Jamaica’s Brexit: Remembering the West Indian Federation

Jamaica’s Brexit: Remembering the West Indian Federation


Saturday, June 25, 2016

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On June 23, 2016, Britain voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, giving effect to Brexit. Among other things, Prime Minister David Cameron has indicated that he will resign, political recriminations have commenced, the prospect of further withdrawals from the European project is strongly debated, financial markets appear to be in a state of unrest, and arrangements concerning future relations between the UK and the EU will need to be formalised. This may be a suitable time to recall Jamaica’s venture in respect of a major integration scheme, the West Indian Federation, which lasted from 1958 to 1962. What factors brought Caribbean countries together in the federal scheme, and why did the federation come to such an early end?

In 1958, the movement for closer union among British colonies in the Caribbean reached its high point with the establishment of the Federation of the West Indies. The federation embraced Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the Windward and the Leeward Islands. British Guiana (now Guyana) and British Honduras (now Belize) opted to remain out of the arrangement. In the end, the Federation lasted no more than four years, with Jamaica withdrawing from it following a referendum in 1961; Trinidad and Tobago followed Jamaica’s lead in 1962, and the remaining eight British colonies were not in a position to sustain the federal arrangements.


The main factors which prompted the establishment of the West Indian Federation may be briefly stated. To begin with, history and geography combined to recommend the federal form of governance.

The units which became a part of the Federation all shared a common history of colonial control by the British. some, such as Barbados, St Kitts and Jamaica could trace this history back to the 17th century, for more than 300, uninterrupted years; and, arising from this history, all the units shared the English language, familiarity with British institutions, and a socio-cultural heritage which included acceptance of, and resistance to, certain British norms and values.

Arising from the historical circumstances of slavery and post-emancipation developments, the units of the West Indian Federation also shared broadly similar racial characteristics. At the time of the union, most of the citizens in the region were descendants of Africans who had been forcibly transported to the Caribbean and enslaved.

In some territories as well, there were substantial communities of citizens of East Indian descent, this being especially true of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana. Most territories also had smaller groups of indigenous persons or individuals who originated from Europe or Asia. The shared heritage — difficult though it has been for the majority — prompted the view that a shared destiny could be cultivated through political union.


This political union was, however, tempered by geographical considerations. The territories under British control were scattered across the expanse of the Caribbean Sea, and were not always proximate to each other.

Most strikingly, Jamaica was geographically separated from the nearest other member of the Federation, Antigua and Barbuda, by a range of other islands. The more pronounced propinquity of some units in the eastern and southern Caribbean, if anything, emphasised the Jamaican position as an outlier, but also, the distance from Trinidad to Antigua and Barbuda did not facilitate easy administrative arrangements.

The result was that the union contemplated for the British colonies could not realistically have been a unitary State: distance recommended the federal structure.


Some supporters of the West Indian Federation were also influenced by the desire to use federalism as a vehicle for national independence. More specifically, the period following World War II witnessed growing nationalism in Jamaica and in some of the other territories constituting the British West Indies.

As Norman Manley put the matter from as early as 1947: "I cannot imagine what we should be federating about if it is not to achieve the beginning of nationhood." Similarly, the Montego Bay Conference of 1947 had supported a federation if this would not undermine constitutional progress; and two years later, the Standing Closer Association Committee Report received substantial support because it envisaged federation as a pathway to independence and "Dominion status".

In negotiations on the establishment of the Federation, this trend of thought persisted. various exchanges between British colonial officials, as well as significant initiatives from Caribbean leaders, noted the strong Caribbean desire for progress to sovereignty and the link between Federation and independence.

In this regard, it did not escape the attention of some Caribbean leaders that the British model of decolonisation had sometimes included relinquishing power not to unitary states, but rather to federal entities such as Australia and Canada.


The federation was perceived as instrumental in other respects. Thus, it was argued that the federal arrangement would assist the individual territories to overcome the challenges of their small size. In some respects, this overlapped with the pro-independence perspective, for, arguably, Britain would be more inclined to grant independence to a larger, more viable, collective unit, than to smaller entities of limited national strength.

This perspective is reinforced by stated British positions which invariably presumed that federation would promote "economy and efficiency". Similarly, bearing in mind the economic challenges faced by the territorial units, there was scope for the view that federation, by prompting regional economic and social collaboration, could assist in raising living standards throughout the British Caribbean colonies.

Added to this, it was occasionally posited that closer union would strengthen labour unity in the region and create stronger bargaining power for the Caribbean entities as a whole in international negotiations. In a 1956 address at Woodford Square, Eric Williams put the matter of small size in its context:

"The units of government are getting larger and larger…federation is inescapable if the British Caribbean territories are to cease to parade themselves to the twentieth-century world as eighteenth-century anachronisms."


