The Right Excellent Sir Grantley Herbert Adams, CMG, QC
Former Prime Minister of the West Indies Federation, National Hero of Barbados
They spoke of him with a degree of awe that was never before or since accorded a leader of this country; and that regard found expression in names such as "Moses" and "Messiah". To have lived in his day was to be able to appreciate why this Barbadian legend, skillfully and bravely taking on the entrenched conservative power structure, drew political comparisons with the Biblical rescuers of old.
And yet, Grantley Herbert Adams, sought neither that adulation nor such exalted personifications. His vision was fixed on nothing but the task of bringing the oppressed masses out of social and economic bondage. By this means, he judged, the entire society would be free to develop in harmony.
This, then, is what led Sir Grantley to become the first Premier of Barbados and the only Prime Minister of the now defunct West Indies Federation. He was a social reformer bent on achieving human rights for Barbadians, despite resistance by the exploitative plantocracy and merchant ruling classes.
There can be no doubt that this was his self-appointed programme for leading and lighting the way to a better life for the under-privileged masses and establishing social justice across all ethnic and economic classes; nor can there be the slightest doubt that it required the utmost tact and careful timing if his efforts were to bring success.
Early life and education
Grantley Herbert Adams was born at Colliston, Government Hill, St. Michael, Barbados on 28 April 1898. He was the third child of seven born to Fitzherbert Adams and the former Rosa Frances Turney. His siblings wre Edna, Stanley, Bruce, William, Gladys, and Maurice.
Grantley was educated at St. Giles and at Harrison College in Barbados. In 1918, he won the Barbados Scholarship and departed the following year for his undergraduate studies at Oxford University.
As his vehicle for persuading the elitist power structure to accept the poor as humans, Adams, a highly respected lawyer, used his election to the House of Assembly as Member for St. Joseph in 1934 at the age of 36. His mastery of debate on the floor of the House gave him the ideal launching pad for his fight with the wealthy and privileged class, and earned him the respect and admiration of Barbadians in all strata. He was returned to office in the 1935 and 1936 General Elections.
After the 1937 riots, triggered by the arrest, trial and deportation of Clement Payne, a popular unionist born in Trinidad of Barbadian parents, Sir Grantley became Payne's attorney-at-law, and tried to restore order in Barbados.
Because of his professional and political standing, he was sent to England to inform the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and was first in giving evidence to the Dean Commission of Enquiry into the riots.
Adams was in his element. Putting forward a strong case for reform on behalf of the masses, he pointedly declared that had there been social change instead of continuing abject poverty, there would never have been any riots.
The flames of protest were rekindled into an idea for workers' unity on March 31, 1938, when the Barbados Labour Party was launched. Such was the high regard in which he was held, Adams was elected, in his absence from the island on legal business, as the party's first deputy leader. The following year, he took over the leadership.
In 1940, under his leadership, the party (then known as the Barbados Progressive League) won five seats in the House of Assembly. In 1941, the Barbados Workers' Union was formed and Adams was President until 1954.
In 1942, he was appointed a member of the Executive Committee.
In the mid '40s Adams, together with Hugh Worrell Springer (later Sir Hugh), wielded considerable power through their membership on the Governor-in-Executive Committee. He either initiated or was otherwise associated with the passage of various important pieces of legislation which set the stage for widespread and fundamental changes throughout Barbados; for example:
- Barbados Workmen's Compensation Act,
- Amendment to the Barbados Education Act, modernising the system and improving facilities;
- Establishment of a Wages Board and Labour Department;
- Reduction (in 1943) from 50 to 20 pounds sterling in the franchise qualifying a Barbadian to vote in general elections and the ability of women to vote on equal terms with men
- Erdiston Teachers' College was started in 1948
- Old age pensions were increased
- Improved working conditions came for shop assistants
- Increases in the public service
- Building the Deep Water Harbour
- The Queen Elizabeth Hospital,.
