By Sabrina Mitchell
(Tribute to former prime minister, Sir James Mitchell by his daughter, Sabrina Mitchell, delivered at his state funeral at St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Bequia, on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.)
How do I put into words the depth of the loss in my heart? How do I capture all the thoughts and memories that are in my head about this man, this super human, this remarkable, kind, genuine, compassionate, extraordinary person that was my dear father. This man, who to others was Sir James, Mr. Mitchell, Son, PM, Pops, Papa Mitchie, Grandpa, G-dog, Anancy, Gramps, but to me just Daddy. We have heard already today, and will continue to hear so many wonderful and poignant tributes and comments about Sir James, our second prime minister, the statesman, the great leader, the trailblazer, the legend. But let me give you the version of Sir James from me.
When I think about Daddy, who has been the most important person in my entire life, I feel so incredibly honoured and privileged to have been his daughter. I don’t feel this level of appreciation just today. I have always felt it. Being around him, I always had a sense of wonder and amazement, even when he was doing the most mundane of daily tasks. He was always larger than life.
Everyone who knew him knew what we were to each other. I was the closest human being to him, and him to me, certainly in my lifetime. We were confidants, best friends, business partners, partners in crime. We were each other’s rock and emotional support, and so much more. We talked a lot, yes a lot, several times a day. We laughed often, we planned, we schemed, we cried, we despaired, we consoled each other, we dreamt together, but most importantly we shared a lot. Being the daughter who lived closest to him, especially in the past 25 years in his beloved Bequia, I was the one by his side, taking care of his daily needs, experiencing his deepest fears, his political strategies, his greatest wishes and yes that vision for SVG that was his life’s purpose. I had so many roles I couldn’t keep track. I was his secretary, editor-in-chief, travel agent, banker, accountant, laundress, maid, chef, caterer, stylist, nursemaid, phone fixer, listener, and whatever task was needed of me. I always knew how important my role was to him. So I gave him my time… I dropped whatever I was doing for him when he needed me, and that was often.
However, it was not always like that. When he was a young politician, and I a child growing up at our home on the waterfront of beautiful Admiralty Bay, beside and then later behind the Frangipani, being his daughter was not easy. Not because he wasn’t a good father, at least not intentionally, but because he was a man on a mission. His life’s purpose was dedicated to the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Everything centred on this lofty goal; to improve the lives of his people. He returned to Bequia as a young newlywed with my mother Pat, having traveled home with all their possessions, and a set of dishes, on the Geest boat from England to start the Frangipani Hotel. His intention to go into politics to help his SVG guided his life and his choices, and therefore our lives by extension, my mother and my sisters. And so it was and remained. The Frangi was started as a means to finance his political ambition. He was relentless in this pursuit of power, ruthless at times when warranted, focused, driven, and determined above all else to succeed. This defined who he was. As children, Gretel and Louise and I were terrified of him. His booming, powerful voice, barking instructions, combined with his constant pursuit of excellence, made life as his daughters very challenging.
For him, mediocrity was never an option. Being late, never an option. We knew this well …oh no B’s and C’s for us in school, and even worse no poor excuses. We had to get an A and as far as he was concerned -all it took was hard work, discipline and effort. So what was stopping you? Nothing for him for sure. This strict upbringing, discipline and attitude to life rubbed off on all three of us. It wasn’t just the discipline instilled into us. He led by example. He valued hard work and lived his life that way. He never relented in pursuing his vision. He worked constantly; he was often not home when we were young. He was away for days on end, sometimes weeks, sailing down the Grenadines, with his best mates, sometimes Robbie sometimes Kelvin, Uncle John Compton, and others, campaigning, building his support base. Also traveling to the mainland, driving his yellow Volkswagen Beetle, learning his country, every village, understanding his people, listening to their stories, their needs, their trials and tribulations. This was a man with a vision for SVG. I got glimpses of it as a child, but much of it didn’t resonate until later in life when it all became clear. We learned, however to live with these long absences, and there was some resentment perhaps, but the reality of being the family of a great man, a man with a purpose and vision meant being without him. Simply put.
Those early years, dedicating his life to getting elected meant not just sharing him, but our home. The downstairs of our house was his political space. People came to see him and ask for his help at all hours of the day and night. He always welcomed them. We grew up with politics and the politician’s life as part of our daily existence. At one point there was even a printing press in our house, printing the Grenadines Guardian, I think it was called, spreading the word of his vision.
