Forty years later, Grenada officially remembers the murders of its Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and others

A banner in the Grenada National Museum, St. George's, Grenada, recalls former Prime Minister Maurice Bishop who was murdered in 1983, prompting the US invasion of the island. Photo by David Stanley on Flickr, CC BY 2.0 DEED
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On March 13, 1979, Grenadian revolutionary Maurice Bishop, who led the New Jewel Movement (NJM), a party which had been vociferously advocating for Black liberation, better education and socio-economic development, ousted Eric Gairy, the island's first prime minister, from office in a bloodless, popular coup while Gairy was abroad. Just over four years later, on October 19, 1983, Bishop and seven others — including his common-law partner (he was still married at the time) and Minister of Education Jacqueline Creft — were executed by firing squad under orders from Bishop's deputy, Bernard Coard, an act that spurred a United States-led invasion of the Caribbean island.

Forty years later, Grenada has observed its first ever public holiday to commemorate this dark day in its history. When Minister of Culture Ron Redhead announced last year the government's intention to make October 19 a national holiday, he made it clear that “to move the country forward […] the past needs to be addressed.”

It is a past that is both dense and complex; the 1979 coup had been a long time in coming. Gairy, who was installed as leader of the country upon its independence from Britain in 1974, had strong autocratic leanings. On November 18, 1973, which later become known as “Bloody Sunday,” Bishop and some of his peers were en route to a meeting when state security forces intercepted, arrested and beat them. Gairy's intolerance of dissent would rear its head again just two months later, on January 21, 1974, when police acting on his behalf confronted a band of demonstrators who were speaking out against police brutality and other forms of state harassment. The ensuing violence culminated in the shooting death of Bishop's father, Rupert; the date was dubbed “Bloody Monday.”

A couple of weeks later, on February 6, the day before Grenada claimed its independence from Britain, Bishop was arrested on charges of plotting to overthrow the government and assassinate Gairy, but by February 8, he was released on bail. Bishop never released the pressure on Gairy's administration; he simply changed tack, becoming elected as a member of parliament in 1976. He also held the position of Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives until 1979, when he led the revolution that eventually ousted Gairy. Four years later, Bishop would be dead.

Such a traumatic political history has left its mark not just on Grenada, but according to Trinidadian activist Tillah Willah, “all up and down this archipelago” when “the Grenada Revo came to a shocking and violent end”:

What I learned was that there were people around the region who were involved, invested in the Revo's promise and that generation is dying or forgetting or going silent with memories that have no place in a region that does not want to remember what happened 5 years ago far less for 40 years ago.

She continued:

I ask what efforts we make to recall and not repeat those fatal errors. What have we learned since then about leadership and how our countries run. Climate crisis looms and crime pays and regional discussions are mostly about chicken curry vs curry chicken. So many things died that day. Not just the physical bodies of over 100 people. So many things died and we still have not figured out what they are and how to mourn them.

Academic Richard Drayton, meanwhile, remembered:

October 16, 40 years ago in 1983, the Bernard Coard faction of the New Jewel Movement placed Maurice Bishop under house arrest. Three days later they would murder Bishop and many others […] Nine days later the United States invaded. While those culpable on October 16 and October 19 have been allowed to live long enough to be forgiven by most people, I don't forget and I don't forgive them.

In response to the perception that “that imperialism and the US were responsible,” Drayton countered:

[T]he US etc were merely vultures descending on a body that was already dead. We can’t displace responsibility for the tragedy, it came from within. […]

The NJM, which had come out of CLR James’ de facto anarchist idea of the assemblies of the people, a mass party in its motion, was turned by Coard — with Bishop’s toleration and help it must be said — into a cadre party. In 1983, 4 years into the revolution, there were only about 100 full party members in an island of about 100,000. Coard, for whom Snowball in Animal Farm might have been a model, was through his supporters determined to wrest the party from Bishop who was dismissed as petty bourgeois and populist.

The Grenada 17, as the group of political, military and civilian figures responsible for the 1983 overthrow of Bishop — and his subsequent murder — came to be known, were tried in the High Court of Grenada. Fourteen of them, including Coard, were handed down death sentences (later commuted to prison terms); the other three, found guilty of manslaughter, were given 30-45-year jail terms.

In October 2003, Amnesty International published a report stating that in their assessment, the arrest and trial of the Grenada 17 had been a miscarriage of justice. The report claimed, among other things, that “Coard and ten others alleged that they were tortured by detaining forces” in order to prompt confessions, that “prior to the trial, the Grenada 17 were often barred from meeting with their legal
counsel,” that “the prosecution’s case rested heavily on the questionable testimony of one witness,” and that for the first eight years of their incarceration, the prisoners were kept on death row, where conditions “amount to cruel, inhuman and
degrading punishment in violation of international human rights law.” By September 2009, the last of the 17 were released from prison.

Grenada's current Leader of the Opposition Keith Mitchell has criticised the government's decision to celebrate the island's 50th anniversary of Independence on the same date the country will observe the 40th anniversary of Bishop's death, saying it “could be very tough for a lot of people in this country”:

I see people break down and still crying about their loved ones that had been lost on that fateful day.

Prime Minister Dickon Mitchell defended the move, however, saying:

I think too often people assume public holiday means a festive or celebratory event. [M]arking the 19th [of] October as a public holiday is [for us] to recognise the sombre nature, the tragic nature of what happened and for us to reflect upon it and understand why.

The bodies of Bishop and many of his peers were never found, but Grenada plans to make an official request to both the United Kingdom and the United States to provide information the location of their remains.

The people of Grenada, for their part, remembered and paid tribute on the inaugural National Heroes Day. On Instagram, Vintage Caribbean reminded its followers of the many gains the country had experienced under Bishop's leadership, including the introduction of free public healthcare, equal pay and maternity leave for women, and improved employment and literacy rates, while Pure Grenada posted:

Maurice Bishop’s enduring legacy lives through his children, transformative projects, and the continued belief in his ideals.

His revolutionary spirit remains a source of inspiration for Grenadians of all generations. Maurice Bishop: a people’s revolutionary whose vision lives on. 🙏🇬🇩

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