No small number of factors have been put forward to explain the failure of the short-lived federal experiment. At the level of the political, there was room for the view that the Federation was part of a plan by the British Government to pass on responsibility for its smaller colonies to Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. within this critical perspective, the Federation was worthy of suspicion as a top-down institution presented by the colonial power.

Whether or not this was the case, it remains true that Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago had particular concerns about the nature and impact of the Federation.

For example, Jamaica maintained that the establishment of a customs union for the federation would have a net negative effect on Jamaica’s revenues, while Trinidad and Tobago feared that freedom of movement would lead to a flooding of that territory’s labour market by Caribbean persons from other places. Barbados, on the other hand, anticipated that the federal union would naturally include free movement of labour across the various units.

Given that all the territories within the Federation were underdeveloped, the impact of possible redistribution of wealth from some political units to others was a matter of continuing political concern.


Another set of political considerations related to the limited sense of West Indian nationality that prevailed within the Federation. The distance between some of the Caribbean territories, as well as limits on the availability of efficient inter-island transportation, meant that there was little contact between individuals from Jamaica in the north and counterparts from other Caribbean territories.

As a result of historical factors as well, many Caribbean citizens tended, when travelling away from home, to gravitate towards Europe and North America, so that inter-island contact was quite restricted.

This factor, it is true, was not as pronounced in the southern Caribbean where links between, for example, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago have traditionally been strong. but even in this situation, individuals tended to identify themselves politically with their island as the unit for allegiance, and not with the Caribbean as a whole.

Consequently, there was no substantial groundswell of popular support for the Federation, a fact which was ultimately reflected in the Jamaican vote for withdrawal, and in the absence of the popular will to continue the federation thereafter.


In significant respects, the lack of enthusiasm for the federation in the popular will influenced decisions made by Caribbean leaders. Norman Manley, who had committed the People’s National Party (PNP) to the federal idea, had, at an important formative stage of the union, opted not to assume leadership of the Federal Government.

Manley’s decision should be seen as an acknowledgement that the domestic environment in Jamaica continued to be paramount, even following the establishment of the federation. But, in addition, it also evidenced the fact that the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) under Sir Alexander Bustamante, was lukewarm and ambivalent — at best — towards federalism from the outset.

Also, as David Coore notes in a perceptive essay, Manley had to bear in mind, among other things, the fact that his absence from the local electoral scene in Jamaica would open the way for a political comeback by Bustamante (Social and Economic Studies, Volume 48, No 4 (1999), p 70).

Among leaders from the different territorial units, there may have been some degree of misunderstanding or rivalry during the course of the Federation. On occasion, Grantley Adams, the Federal Prime Minister, mentioned the possibility of the Federation obtaining taxing power that could be applied retroactively, a reference that raised notable concerns for Jamaicans, and especially for Jamaica’s leaders.

The Agony of the Eight, Sir Arthur Lewis intimated too that personal leadership positions taken, for instance, by VC Bird and by John Compton of Antigua and Barbuda and St Lucia, respectively, generated differences of opinion among the territories following Jamaica’s withdrawal.

Differences of opinion are inevitable in policy discourse; the challenge faced by the Federation, however, was that, with relatively infrequent contact at the leadership level, opportunities for resolution of disagreement were scarce, and dispute resolution tended to take place through public pronouncements. In the quest for compromise solutions, this type of public diplomacy is not always helpful if each leader is inclined to play to the gallery at home.


A number of structural issues also tended to undermine the working of the Federation in practice. One such issue concerned the degree of centralisation to be afforded the Federation as a whole, versus the discreet units within the Federation.

The basic structure of the Federation contemplated only a limited range of responsibilities for the central, federal administration. these included allocation of grants under the Colonial Development and Welfare Acts, supervision of the West India Regiment, and assistance to the then University College of the West Indies.

In contrast, most governmental functions were allocated to the territorial units, so that, for example, Jamaica retained control over its fiscal policies, security matters and other activities. Some matters, too, were placed on a concurrent list with a division of responsibilities; but, generally, the main thrust of the arrangement was to allocate most governmental functions to individual units.

The Economics of Nationhood — an influential publication from Trinidad and Tobago which received support from some Eastern Caribbean countries — it was proposed that a stronger role should be given to the federal centre. This, however, encountered marked resistance from Jamaica, leaving the federal entity largely bereft of both financial sustainability and influence over decision making.


Political historian Gordon K Lewis, while acknowledging some of the foregoing weaknesses, tended to minimise their significance in the demise of the Federation.

