We Move Tonight – the making of the Grenada Revolution
by Joseph Ewart Layne
Pubs. Grenada Revolution Memorial Foundation, 2014
My Mother and I – the Epic Story of Grenada
by Kamau McBarnette
Pubs. Island Girls Publishers; 2014
In 1977, Joseph Layne, a young 19-year-old teacher, joined the NLA (the armed wing) of the Grenadian New Jewel Movement and became an activist in the revolutionary struggle. He ended up as a general in the army and a de facto minister in the revolutionary government.
In this book he gives an almost blow-by-blow account of how the movement against the Gairy dictatorship on the island grew and eventually, in 1979, launched an armed coup which toppled the moribund regime and introduced a socialist transformation of the island.
The dream of a free, democratic and independent Grenada lasted four years before internal strife within the NJM and invasion by the USA put paid to that dream and the hopes of the island’s people. Layne was one of those found guilty of involvement in the massacre of Maurice Bishop and other leaders of the New Jewel government and spent 26 years in prison, alongside his former comrades, known as the Grenada 17. At the time of the revolutionary implosion in 1983, he was a general in the National Liberation Army (NLA), and was accused of despatching army forces to Fort Rupert where Bishop was murdered.
In this book he writes the history of the New Jewel Movement from his perspective as a young activist, but sadly only gives a cursory explanation of what went wrong in the leadership which rapidly devolved into a bloody confrontation between two factions and gave the US the excuse it had been looking for to invade and destroy the revolution and its achievements. Layne’s short history is certainly readable and probably accurate as far as it goes. He also includes an afterword in which he reflects on the mistakes and errors made by himself and the movement as a whole.
I don’t think there has, to date, been a satisfactory and full explanation of what exactly happened in the New Jewel party and government which led to the tragic murder of Maurice Bishop and seven others.
At the outset, Bernard Coard and Maurice Bishop appeared to be the ideal leading duo of the NJM – Bishop the charismatic figure, eloquent speaker, charming and popular; Coard the competent organiser and strategist, but more of a back-room politician. What led to their falling out so dramatically, four years into the revolution? Simplistic reasons have been forwarded: Bishop wanted a genuinely democratic society, whereas Coard, ‘the Stalinist’ wanted a hard line Soviet-style state. While such a polarised hypothesis fits the mainstream cliches perfectly, the true picture is undoubtedly a more complex one, but serious ideological differences between the two certainly played a key role. Within the party leadership, Coard appears to have had majority support, but outside that small group, it was Bishop who had the greatest support.
The author maintains that he and other leaders were, from early on, Marxist-Leninists, but it is doubtful whether any of them at the time, apart from Coard, Bishop and Whiteman had read any of the Marxist classics in any depth, if at all. A number were undoubtedly what we would characterise as ‘ultra-left’ ie rather gung-ho and replete with all the revolutionary rhetoric, but with little understanding for complex political and economic realities. Some, as described in this book, were characterised by their impatience, inexperience and even foolhardiness.
I also find the author’s language sometimes reflects an outdated thinking. He still talks in terms of the Grenadian ‘masses’ and of the need, at the time, to mobilise the ‘masses’. Grenada has little over 100,000 population, so ‘masses’ has to be a very relative and hardly applicable term.
Layne does give an exciting and suspenseful account of the build-up to the successful toppling of the Gairy regime. A motley group of poorly armed and badly trained young men managed, in only a few hours, to defeat Gairy’s Mongoose Gang killers and his small army, who panicked and most fled after the first shots were fired.
The odds against a successful armed coup were enormous – the NJM itself, despite encouraging electoral success (in elections rigged by Gairy), had only a small number of active members and its armed wing had to work clandestinely, it had little financial support, no backing from outside powers and very few weapons. It was also characterised by a very Caribbean, laid-back and spontaneous attitude, despite the fact that its main leaders, Maurice Bishop, Bernard Coard, Unison Whiteman and Austin Hudson were extremely cautious, experienced politically and highly intelligent individuals, who were able to give it shape and focus.
Layne’s book is certainly an excellent and worthwhile read, but it illuminates only one facet of a multi-faceted history.
McBarnettte’s book is very different to Layne’s although it covers some of the same historical ground. Like Layne, he was also accused of involvement in the murder of Bishop and others, and incarcerated after the US invasion. His account, though, is a more comprehensive history of the people and the island of Grenada, once inhabited by indigenous Caribs, through the colonial period, slave rebellions to Gairy’s dictatorship, upto the 1979 revolution and beyond. It is given a rather unusual framing form, with a mythical mother earth narrating the story. I feel that this quasi-fictional form tends to detract from the real facts of the historical narrative. That said, however, when he describes in detail the events surrounding the tragic collapse of the revolution and the US invasion, he writes in a purely factual and documentary way. He provides more insight than Layne and a better explanation of what went wrong and how events unfolded. Both books look back at the events with horror, as tragic episodes where things went badly wrong. McBarnette shows very clearly the sort of process that infects most attempts at revolutionary change in the modern world.
