit of those earlier dreams.
Though his words were spoken some 40 years ago in St. Thomas at the CVI, Bradshaw’s observations then, are very relevant to the current realities in our countries today.
He said then that, “Thus we see that political power developed in the Caribbean over the centuries, from European settlement, through the period of slavery, and after the emancipation from chattel slavery, up to the present day, first giving power to the whites and now the blacks. And may I be permitted to prognosticate by saying that political power may ultimately be taken from the blacks …and retaken by the whites, primarily through their lackeys and through economic power in some of the other places.”
“The black man had better be warned not to continue to live only for the next new clothing style, but to face and triumph over the harsh and relentless realities of today, so that he may survive tomorrow. He is gradually selling out-instead of leasing- the few acres of land he owns, thereby assisting in the systematic process of dispossessing himself of his heritage as well as a stake in his country. Let him not cry after the money too has left him,” argued Bradshaw in 1970.
Bradshaw had started his government’s quest to independence by 1975, following his electoral mandate after the General Elections of that year and a Celebration Committee had been empanelled, but his death in 1978 stalled the efforts. Another set-back was experienced the following year in 1979 under the Premiership of C. A. Paul Southwell, who succeeded Bradshaw, but his untimely death a few months after, once again stopped any possible movement. When Southwell died he was actually attending a meeting of government leaders in St. Lucia, as they tried once more to unite the smaller islands of the region. That meeting eventually created what is now the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, OECS.
Southwell’s successor, Premier Lee L Moore, took the gamble of gaining his own electoral mandate but failed in his bid when the Peoples Action Movement, PAM, created an upset after the elections, winning three seats and joining with the Nevis Reformation Party in Nevis, (with their 2 seats), to form a coalition government, toppling the Labour Party, after some 25 years at the helm of political power.
At the time of the elections, the British government had already agreed to grant independence to St. Kitts & Nevis, under the Labour Party, headed by Moore. However the British mandated that 18 months after independence, a referendum had to be called, for the people of Nevis to determine if they wished to remain as part of an independent unit with St. Kitts or revert to a new status. Moore however, despite this obvious mandate, proceeded to call the elections. His gamble failed as Labour was swept from power by PAM and NRP. This coalition government and the subsequent independence of the two islands could not have been possible, were it not for the support and cooperation of the leader of the NRP, Dr. Simeon Daniel.
In his 1982 New Year Message, Premier Kennedy Simmonds stated: “ I want us to begin 1982 thinking more of ourselves as one people, with a common destiny- mixed and bonded by centuries of intermixing, until today we can’t even be sure who is Kittitian and who is Nevisian.”
Simmonds told the nation that it was essential that they develop a new constitutional relationship that will institutionalize the new spirit of understanding, cooperation, and mutual respect that now exists between us. “It must be an arrangement that gives the inhabitants of both St. Kitts & Nevis the opportunity to make the day to day decisions that affect their lives,” said Simmonds.
“The process of government must be such as to enable the people to legislate on matters of local concern, yet to share in the legislative process, as they do now, on matters of general concern,” said the Premier.
“We will NOT drop independence like a bomb upon this country, but we are beginning the process of seeking this necessary constitutional advancement,” said Dr. Simmonds.
Dr. Simmonds would go on to lead St. Kitts & Nevis into independence on Monday 19th September, 1983, serving as Prime Minister for approximately 12 years, (1983-1995) with an earlier term of just under 3 years as Premier, 1980-1983.
His successor, Dr. Denzil Douglas has continued the struggle of an independent St. Kitts & Nevis, for a record 16 years, making him the longest serving leader, ever known to this independent country.