AT a time when so many of the colored peoples of the world are demanding and gaining their independence from colonial rule, it is something of an anomaly to find a people who, having taken a second look, are not sure they want it so quickly or in the way it was planned. This is what has happened on the island of Jamaica, one of the principal units in the Federation of the West Indies. For several decades the British Colonial Office has encouraged the trend toward a Caribbean federation which would ultimately achieve dominion status within the Commonwealth. But following a pattern known elsewhere in the less developed regions of the world, the movement among the colonial peoples themselves was confined to a small group of educated, politically minded men in each dependency. A generation of them has been attending conferences with each other, with leaders in other parts of the British Empire, and even with leaders of other nations--always on the assumption that federation and dominion status were their goal.

A federation of ten island dependencies, with severe limitations on the powers of the central government, was formally inaugurated in 1958. But when it seemed ready to take the big step toward full growth with dominion status, the Jamaicans--or rather the politically conscious and economically prosperous quarter of them--decided that they were getting along very well as they were. They questioned whether they should go so far so fast in the direction previously indicated by their leaders--Norman Manley, Premier, and his predecessor in office, Sir Alexander Bustamante, now leader of the Opposition--who were also disposed to take a second look.

But this feeling of doubt and hesitancy was not shared by the dominant voice in the island of Trinidad, which has less than half the area and population of Jamaica but because of its location and resources plays an equally important role in the federation movement. The government of Trinidad and Tobago is under the one-man rule of Dr. Eric Williams, a representative of a younger generation than those who have for years been attending the inter-island and international conferences. In 1955 he was spectacularly successful in creating a new political party which, within a year, won its first election campaign. Under his guidance Trinidad has progressed fast politically and now Williams appears in a hurry to exhibit his talents on a bigger stage.


The constitution of the Federation provides for a legislature consisting of a Senate and a House of Representatives; a Governor General responsible to the Colonial Office; a Supreme Court, a Prime Minister, five Ministers in charge of departments, and a small number of federal bureaucrats with specified responsibilities. Powers reserved to the Crown include defense, foreign relations and those necessary for maintaining financial stability.[i] For the first five years the constitution limits the annual budget to 9,120,000 B.W.I. dollars (equal to U.S. $5,472,000) which is derived from direct contributions by the member governments. This monetary limitation has constituted an effective check on the activities of the central government.

A schedule attached to the constitution specifies the powers reserved to the Federal Legislature and those that may be exercised either by the Federal Legislature or by the legislatures of the member states. Another provision that is relevant to this discussion fixes the composition of the House of Representatives at 45 members of whom five shall be elected in Barbados, 17 in Jamaica, ten in Trinidad and Tobago, one in Montserrat, and two each in Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Christopher Nevis and Anguila, Santa Lucia and Saint Vincent. This representation was determined, not on the basis of population alone, but under a formula combining population, income and the desire to disperse power. There is also a provision that at some time before the end of the first five years there shall be convened a conference of all the governments in the Federation with the British Government to review the constitution.

All the provisions of the constitution were agreed to by the representatives of all the territories, including those of Jamaica. But hardly had the Federal Government started to function when its House of Representatives adopted a resolution calling on the Executive to convene in 1959, during the second year of federation, the conference envisaged by the constitution for the fifth year, "in order to achieve the goal of self-government and Dominion Status within the Commonwealth at the earliest possible moment." This resolution originated with the Opposition[ii] and, although many members of the House undoubtedly realized that it was premature, the political climate in the West Indies does not encourage a politician to advocate publicly any delay in securing a greater degree of independence. To carry out the intent of the resolution, the Prime Minister summoned representatives of all the member governments to a conference in Trinidad to seek agreement on amendments to the constitution which were to be presented to the British at a subsequent review conference. This fitted in well with the ideas of fast-moving Dr. Williams of Trinidad but not with those of the Jamaicans, who were not at all sure what they wanted. It is therefore not surprising that when the conference convened on September 28, 1959, the Jamaican bipartisan delegation arrived with every intention of sabotaging it. They succeeded. After a week of wrangling over the agenda the conference broke up in utter confusion.

The weapon used by the Jamaicans, led by Premier Manley, was a demand that representation in the House of Representatives be based solely on population. This would give the Jamaicans half the seats, and they refused to discuss any other question until this principle was accepted. Dr. Williams protested, and did so for several days, getting himself and everybody else more and more irritated. He finally accepted the principle but the two sides wrangled over details until some delegates were not speaking to others. On the eighth day the Jamaicans took a plane for home with the agreement that the many unsolved problems would be studied further in two committees. So much for the conference, which at least served the purpose of bringing into the open the sharp divergence of views within the Federation.

