Right Honourable Sir John George Melvin Compton, SLC, OCC, KCMG, PC, LLB
National Hero and former Prime Minister of Saint Lucia
Sir John George Melvin Compton (29 April 1925 – 7 September 2007) was a Saint Lucian politician who served as the Prime Minister of Saint Lucia on three occasions.
Early life and education
John George Melvin Compton, the late Prime Minister of Saint Lucia, was born in Canouan, Saint Vincent on 29 April 1925. His mother was Ethel John, a Vincentian of the Compton family. John received his early education at the Canouan Government School. He was brought up in the Anglican Church.
On 3 September 1939, John Compton arrived in Saint Lucia where he attended the Castries Intermediate School, St. Mary's College, and White's College.
After school, in 1945, he travelled to Curacao, Dutch West Indies to work at the oil refinery. After a brief return to Saint Lucia, he traveled in 1948 to Britain, where he entered the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, to read law and economics. He later proceeded to Gray's Inns of Court where he passes Bar examinations. He attends the London School of Economics, but did not complete his studies there. Instead, he returns to Saint Lucia in 1951.
On his return to St. Lucia he joined the St. Lucia Labour Party under Sir George Charles in 1953, but the educational difference between the two men would cause inevitable tension which manifested itself in a leadership struggle between Sir John and Sir George, culminating in Sir John’s departure from the S.L.P. in 1954, but rejoined in 1957, and left it a second time in 1961 to form the National Labour Movement. There are many parallels between the two historic figures who featured in the leadership struggles in the political life of St. Lucia, Sir John and George Odlum. It was the same sentiments of a more advanced education that drove Sir John’s political nemeses George Odlum to challenge the political leadership of the Labour Party after the election victory of 1979, for both men felt that they were better suited to lead the government and the country at the respective junctures in the country’s life.
The political contest between Sir John and Sir George Charles gathered momentum, and whilst both were engaged in representing the interests of the working class, Sir John was branded as a dreaded communist because of his ideas garnered from his education in England, which was a hot-bed of socialism following the end of the second world war. It was not the first time that vested interests would use the communist bogey to frighten the masses against more enlightened politicians who sought to break the entrenched privileges of the ruling elite at the time. And so Sir John was labeled a communist.
Political historians and observers of that era remembered vividly the political confrontation between Sir John and Denis Barnard, a white plantation owner, when sugar cane workers were called out on strike by Sir John in 1957 then a fire-brand politician, who became a hero in the workers movement for standing up to the exploitative plantation owners. These were tense times in St. Lucia, and Compton being the leader in these historic struggles became a hero to the working class of St. Lucia There were reports of workers marching and brandishing Cutlasses and threatening the lives and homes of white plantation owners, roads were blocked and trucks belonging to the Barnard family were prevented from traveling along the roads. Charges were laid against Sir John by the police, but with threatening crowds of workers gathered to support Sir John outside the court house, the colonial administrators imposed a fine instead of a prison sentence to avoid social upheaval in the country.
Many revolutionary leaders of the world have followed a similar path in order to win the hearts and minds of the people. Confrontation with the authorities and subsequent arrest and incarceration have always raised the profile and reputation of political activists, which demonstrates to the people that one is prepared to risk his life and reputation in their cause.
Sir John had several brushes with death during his political career, which he miraculously escaped, and his defiance and refusal to show any fear in the face of danger, made him a legend of mystical proportions in local folk-lore.
With the pre-eminent status of Sir John at the time, and what was perceived as the Backwardness of the Labour leadership in pushing forward St. Lucia’s economic and social development, Sir John persuaded the Bousquet brothers Allan and J.M.D (Joseph, Marie, Donald) to leave the Labour Party and form a merger with his National Labour Movement and the People’s Progressive Party to form the United Workers’ Party in 1964.
The UWP defeated the SLP in the elections of 1964, and would see the unbroken power of the party for fifteen consecutive years.
