Maurice Bishop

Maurice Bishop (1944-1983) was a leader of the New Jewel Movement which proclaimed the independence of Grenada in 1974. After a 1979 coup he served as prime minister of Grenada until his death in a subsequent coup in 1983.

Maurice Rupert Bishop was born May 29, 1944, on the island of Aruba, Netherland Antilles, of immigrant parents, Rupert and Alimenta Bishop. His parents had joined the intraregional migrant stream then taking advantage of the petroleum-based economic prosperity in the southern Caribbean islands. Returning to Grenada, where his father entered commerce, at the age of six, Bishop attended St. George's Roman Catholic Primary School. He then won a scholarship to Presentation College, the Catholic high school in Grenada. His high school career was distinguished. He won the Principal's Gold Medal for outstanding academic and general all-round ability; he founded the Historical Society and served as its first president; and he edited the school newspaper. On leaving high school Bishop worked for a short time in the civil service before going to London. There he attended Gray's Inn and earned his law degree from the University of London. He was called to the bar in 1969.

For two years Bishop practiced law in London, cofounding a legal aid clinic and demonstrating an active interest in campaigns against racial discrimination, especially against West Indians in England. But Bishop's political involvement began in earnest in 1970 when he returned to Grenada via Trinidad and Tobago. For by 1970 the Black Power Movement, originally begun in the United States, had already gained considerable appeal throughout the Caribbean. Trinidad found itself in the throes of an abortive revolution whose repercussions spread to the neighboring island of Grenada. At that time Grenada was in the firm grasp of Eric Mathew Gairy, a bizarre, corrupt, and paternalistic politician who had gained prominence through his role as a labor organizer. Gairy was also discussing the possibility of political independence for Grenada, despite the reservations of a large sector of the population.

Bishop established a law practice in St. George's, Grenada, and organized a demonstration supporting the Trinidad insurgents. Gairy retaliated harshly against the demonstrators, unleashing a security force composed of police, army personnel, and members of a para-military group called the Mongoose Gang. The security force showed scant regard for human rights or civil liberties. In November 1970 Bishop joined the protest by nurses against the poor conditions at the St. George's hospital and successfully defended them in court after their arrest. Bishop organized the Movement for Assemblies of the People (MAP) along with Kenrick Radix in 1972 to articulate the grievances of the masses against the Gairy government. As a result he was arrested and beaten several times. In March 1973 MAP merged with the rural-based group founded by economist and teacher Unison Whiteman, the Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education and Liberation (JEWEL), to form the New Jewel Movement. This well-coordinated opposition to the Gairy government declared independence for Grenada on February 7, 1974.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, November 18, 1973, Bishop and five leading members of the New Jewel Movement were in Grenville, the second largest town on the northeastern coast, when Gairy's Mongoose Gang attacked and brutally beat them. Bloody and barely conscious, they were incarcerated without formal charges and denied bail or medical attention. Eventually released, Bishop had to seek medical assistance on the neighboring island of Barbados. "Bloody Sunday," as the event came to be called, coalesced the opposition to Gairy. In January 1974 the New Jewel Movement and other groups called a general strike which lasted for three months and overshadowed the celebrations for independence on February 7. In one confrontation with the police on January 21, Bishop's father was shot and killed.

Bishop successfully contested the St. George's seat in 1976 and assumed the position of leader of the opposition in an ineffectual parliament. His New Jewel Movement controlled three of the six opposition seats won in a People's Alliance with the Grenada National Party and the United People's Party. Bishop used the parliamentary platform to publicize the program of the New Jewel Movement and relentlessly expose and condemn the actions of Gairy. At the same time, under Vincent Noel, an executive member of the New Jewel Movement, the Bank and General Workers Union was formed, enhancing the working class support of the political party. Apparently disturbed by the growing popular strength of the opposition, Gairy increased his repressive measures, especially those directed at the leaders of the New Jewel Movement.

On March 13, 1979, while Gairy was attending the United Nations session in New York, Bishop and his followers seized control of the government of Grenada. Proclaiming a People's Revolutionary Government, Bishop suspended the constitution. Promising new, democratic elections, Bishop became prime minister and minister of defense, and interior, information, health, and Carriacou affairs. Bernard Coard, a Brandeis University graduate in economics, became deputy prime minister, as well as minister of trade, industry, finance, and planning.

Bishop attempted to transform Grenadian society along the lines of the Cuban model. Voluntary mass organizations of women, farmers, youth, workers, and militia were established and declared to be a "real democracy," presumably making the holding of elections redundant. As a self-declared Marxist he demonstrated only a superficial understanding of the principles of Karl Marx. Nevertheless, he established close diplomatic relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union, and most of the island's development projects—including the new airport at Point Salines—were sponsored by the socialist bloc. With this support Grenada weathered the economic crises of the early 1980s better than most of its neighbors.

Bishop's government, despite its achievements, failed to hold elections and stifled a free press and the opposition. Despite the hostility of the United States, Bishop made repeated attempts to establish diplomatic ties with Washington. An active prime minister, he led delegations to meetings of the Caribbean Community, the commonwealth heads of governments, the United Nations General Assembly, the Summit of Non-Aligned Nations, and the Organization of American States. He established close personal friendships with Fidel Castro of Cuba and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.

By late 1982 a deep rift had developed within the central committee of the People's Revolutionary Government, mainly over the issue of Coard's desire to have coequal status with Bishop. Matters reached a head on October 12, 1983, when a meeting of the central committee accused Bishop of spreading false rumors of an assassination plot. The following day Bishop was placed under house arrest. On Wednesday, October 19, 1983, a crowd of supporters released him and marched to the military compound at Fort Rupert. There troops under the command of General Hudson Austin captured and executed Bishop, three cabinet members, two labor leaders, and nearly a hundred civilians. Within six days the United States invaded Grenada, arrested the leaders of the coup, established an interim government, and terminated the Grenadian experiment. Bishop's body has never been publicly identified.


Further Reading on Maurice Bishop

Bishop is listed in Personalities Caribbean, 1982-1983. Background information on Grenada for this period may be found in A.W. Singham, The Hero and the Crowd in a Colonial Polity (1968); R.W. Jacobs and I. Jacobs, Grenada: The Route to Revolution (1980); David Lewis, The Grenada Revolution (1984) and EPICA Task Force, Grenada. The Peaceful Revolution (1982).