Monday, April 22, 2024

PETER WICKHAM: Political Giant II


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THE FIRST EDITION of this article was published in November of 2015 shortly after Sir Frederick Smith celebrated his 90th birthday and before he completed his memoirs. That article commented on his contribution to the politics of Barbados and the extent to which his life story is important to our political history. Sir Frederick passed away Monday last week and as his family and friends mourn, they can take comfort in the fact that his life contributed to the enhancement of this nation and as he remarked in the book, he was “ready to meet his maker”.

One of the tragic realities of our political culture is the fact that leaders and those who aspire to leadership in the Caribbean generally do not write autobiographies. It is for these reasons that Sir Frederick’s story which is beautifully told in the book he co-authored with Alan Smith, Dreaming A Nation, is an important cornerstone of the political history of this country. As a person who labours in the literary vineyard each week, I fully appreciate the mental and physical effort involved in the preparation of any publication, especially a biography. This reality explains why so few of these are written and why Dreaming A Nation is therefore a highly commendable effort, especially as Sir Frederick and his nephew completed this work on the eve of his 90th birthday when one imagines that his life’s work would have taken its toll.

Although the book is organised in a chronological fashion, it commences with a reflection on a relatively recent event, a meeting with the (now former) Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder. The presentation of this encounter in the beginning is used to set the stage for his historic journey and also speaks to the significance of that meeting. Thereafter, the authors follow the sequence of Sir Frederick’s life in the “first person”, which lends intimacy. It is immediately clear that Sir Frederick understood his origins could as easily have determined a different path for him in life and while “surprise” is perhaps too strong a word, he clearly impressed himself by what he achieved in life. The story was grounded in a reflection on Sir Frederick’s ancestral origins which he is able to trace back to Adam Straw, who was once a slave and culminates with reference to his final honour, which was to have a school named after him.

His reference to this renaming of the former St James Secondary School in his honour speaks volumes about the person he was. 

Sir Frederick was highly decorated and served at several different levels locally and regionally. He would at times have been referred to as “His Lordship” and was assigned the title “Sir” in addition to having been awarded two honorary doctorates, but it was most significant for him that when he is (to use his words) “pushing up daisies, there’ll be a school in Barbados, my homeland, which is named after me”. 

Clearly, the greatest honour of all was the association of his name with an institution where children would receive an education, which is the commodity he believes was also responsible for his achievements.

Autobiographies intrigue me because they facilitate the opportunity for students of politics like myself to be a “fly on the wall” during significant historic events. Sir Frederick was brutally frank and, worse, this was the eve of his 90th year when he would have no legitimate reason to fear any mortal soul. 

As such, his account of the relationship between himself and Errol Barrow, first as a politician within the Barbados Labour Party and later as Prime Minister and leader of the Democratic Labour Party was fascinating. He clearly admired Barrow, but communicated instances when he was less happy with his actions for reasons that were both personal and developmental. Such is the nature of politics and I am happy that Sir Frederick afforded us this window into the life of a former leader who was complex and whose story is yet to be properly told.

Similarly, his reference to the role Barbados played in the anti-apartheid struggle by allowing Cuban aircraft ferrying troops to Angola to refuel was equally fascinating. Sir Frederick was clearly proud of the fact that a former colony the size of Barbados could play a role in the emancipation of millions of brothers and sisters who laboured under the apartheid regime. The entire affair occurred without the knowledge or approval of the Cabinet of which he was a part, but he noted this demonstrated the savvy of Barrow who understood that he might need to deny knowledge of permission being granted and thought it best if he could say truthfully that his colleagues were unaware.

The book tells a story of a fascinating legal and political journey which cannot be properly reviewed in this space.

Suffice to say that its publication is timely, both from the perspective of our golden anniversary as a nation and also because we can celebrate the completeness of Sir Frederick’s life and contribution. Well done!

Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email:


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