Politricks and power

James Ferguson on Ruler in Hiroona: A West Indian Novel by G. C. H. Thomas

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They certainly don’t make Caribbean politicians like they used to. I remember once watching the late Eric Gairy, Prime Minister of Grenada in the 1970s, in action during an election meeting in the east coast town of Grenville. Part-actor, part-preacher, he captivated his crowd of adoring followers with a virtuoso performance that included feigned indignation, mockery, humour and a confiding tone that made every onlooker believe that the “Leader” was speaking directly to him or her. At the end of the show the crowd carried the elderly politician aloft, singing, “We shall not let our Leader fall”. No matter that he lost that election. To his supporters, he was invulnerable.

Eric Gairy was one of a particular breed of West Indian politicians, men who, for the most part, emerged from the social unrest and trade union activism of the 1930s. They came to prominence in the 1950s when the process of decolonization in the Caribbean was under way and universal suffrage was at last introduced. Some were of humble origins, others professionals, but all depended on a rough-and-ready sort of charisma that appealed to “the masses”. Politics, as it still is to some degree, was a dog-eat-dog affair, in which cunning and ambition played as big a part as ideals or ideology. Across the region, leaders like Robert Bradshaw in St Kitts, Alexander Bustamante in Jamaica and Vere Bird in Antigua rallied their supporters with calculated attacks on the colonial powers and the vested interests of the old elite.

It would not be risking libel to observe that some of these old-style politicians were not entirely disinterested with regard to their new-found power. As self-government and then independence arrived in the course of the 1960s and 1970s, the opportunities for corruption and self-enrichment grew. Some leaders became increasingly intolerant of opposition and even resorted to the occasional exercise in intimidation and vote-rigging. To put it politely, there were those among the generation of the 1950s who weren’t exactly angels.

Ruler in Hiroona is a fictional portrait of one such less-than-perfect political creature. Hiroona is, of course, an equally fictitious Caribbean island, but the fact that the name is the popular corruption of Hairoun, the Carib name for St Vincent, suggests that G. C. H. Thomas may have had something specific in mind. Thomas, of whom I know little other than that he was born in Trinidad, reportedly insisted that his novel was not based on any real place, but others have suspected that he may have modelled his book on St Vincent and on its larger-than-life Prime Minister Ebenezer Joshua, who dominated the island’s politics from 1951 until his retirement in 1980.

 

The novel’s central character and narrator is one Jerry Horatio Mole, who, by his own confession at the beginning of the book, is an idle and unsuccessful individual, a drifter who has never been able to hold down a job. This middle-aged good-for-nothing seems to be drifting along, cadging from his long-suffering wife Sonia, when a chance encounter with Joe Pittance, a stevedore and part-time hairdresser, changes his life. Hiroona, says Pittance, needs a political leader, a man who can galvanize the masses and lead the fight for independence. Mole replies that he is not interested in politics.

“You will be able to make money in a easy, easy job, Mr Mole,” insists Pittance. 

“Well, in that case.” I chuckled, pretending to be joking; but I had begun to listen now. 

And so a political career is born, the motive no greater than that of a quick buck. Together with Pittance, Mole forms a trade union, gathering gullible supporters by attending the funerals of unknown individuals, mourning ostentatiously and blaming the authorities for the death of the deceased in question. The game is to pose as the champion of the underdog, the saviour of the “poor man”. Soon Mole is the only popular political figure on the island, and he begins to build a party machinery. Like all rabble-rousers, he promises a great deal and delivers next to nothing. He even pockets the compensation money paid by a sugar mill owner to a young and half-witted man injured in an accident.

The powers that be are horrified. The colonial administrator tries to obstruct him, the island newspaper editor tries to vilify him, but all to no avail. At the first ever general election with universal suffrage, Mole’s People’s Productive Party sweeps the board and Mole becomes premier. By now the lazy ex-school teacher has discovered his real vocation: moneymaking and the abuse of power.

Power, the old adage says, corrupts, and Jerry Mole is no exception to the rule. He nominates his wife to a ministry despite her illiteracy (to ensure another good income); he fiddles his expenses; he attempts to rid himself of opponents and competitors. In doing so, he alienates Pittance, and with the loss of his colleague his popularity begins to wane. Not, however, that Mole is an evil man. Instead, he is merely amoral, not over-burdened with scruples, and rather likable despite his failings. The fact that he is the narrator allows him to put the best possible gloss on most of his actions and weaknesses, but even so his candour is engaging. Here he is putting the case for banning any opposition:

 

“That’s well and good,” I replied, “but opposition is not the best thing for Hiroona at this stage. Our people have not yet reached the standard of educational development which makes a country safe with an opposition. Our people tend to believe anything the opposition tells them, no matter if it is nonsense. They can’t think for themselves as yet.”

 

Things go from bad to worse. Mole is implicated in an arson attack and his corrupt practices begin to attract attention. Pittance forms a rival party that threatens his grip on power. Finally, he is reduced to seeking the advice of an obeah woman and sticking pins into effigies of his opponents. His downfall is complete when he loses his seat, a general election and any remnants of his reputation as the obeah incident is revealed to an incredulous electorate.

The rise and fall is complete, but Mole somehow manages to have the last laugh. He has siphoned enough money to buy four houses and live comfortably in retirement. He is reunited with his wife who has grown to hate politics, and he is able to win a lucrative bet with one of his enemies by writing a full and frank account of his political career — because he has no reputation left to defend. That account, we realise at the end, is what we have been reading.

Ruler in Hiroona is by no means a faultless novel. Its dialogue is often unconvincing, its plot sometimes predictable. But it is consistently funny and very frequently perceptive, revealing much of the hypocrisy and crookedness at the heart of political life. Perhaps its greatest strength, however, is its colourful evocation of a certain type of Caribbean politician, whom we may now view with a little nostalgia and a great deal of relief that he is unlikely to hoodwink today’s more sophisticated electorates.

 

James Ferguson is the author of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (In Print/Passport Books/Ian Randle Publishers).