SAINT GEORGE’S, GRENADA- As a leader of the New Jewel Movement, Maurice Rupert Bishop (1944-1983) proclaimed Grenada’s independence in 1974. A subsequent coup in 1983 led to his death as prime minister of Grenada following a 1979 coup.
A native of Aruba, Netherland Antilles, Maurice Rupert Bishop was born on May 29, 1944, to immigrants Rupert and Alimenta Bishop. A petroleum-based economic boom in the southern Caribbean islands had spurred his parents’ migration, which took advantage of the intraregional migrant stream.
Bishop attended St. George’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Grenada, where his father entered commerce when he was six years old. Then he won a scholarship to Presentation College, a Catholic high school in Grenada. He excelled in high school. For his academic and general abilities, he won the Principal’s Gold Medal; he founded the Historical Society and served as its first president, and he edited the school newspaper.
Bishop worked in the civil service for a short time after high school before going to London. In London, he attended Gray’s Inn and earned a law degree from the University of London. He was called to the bar in 1969.
In London, Bishop practiced law for two years, cofounding a legal aid clinic and actively participating in campaigns against racial discrimination. In 1970, Bishop began actively participating in politics after returning to Grenada from Trinidad and Tobago. Since the Black Power Movement originated in the United States, it had already gained considerable appeal throughout the Caribbean by 1970.
In Trinidad, there was an abortive revolution whose repercussions spread to Grenada. It was then that Grenada was in the hands of Eric Mathew Gairy, a bizarre, corrupt, and paternalistic politician who had gained prominence as a labor organizer. Despite the reservations of a large segment of the population, Gairy discussed the possibility of Grenada’s political independence.
Bishop founded a law firm in St. George’s, Grenada, and organized a demonstration to support the Trinidad insurgents. In response, Gairy unleashed a security force that included police, army personnel, and members of a paramilitary group called the Mongoose Gang. Human rights and civil liberties were hardly respected by the security forces. Bishop successfully defended nurses arrested for protesting poor conditions at the St. George’s hospital in November 1970.
Alongside Kenrick Radix, Bishop founded the Movement for Assemblies of the People (MAP) in 1972 to express the grievances of the masses against the Gairy government. This resulted in him being arrested and beaten repeatedly. The New Jewel Movement was formed in March 1973 when MAP merged with JEWEL, the rural-based group founded by economist and teacher Unison Whiteman. In 1974, Grenada declared independence from the Gairy government with the help of this well-coordinated opposition.
On Sunday, November 18, 1973, Bishop and five leaders of the New Jewel Movement were attacked and brutally beaten by Gairy’s Mongoose Gang in Grenville, the second largest town on the northeastern coast. Despite being bloodied and barely conscious, they were stripped of their rights to bail or medical attention and were imprisoned without formal charges. After being released, Bishop had to seek medical attention on the neighboring island of Barbados. It was “Bloody Sunday” that brought the opposition to Gairy together.
A three-month general strike was called by the New Jewel Movement and other groups in January 1974, overshadowing the independence celebrations on February 7. A confrontation with law enforcement resulted in Bishop’s father being killed on January 21.
In 1976, Bishop won the St. George’s seat and became leader of the opposition in an ineffectual parliament. During the People’s Alliance with Grenada National Party and United People’s Party, his New Jewel Movement controlled three of the six opposition seats. As a result of Bishop’s use of the parliamentary platform, the New Jewel Movement’s program was publicized, as well as the actions of Gairy were relentlessly exposed and condemned.
Additionally, the Bank and General Workers Union was formed under Vincent Noel, a member of the New Jewel Movement’s executive board, improving the party’s working-class support. In response to the growing popularity of the opposition, Gairy increased his repressive measures, especially against the New Jewel Movement leaders.
Bishop and his followers seized control of Grenada’s government on March 13, 1979, while Gairy was attending the United Nations session in New York. Following Bishop’s declaration of a People’s Revolutionary Government, the constitution was suspended.
Following the promise of new, democratic elections, Bishop became prime minister, minister of defense, and minister of interior, information, health, and Carriacou affairs. An economics graduate of Brandeis University, Bernard Coard became deputy prime minister as well as minister of trade, industry, finance, and planning.
A model of Cuban society was used by Bishop to transform Grenadian society. Several mass organizations of women, farmers, youth, workers, and militia were established and declared to be a “real democracy,” making elections unnecessary. Self-described Marxist, he demonstrated only a superficial understanding of Karl Marx’s principles. However, he maintained close diplomatic relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union, and the socialist bloc sponsored most of the island’s development projects, including the new airport at Point Salines. Grenada was able to weather the economic crisis of the early 1980s better than most of its neighbors because of this support.
Despite its achievements, Bishop’s government failed to hold elections and stifled the free press and opposition. Despite the United States hostility, Bishop repeatedly attempted to establish diplomatic relations with the country. During his tenure as prime minister, he led delegations to the Caribbean Community, the Commonwealth Heads of Government, the United Nations General Assembly, and the Summit of Non-Aligned Nations. A close friendship was formed between him and Fidel Castro of Cuba and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.
In late 1982, there was a deep rift in the central committee of the People’s Revolutionary Government due to Coard’s desire to have coequal status with Bishop. On October 12, 1983, Bishop was accused of spreading false rumors about an assassination plot at a central committee meeting. As a result, Bishop was placed under house arrest on the following day.
On Wednesday, October 19, 1983, a crowd of supporters released him and marched to the military compound at Fort Rupert. Bishop, three cabinet members, two labor leaders, and nearly a hundred civilians were captured and executed by troops under the command of General Hudson Austin. Six days after the coup, the United States invaded Grenada, arrested the coup leaders, established an interim government, and ended the Grenadian experiment. There has never been any public identification of Bishop’s body.