He made small progress in those early years, gradually earning the respect of the people of this country. He earned their respect through his pure grit, tenacity and determination, combined with his genuine love and affection and for the people of SVG. Having worked in the Ministry of Agriculture as a young scientist, and then as premier for two brief years paved the way for many of the policies that he was eventfully able to put into practice when he became prime minister.
His profession as a scientist affected his life and our lives, as his family. His greatest passion was planting trees. I can’t tell you how many trees my sisters and I planted with him over his lifetime with us. He believed in planting a tree under whose shade you may never have the pleasure to sit. He believed that giving and nourishing something whether a tree, or a friendship, or a business meant that you had to give, in order to receive. He became famous once for saying that some Vincentians have a breadfruit mentality. A lot of people got offended by this, but I don’t think those understood what he meant. Simply, the breadfruit tree you never plant. It grows on its own: it pops up everywhere. But you can reap from it still, even though you didn’t plant it.
And so he planted trees, hundreds all over SVG. He gave many people tree saplings as gifts. Many of you who admire the yellow poui trees in Bequia that bloom in April or the red and orange flamboyants that bloom in July don’t even know that he planted those trees for your enjoyment. In Mango season, my back yard has a sampling of Julie, Imperial, Cotton and Ceylon mango trees, all of which he planted, and many persons would enjoy the mangoes and raid them on a daily basis in mango season. Remember him next time you eat a mango from my yard. But that was my father. He planted for others to reap.
Being so close to him, I had a front row seat to his character and his impact on the lives of so many people. He had a brilliant mind, and of course what he was famous for: His charm and a charisma. Daddy had a unique gift. He connected with people in an unexplainable and rare way. It didn’t matter if you were poor or rich, a local, or a visitor to our shores, a gardener, a labourer, banker, a prime minister, a queen, a businessman, a farmer or a fisherman. He could reach you and touch you in an unforgettable way. People who met my father never forgot him. I witnessed this over and over. He always left an impression, and made an impact. It slowly became clear to me as a young woman, after he won the election in 1984 as Prime Minister that this was not just my father. I had a responsibility to share him and indeed we did, with our nation, my sisters and I. There were times when that hurt, when I missed his presence, but adulthood brought me to accept the salient truth that to want him as our Daddy alone was selfish. He had to serve his country and fulfil his destiny to lead. He was indeed a born leader, and to deprive him of that would have been wrong. And so we accepted the politician that was our father. He could capture anyone’s attention and keep it. It never ceased to amaze me, right up until he died. Any age person from a child to an old person — it was amazing to watch… the faces of people who met him for the first time. His radiant smile, his humility. He just touched people’s hearts. He was a man of the people and for the people.
After he retired from politics, often on Thursday night at the Frangipani when the steel band was playing and persons were having dinner in our restaurant, or during breakfast time, he would walk around chatting to our guests, finding out where they were from, and what brought them to Bequia, telling them stories about his travels, his experiences, discussing local politics and world affairs. People fascinated him. He loved people. He gave a piece of himself to all whom he talked to and all who knew him. Often they would say, “Oh your father is so charming. We love talking to him.” But what amazed me most were the ones he didn’t know, complete strangers who didn’t know who this gentleman was chatting them up. They would come up to me after and ask me who was that nice man. “He was so kind and interesting,” they would say. He never told people who he was. I was the one who had to say he was a former prime minster. They were amazed at his humility. He just made them feel welcome in our country. That was Sir James: One of our greatest ambassadors.
Many people tell me how much I’m like him: I talk like him; I think like him, I look like him. I sound like him. I act like him. But I always felt that I never measured up to him. He certainly, except for in the last few years when he mellowed, never told me how much he admired me. Others would tell me he said this. Bragging about my sisters, his grandchildren, and me. If I have even half or a fraction of the mettle of this man, then surely I will be ok. Because he was just that a giant, one of a kind.
The impact of this man in my life is immeasurable. I am so incredibly grateful for so much. The sacrifices he made for me to give me a good education, and later for my own children, Ondine and Ella, whose education he helped pay for, and helped me when I couldn’t help them. He truly believed that money spent on education was the best money spent, the best investment in life, that and buying land, of course. He guided me in business. He helped me make almost every single business decision I ever made. When I started my own Company, Vintages Bequia, I was terrified he would not approve. I smile when I think of what he told me when I told him I was going in to the liquor business — words I cannot repeat in this venue. He believed in me. He was my biggest fan. He held me up when I fell, when others tried to drag me down; he gave me strength, when I had no one, and nowhere to turn. I owe him more than my own life.
