by Ken Fuller
It was 1974 when I first met Richard “Dick” Hart, who died on December 21, 2013 at the age of 96. I was about to make my first visit to Jamaica since the thirteen trips I had undertaken as a merchant seaman in 1969-70, and having in the meantime joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, was anxious to meet like-minded people during my stay. I recall that it was CPGB Surrey District Secretary Sid French who, telling me that Dick was a low-profile member who kept his party card at the district office, put me in touch with him.
The trip was fruitful in that in Kingston I met Chris Lawrence, a veteran who headed the small Communist Party of Jamaica, and sat in on a lecture on Fanon at the University of the West Indies. One or two students in the auditorium, more into racial than class politics, made muttered comments – possibly for my benefit – about the “Marx and Lenin shit” with which the lecture was dotted. The lecturer was a young man called Trevor Munroe, who later in the decade would lead a pre-party formation called the Workers’ Liberation League, which preceded the Workers’ Party of Jamaica.
Apart from my reading of the Daily Gleaner – then Jamaica’s only daily newspaper – I learned from Chris and Trevor that the People’s National Party government of Michael Manley, in office since 1972, was not exactly in a progressive phase, although this would change dramatically within a matter of months. In 1974, a purpose-built Gun Court was, while ostensibly cracking down on gun crime, casting its net rather wider than that and imposing onerous penalties on those unfortunate enough to fall within its broad remit, while the government was planning to hold the trade union movement in check with a bill modeled on the Heath government’s Industrial Relations Act.
Back in London, I once again contacted Dick Hart and he arranged a meeting at the Highbury home of Lionel “Jeff” Jeffrey, a Guyanese. Also present was Cleston “Chris” Taylor, formerly a Jamaican trade unionist and a veteran of a sugar-workers’ strike in Jamaica and the building-workers’ struggles on London’s Barbican site, and now the own of his owner small construction business.
While others would come soon enough, I believe it was just the four of us at that initial meeting, as a result of which it was decided to organize a Jamaica Trade Union Solidarity Committee. This swiftly evolved, given the leftward trajectory of Manley’s government, into Caribbean Labour Solidarity.
This period saw the first real resurgence of the Jamaican left since Dick Hart and others had been expelled from the People’s National Party in 1952, and Dick was one of the few from the old generation who retained his beliefs.
Richard Hart was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1917. In 1939 he joined the People’s National Party and two years later was on its executive committee; as early as 1942 he was imprisoned by the colonial authorities for his political activities. He was a lawyer and a trade unionist, playing leading roles in the Trade Union Council and the Caribbean Labour Congress. Between 1942 and 1948 he was president of the Jamaica Government Railway Employees’ Union.
In the early 1950s, the icy gusts of the Cold War reached the Caribbean, and in these circumstances the PNP expelled the leaders of its Marxist wing, known as the Four H’s: Richard Hart, Arthur Henry, Frank Hill and Ken Hill in 1952. Hart then formed the People’s Freedom Movement, later called the Socialist Party of Jamaica, but this lasted only until 1962, whereupon he moved to Guyana, to edit the Mirror newspaper, which supported the People’s Progressive Party of Cheddi Jagan.
In 1965, he came to the UK, where he became lawyer for Guildford Council and a member of the National Association of Local Government Officers. Lawyering for a local authority in the stockbroker belt may seem like a strange move for such a man to have made, but I believe he knew precisely what he was doing, for it was during the following years that he researched and wrote his substantial contributions to the history of the struggles of the Caribbean peoples, and this was obviously facilitated by the relatively quiet life in Guildford.
Foremost among Hart’s works was the two-volume Slaves Who Abolished Slavery, which demonstrated that rather than the result merely of activity by British abolitionists like Wilberforce, the end of Caribbean slavery was brought about by the struggles of the slaves themselves. A string of publications followed.
In 1982, he moved to Grenada where he became the People’s Revolutionary Government’s legal consultant and then, in May 1983, its attorney general. Five months later, however, came the US invasion, whereupon he returned to the UK.
I last saw Dick in 2003, when I invited him to speak to a meeting of black and white busworkers in North London on the development of the labour movement in Jamaica. The aim was to demonstrate that the histories of the working people of the Caribbean and the UK are linked and that their struggles have been remarkably similar. Dick, then a chipper 85, travelled up from Bristol, where he had made his home in latter years, and made a deep impression on the regretfully modest audience.
In the last decade of his life, Dick received honorary degrees from the universities of the West of England, the West Indies and Hull, and was awarded the Musgrave Gold Medal by the Institute of Jamaica for his achievements as a historian. His last book – Occupation and Control: The British in Jamaica, 1660-1962 – appeared as recently as March 2013.
Like Nelson Mandela and William Pomeroy, Dick Hart died in his 90s. Of course we will miss him. But when someone has lived such a long and meaningful life, it is more appropriate that we celebrate that life rather than mourning its end.