By Sarah Louise Mitchell
(Tribute to former prime minister, Sir James Mitchell by his daughter, Sarah Louise Mitchell, delivered at his state funeral in Kingstown, on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.)
The first thing I remember Daddy teaching me to do was how to swim and then to sail. It did not take much to get me swimming which, living on the beach, seemed as natural as walking. He commissioned the building of a Bequia double-ender named Pumpkin, made from local cedar and imported pine, on which my sisters and I learnt how to sail in Admiralty Bay. Proud son of a sea captain, teaching us how to sail was of utmost importance to him. To tack and come-about, trim the sails and shift the ballast stones, how to read the wind—these were things we learned. Navigation was also important, and he showed us every reef between Canouan and the Tobago Cays. He taught us the importance of having the sun behind you when approaching a reef so that you could see the colours of the water. Our sailing trips on Sapphire, a 36-foot ketch he owned with Uncle John and Uncle Junior, and later Pelangi — a 44-foot sloop — were the cornerstone of our childhood memories with Daddy. When Uncle John wasn’t with us, Daddy would bring along a good friend to help run the boat. In the early days, it was St. Clair Robinson (better known as Robbie) and Kelvin Bunyan and in later years his mates were Bamo Stowe and Gaston Bess. I remember Daddy saying, “Up the road, Robbie! Up the road!” as we beat the rough seas in easterly winds under Petit Canouan headed back to Bequia.
On those sailing trips, there was a tradition that my father developed, which was to require each of his daughters to memorise a poem from one of the English Romantic poets. Nearing the end of the trip, there was a formal recital on deck when each one of us had to perform a poem to perfection. There were consequences of getting a line wrong—it meant that you would have to stay aboard the yacht that day while the rest of the gang went ashore to explore whatever island we happened to be anchored at. I recall reciting a speech from Shakespeare’s Hamlet while sitting on the deck of Sapphire, anchored in the Tobago Cays, the wisdom of which guides me to this day:
“Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade.”
On those sailing trips in the Grenadines, we had three places where we always stopped, Canouan, Tobago Cays and Salt Whistle Bay, Mayreau. Every time we anchored, Daddy would grab a mask and snorkel and jump off the boat to check the anchor, and either Sabrina, Grettie or I would accompany him. He dove to confirm that the anchor was deeply embedded in the sand so that when night came and the winds picked up, he could sleep soundly knowing that the boat was safe and the anchor would not break free. Hence, when I hear the hymn, “Will Your Anchor Hold”, I always think back to Daddy and his obsession with the anchor’s purchase.
On one of those trips to the Tobago Cays, Daddy and I swam ashore to his favourite island, Baradal, and as usual climbed up on the eastern side where you have a spectacular view of the horseshoe reef around the Cays. Looking out, Daddy said, “My eyes will never tire of the beauty of the Grenadines.” I sensed in that moment that Daddy’s attachment to these islands ran as deep as any emotion in him ever would.
As a family, we had one overseas vacation together where we explored Canada’s beautiful west, including visiting places like Banff Springs Hotel where Mummy had waitressed in her teens and learnt the hotel business enough to embolden her to establish their own hotel together many years later. So rare was this experience for us that each one of us recalls every detail of that visit to Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise like if it were yesterday
Soon after that our days at boarding school began, and family vacations were put on hold indefinitely. They were replaced with us accompanying Daddy on state visits — Taiwan for me, Japan for Sabrina, and Kuwait for Gretel. Gabija travelled with him as a former PM to Cartagena.
On my trip with him to Taiwan in about 1988, we visited a monastery located in the most beautiful mountain setting. I was mesmerised by the place, its tranquility and sense of peace. I made a comment to Daddy about how inspired I was by the monastery and before I knew it he was speaking to the officials in the delegation, making arrangements for me to stay there for a few months, saying what a wonderful experience it would be for me. I had to stop him and say, “Daddy, I find it interesting but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to take up life as a monk!” My father always had a love of travel and supported each one of us on our journeys exploring new countries and cultures — whether it was me going to Egypt to live and work for a year, or Grettie to France, or Sabrina to St. Pierre and Miquelon.
Daddy’s own journey was shaped by the decision of his mother when he was but 10 years old. It was shortly after his father Captain Reg had disappeared at sea north of Cuba that she remarried and moved to St. Lucia with his brothers George and Junior, and his sister Gloria, leaving him in the care of his paternal grandmother, Sarah Ollivierre, on Bequia. However, as he was attending the St. Vincent Grammar School, his mother and grandmother relied on the kindness of strangers in Kingstown to take him in. He lived in five different homes in different parts of Kingstown during his time in Grammar School. One of the first to take him in was a lady named Nelly Cropper, daughter of Maggie Cropper. The only other child in the household was Elsa Velox, and she welcomed him into their household on Middle Street. That child is here with us today and we all owe her and the other guardians that nurtured Daddy during those formative years. Thank you, Elsa.