There was one side of him that never changed. Anyone who is naïve enough to think so, misunderstood this man. He was a politician, a brilliant one. Through and through, his blood ran yellow. He loved to campaign. He loved the thrill of the rostrum, and he loved the people of SVG. He loved to win. Even in the most recent elections, he strategised, he raised money, he helped design the t-shirts, he planned, he plotted, and he schemed. His mind was never far from his beloved New Democratic Party, the party he created at the Frangipani Hotel in 1975, a decision that would shape the political landscape of SVG for eternity. He spoke to us of his vision for the NDP, his party. He wanted the NDP to win not just because it was his party or his creation. He truly believed that through this medium he could solve SVG’s problems. And so he did. He served his country well and proudly, and this legacy will endure, I’m sure of it.
He was passionate about democracy, my father. The creation of the NDP and subsequently the land reform programme, creating what he called a “property-owning democracy” was the greatest achievement of his life. He believed in capitalism and the free market. He believed that people were inherently good and that they just need a chance to own something. His politics was the success of the middle class. As such, he didn’t believe in just giving a man some money. He believed in giving a man a job to earn his own money. To have his own self worth and pride, his own opportunity to get land or start a business. There are many who benefited from this vision. Remember to tell your children how he changed your life: you owe him that gratitude. That is one the legacies he leaves in SVG, among many others. The creation of the middle class — he helped it grow and thrive, and it drove our economy to great levels of success in every facet of Vincentian life. Those policies were personal. To him, they meant giving people a great life. They were about the people in every village, from Ashton to Fancy.
I speak mostly about my own experience with my father but each person who knew him have their own version of him. Sir James was a faithful friend to many who enjoyed his company, his fascinating stories, his humour, and his humility. He cherished loyalty as a bastion of friendship. He taught me that. Never turn your back on a loyal friend. He drilled it in my head. Not all who claimed to be his friend were faithful friends to him, and being his confidant I can tell you, there are many who abandoned him, who brought great disappointment to him, pain and heartbreak. But Sir James was a realist. He never got caught up in dreams of what could never be. When a situation occurred he analysed it, formed an opinion, took action or not, but adapted to it. He was not afraid of change. He embraced technology and the changing face of our planet and its realities. For a 90-year-old man, he could send a WhatsApp message, include an attachment, as many of you who got messages and emails from him can attest to. But I think it is important to mention that he understood power, and its elusiveness. He knew when to step down. He felt he saved SVG from violence when he retired as PM in 2000. He knew that power could be transient. He accepted that graciously.
I cannot speak about this man my father without mentioning his unwavering commitment and advocacy of SVG getting vaccinated. He will turn in his grave if I don’t mention it. As a scientist by profession, he believed in facts. He firmly believed the vaccine was our best option out of the COVID-19 crisis! He got his two vaccines immediately as they became available in SVG, and then his booster. He was proud of this, and deeply saddened, worried and pained by the hesitancy of some of us. He thought about it, spoke about it, every day. It mattered to him that we save SVG from ruin. The nurse on duty when he was in Bequia hospital, on the night before he died told me that he told her that he wants all of SVG to be vaccinated. Some of the last words he spoke. “Tell them to do it for me,” he said. When he was in hospital in St. Vincent a few days after he got dengue he told me so too. He said he felt guilty taking up a bed for his illness when the hospital could be using the bed for a COVID patient. Selflessness at its best. That was my father.
Above all, he taught me to show gratitude. That small gestures matter. That words matter. Effort matters. Saying “thank you” matters. It would amaze me, when some nobody would call him, or even some big shot— no matter what, he always said one thing at the end of the end of the conversation: “Thanks for calling.” He even said it to me. I think I probably say it back, cause he so ingrained it in me and we spent so much time together.
