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Richard Hart: Caribbean activist and writer

JACQUELINE MCKENZIE and KEN FULLER remember Richard Hart who past away aged 96 on December 21

Richard Hart, one of the Caribbean's foremost political thinkers and authors, passed away at his home in Bristol on December 21 aged 96.

He was born Ansell Richard Hart on August 13 1917 in Kingston, Jamaica, the youngest of four children.

His father Ansell Hart was a solicitor and renowned author. Educated in both Jamaica and Britain, it is perhaps no coincidence that a man born in the year of the Bolshevik revolution would forgo his position of privilege to become a champion of the causes of working people and human rights.

Hart was first and foremost a political activist and one of the founders of the People's National Party (PNP) of Jamaica in 1938, the party which forms Jamaica's incumbent centre-left government.

In 1942 his political activism brought him to the attention of the British colonial government which ordered his imprisonment without trial for his political activities.

Later as cold war anti-communist sentiment reached the Caribbean, the PNP expelled Hart as part of the group of "four Hs" - Richard Hart, Arthur Henry, Frank Hill and Ken Hill - in 1952.

Hart's expulsion led him to join other more radical thinkers and activists to form the People's Freedom Movement, later renamed the Socialist Party of Jamaica, which campaigned fervently for better rights for all Jamaicans until it ceased to operate in 1962.

Hart engaged labour and trade union struggles in tandem with his political activism throughout the 1940s and '50s.

He campaigned for better conditions for both agricultural and industrial workers and served as general secretary of the Caribbean Labour Congress (CLC) from 1947-53.

Succumbing to pressure from the United States, several Caribbean leaders conspired to have Hart removed as CLC leader because of his militancy and pro-labour stance.

 

Hart also played a pivotal role in Jamaica's struggle for independence and in the pan-Caribbean discussions of the '50s and '60s on the need for a federation of Caribbean states, led by Grenada's Theophilus Albert Marryshow.

In 1962, following the folding of the Socialist Party of Jamaica and in the year of Jamaica's independence, Hart moved to Guyana to work with his friend Cheddi Jagan of the People's Progressive Party, who in 1961 had been reinstated as chief minister of Guyana.

Hart served as the editor of the party paper, The Mirror, writing about the lives of one of the country's indigenous groups, the Arawak people.

In the mid-'60s, Hart moved to London, where he worked as a solicitor until 1982.

He was a founding member of Caribbean Labour Solidarity (CLS), remaining an honorary president up to the time of his death.

CLS was set up in 1974 to provide support and solidarity to the struggles of workers in the Caribbean.

In 1982 Hart was invited by the people's revolutionary government of Grenada to provide assistance on law reform and was instrumental in assisting that country with the drafting of laws to aid the country's economic and social transformation, including the maternity leave law which provided for rights and the fair treatment of pregnant women.

In 1983 he was appointed attorney general, a post he held until the US invasion of Grenada on October 25 that year.

Following the invasion he immediately set about placing the discourse in an anti-imperialist context and campaigning for a fair trial for the group known as the Grenada 17.

Throughout Hart's career he was a prolific researcher and writer.

He wrote a number of significant historical works over the years including The Grenada Trial: A Travesty of Justice (1996) which exposed the fundamental flaws in the trial of the former Grenada revolutionaries.

Hart's scholarship extended to works on Marcus Garvey, Cuba, Grenada and workers' struggles throughout the Caribbean.

 

Of particular note was Slaves Who Abolished Slavery, published in 2002, which demonstrated that rather than the result merely of activity by British abolitionists, the end of Caribbean slavery was brought about by the struggles of the slaves themselves.

Hart, throughout his long political career, defined by principle, stoicism and struggle, never retreated from his Marxist views.

Even when he was readmitted to the PNP in 2001, he remained steadfast to the very political philosophy which had caused his earlier expulsion.

Hart was not interested in honours or personal gain but was delighted to be awarded an honorary degree by the University of the West of England in 2004, a Gold Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica for his work in the field of historical research both in Jamaica and the Caribbean in 2005 and an honorary doctorate by the University of the West Indies in the same year.

In 2011 he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Hull. These awards were a testimony of the extent of his scholarship, posited within a radical Marxist interpretation of history, and will contribute to the rich legacy of Caribbean history and writings that he bestows.

Hart was a serious man who believed in setting the record straight and campaigning for the rights of humanity was his passion.

But Hart, who excelled in chess, also had a keen penchant for music, including the music of Paul Robeson, Jamaican folk music and the works of Bob Marley, and could often be seen dancing away at the many socials which accompanied his political work.

Hart leaves to mourn his wife Avis, four children including Gordon and Robin from a first marriage and Andrew and Siu-Ming, eight grandchildren, two grandchildren and his extended family in Jamaica and comrades and friends around the world.

Hart will be cremated following a humanist ceremony in Bristol today.

Jacqueline McKenzie

 

The struggle to build Caribbean solidarity

It was 1974 when I first met Richard "Dick" Hart, during a visit to Jamaica.

The People's National Party government of Michael Manley, in office since 1972, was not exactly in a progressive phase at that time - although this would change dramatically within a matter of months.

In 1974, a purpose-built "gun court," ostensibly set up to crack down on gun crime, was in fact casting its net rather wider and imposing draconian penalties on those unfortunate enough to fall within its broad remit.

At the same time, the government was planning to hold the trade union movement in check with a bill modelled on the Heath government's Industrial Relations Act.

Back in London, I contacted Hart again and he arranged a meeting at the Highbury home of Lionel "Jeff" Jeffrey, a Guyanese activist.

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.

While others would join us soon enough, I believe it was just the four of us at that initial meeting, at which we decided to organise a Jamaica Trade Union Defence 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 Hart and others had been expelled from the People's National Party in 1952, and Hart was one of the few from the old generation who retained his beliefs.

I last saw Hart in 2003, when I invited him to speak to a meeting of black and white bus workers 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 Britain are linked and that their struggles have been remarkably similar.

Hart, 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.

Like Nelson Mandela and William Pomeroy, Dick Hart died in his nineties. 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.

Ken Fuller

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