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N the evening of my return to Georgetown from a visit down the coast the normal calm of my hotel was slightly disturbed; the stir caused by the split in the P.P.P. had quietened and in its place had come the question of the Federation of the West Indies, which had been debated for the past week in the Legislative Council. The proposal that all the British colonies in the Caribbean area, from British Honduras to British Guiana, should form a federation was first seriously mooted at the Montego Bay Conference of 1947. This conference came as a result of the work of Mr. Creech Jones, then Secretary of State for the Colonies. The main theme of a memorandum which he wrote at the time was that it was not possible in the modern world for small isolated communities to achieve selfgovernment on their own, but that a community of over two million people in the Caribbean area, with a more or less homogeneous culture, would have a better chance of achieving self-government if it federated as one political unit, with a federal capital. It was to be a matter for decision among the colonies themselves and from the beginning the home Government has pressed no view, acting as no more than an adviser in the matter. In 1952 British Guiana decided not to take part in the preliminary discussions and sent only an observer to London, in April, 1953, for the Conference on Federation. At that time the Colony was almost unanimously against Federation. Discussions continued without Guianese delegates, and the Federal Plan which was outlined at the London Conference was accepted by the Governments of the other West Indian colonies. Federation having come so near to reality, it became necessary for British Guiana to redefine her position and in March, 1955, the Rev. D. C. J. Bobb proposed a motion in the Legislative Council urging the Colony to join the proposed Federation. The Government felt that there had been a swing towards the idea of Federation among the Guianese, but realized that owing to the constitutional position--there was difficulty in interpreting public opinion. Legally the nomi
nated members of the Legislative Assembly were not permitted to decide whether the Colony would participate or not, but a debate, it was felt, would show how public opinion stood.
In his speech introducing his motion the Rev. D. C. J. Bobb, who is of African descent, said that public opinion fell into three groups those who had no interest in the subject, those who could see no advantage for British Guiana in Federation, and those who believed that the Colony's future was inevitably bound up with the plan for Federation. He himself believed that British Guiana could not afford not to federate but while the tenor of his speech was in support of Federation there was a note of caution in his words. He said that so far as British Guiana was concerned Federation was not round the corner because she was not yet ready to take advantage of the economic and other benefits which Federation would give. 'Do not dismiss the idea of Federation,' he said, 'but take active steps to see that we are kept in close touch with whatever possible benefits may accrue from it.' He referred to the section of public opinion which wished to use their 'wicked weapons' to divide the two main voices of the Colony, the East Indians and the Africans, by pointing out to the Africans certain advantages to them in Federation which would be against the interests of the East Indians. I will return to this point later.
An East Indian, Mr. Sugrim Singh, rose to oppose the motion, saying that the main point around which the debate revolved was the 'sixty-four dollar question-What can British Guiana gain or get from Federation?' and that he believed it had nothing to gain from 'a retrograde step to surrender what we have and know about for something which is only an experiment.' He summed up his reasons for not federating thus: British Guiana was geographically and economically different from the other colonies; there would be an uncontrolled movement of peoples within the Federation and the excess populations of the islands would come to British Guiana and swell the ranks of its unemployed; the independence of the Colony should come within the Commonwealth on its own rather than by linking up with the other West Indian islands; the other islands had shown themselves not to be well disposed towards British Guiana and since their representatives in the Federal
Government would so outnumber the Guianese representatives there would be 'a poor chance of getting anything from them'; it was fatal to join in Federation when the Colony's economy was on the upgrade and the Development Plan was making headway.
Captain G. H. Smellie, an English Guianese who represented the Colony as observer at the London Conference, gave the Legislative Council a history of Guianese antipathy to
Federation and pointed out that while many of the objections were justified at the time, conditions had changed and much that was objectionable from the Guianese point of view was no longer so. Thus the Guianese contribution of 25 per cent of her income from Customs to the Federal head was now to be reduced to 10 per cent. 'In my humble opinion,' said Captain Smellie, 'if we miss this tide we shall be pursuing a selfish and reactionary policy which in years to come will recoil not only on our own heads but on the heads of our descendants.'
Mr. R. B. Gajraj, an East Indian, felt that the Colony 'had a
great deal to gain from federating with its Caribbean neighbours', thus 'bringing to fruition the schemes of closer association in which we have shared and which are but stepping-stones leading to the citadel of Federation.' After showing how well these schemes are already working Mr. Gajraj said, 'I wish to invite the members of the Council to consider, for a moment, the purpose and functions of those schemes of co-operative enterprise between the Island Governments and ourselves and to ask themselves whether they could logically and economically be expected to continue in existence as separate entities after there is Federation. . . . I feel that we must press on. We cannot at this stage retrace those steps. It would be foolish and it would be cowardly.' He answered Mr. Sugrim Singh's fears that British Guiana would be unfairly treated by the other members of the Federation, saying, 'Over the past year I have had several opportunities of sitting with [political leaders of the other colonies] in earnest deliberation over matters vital to the whole future of this area and I can assure Hon. Members that at no time was I made to feel an outsider, or that I was inferior, or that I was unwanted, or that there was no interest in what I had to say for and on behalf of my country.'
The debate continued for more than a week, filibustering speeches were made, excitement became great in the town; the motion in favour of Federation was passed.' But the debate had brought the question of Federation before publie gaze and had made one thing clear: that the East Indian community in general is against Federation-apart from such thoughtful men as Mr. Gajraj. If British Guiana remains outside the Federation the Indian community, it is thought, can continue its gradual increase of power by reason of its numerical superiority to the Negroes, and its mercantile interests. But in any Federation of the West Indies the Africans would form a vast majority and the East Indians would suffer a consequent decline in power and influence. It is this fear which is behind the Indian reluctance to support Federation. Yet, if Federation comes, and British Guiana does refuse to take part, her position in the
1 This did not involve any actual decision to take part in Federation. Two 'observers' were present at the Federation Conference in London, February, 1956.
Caribbean bloc must prove difficult and finally not to her advantage. When I talked to Guianese about Federation I found apathy mixed with suspicion that in any relation with the 'islands' British Guiana would in some way be tricked and get the worse side of a bargain. The Guianese will have to be assured of many things before they will be willing to give their all to the idea of Federation.