Sir John Compton - Champion of St. Lucia’s Independence
By Guy Ellis
Sir John George Melvin Compton was the last of a breed of political leaders who emerged in the Caribbean in the 1950s around the time of universal adult suffrage when people 21 years and over got the right to vote. He died at the Tapion Hospital in Castries, in September 2007 at the age of 82.
Compton was regarded as the chief architect of the modern St. Lucia and took the island from a sleepy, backward colonial state to a regional power in its own right and leader among the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).
He also led a spirited fight in the face of intense pressure from opponents at home, to take his country to full independence from Britain in 1979.
Born April 29, 1925 in Canouan, Compton was frequently referred to as “The father of the nation”, an accolade he refused to accept.
“Every country in the Caribbean has its heroes”, he once said, “but to call any one of them ‘Father of the nation’ is a misnomer and for any to accept it, is a display of arrogance”.
Still, Compton was affectionately known “Daddy Compton” to many St. Lucians, especially to residents in the twin eastern villages of Micoud and Dennery where he planted his political roots in 1954 winning an election which sent him to the then Legislative Council (later House of Assembly) for the first time.
In later years, Compton would represent either one or both of the villages in parliament for 42 unbroken years until he retired in 1996 to return for another spell in December 2006.
He served as head of the government here on seven occasions, 30 years altogether (1964-79, 1982-96 and again 2006)
In 1954, fresh out of law school in Britain, and although a member of the then ruling St. Lucia Labour Party (SLP), Compton chose to contest general elections as an independent candidate and carried away 51 percent of the vote in a four-cornered contest.
The 1957 sugar strike also established Compton’s political base in Micoud and Dennery for the next four decades to the extent that he easily won every election he contested there and for a long time, any candidate he chose to run in any of the four constituencies in that region, was guaranteed victory. The Labour Party was only able to break this stranglehold in 1979.
In 1961 Compton fell out with the SLP and formed his own party, the National Labour Movement (NLM) which three years later merged with the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) to form the United Workers Party (UWP).
In June 1964 he led the UWP to victory over the SLP and became Chief Minister. Three years later St. Lucia achieved Associated Statehood, a form of semi independence from Britain and Compton became the island’s first Premier. This was followed by full independence in 1979 when he became the first Prime Minister.
In matters of the island’s sovereignty, Compton was outspoken and uncompromising. At the London conference which negotiated self government Compton criticized Britain over its refusal to include issues of aid, trade and migration in the talks.
He argued that without this, the new status would be completely meaningless. Then, at the final formal session of the conference, with several British government officials around the table, he dropped a diplomatic bombshell: “The colour of our skins is against us”, Compton told them, “and a government, even one that professes democracy, is pleased to legislate and propound the doctrine of second class citizenship for people of another colour”.
The outburst caused consternation even within Compton’s own delegation, one member Sir Garnet Gordon, disassociating himself from it. But Compton said he had no apology to make to anyone for speaking his mind.
More than a decade later, Compton was back in London negotiating independence in the face of strong opposition at home from the SLP.
When it appeared to him that Britain was taking longer than he had expected in severing the last constitutional link with St. Lucia, Compton used a similar setting to let loose. “It is absolutely humiliating and intolerable” he told the London constitutional conference, for a government that has been duly elected by the majority of the people of St. Lucia since 1964…..to be traveling at great expense of time and money to the United Kingdom….like so many mendicants seeking favours from a master”.
In many ways, given the struggles that he was up against both at home and abroad, Compton was the real champion of St Lucia’s independence.
In the 1960s Compton appeared to have designed a mental blueprint for St. Lucia’s development that included huge investments in infrastructure: highways, one of which bears his name, air and seaports, utilities, industrial estates, housing projects, and later a dam, also named after him. He conceived most of the projects himself and some appeared so grandiose, if not impossible at the time, that his opponents and skeptics called him a dreamer.
But in the end Compton always had the last laugh. Like the time he decided the dredge several acres of swampland in the north of the island that had become a breeding ground for flies and mosquitoes and prepare it for development. Today, the area known as Rodney Bay, is a modern commercial, housing and industrial community, with several of the island’s finest hotels and restaurants and a yacht marina.
Compton also took a lot of pressure for building the causeway that links Pigeon Island to the mainland. Decades earlier, even his dredging of the Castries Harbour that accommodates mega cruise ships today, earned him criticism.
Some say he was sometimes arrogant, others say it was stubbornness. But Compton, as a leader, took decisions that he felt were his to take. Some were unpopular, like refusing to pay public servants higher salaries which he insisted the country could not afford. He often said that he was more concerned about the “future of tomorrow’s children rather than today’s vote.”
Compton trusted his own judgment ahead of anyone else’s and this is why he proceeded to undertake development projects, even in the face of criticism and ridicule. Every single one of these projects turned out to be successful in terms of the opportunities they created for the people, and their overall contribution to the nation’s well-being.
With Compton at the helm, St. Lucia became the leader of the small islands in the Eastern Caribbean chain that would later comprise the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and his achievements for his country won him admiration well beyond the region.
In December 2006, with his UWP facing the prospect of a third consecutive defeat at the polls by the SLP, Compton, who had come out of retirement, once again achieved instant success leading his party to a resounding electoral victory. He got a new Cabinet together, presented the new government’s first fiscal budget and seemed set to go out into the sunset quietly leaving behind a new UWP administration of much younger men and women that would carry the torch forward.
But differences within the party over relations with China-Taiwan and the sharp divisions which that issue produced, left Compton seriously stunned and heart-broken. He fell ill at the beginning of May, was hospitalized in the United States and was unable to resume office when he returned home.