It was that decision of Granny to leave Daddy behind, for whatever reason she did, that led him to grow up as a Vincentian and not a St. Lucian, and have his political career in St. Vincent.
My earliest memory of my father’s political life is hearing him sing the hymn “O God Our Help in Ages Past”. Usually, I would be at home in Belmont and hear his voice bellowing the hymn from across Admiralty Bay when he was having a political meeting either in Hamilton or under the Almond Tree. My father was such a bad singer, hearing him sing this hymn and drag out the words as he did was terribly embarrassing for me as a youngster. He always encouraged us to attend his political meetings. But I always waited until he had finished singing the hymn before I walked up the harbour to the meeting. I would be sure to arrive after the singing was over. It was not until many years later that I grew to appreciate the words of that hymn, the hope that they presented and the meaning they had to my father and to the seafaring people of the Grenadines. As we today face this COVID Pandemic, these verses resonate more than ever:
O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home;
O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
still be our guard while troubles last,
and our eternal home.
Another childhood memory that stands out is sitting around the kitchen table at the Frangipani Hotel with our transistor radio listening to election results. And of course the moment when somehow Daddy knew that the election was won, somehow the whole of Bequia seemed to know at the same time as within minutes the Frangipani was bursting at the seams with people coming to celebrate. I recall the morning of the 1984 election, travelling on the ferry with Daddy and my sisters up to St. Vincent, when he was greeted by a jubilant crowd, which lifted him up and carried him from where the ferry docked to Bay Street. His feet literally never touched the ground. It was a scene that I would never forget.
Years later, when he won the elections in 1998, I accompanied him to Parliament to be sworn in. This time was very different. The New Democratic Party had won the election but lost the popular vote, and we drove through angry crowds shouting and hurling objects at our vehicle. We sat inside the car, just the driver, my Dad and me. I don’t remember him saying a word. That moment stayed etched in my mind forever.
And so it came as no surprise when, perhaps just over a year later, I was at work at a law office in Charleston, South Carolina, and my father called to tell me that the opposition had blocked the roads, and business had come to a standstill in Kingstown. He said that he had lost the support of some of the men closest to him, which pained him greatly, sensed that the tide had turned against him in the country and that he was considering cutting short his term. Daddy asked what I thought and I told him that he would know what is best to do. Soon after that the Grand Beach Accord was made, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Daddy always knew that power was transient. Living in the different prime minister’s residences, in Kingstown and then in Shrewsbury House, he never felt at home. Any gift that was given to Daddy, whether a piece of art or a bunch of flowers, he inevitably took with him on his next trip over to Bequia. What made these houses happy places were the friendships we had with the security guards, as they were his family when we were not around, and when we were they were our family. Men like Sampson of blessed memory, Gordon and Pompey—you were the ones who not only kept Daddy safe but became like family members. We thank you for your service.
For Daddy, legacy was everything. When I asked him, when he was in ICU in Queen Elizabeth Hospital on Barbados, why he was always talking to me about what trees to plant, he said “legacy”. Daddy’s greatest legacies were (1) creating a property-owning democracy through land reform—he said, “The love of country begins with owning a piece of it” and (2) the creation of the New Democratic Party.
Fast forward to his last few years. Daddy lived for 90 years, long enough to feel the love of Vincentians from every corner of this country. In these years, he journeyed to St. Vincent every Friday and often several times in the week. During those trips he would visit the market and, of course, C.K. Greaves. Everywhere he went people showered him with love and told stories about how he helped them to own land or to get a job. You who spoke to him gave him love, you made him feel worthy. He would retell the stories with tears in his eyes. He lived to be loved by the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Daddy’s retirement allowed him to enjoy the company of friends and family. He became gentle once again. The man that used to “bark” at us as children softened. Daddy thrived around people. He developed new friendships and cultivated old ones. He took great pleasure in spending time with people, be it someone who used to work with him who travelled to Bequia for the day and bumped into him, or some lady he met on the ferry for the first time. He embraced every person’s story and enjoyed being allowed into their lives.
What will we miss about him? I will miss him showing up at my house with a new sapling to plant, or more likely finding him in my garden planting it himself without seeking my permission as to where it should go. His most recent gift to me is a plumrose tree he planted next to my Belmont home in Bequia. My children James, Tai and Chavez will miss the stories he told them and their friends when they descended on him in Bequia and took over his house for a weekend. He loved watching them interact with each other; he loved the spirit and energy of youth. At my son James’ 16th birthday, he had an audience of about two dozen young people and he told them about how his best friend in Grammar School was from Questelles and how he used to walk to school every day and asked which one of them would do that today?