The enormous pressures from outside forces, particularly the USA which made no bones about wanting to crush Grenada’s experiment with socialism. Satellite images were published showing ‘the build up of Cuban military bases and airstrip on the island’. Its leaders were demonised for attempting to build a ‘Soviet-style’ system in the Caribbean. Reports from the Washington Post at the time indicated that since 1981 the CIA had engaged in efforts to destabilise the Grenadian government politically and economically. In August 1981, US armed forces staged a mock invasion of Grenada on the island of
Vieques off the coast of Puerto Rico. It was unsubtly titled Amber and the Amberines (Grenada is part of the island group of the Grenadines). What has, as far as I am aware, hardly been discussed (and certainly little evidence unearthed) is the question of how far CIA and US government interference on the island influenced or indeed promoted the tragic events that destroyed the revolution.
Well before the leadership disagreements surfaced, there had been several attempts to kill the NJM leaders and one bomb that was set off at a public meeting killed two young women who had come to hear Bishop speak. Tension was high, fear and paranoia became widespread. The small New Jewel leadership was incredibly overworked and were pushing themselves to the limits. Demands on their time, on the need for important decision-making almost continuously, took its toll. Nerves were frayed, tempers short and impatience increased. All this was also accompanied by a certain disappointment and impatience among sections of the people with the perceived ‘slow’ pace of progress. Increasingly the media, particularly from outside but also from the opposition inside were spreading rumours and sowing uncertainty and mistrust. In this atmosphere, the Central Committee of the NJM felt that there needed to be a tightening up of organisation in the country and a determined focus on economic development and social mobilisation. It was therefore proposed that there should be a joint leadership between Maurice Bishop, the prime minister, and his deputy Bernard Coard, as it was felt such an arrangement would better combine the strengths of both men. Bishop saw this suggestion as a sign of lack of faith in his leadership and felt he was being undermined. Undoubtedly this issue could have been sorted amicably but in the circumstances it escalated rapidly into a confrontation which neither of the two desired and led to the tragic killings of Bishop and several of his colleagues and supporters.
The Grenadian 17 – what remained of the old revolutionary leadership – were put on trial and convicted in what can only be described as sham justice and a farce of a trial, after being tortured and with no opportunity to mount a proper defence. Fortunately the death sentences pronounced were later commuted.
Co-incidentally, a documentary film about the Grenadian revolution and its demise, Forward Ever: The Killing of a Revolution by Bruce Paddington, has recently been released. In it many of those who took part in or witnessed the tragic events on 19 October 1983 give their accounts, but also shed little light on the real causes of the disagreements within the leadership or why the killings took place. Callistus Bernard, the soldier in charge of the firing squad at Fort Rupert, admits in the film that he, with other soldiers, shot Bishop and others, but denies that he was given any orders to do so. He also shows a surprising lack of remorse and has offered no apology for his deeds. This film also omits any reference to US interference prior to the invasion.
Bernard Coard, Maurice Bishop’s friend and comrade as well as leader of the group which disagreed with Bishop’s approach to consolidating the revolution, still has to write his version of events. The dispute between the two leaders seems largely to have been about how best to mobilise the revolution’s support, and the need for more, clearer and co-ordinated, revolutionary organisation.
In his final chapters Ewart suggests that democratic involvement of all the people should always be the way to resolve difficulties in a revolution. He still maintains, though, that there are times when the brutality of an anti-democratic regime justifies armed action against it, as Gairy’s dictatorship undoubtedly did. What these two accounts certainly reveal is that in a tense situation matters can easily and rapidly escalate and get out of hand, where negotiations, patience and compromise may have saved the day, and the revolution.
Despite these histories, cum-biographies/confessions, one can’t help feeling that there are still vital pieces missing from the jigsaw. Maybe this is partly down to unconscious suppression, lack of real inside knowledge or deliberate obfuscation and unwillingness to take full responsibility for what happened, who knows? But both books will undoubtedly contribute to the spirit of healing wounds.
Both books are available in the UK, cheques payable to L. Simpson, 23 Ashfield Road, Thornton, Bradford BD13 3PN, at £19, including delivery, (£10 if you name just one). All proceeds return to Grenada. Donations will be forwarded to the Grenada Revolution Memorial Foundation. Phone for special requirements: 01274-426846.
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This post was written by John Green