A Caribbean man for all seasons

By David Jessop

In the heart of London, observed daily by tens of thousands of passers-by, is a large picture of Sir Shridath Ramphal, the Caribbean’s elder statesman. As such, it is one of a number depicting the most internationally renowned alumni of Kings College, London.

To the best of my knowledge nothing quite like this exists in the Caribbean, a region that is not always kind to those who have provided the greatest leadership and service, let alone to one who has helped make its name internationally.

It is perhaps a measure of the lesser men of his time or later who set aside his advice and wisdom at key moments in the region’s history.

Reading Sir Shridath’s just published autobiography, Glimpses of a Global Life, one cannot help feeling his understated sadness that what he was able to achieve or encourage globally at key moments in late 20th century history, proved much less possible on a Caribbean stage.

His book offers an accessible, highly readable and honest account from one of the very few Caribbean individuals whose life, influence and role intersected not only at the key moments that have made today’s Caribbean, but also with global events such as the ending of apartheid and colonial rule in Africa.

From a Caribbean perspective there is much about the failure of Federation, and great clarity about what was lost as a result: a region that today, he suggests, would have been better able to feed itself, be more secure, have a stronger voice on climate change, have greater productivity, the creativity that would have come from being a larger space, better international bargaining power, and a greater human resource pool.

Although written looking back, Sir Shridath has powerful messages for the Caribbean’s future.

Much of the book also points to the need for leaders being able to take the right strategic choices at key moments in history and for statesmen and women to play a mediating role, or to confront publicly the preconceptions of powerful individuals like Margaret Thatcher or Henry Kissinger.

This is a book that this short column cannot do justice to. It has to be read.

Unusual for a political memoir, it is not self serving or justifying but a clear and sometimes moving account of a life, what made the man and his experiences.

Reading Sir Shridath’s autobiography, one is also struck by the personal characteristics that set him apart from many of today’s world leaders. This is his sense of and commitment to universal values, his humanity, and humility.

Above all what shines out is his ability throughout his long career to relate high and strategic issues, whether in relation to the Commonwealth, the Caribbean, or globally, to what will bring benefit to the lives of those who will never aspire to or reach high office.

Perhaps this is because of his humble beginnings, his personal achievement and the luck that he recounts in his early legal career before his rise through the Caribbean and then international ranks.

Anyone who has ever had the privilege to work with Sir Shridath or to spend time with him knows the power of his words and beliefs which, despite the world of realpolitick, have infused all he has achieved, said and written.

His is an autobiography about a Caribbean man; a man for all seasons.

David Jessop is the director of the Caribbean Council.

David Jessop
David Jessop