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Black History Month: Dudley Thompson, When Jamaica meets Africa
Entering the seond week of Black History Month in a celebration of influential black people across the globe, Lindsay Barrett pays tribute to Dudley Thompson. A Jamaican Pan-Africanist who throughout his career strived to strengthen the links between Africa and the Caribbean.
DUDLEY THOMPSON 1917- 2012: JAMAICA’S PAN-AFRICAN ICON: Dudley Thompson the iconic Jamaican legal giant who died aged 95 years in New York in early January will be mourned throughout Africa because of his towering stature as one of the last surviving founders of the Pan African movement that helped bring about decolonisation in Africa.
In West Africa he might be best remembered for his principled and outspoken advocacy of what he believed to be the “stolen mandate” of Chief M.K.O.
Abiola as elected president of Nigeria in 1993. Thompson served as Jamaica’s high commissioner to Nigeria and several other West African nations (with his base in Nigeria) from 1990 to 1995 and apart from displaying extraordinary passion for the links between his home nation and the African continent he endeavoured to build new strategies of cooperation in trade and culture with profound dedication.
Unfortunately the crisis over the annulment of the presidential polls in Nigeria in 1993 forced him into confrontation with the government of the day led by General Sani Abacha.
Chief Abiola had co-opted him as a special patron and advocate of the movement for reparations for the slave trade and he became a fearless advocate of that cause.
When Abiola’s perceived victory in the 1993 presidential election in Nigeria was aborted he refused to be silent over the issue.
He returned to Jamaica as a determined advocate of close ties between Africa and its diaspora but remained deeply disappointed over the events that had overtaken his diplomatic tenure.
When he was leaving Nigeria in 1995 he was not allowed to bid his official farewell to the head of state.
Dudley Thompson’s experience in Nigeria was however not surprising. His life had always been an incredible catalogue of adventures and causes.
He was one of the first black pilots of the Royal Air Force during World War II, and after the war he studied law at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.
He then practised law in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Kenya in the early 1950s and was one of the team of lawyers that defended Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta in Nairobi when the British colonialists charged the future president with treason.
In that famous trial he partnered, among others, the late Nigerian legal luminary Chief H.O. Davies.
On taking up his appointment as Jamaican high commissioner to Nigeria in 1990 he renewed his acquaintance with Chief Davies in Lagos. This was particularly satisfying for the Honourable Thompson.
He came back to Africa after a long career of political service in which he had constantly sought to raise the relevance and importance of ties with Africa in the socio-political outlook his Jamaican homeland.
Thompson had been a student of Mico College, (now the Mico University College- a remarkable educational institution that trained teachers in Jamaica) in the 1930’s. While he was in Nigeria he was able to visit one of the oldest living students of that institution an agricultural educationist named Mr. Scott who had migrated to Nigeria in the 1940’s and lived until his own death at 99 years of age in a remote village in Southern Nigeria.
After serving in World War II and commencing his illustrious legal career in Africa he returned to Jamaica in the mid-1950’s, and sustained his interest in the education of young minds by visiting schools throughout the Caribbean and delivering inspirational addresses about Africa.
I was inspired to decide to live in Africa by a visit that he paid to my school Clarendon College in 1957.
In that visit he spoke eloquently of the cultural links that existed between Africa, especially Ghana, and Jamaica.
He told us that the future held great potential for the restoration of our souls if we found ways to renew our links with the continent.
In that year Ghana became independent and the first head of state was Thompson’s great personal friend Kwame Nkrumah.
He became known for his eloquent oratory and the extraordinary intellectual depth of his presentations in court.
Regarded as one of the most colourful lawyers in the Caribbean he was also deeply loyal to his mentor Norman Washington Manley the founder of the Peoples National Party (PNP), and it was only natural that he would eventually gravitate towards representative politics.
He challenged the formidable Edward Seaga, who was later to become the Jamaica Labour Party’s (JLP) prime minister, for the Western Kingston seat in 1962 and 1967 and lost, but he later served in the PNP administration of Michael Manley his friend and ideological partner as Minister of National Security and as Foreign Minister in the 1970’s.
An authentic black Jamaican with an international perspective
In that period he grew even more controversial. Two memories stand out, his defiant declaration that “no angels died at Green Bay”, when five opposition supporters were gunned down at a military firing range by army personnel, and a controversial trip to Cuba at a time when Caribbean governments were being encouraged by the USA to treat Cuba as a pariah.
In spite of these controversies he was always able to absorb criticism and deploy superior arguments in defence of his actions.
His character is partially defined in the words of Dr D.K. Duncan with whom he served in Michael Manley’s administration of the 1970s – “An authentic black Jamaican with an international perspective, he was a black Jamaica nationalist to the core, both in terms of race and in terms of nationhood”.
His rival Edward Seaga has spoken of how they became close personal friends in spite of their political rivalry and described Thompson as a gracious opponent who never forgot to bring a gift for Mrs. Seaga whenever he returned from his many travels.
As was amply illustrated by his experience in Nigeria, Dudley Thompson, who was actually born in Panama, did not only reserve his passion for his service to Jamaica.
He played an important role in the independence movements of Belize and the Bahamas.
As a Queens Counsel his legal prowess was recognised and celebrated throughout the Western Hemisphere, especially in the Caribbean and parts of Latin America.
In his later years he returned to his advocacy of the Pan African cause over and over again.
He spoke with poetic elegance of the need for young people to “keep the flame alive” and approach the issue of African self-determination with “fire in the belly”.
He died in New York one day after celebrating his 95th birthday. He had travelled from his retirement home in Florida to deliver an address to a group of young people on the subject of keeping the Pan African flame alive.
Dudley Thompson was recently honoured in Africa when the African Union declared him a ‘first citizen’ of the continent because of his work for Africa internationally.
The OAU had earlier awarded him a medal in recognition of his status as a ‘Legend of Africa’. He was president of the World African Diaspora Union until his death.
He never stopped calling for support for the cause of reparations for the ill effects of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
He was overjoyed when his party the PNP was returned to power in a landslide victory just over a week before he died.
One of his last recorded acts of graciousness was a congratulatory phone call to the new female prime minister of Jamaica, one of his protégés Portia Simpson-Miller.
To the end he advocated the strengthening of the democratic impulse in Africa and mourned its violation in Nigeria in 1993 while he was serving there as high commissioner.