In 1946, Adams was Leader of the House and the Workmen's Compensation Act, passed in the early '40s, was proclaimed. Adams, who dethroned the plantocracy in Barbados, consistently took the case of the masses against the ruling class. He has been reported by Theodore Sealy in his "Caribbean Leaders" as a figure challenging the past to build a new future ..."
In political life in Barbados, Sir Grantley combined the talents of a great lawyer with those of a shrewd, visionary politician, in helping to change Barbados into a new, more progressive country. And he did this at great risk to himself physically and professionally.
Bullet holes in his home at Tyrol Cot bear testimony to the violence directed against this great Barbadian.
He and his lieutenants, first Hugh Springer, and then Frank Walcott, built a unique trade union movement, says F.A. Hoyos in his "Builders of Barbados".
In the successful effort to bring about social change, the Barbados Labour Party worked side-by-side with the Barbados Workers' Union. That unified effort was essential in those days to confront powerful forces arrayed against workers and hostile to the emergence of Blacks on the political scene.
In his campaign against the old regime and in pursuit of true democracy, Sir Grantley secured the introduction of Universal Adult Suffrage in 1951. Under the Bushe Experiment, in 1946, he was invited to submit four names for membership of the Executive Committee, and the island got a measure of responsible government with a semi-ministerial system of government.
In 1950 Adult Suffrage became a reality, and in 1954 full ministerial government was introduced, with Adams as first Premier. He had brought the popular movement to the summit of political power, according to Hoyos, with the attainment of the Cabinet system and full internal self-government in 1958.
In advancing the island's Constitution, Sir Grantley led the new movement in achieving social and industrial reform. Some of thes measures were:
- improved health facilities,
- housing schemes,
- minimum wage legislation,
- benefits for plantation and industrial workers,
- social welfare.
While Sir Grantley fully understood and used his parliamentary office to promote social and political improvements, he also persisted with his commitment to workers' causes.
He was elected President of the Caribbean Labour Congress in 1947 in Jamaica. This was the peak of his work for the formation of this united labour front, which brought together the political Caribbean.
For more than ten years afterwards, he worked on building the foundation of the Federation of the West Indies; and were it not for extreme insularity, selfishness and envy elsewhere in the region, these Caribbean states might today be among the world's mini power blocs.
A firm believer in the highest principles of democratic socialism, Sir Grantley led the movement to sever Caribbean trade unions from the World Federation of Trade Unions, according to Hoyos, and was instrumental in the founding of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. He was elected one of its three vice-chairmen.
In 1954, Frank Walcott broke with Grantley Adams and the next year, some BLP members, led by Errol Barrow, left that organisation and formed the Democratic Labour Party. On his departure to lead the West Indies Federation, Sir Grantley chose Dr. Hugh Gordon Cummins to head the party and be Premier of Barbados in 1958.
By then, he had already achieved such astonishing social and political changes in the island that Barbados was being hailed far and wide as a model country lacking only the formality of political Independence from Britain.
After formal dissolution of the regional enterprise on 31 May 1962, Sir Grantley returned home.
He was re-elected to the House of Assembly in 1966 and assumed the role of Leader of the Opposition. Helped by new blood in the party, he brought the BLP to the position of a powerful Opposition in the House of Assembly. In 1970, with his health declining, he resigned from public life and, while remaining Life President of the BLP, handed over the responsibilities of leadership to younger men such as H. B. St. John, and J.M.G.M. "Tom" Adams, his son, who became Prime Minister of Barbados in September 1976.
Sir Grantley was married to wife Grace Thorne, the daughter of an elite planter family, in 1929 at St. John's Church. Their only child, J.M.G.M 'Tom' Admas, himself won the Barbados Scholarship, attended Oxford and became a lawyer. Tom Adams later became the second Prime Minister of Barbados.
Death and legacy
He died at the age of 73 on 28 November 1971, and was buried at Cathedral of St. Michael and the All Angels, Barbados.
Sir Grantley Adams' likeness is engraved on the island's largest currency denomination - the $100 note, which many feel, though it has never been officially conceded, as a memento of his immense stature on Barbados' social and political landscape.