For Professor Lewis, issues such as those relating to the absence of West Indian nationalism, the role of personalities, and geographical distance, were inherent in the negotiation of a new, collective, political regime. This was reflected, for example, in the constitutional debates on federalism in the United States of America. Such weaknesses did not necessarily portend the failure of the scheme — and no one factor was likely to be decisive (The Growth of the Modern West Indies (1968), p 368-375)

Eric Williams offered a somewhat contrasting perspective. Writing in
From Columbus to Castro (1970), Williams asserted all too briefly, but with authority:

"The Federation of the West Indies, inaugurated in 1958, collapsed in 1962 with the secession of Jamaica. Its failure was due to the two rival conceptions. Jamaica’s weak, central government and Trinidad’s strong, central power."

History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (1964), Williams also attributed considerable importance to the rival conceptions of federation between Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. In this publication, however, Williams suggested that these differences, and various attempts to reconcile them up to 1961 represented "not the beginning of the end of Federation", but instead "the end of the beginning."

On this reading, the end was ultimately the decision of Jamaica to withdraw following its referendum, a fact which gave rise to Williams’ famous aphorism: "Ten minus one equals zero." At very least then, Williams identified the conflict between a strong central Federation and strong individual units as a key factor in the collapse of the scheme; this is a convincing line of argument.

A related set of structural issues pertained to the actual power and influence of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago within the scheme. On one estimate, at the time of the Federation, these two territories together comprised "83 per cent of the total land area, 77 per cent of the population and three-quarters of the wealth". This helps to explain why greater weight came to be attached to these two territories in federal deliberations.

Even so, however, Jamaican actions — in seeking various changes to the Federation — suggested disenchantment on the part of the country’s leaders. The basis for disenchantment was that the federal arrangements in areas such as voting power, parliamentary representation and Cabinet membership, did not reflect Jamaica’s larger population or its economic standing.

Thus, Norman Manley found it "ridiculous" and "always ridiculous" that Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, with "85 per cent of the population, of the resources and the obligations to contribute to the Federal Government" were "dominated by the remaining 15 per cent".

Based on disputes that prevailed during the life of the union, Jamaica also felt that its vision for the federation — which, as noted above, involved limited central control — was not given proper weighting.


There is also evidence that Jamaica was disappointed that the country was not selected as the site for the federal capital. According to Williams, West Indian leaders, in 1953, selected Grenada to serve as the capital of the Federation. They changed from this position by 1956 and sought British assistance, through a commission, to select a suitable alternative.

The commission recommended that, in order of merit, the capital could be in: first, Barbados; second, Jamaica; or, third, Trinidad; and that it should not be placed in one of the smaller territories. Williams noted further, with a touch of triumphalism or understandable pride, that this result was changed following the victory of the People’s National Movement (PNM) in the 1956 Trinidad and Tobago elections.

"It [the PNM] won its first victory when it discarded the report of the Capital Site Mission into the waste paper basket where it belonged, and secured the acceptance of Trinidad as the Capital Site of the Federation."

That Jamaica "lost out" to Trinidad and Tobago may have implied to some persons that the fulcrum of the Federation was the southern Caribbean, a perception that may have been compounded by the physical distance between Kingston and Chaguaramas.

Valid or not, Jamaica carried a sense of grievance in different respects, and this provided sustenance to the opponents of Federation who eventually prevailed in the referendum. The territory with the largest population, arguably the strongest economic prospects, a highly recognised regionalist leader in the name of Norman Manley, and notable nationalist commitment, was far removed from the capital of the federation, and provided neither its capital site nor its prime minister.


Finally, it is important to note that in the Jamaican referendum, the question of independence assumed critical proportions. As noted above, one of the motivating factors behind the Federation was nationalist desire for full nationhood.

In the years since the 1938 disturbances in the Caribbean, this desire had been nurtured and promoted by, among other groups, the PNP in Jamaica. In the deliberations on the referendum, however, the PNP was left to argue in favour of independence as part of the federal grouping.

In contrast, the JLP, as part of its anti-federal stance, argued in 1961 for immediate independence for Jamaica on its own. As a political entity, the JLP had not been in the vanguard of the Jamaican political movement for independence since the decade of the 1930s. It was therefore paradoxical — but reflective of Bustamante’s political acumen — that the JLP was able to use the debate on federation to seize the high ground of national independence.

Against this background, the referendum came to be perceived by some voters as a choice between "federation (with independence)" or "independence for Jamaica". The option against federation recommended itself to 54.1 per cent of the voters, as against 45.9 per cent in favour.

Stephen Vasciannie CD is Professor of International Law, UWI, and a former Jamaican Ambassador to the USA and the OAS.



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