The end of Eric Gairy

Thirty years ago, Grenada was led by Eric Gairy, champion of the poor, a political despot and a firm believer in UFOs...

Former Grenadian premier Eric Gairy. Photograph courtesy The Trinidad Express

A few months ago I wrote on the 25th anniversary of the 1983 US-led invasion of Grenada, drawing parallels with the more recent invasion of Iraq and observing that this was the first – and so far only – invasion of a Commonwealth Caribbean country.

Coincidentally, the anniversary of the event that ultimately resulted in that so-called “intervention”, the 1979 Grenada Revolution, occurs now, as it is 30 years exactly since the island first found itself at the centre of international attention. And again it was a first: the first non-constitutional change of government in the modern English-speaking Caribbean.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the coup d’état of March 13, 1979 is that it took so long to happen. Since the 1950s Grenada had been dominated by a figure as nasty as he was eccentric. Eric Gairy had swept to power by becoming the charismatic champion of the rural poor, a tough-talking firebrand who was not afraid to confront the colonial authorities and the old landowning gentry. His strangely acronymed Grenada United Labour Party (GULP) was turned into his private political machine, and he successfully took charge of the island’s main trade union. Like his friend Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti, he had a band of thugs at his disposal, the Mongoose Gang, willing and ready to intimidate or attack would-be opponents. He was also unhealthily keen on the occult (many thought he was an obeah man or warlock), and embarrassed Grenadians by insisting that the United Nations should debate the pressing problem of unidentified flying objects.

Grenada’s long-awaited independence arrived in 1974 under the sinister shadow of Gairy, who by now faced growing opposition from a small group of mainly foreign-educated middle-class Grenadians belonging to various Marxist or Black Power-influenced groups. Never one to appreciate criticism, Gairy sent his paramilitaries to break up demonstrations and even kill opponents. One who was murdered by the Mongoose Gang was a local businessman by the name of Rupert Bishop, the father of Maurice Bishop.

Maurice Bishop had studied law in London before returning home to form a left-wing group that eventually merged with others to create the New Jewel Movement. Gairy tolerated his election to the legislature in 1976 (he always had to allow a token opposition, to placate the US and Britain), and by 1979 Bishop had become the highest-profile critic of Gairy’s rule. Popular support for the opposition grew steadily in the late 1970s as Gairy held on to power with increasing violence.

Tension reached fever pitch in March 1979, with rumours that Gairy intended to have the leaders of the NJM rounded up, and even murdered. A series of strikes had already raised the political temperature, and when Gairy announced that he was leaving the island to visit New York on government business, Bishop and others went into hiding, fearing that he would have his dirty work done while abroad.

It seems that Gairy had no idea what would happen next, and nor did most Grenadians. In fact, it was all too easy. Some 45 armed NJM members (they had apparently been given weapons by sympathisers in the Defence Force) met in the early hours of the 13th near the True Blue barracks in Grenada’s scenic southern tip. In the barracks, where they found almost all of the 100 Defence Force personnel unarmed and asleep. Somehow the barracks caught fire in the course of the incident, probably due to home-made Molotov cocktails, and were reduced to ashes.

Gairy’s principal supporters, including several government ministers, also found themselves rounded up and detained in the prison grounds along with some senior police officers and Mongoose Gang activists. According to the NJM, the entire operation was “bloodless”; from New York Gairy claimed that at least two members of his security forces had been killed.

Time magazine chose to treat the coup in light-hearted fashion, as a sort of tropical comic opera. It reported how the island’s radio station, which was seized by armed NJM members at the same time as the barracks, continued to play reggae and calypso until “after the coup, the music was interrupted by such pleas as ‘Will the people who kept animals on Mount Royal come back and feed them?’ and ‘Will whoever borrowed the keys of the police wagon please return them?’” According to the magazine, “The fire station quickly ran up a white flag of surrender – actually, a shirt borrowed off the back of a friendly passerby.”

If sections of the world’s media treated Grenada’s change of government as a joke, others were less amused. Fellow Caribbean governments quickly condemned the coup as unconstitutional, while the US State Department signalled its disapproval (albeit in moderate tones, as it considered the mercurial Gairy a liability). But most political figures and journalists were simply baffled that a “revolution” had happened so quickly and unexpectedly in a tiny English-speaking Caribbean island.

Not least among the unprepared was the Governor General, Sir Paul Scoon, representative of HRH Queen Elizabeth II, the titular head of state. Woken by a phone call at 5.30 am, the Governor General later admitted in his memoirs: “I was totally nonplussed and my initial reaction was one of disbelief.” (So much for the quality of British intelligence.)

Within six hours of the True Blue attack, the revolution had triumphed, and at 10 am Maurice Bishop was heard on the newly renamed Radio Free Grenada assuring Grenadians that democratic freedoms would soon be restored, and appealing for calm. Chris Searle, a British supporter of the NJM, described “people out cheering in their thousands with cutlasses, sticks, knives and old firearms… with the police stations in their hands and Gairy’s ministers and hoodlums under lock and key.”

The events of that day – surely the fastest revolution in world history – changed the course of Grenada’s history, and four and a half years later placed the “spice island” at the centre of one of the Cold War’s last strategic conflicts. Yet even now, 30 years on, Grenada lives uncomfortably with its revolutionary claim to fame, and its painful memories.