By C. ben-David
“Today the Queen, who embodied colonialism, still commands our allegiance and the Privy Council remains our final court of arbitration.
Britain no longer exercises the control it once did, but many of the symbols and structures remain, although bastardised” (Dr. Adrian Fraser, Point of View, Searchlight Newspaper, September 26, 2018).
“It is a compromise of sovereignty to leave … decision[s] to a court [Judicial Committee of the Privy Council], which is part of the former colonial hierarchy, a court in the appointment of whose members we have no say” (Isaac Hyatali, Chief Justice of Trinidad and Tobago, 1972-1983).
These high-sounding pro-sovereignty sentiments might have some resonance had they not been uttered by Sir Isaac Hyatali, a man who received a knighthood from Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, the reigning heir to all the allegedly demeaning and oppressive colonial baggage his country inherited, one year after he became Chief Justice of the highest court in Trinidad and Tobago.
Sir Isaac is only one of many examples of British colonial honours eagerly sought and pompously displayed by many supposedly — and hypocritically — anti-colonial Caribbean elites, including the top members of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) that the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) it is meant to replace.
This colonial honour system has a long history. Decades before the establishment of the CCJ, many Caribbean heads of government gladly and proudly accepted knighthoods from their royal sovereign while mightily and hypocritically lobbying for independence from Great Britain. These included: Sir Eric Gairy (Grenada); Sir Eric Williams (Trinidad/Tobago); Sir Alexander Bustamante (Jamaica); Sir Grantley Adams (Barbados); Sir Erskine Sandiford (Barbados); and Sir Ronald Symonette (Bahamas).
Since achieving independence, many Caribbean countries have continued to nominate their citizens, nearly all them politicians or ceremonial heads of state, for royal honours. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), for example, five of the six governors general and one of four prime ministers since 1979 were awarded knighthoods. Most recently, the current Prime Minister of SVG, Ralph Gonsalves, a man who in 2009 unsuccessfully tried to transform his nation from a constitutional monarchy into a republic with a president as head of state, thereby forever ending the granting of foreign titles, nevertheless secured knighthoods for two of his closest political allies.
Meanwhile, several Commonwealth of Nations countries that were former colonies of Great Britain have either long abolished the acceptance of such debased relics of colonialism or prohibited their public recognition. For example, Canada which obtained independence in 1867 began annulling the awarding of knighthoods in 1917, completing the process in 1935.
The last Canadian Prime Minister to be knighted was Sir Robin Borden (1915); by way of comparison, in 1985 SVG’s Sir James Mitchell was named to the larger British Privy Council from which its judicial committee Law Lords are selected, and secured an allegedly self-nominated knighthood 10 years later as the latest Caribbean Prime Minister to be so honoured.
To paraphrase Adrian Saunders the current (and third) President of the CCJ:
“The disestablishment of honorary British titles is a very important milestone in the orderly de-linking from imperial and colonial control. It is the next logical step in the de-colonisation process and until it is taken, we cannot be said to have completely rid ourselves of vestiges of our colonial experience.”
Sir Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s pompously titled “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the United States and to the Organization of American States,” was knighted by the Queen in 2002, a year after the founding of the CCJ, seemingly indifferent to the contradiction between this honour and his relentless decolonization efforts, especially his strident appeals for the majority CARICOM holdouts to jump aboard the tiny and rickety CCJ bandwagon.
Sir Ronald, a man who parades his knighthood — “A crucial fixture of the architecture of racism and oppression in British colonies,” if there ever was one – as if it were actually a badge of honour rather than a retrograde colonial affectation, has just implied that contemporary British laws and British courts, including the JCPC, are hardly different from the ancestral courts that, “… upheld and maintained slavery as legal, morally acceptable, and wholly justifiable.”
Not only is it historically, logically, and morally inaccurate to infer that the British courts of 1818 were no different than those of 2018, it is a racial slur for a hyper-privileged white member of the Caribbean elite to say that those West Indian people, most of them the black descendants of slaves, are guilty of “self-contempt” for failing to support a court they do not trust, do not want, and do not need. If anything, this is just another illustration of the chronic elite contempt for the masses.
More generally, how can Sir Ronald give unquestioning support to a “bastardized” (to use historian Dr. Fraser’s fitting term in the opening quote) regional court whose entire substructure is British in origin, form, and function. The CCJ is not a home-grown court in any sense of the term. It is simply at the apex of a diluted caricature of a wworld-renownedlegal system that we inherited holus-bolus from our former colonial masters.
Along with this, we have also inherited and continue to cherish, even at the highest ranks of CCJ, a system of honorary rewards that will never be willingly relinquished along with the sense of pipsqueak-island social inferiority the zeal to possess them exemplifies. Indeed, the regnant British colonial mindset among the Caribbean political class is no better seen than in the past and present composition of the CCJ.
Michael de la Bastide, the first President of the CCJ gladly accepted his first British honour, Queen’s Counsel, in 1975. “He was sworn in as a member of the Privy Council by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 27 July 2004 and as President of the Caribbean Court of Justice on 18 August 2004.”
The Second President of the CCJ, Sir Dennis Byron, “… was knighted in 2000 and appointed a member of the Privy Council in 2004.” In September 2011, Sir Dennis was appointed President of the Caribbean Court of Justice.
What we have, then, is a blatant contradiction between wishing to cling to the Privy Council for personal honour and prestige while vigorously lobbying Sir Ronald’s benighted masses to abandon the Privy Council so they can, in the words of Sir Dennis, “… complete their independence and sovereignty by claiming the rights to completely manage our judicial affairs.”
The legitimacy of the CCJ, the product of a ragtag “Caribbean civilization,” is sure to be further watered down should Adrian Saunders be honoured in the same way by our omnipresent British benefactors.
As if this were not enough, the supposedly anti-colonial seven-member CCJ has been manned, since its first deliberations in 2005, by two old white European men (David Hayton, an Englishman, and Jacob Wit, a Netherlander), both born and bred in the heartland of our colonial oppression, testimony to both our hypocritical colonial mentality and an acknowledged lack of trustworthy and/or competent legal talent among the extant CARICOM judiciary.
But these considerations still leaves unanswered the question of why our elites could be so enamoured of anachronistic British honours while simultaneously eager to throw the respected apex of British jurisprudence into the dustbin of history. This kind of question was also of concern to our former British masters which was why they made our constitutions so difficult to amend, an assertion I address in my next essay.
This is the third in a series of essays on Caribbean constitutional reform, with special reference to the Caribbean Court of Justice. The articles are all listed here.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected]
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].