I have so much to be grateful for having this amazing father. I have my discipline, work ethic, kind heart, compassion, sense of fun, even loving red wine and our rum and ginger we drank together … his favourite drink in his last years. We went hungry Daddy and I on many nights sacrificing to educate my kids. I remember at a real low point when we were struggling, and had just paid a lot of money for my daughters’ school fees, he called and was pleased with himself. It was September, I remember. Money was tight, businesses were closed for off-season and there was no money, no food, I answered my phone. He was chuckling. “What’s up Daddy?” He said, “I found a tin of corn beef, and I made some rice, do you want any?” “Sure” I said, and he drove down from Mt Pleasant to Frangipani after 9 p.m. that night and brought me corn beef and rice. Lord we have been through hell and back, this father of mine and I. The recession and COVID brought terrible financial stress to our businesses. He never let me give up. He said, “Nope… we haven’t crossed the Rubicon yet Sabrina.” “Don’t give up my darling,” he would say. “We will make it.” And then some light would come around the corner to alleviate our worries, and he would gloat with great confidence. “See I told you so.” “They can’t beat us Sabrina. Not you and me together: hold your head up and we will make it!” Daddy was a simple man though. Expensive things didn’t matter to him. He enjoyed the luxuries of life but he could easily live with out them and did. That toughness and humility served him well through his political life, the ups and downs, his retirement, and by extension my problems, as he shared my burdens with me, and they became his burdens too.
He was a voracious reader of non-fiction. He appreciated literature and the written word. He had a special bond with my youngest daughter Ella, who recently graduated with a literature degree. Ella wrote a poem several years ago on 911, and her grandpa sent this poem to so many people bragging about his granddaughter. As an author himself, he enjoyed writing his books. I worked on Beyond the Islands with him, and now Ella is entrusted to editing his latest book. It was his final agenda, writing his last book. He would tell me about it almost every night, as he read me a passage or chapter and often read excerpts to Ondine and others I’m sure, that he had to finish it before he died! There was a sense of urgency in him. He would wake at 5 a.m. and write and rewrite and crumble up paper, call me and ask for a pack of paper, start over, rewrite, just to get a single sentence perfect. He worked with Ella in the final weeks before he passed, completing his book right up to when he was on his hospital bed, giving her instructions for the final editing, and entrusting her with the ominous task of bringing his vision to life and completing his book.
Sir James loved all of his grandchildren dearly. He changed a lot in his retirement years. The softer side, surely hidden in my youth, came to light. When I watched him interact with Tai or James or Ila or Nile or Ondine or Ella, and, of course, my youngest sister Gabija, who brought him great, great joy in his later years, I would smile to myself. Sometimes I pinched myself, cause in my head he was this ominous, scary, confident, aggressive, take-no-nonsense leader, not this smiling kind, gentle Grandpa and Daddy. I still imagined him as larger than life. But there were many sides to this unusual man, this special human.
When he was in the ICU in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Barbados in his final weeks, I knew he was in the departure lounge, as he would say. We had some wonderful moments then, just him and I. We said our goodbyes. He still gave instructions of what he wanted me to do when he was gone, for me and for the family, and for Frangipani. “I’m crossing the Rubicon,” he said. I promised him I would continue where he left off. He had faith in me and I will not disappoint him. The day after he got to the Bequia hospital he looked around his hospital room, and he asked me, “Sabrina, where am I?” I told him, “Daddy you are back in Bequia.” He gave huge sigh, and he said, “Thank God!” I am so glad he was here in Bequia: he died on his own terms on his beloved Rock. The night before he died, Ella and I were with him. He gave her final instructions on his new book; he talked about the vaccine in SVG. Both were always ever present on his mind. He waited for me that morning when he passed. Thank you for that, Daddy.
I always knew that I was the daughter of a legend. His legacy will endure the test of time. Of that, I’m sure. Not only in the dedicated service to the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but most importantly to the lives that he touched. He helped so many people, in so many ways. I have heard in the past few weeks, countless stories of how this man touched people’s lives and made them better. But I witnessed it as it happened, being beside him. I saw him in action. He was kind to a fault. I think he gave me that; help others before you help yourself.
The footprint he leaves behind is indelible. He will be remembered most in the hearts and minds of the lives he touched, which will be his greatest legacy. There will never be another like him. Bequia has lost a son of our soil: A great man!
There is one of three things you can do to honour this man. Read a book! Get vaccinated! Plant a tree! Do something for yourself, do something for SVG, and do something for humanity.
Goodbye, my friend, my rock, my everything, my Daddy. I miss you more than words can express. I want to call you to tell you that the Admiral Ferry is back, just to see you smile. To ask your advice, to get your reassurance… just to talk. I am talking to you Daddy, still. I’m going to tell you what’s happening in your beloved Bequia, and your beloved NDP. So when those trees are in bloom in their wondrous beauty, think of him, remember him, and cherish his legacy. You are here forever, in my heart and soul, and in my children and sisters, and your NDP family, and all of SVG. I shall honour all you wanted, in your style, with your vision, I promise you that.
Sleep well, my Daddy. I love you.