Bing will miss his daily two-hour conversions, catching up on everything political and, of course, my father trying to tell Bing what he should say on the radio the next day! Of course, those conversations would be followed by several emails and articles that would be sent in the early hours of the morning, just in case his point was not heard!
When we flew him on an air ambulance to Barbados and we settled him in at the ICU, a brilliant Dr. Michael Fakoory there told us that he had days, weeks or months to live. Sadly, I knew he meant days. In Barbados then he talked a lot about his beloved party and beloved Caribbean. He also said to me, “Tell the people of St. Vincent that I was always honest with them, and I never left them.”
Thank you, the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, for allowing our father to live his dream, and that was to be a successful prime minister and statesman of this country.
This dream of his could not have been possible without the support of the Rock of Gibraltar— the community of Paget Farm, Bequia. You stood firm behind Daddy and brought the rest of Bequia along with you. To the Rock of Gibraltar, and to Bequia, I salute you. You made Son Mitchell a hero.
To the people of the Southern Grenadines — Canouan, Union, and Mayreau — you, too, lit your candle for Daddy and kept it lit for the last 55 years. I thank you.
To the people of North Leeward, you always held a special place in Daddy’s heart because you were the first constituency on the mainland to vote for the NDP and he never forgot this. I thank you.
To the people of North Windward, Daddy asked me to drive him to North Windward to see the damage of the 2021 eruptions. He left us before I was able to. Know that you were in his heart and he never forgot you.
And to every other constituency in St. Vincent and the Grenadines who gave our father the greatest honour ever bestowed on him, which was to allow his party to win every seat — I thank you.
My father came close to death many times, but most of the persons who saved him, such as my mother, are now gone. But today I can tell one story of someone who did, as he is with us here today, Mr. Alston Lewis. Thank you Mr Lewis for hiding Daddy in your home, when a car with gunmen were on the lookout for Son Mitchell, and thank you and to the people of Greiggs who patrolled the house with cutlasses until daybreak to ensure that he was protected.
When Daddy fell ill, and was hospitalised in the Bequia Hospital
, and then Milton Cato Memorial Hospital, he was pleased with the love, care and attention he received from the nurses, the interns and the doctors. He begged me to get everyone’s name as he wanted to send each one a thank you card when he got better. He felt nothing but love in the last days of his life. I want to thank everyone for the love and care given to him. I want to thank Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves and his Government for the unstinting support through Daddy’s illness and for going the extra mile to ensure that he got the best medical attention possible. I thank you Prime Minister from the bottom of my heart. Also, I wish to thank Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados for receiving Daddy at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Barbados and its exemplary medical team that looked after him there. It’s no surprise that the first morning that Daddy woke up at QEH he told me, between dreaming and waking, that he had achieved Caribbean unity, with Jagan, Eugenia, Compton, and with Mia at its centre. I want to thank the NDP family for rallying to give him blood when it was needed. My father, in the end, as he did in 1989, had the whole country behind him. He knew that. He felt love, and after the jubilation of the victory years and the humility of his party losing power later, he ended his political stewardship as he began, a man loved by his people. What more can one ask for?
You all would know me as Louise. But my name isn’t actually just Louise. Louise is my middle name. My first name is Sarah, after my father’s paternal grandmother Nen Sarah Ollivierre. When I was at Daddy’s hospital bed in Barbados, he was talking with one of my friends, Neysha Soodeen, with whom I was staying. He said to her, “Thanks for taking in Sarah Louise.” It was the first time in my 51 years that my father ever called me Sarah Louise. I knew then that he was leaving me. There was something so sweet in hearing him call my full name.
And finally, I owe Daddy this one. Please Vincentians, get vaccinated, and wear your masks consistently and properly in public places. Both of these things are acts of kindness and love. Do these to help the world recover, to help us love and be together.
I will close by saying Daddy wanted a musical farewell, and asked that the flugelhorn be sounded at sunset when he is being laid to rest. The same flugelhorn played by Shake Keane that sounded in the hills of Petit Bordel, when Daddy, with a constitution drafted by Emery Robertson, held the first convention of the New Democratic Party. That same flugelhorn will sound in Bequia this evening when the Royal St. Vincent and Grenadines Police Band gives him the musical farewell that he wanted, and closes the circle of his life.
I know that as you say goodbye to Son Mitchell, former Prime Minister of this country, you are feeling that you too are saying goodbye to a father. We as a family are comforted to know that we do not grieve alone, that you grieve with us, and as you comfort us, we too will seek to comfort you.
I end with a line of the song that I sang for Daddy in the last three weeks of his life. No matter how much in pain or uncomfortable he was, he would fall asleep when hearing this song: “Sweet dreams, Daddy, until sunbeams find you.”