The fact is that the idea of federation has not been sold to the public in Jamaica, nor in the other islands. The Federal Prime Minister, Sir Grantley Adams of Barbados, has been blamed for inaction and ineptness in this field and some of his colleagues have tried to make him the scapegoat, but the leaders of the various territories must share the blame with him. Both in Jamaica and in Trinidad insular nationalism has been cultivated by the very leaders who assumed that federation was in the offing. Despite the fact that all of the islands have been controlled by the same Colonial Office and for many international purposes have been treated as a unit, they have had separate constitutional histories. Local self-government has been attained in differing degrees and at different times and every step forward has been marked by hard fighting. Each island is proud of what it has obtained and will not lightly surrender its powers to a central authority.

As Jamaica is the largest and the most advanced constitutionally, its political leaders are particularly loath to cede power to a Federal Government in which they share control with smaller islands having less governmental experience. Another factor which affects the attitude of Jamaicans more than others is the sea. As elsewhere in the world, the sea has proved to be a barrier to political and economic unity--more pronounced for Jamaica because it is much further from the other islands than they are from each other. Still another factor is the overpopulation from which all the islands suffer. Jamaica's poor may or may not be poorer than the poor of the other islands but they are certainly more numerous. Many thoughtful Jamaicans feel that all their brains, energies and money will be needed to seek solutions of their own social problems and that they should not take on any responsibilities for the smaller islands with fewer resources. Conversely, they do not see how federation would help solve their own social problems.

It is, however, in a narrower economic field that we find the real reasons for the sudden change in Jamaica's attitude toward federation. In the first place, Jamaica several years ago embarked on a program of industrialization in an effort to provide work for its surplus labor. New capital investments--foreign and domestic--have been attracted by such inducements as freedom from taxation for stipulated periods, high tariffs and import quotas. Mr. Manley and the other Jamaican leaders insist on honoring their commitments to these investors and do not trust Federation policy-makers to do so. Dr. Williams of Trinidad, which already has a refinery, has objected to Jamaica's concession to Esso Standard Oil, S.A., on the grounds that one refinery for the Federation is enough. Prime Minister Adams raised a storm by suggesting that after the end of the five-year period of austerity the Federal Government would levy an income tax, and furthermore that it might be retroactive. His subsequent explanation that such a measure would of course have to be voted by the Federal Legislature did not calm the Jamaicans but made them determined to control the legislature by pushing through a constitutional amendment which would base representation solely on population.

Second, in a period of boom resulting from tourism and the largest bauxite production in the world, Jamaica has mortgaged all its assets for some time to come. One official has stated that Jamaicans are practicing economic brinkmanship on a large scale. The balance must not be upset by any interference by Federal authorities. Third, individual income taxes are among the highest in the world. Officials and businessmen shudder at the thought of contributing to the cost of expanded Federal services. "It's something we've been pushed into by a bunch of wild idealists" is a statement commonly heard in business circles when the subject of federation is mentioned. Finally, Jamaica has the highest tariffs of any member of the Federation and its officials have contended that the cost of lowering them to the medians suggested by the report of the Trade and Tariff Commission on Customs Union is more than the island's government can afford.


To Jamaicans, Norman Washington Manley, Q.C., is the very personification of the federation movement. Having first made his mark as the leading barrister of the British West Indies, in 1938 he entered politics as a Socialist with motives of high idealism. In 1955 his party--the Peoples National Party (P.N.P.)--won the election and he became Chief Minister, now called Premier. Reëlected in 1959, he still retains much of his idealism, but the responsibilities of power have tempered him. He has devoted his talents to developing the economy of Jamaica in ways that are far from those of a doctrinaire Socialist. He has become a seasoned politician and is generally recognized as the outstanding statesman of the West Indies. Both the leaders and the general public of all the islands looked to him to be the first Federal Prime Minister and this expectation gave his own Jamaicans confidence that their interests would be protected. There was general disappointment when he chose to remain with his island's government because there seemed to be no one in his party capable of keeping it united and of holding on to the premiership. This decision, which meant that leadership of the Federation passed to a non-Jamaican, was undoubtedly a factor in fostering the anti-federation movement among his own people.

In the 1959 election campaign Manley's opponent, Sir Alexander Bustamante, leader of the Jamaica Labor Party, made the Federation an election issue. Although he had been one of the builders of federation, he now questioned its value to Jamaica and threatened secession if he should win. Manley stood by federation but compromised with some of his previous principles. His platform demanded that the House of Representatives be based strictly on population and that the constitution be further amended so as to exclude from federal control (a) the development of industry, (b) the power to levy income taxes, and (c) the power to levy excise duties and consumption taxes. Manley won a sweeping victory and set out almost immediately for the Trinidad Conference which, as we have seen, he effectively sabotaged.

