Hon. Sir George F. L. Charles
Hon. Sir George F.L. Charles
A Tribute (July 12, 2004)
I grew up hearing about George Charles. The more I learned about him, the more I was fascinated by what people said about his simplicity and his humility. I heard stories of feats by this little man, who was called everything from”Ti Jesi” to “Ti Hache” everything from “Little Jesus” to “The Small Axe”. Indeed, Sir George F.L. Charles was the small axe that began the process of cutting down the big tree that colonialism represented in his time.
There are times I think about him in a more personal way. On several occasions, I have indicated that I am a product of the Vieux Fort Senior Secondary School. That school opened its doors in 1964. It was funded by USAID and constructed by the government led by George Charles. In those days, there were only two secondary schools in St. Lucia: St Mary’s College and St. Joseph’s Convent. George Charles brought secondary education to the South of the island and made it possible for hundreds of young people to receive a secondary education. Indeed, I owe my secondary school education to the establishment of that school.
The period following the death of Sir George has revealed that many of our young people still do not know enough about who George Charles was, and what he did for St. Lucia to enable us to enjoy the rights and freedoms now enshrined in our Constitution.
It was Sir George who started and led our struggle against colonialism. It was he who began the fight to make St. Lucia a nation. It was he who led the struggle for us to get the right to vote for the government of our choice. He was elected as our first Chief Minister. He led the first political party in St. Lucia. And he it was, who led the introduction of the ministerial system of government in St. Lucia.
In all of the things I have heard from those who struggled with him, Sir George never behaved as if he was destined to lead. He never pretended that he was chosen by God to lead St. Lucia forever. He was never attracted to the trappings of office. Nor was he fazed by losses or betrayals. He toiled without rest, laboured without reward and remained steadfast through thick and thin. He never beat his own chest. Nor did he pound against those who sought to minimize his contribution. He had faith in history.
Sir George F.L. Charles left a legacy worthy of emulation. He distinguished between the Economic Struggle for better wages and working conditions and the Political Struggle to end colonization. He was truly the Father of Decolonisation.
There will always be efforts to diminish Sir George?s contribution. But it is our collective duty to always strive to keep his memory alive, to never let this and succeeding generations forget the huge contribution of that quiet, little man.
Let us not forget that the banana industry, introduced under his leadership, changed the economic landscape of this country forever. Bananas consolidated the formation of a viable class of farmers and workers from which so many have proudly sprung.
Let us not forget that it was under his banner that St. Lucia first experienced Universal Adult Suffrage and that his earliest assaults on the colonial apparatus included a resolution for the legal recognition of paid leave for workers. With that brave charge began the legacy he would bequeath to generations of working-class people in this country. Many pieces of labour legislation, enacted during his tenure, are still subsisting laws on our statute books.
Besides the right to paid holidays, these laws protected wages, legitimized trade unions and provided for the settlement of trade disputes. Such was his abiding concern for the rights of the poor and the dispossessed. No government since then has enacted such a wide platform of labour legislation. So, it is not by accident that we have arrived here. It is not by private wisdom or singular good fortune, but by the sacrifice and selflessness of good men in the mould of Sir George.
Sir George left us his memoirs (The History of the Labor Movement in St. Lucia, 1945-1974: A personal Memoir). It is our duty to fill the gaps and complete the story of his life. Much has been written and much has been said. While he lived, tribute was paid through the naming of a community, a school and one of our airports after him. More recently, a foundation, the George Charles Foundation, was established in his name. This foundation, among other things, will document the formation, emergence and contribution of the labour movement to our development.
Despite all these accomplishments, it is unbelievable that there would be among us those who would not see the significance of a minute of silence for Sir George, who would say they didn?t know him or who would dare to suggest that his achievements were myths built around him by political admirers.
Sir George was a man loved and admired in his time. As was seen in the days before his burial, people of all walks of life turned out to pay their last respects to him. They saluted him on the Market Steps and they paid tribute to him in the House of Assembly. People of all walks of life attended his funeral: labourers, clerks, public servants, merchants, Government and Opposition supporters, trade unionists, workers and supporters of both the UWP and the SLP. They came to see him off because, as Monsignor Anthony said at his State Funeral service, he was among the great men of Caribbean history who made his contribution to the development of our region.
When we buried Sir George last Wednesday afternoon, we laid a body to rest. But the spirit of this indomitable little man should live on in our hearts, in our minds and in our memories.
Many of our young people are being told that there’s no honour in politics and that all politicians are thieves and should not be trusted. I can only hope that the example of George Charles will be emulated by those who wish to make genuine contributions to the continuing struggle for the development of our country and the upliftment of our people.