Making history: Revolution in Grenada

A quarter-century after the collapse of the Grenada Revolution, Merle Collins’s 1987 novel Angel is a vivid reminder of those tumultuous times

Illustration by James Hackett

Although it happened almost 25 years ago, the demise of the Grenada Revolution remains a mystery. It is hard to believe that a quarter century has passed since a bold experiment in social change and political independence ended in tragedy and bloodshed, and for some it is harder still to accept that the reasons for the disaster remain shrouded in secrecy. The body of Maurice Bishop has never been discovered, and that stands almost as a metaphor for the unresolved trauma that has since affected Grenada.

For the poet and novelist Merle Collins, a supporter of the Revolution and an admirer of Bishop, it must have been a tough task to write about that period of Grenadian history. How to depict the internecine strife that undermined the Revolution? How to bring to life the euphoria and despair experienced by those who lived through a momentous period of Caribbean history? Collins’s own commitment to the “Revo” and her resulting disillusionment at its unravelling are well documented, but what is more interesting here is how she turns that particular experience into the material for her novel Angel, published in 1987.

During the heady days of the Revolution, the government and some foreign sympathisers produced a little pamphlet called Is Freedom We Making. The text extolled the virtues of the People’s Revolutionary Government and berated its adversaries, most notably the ousted prime minister, Eric Gairy, and the US administration of Ronald Reagan. It also presented ordinary Grenadians as protagonists, as the conscious makers of their own history. Gone were the days, it suggested, when the poor and dispossessed were passive pawns in the historical process; the Revolution had put the people in the driving seat.

Of course, the propaganda pamphlet is a rather different genre from the novel, and Merle Collins is interested in exploring the impact of history on ordinary people in a way that is infinitely more subtle than any political tract. Her attachment to the Revolution may have been very strong, but her aim is not to write an ideological defence, but rather an imaginative reconstruction of what it was like to live through it. And, as with all people who witness or participate in great historic moments, that experience is complex and ambiguous. In short, it can be confusing to be making history.

Collins’s “ordinary” Grenadians make up an extended family, the McAllisters, dominated by tough and resilient women, and rooted in village life as well as connected to relatives in the US and elsewhere by a transnational network. Like many, the family has made a little money in the oilfields of Aruba before returning to Grenada – and the political ferment of the 1950s. The novel opens with the burning of a plantation house, an episode in Eric Gairy’s struggle with the old order and a step towards his political domination of the island.

Recreated simply as “Leader”, Gairy’s malign presence dominates much of the novel. A mixture of radical rhetoric and daring provocation endeared him to the masses in the 1950s and 60s, and Collins plausibly suggests how Grenadians liked – and feared – a man who stood up to the colonial elite and connived at the burning of their property in his infamous “Skyred” mobilisation of agricultural workers. As the novel opens, Angel, a young child, watches in awe as flames consume the great house of one of the old plantocrats.

Yet as Angel grows older, we sense that Gairy’s rule becomes increasingly corrupt and tyrannical. The character of the man is cleverly revealed in a suggestive vignette when Angel’s Uncle Regal sees the entire takings from a dance he has organised for his trade union pocketed by Leader. It also becomes apparent that opposition to his rule is met with violence. The gradual deterioration of political life in Grenada is sketched within the broader canvas of Angel’s childhood and adolescence, as Collins produces an entirely convincing picture of growing up in a small Caribbean island. There is no hint that this is a “political” novel; politics merely intrudes from time to time, as it does in real life.

Angel becomes a young woman of strong convictions, sharpened by a stint at university in Jamaica. Clearly drawing on her own experience, Collins presents her heroine as part of that generation of the 1970s which began to challenge the established order and the deference of their parents towards politicians like Gairy. Her nascent radicalism brings her into conflict with her father, who remains loyal to Leader, but also provokes her mother, Doodsie, into considering her own beliefs and values. In this way, Collins shows us the dynamics within a family which, although it does not really know it, is witness to dramatic social change.

The authenticity of the novel is underpinned, to a large extent, by its choice of language, for Collins’s characters, as well as her narrator, speak mostly in the distinctive French-influenced patois of the Eastern Caribbean. Rich in humour and expression, it is the vehicle through which Collins shows us the rising tide of political involvement in Angel’s family. As Gairy’s regime becomes more vicious, Doodsie lectures her sister on the Leader’s failings and dwindling support:

Plenty people dat used to support im see de light! Plenty people. Way you ever hear leader of country lootin? He dat suppose to protect people dey, senin he people an dem to beat up people an boastin on radio about how he recuitin who rough! Eh? Dat is leader too?

The Revolution, when it comes, is not expected. Indeed, the first that the McAllister family know of it is when the morning radio schedule is interrupted by an announcement that Leader has been overthrown. Chaos and confusion reign, as the bloodless coup ushers in a new phase in Grenada’s history. Again, the point that Collins successfully makes is that people who are making history are often the last to know it.

The section dealing with the Revolution itself is arguably the weakest in the novel, as it seems that Collins is afraid of falling into the trap of producing propaganda. As a result, we learn little of the mood of rejuvenation that swept through the island, nor of the fears and disappointments as the revolutionary government began to lose touch with ordinary people and turn in on itself. Even so, Collins manages to depict a society in transition, as school students openly debate issues such as US interference with their teachers, and farmers gather at public meetings to discuss road building and hear revolutionary poetry.

The violent end of Grenada’s four-and-a-half-year experiment with socialism is again depicted in terms of confusion and fear; kaleidoscopic images of demonstrations, shooting, and the eventual arrival of US airplanes dramatise the tumultuous week that saw the murder of Maurice Bishop, a dawn-to-dusk military curfew, and what is now euphemistically called the US intervention. Symbolically, Angel is injured during the brief fighting between Americans and Grenadians, but lives to face an uncertain future in a traumatised island.

The definitive history and analysis of Grenada’s Revolution remains to be written (much of what was published soon after October 1983 was either journalism or polemic). But Merle Collins’s Angel, subtle, sad, and hugely evocative of the landscapes and language of that most beautiful of islands, is a good place for any interested reader to start.