Having allowed election pressures to dilute his former enthusiasm and having disrupted the conference, on his return to Jamaica Manley attempted to strengthen the sentiment in favor of federation. In a debate on the conference in the Jamaican House of Representatives he declared that for the island to attempt to "go it alone" in seeking dominion status would be against the trend of the modern world, that it would be too heavy a burden, that Jamaica could not support separate representation abroad, nor a separate university, that it would be better for the islands to handle their trading resources as a unit, and that new industries were being attracted to the island by the prospect of a customs union.

Sir Alexander Bustamante disagreed, alleging that by "going it alone" Jamaica would escape the drag of the small islands, which in a federation would in any case trade with, and be attracted to, Trinidad more than Jamaica. But the debate ended in general agreement by all sides that Jamaica could not drop out immediately, that during the remainder of the five-year period every effort should be made to get a federation on Jamaica's terms, and only if this failed would Jamaica secede. Manley said that the establishment of a customs union would take at least ten years and must be reached by stages, involving first some measure of free trade within the Federation. In other words Jamaica took its stand for a weak Federation--or what might be better described as a confederation.

Thus Dr. Williams of Trinidad has emerged as the leading champion of a strong federation. Trinidad is smaller than Jamaica and, although its population density is greater, it has a higher per capita income due largely to its oil resources. One of Trinidad's problems is its attraction for the inhabitants of the nearby smaller islands where opportunities for the expanding populations are fewer. It has endeavored, without much success, to restrict immigration, but Williams has accepted the principle of freedom of population movement within the Federation, provided that there be a customs union which would, he believes, provide a wider market for expanding industry in his island.

As soon as the Federal Legislature passed its resolution calling for early dominion status and a conference to revise the constitution, Williams and his aides began to draw up their blueprint. It is evident that he was at least a year ahead of the Jamaicans in thinking his problem through. A document called "The Economics of Nationhood" was ready for presentation to the Trinidad Conference in September. In contrast to the Jamaicans' advocacy of limiting the federal powers, Williams' proposals extended considerably the responsibilities falling within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal Government. To the present 18 items on this list (defense, immigration and emigration, exchange control, the University College of the West Indies, etc.), Williams proposed to add currency, banking, customs, foreign trade, trade between the territories, postal services, civil aviation, television and radio broadcasting, primary and secondary education, taxation ("subject to a financial agreement to be worked out between the Federal Government and the Member Governments") and others, making a total of 45.

Under the present constitution most of these matters are on the so-called Concurrent Legislative List, meaning that the Federal Government may refrain from legislating on them and leave them to the member governments. Primary and secondary education is now, however, on neither list and some of the member governments would certainly oppose Williams' plan to make it a subject of federal legislation. With regard to taxation, Williams explained that the Federal Government should have the right to levy any tax it wants to but that in practice it should confine itself to death duties, excise duties, import and export duties, and an income tax, the last of which could also be levied by the member governments. As a means of compensating the members for their losses of revenue, he proposed a system of grants from the central government.

The Trinidad Conference never got around to discussing these proposals but Premier Manley, in the subsequent debate in the Jamaican House of Representatives, characterized them as naïve and declared that their adoption would ruin Jamaica. It is evident that, if there is to be a federation including Jamaica, Williams' proposals can be considered only as an end to be worked towards.

Since becoming Chief Minister in 1956, Williams has been constantly on the offensive. He has provided an honest government as compared with the unsavory reputation of most of its predecessors. He has crossed swords with the Colonial Office in endeavoring to advance his island's constitutional status to that attained by Jamaica many years earlier. He has ruthlessly attacked the "old guard," in which he includes the former political leaders, most of the established business community, and the one daily newspaper of his capital city, The Trinidad Guardian. The negro masses of Trinidad render him a devotion bordering on the fanatical but, much as he has strengthened the allegiance of some, he has lost the respect of others.

His personality is probably as great an issue in the federation debate as are his principles. He is intolerant of opposition and is accused of dictatorial tendencies. Membership in his party, the Peoples National Movement, is subject to conditions which are reminiscent of the totalitarian parties of Europe. His attitude toward "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition" in Trinidad does not accord with British tradition, which is well established in Jamaica and even more in Barbados. Difficulty in getting along with others of equal stature has resulted in his being surrounded with many seeming "yes men." An exception is Mr. C. L. R. James, internationally known as a Trotskyist and editor of The Nation, the party's weekly newspaper, which has threatened the opposition with suppression. All of this causes concern to the leaders on the other islands.

