Joseph Matthew Sebastian
Former Trade Unionist and Paliamentarian, St. Kitts and Nevis
Joseph Matthew Sebastian was a Caribbean trade union leader and politician.
Early life and education
Joseph Matthew Sebastian was born in 1891 in Johnson's Point, in the Parish of St. Mary, Antigua. Following this, he studied to be a teacher. Upon completion of this part of his education, he attended the Mico College in Jamaica from which he graduated first in the class, and with first class honours (he was 15 years old). He pursued a long career as an educator before he left that profession to pursue the cause of the workers in St. Kitts.
In 1917, two Kittitian men returned to St. Kitts: Frederick Solomon and George Wilkes (who both lived in the U.S.). They were joined by Joseph Alexander Nathan, who had left New York some years earlier. All three had been inspired by Marcus Garvey (in 1916), and started spreading Garvey's message: of new hope for poor Blacks. Mr. Nathan was already established in St. Kitts as a merchant, and he decided to help establish and pioneer a movement whose goal was to eradicate hunger and poverty of the working class, and establish an acceptable standard of living. The association that these men formed was the Universal Benevolent Association. In addition, the Universal Benevolent Association was responsible for teaching reading, writing, and the rudiments of arithmetic. In addition, The Association encouraged saving and banking, and a death benefit plan.
In 1918, Sebastian became the President of the Universal Benevolent Association.
Together, Solomon, Wilkes, and Nathan founded an organization called the "Union", to help the poor, disenfranchised, marginalized, and underprivileged, in particular, those working in the sugar cane fields and at the Sugar Factory, in St. Kitts. F. Solomon was the President, J. Nathan was the Secretary, and G. Wilkes was the Treasurer.
In 1921, the Union acquired its own newspaper, The Union Messenger, which became the mouthpiece for its message of social reform and reconstruction. However, the newspaper needed an editor. It was at this point that J. M. Sebastian resigned his teaching position, joined the three pioneers, and became the newspaper's Managing Editor, and President of the Union. In addition, before his death, Sebastian bought the rights to the newspaper, and he owned the printing press that was used at The Union Messenger. Upon Sebastian's death, ownership was passed to his widow, Mrs. Inez Veronica Sebastian, who then allowed the newspaper to continue to use the printing press (in perpetuity), and she appointed Joseph Nathaniel France the editor of The Union Messenger.
In fact, Sebastian had been with the movement since 1917, however, being thrust into the limelight as Managing Editor of The Union Messenger and President of the movement, made it appear as if his involvement was a sudden one, but it was not.
Sebastian always put at the top of The Union Messenger, the famous lines from Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural Address, 1865: "With malice towards none With Charity for all With firmness in the right."
In addition, the following dedication also appeared on every issue of The Union Messenger: "Dedicated to the service of the people, that no good cause shall lack a champion, and that wrong shall not thrive unopposed."
Through The Union Messenger, Sebastian placed special emphasis on the problems faced by the disenfranchised population of St. Kitts and Nevis - housing, health and sanitation, education, and exploitation of children. Joseph Matthew Sebastian was its editor, and the newspaper exists today as The Labour Spokesman". His editorials were destroyed when the Courthouse at East Square Street burned down some years ago. However, some copies exist in private collections. The Union Messenger was widely read in the West Indies, the U.S.A, and Great Britain.
In 1932, the Workers' League was formed with Thomas Manchester as President. Sebastian was a founding member of the Workers' League and a member of its Executive Council.
In 1940, Sebastian was elected to the Legislative Council of Saint Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla and for a second time in 1943. He was also appointed member of the Executive Council of the Leeward Island Colony, which sat in Antigua, which was the Headquarters of the Leeward Islands. In addition, Sebastian was elected to the Federal Executive Council of the colony in that same year. Because he sat on these two bodies, his title was The Honourable Joseph Matthew Sebastian.
In addition, in 1940, Sebastian was among those who launched the Trade Union. That April the Sugar Factory workers went on strike. Sebastian, seeing the difficulties they were going to have to face, appealed to them to return to work. The response of the workers was very antagonistic; the workers sought out Sebastian with machetes and knives. However, they did not hurt him.
In 1942, Sebastian succeeded Manchester as President of the Workers' League, and in 1943 - with an impending general strike, and following Challenger's resignation from the Union - Sebastian once again found himself at the forefront of the Union leadership.
On 8 January 1913, Sebastian married Miss Inez Veronica Hodge, which resulted in 12 children. In 1995, their only surviving son Dr. Cuthbert Sebastian. OBE, was appointed Governor-General of St. Kitts and Nevis, and on 1 January 1996, he was sworn in. In 1996, he was knighted by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
Sebastian died suddenly on 25 June 1944, aged 52.