Immense changes took place in St. Lucia during that period. That period can be described as a Great Leap Forward for St. Lucia. Under the leadership of Sir John,
St. Lucia’s economy developed at a rapid pace, with major expansion of infrastructural roads such as the construction of the Castries-Gros- Islet highway and the dredging of the swamp at Gros- Islet to build the Rodney Bay Marina, which transformed the northern part of the island from a rural backwater to a modern mecca.
Under Sir John’s direction, sectors of the economy which formerly languished were given a new lease on life such as the tourism sector, and some manufacturing. This would form the economic tripod which he always talked about, for he felt the country could not depend solely on the banana industry, then referred to as “Green Gold”, which was the backbone of the economy. This was the period in which Many hotels were built and major international manufacturers such as the Heineken Beer Factory and the Winera cardboard box-making factory were established in St. Lucia.
Between the period 1964 and 1979, St. Lucia made economic strides of unprecedented proportions, the likes of which may never be duplicated, but such rapid developments always come at a cost. For this period marked the entrance of three young fire-brands of the Labour Party led by Oxford educated George Odlum, accompanied by Peter Josie a university qualified Agronomist, and a young Accountant, Mickey Pilgrim. They accused Compton of abandoning the working class of St. Lucia and serving the interest of a small elite class led by a new black bourgeoisie, which had replaced the white colonialists.
On 1 March 1967, Compton guided St. Lucia into Statehood in Association with Britain and he became Saint Lucia’s Premier.
On 22 February 1979, Compton became Saint Lucia’s first Prime Minister when the island attained full independence from Britain.
During 1979 - 1982, Compton was Leader of the Opposition when the St. Lucia Labour Party held the reins of power.
In 1982 Compton again became Prime Minister when the UWP swept the SLP out of office.
Having been successful at the polls in 1982, 1987, 1992, Compton held on to the post of Prime Minister until January 1996 when he handed over the leadership of the UWP to Dr. Vaughn Lewis who then served not only as the Political Leader of the Party but also Prime Minister. Compton continued to serve in the Government as Senior Minister.
During 2005, a poll conducted by the UWP revealed that there is a growing desire for Compton to return to leadership of the UWP. He contested the leadership and beats Vaughn Lewis two to one. He then lead the UWP to a resounding and to some an unexpected, upset victory over the SLP on 11 December 2006. The UWP won 11 of the seats.
Honours and awards
John Compton received the Saint Lucia Cross on 2 April 1996 and in January 1997 Compton was honoured by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with a Knighthood for his dedication and service in the arena of politics in Saint Lucia. The Order of CARICOM Award was given to Sir John Compton in 2002.
On 22 February 2015, Sir John was accorded the honour of National Hero of Saint Lucia.
In 1967 he married Janice Barbara Clarke the daughter of Saint Lucia’s first Saint Lucian born Governor, Sir Frederick Clarke. Out of this union five children were born Janine, Shawn, Maya, Fiona and Nina.
Death and legacy
In early April of 2007, Compton presented a four-hour budgetary address to parliament. He fell ill shortly afterwards on 30 April. He spent time in hospitals in New York, Martinique and Saint Lucia. Stephenson King, a long-time ally, was appointed Acting Prime Minister during his illness.
On Friday 7 September 2007, Sir John succumbed to his illness, and dies at 6.50 p.m. at the Tapion Hospital in Castries.
His death marked the end of an era in Caribbean and St. Lucian politics, an influence which has made an indelible mark and which will form the center-piece of political historians in the region for decades to come. That Sir John survived to the advanced age of 82 is a remarkable feat, as many of the politicians of his generation preceded him to the great blue yonder decades ago. He transformed the landscape of St. Lucia against the resistance of his political opponents and only today is it being acknowledged that he was a visionary without parallel even by his most bitter political foes of the past, and is hailed today, without comparison as “ The Father of the Nation.”