Williams succeeded in having Trinidad chosen as the seat of the Federal Government, but his victory was complicated by the fact that the site chosen--Chaguaramas--is occupied by the United States Navy as one of the bases leased by Britain during the last war. Following Washington's refusal to evacuate it immediately, Williams initiated an anti-American campaign, which was designed both to arouse nationalistic feeling among his countrymen and to obtain the capitulation of the Americans before one of the competing sites for the Federal capital should win the favor of the other member governments. The anti-American campaign has had only a limited success because of the many ties which Trinidad has with the United States; it hasn't budged the Americans from Chaguaramas, and it has complicated Williams' relations with Federal officials and with the leaders of the other member governments. With some dissent, they still agree on Chaguaramas for the capital but they disapprove of Williams' tactics. They are conscious of the importance to the West Indies of hemisphere defense and they value the friendship of the American people. The United States has promised to reconsider at a later date its position on Chaguaramas and the West Indian Federal leaders hope that technological advances will soon make the base unnecessary in the judgment of American strategists.

Although Williams advocates a strong central government for the Federation he insists that he, as Premier of Trindad, should negotiate the Chaguaramas question with the United States and he has openly denounced both the Federal Government and the British Colonial Office for standing on their right to handle foreign relations. He says that the concession was granted to the United States without consulting the people of Trinidad and the issue is one for them to settle. In other respects, too, Williams fights to keep the Federal Government weak while advocating that it be stronger. A feeling is widespread that he would be satisfied only were he to become Prime Minister.


Will there be a West Indian Federation with dominion status? Despite the many harsh words that have been exchanged within recent months, the prospects seem good, although confederation may better describe the form which it originally takes. The smaller islands would benefit from a strong federation and Williams no doubt has hoped to gain their political favor by his championship of this cause. But they want to include the Jamaicans and their leader, Manley, in order to temper the influence of Williams. He in turn would be glad to have Jamaica included as an offset to British Guiana if it should enter the Federation. The East Indian majority in British Guiana combined with the growing number of East Indians in Trinidad presents a threat to negro domination of the Federation which all the islands fear. All must therefore accept Jamaica's terms for a weak center and most hope that when these are accepted Manley will become Prime Minister.

The Jamaican Government believes that the Federal Government should start with no more than those powers essential to gain recognition as a political entity acceptable to international agencies and more particularly to the British Commonwealth of Nations. In one of the committees set up by the Trinidad conference of last September, agreement has been reached on a proposed constitutional amendment recognizing population as the basis of representation in the lower house of the Federal Government. In the other committee a plan has been worked out for the gradual development of a customs union along lines pleasing to the Jamaicans.

In a federation of islands, however, differences of tariff rates can be less of an impediment to the free exchange of goods than the maritime costs--freight rates, the loading and unloading of vessels, dock fees, dock workers' union demands, etc. These and the imposition of excise taxes, which Jamaica insists must remain a function of the member governments, will constitute serious limitations on the operation of any common market in the West Indies, whatever happens about customs duties. If Jamaica's demands are met, the Federal Government will have no right to levy an income tax or to control industrial development. Its revenue will be derived entirely from the customs tariff, and the Jamaicans believe that even this source will be in excess of the Federal Government's needs so that part can be retained by the member governments.

If and when formal agreement is reached, recommendations for amendments to the present constitution will be presented to the British Government. When they have been accepted, dominion status should follow soon thereafter. There will then exist a weak federation, or a confederation--a form of government that has not been lasting and that history tells us is apt to change in one of two directions. Whether the Federation of the West Indies eventually falls apart or whether its central powers are ultimately strengthened depends on many factors, not all of which are within the control of its members.

[i] Each territory in the Federation also has its constitution granted by the Crown. Variations among them indicate different degrees of political maturity. Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados have Governors representing the Crown while the smaller units have Administrators. The constitutions reserve for the Crown varying degrees of control over the local police.

[ii] Before the elections to the Federal House of Representatives, the political parties already existing in the several islands formed liaisons to create two federal political parties, one supporting the Government and the other the Opposition. During the present crisis, however, geographical points of view have tended to overshadow the rather artificially created differences between the two parties.

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  • S. WALTER WASHINGTON, visiting Professor at the University of Puerto Rico; formerly on the faculty of the University of Virginia; First Secretary of Embassy in Mexico, 1945-48, and in Madrid, 1948-50
  • More By S. Walter Washington