Richard Hart, a towering figure of the Jamaican and Caribbean left, died in Bristol, England, of natural causes on Dec. 21, 2013, at 96 years of age.
Hart was born in Kingston, the son of an attorney, and he himself began to practice as a solicitor after an education in Jamaica and the United Kingdom. His immersion in Jamaican labor and political struggles, in which he took a Marxist and anti-colonial stance in spite of his own elite background, began in the late 1930s with labor activism.
Active with railway workers, Hart was a founder and leader of the Trade Union Council, the Caribbean Labour Congress, and the People’s National Party. His first arrest by the colonial authorities was in 1940, for organizing a demonstration calling for the release of Alexander Bustamante, a fiery labor leader, who, ironically, became a vocal anti-communist during the cold war as head of the Jamaica Labour Party and Jamaica’s first chief minister (1953-1955) and prime minister (1962-1967).
Hart, along with other Marxists, affiliated himself with the People’s National Party (PNP) headed by Norman Manley. But the cold war of the 1950s intimidated Manley and his party also, and in the early 1950s, Hart and other leftists were expelled from the PNP for communism. Manley’s government eventually revoked Hart’s passport (Ironically, Bustamante, as prime minister, eventually returned it).
After a brief effort to set up an openly socialist party in Jamaica, Hart moved to Guyana, where fellow leftist Cheddi Jagan, an anti-colonialist leftist who served as Prime Minister of that Country from 1961 to 1964, made use of his skills. Among other things, Hart edited the Mirror, a newspaper aligned with Jagan and his allies. However, Jagan lost power in the 1964 elections, whereupon Hart moved to Britain, but continued to be involved with Caribbean labor and political struggles.
When Maurice Bishop of the New Jewel Movement ousted Prime Minister Eric Gairy of Granada in 1979, Hart became attorney general in the new left-wing government. But when Bishop was overthrown and killed in 1983, leading to a U.S. invasion, Hart again went to the United Kingdom, where he remained until his death.
Hart’s interest in historical scholarship grew naturally out of his activist involvement on behalf of the oppressed Black workers of Jamaica and of the Caribbean. From the 1970s to the 2000s, he brought out a series of supremely important historical works, including the two volume “Slaves Who Abolished Slavery: Blacks in Rebellion” (2002, University of the West Indies Press), “The End of Empire: Transition to Independence in Jamaica and other Caribbean Region Colonies” (2006, Arawak Press) and many other books and articles.
It was Hart’s view, meticulously documented in his historical writings, that the end of slavery in the British Empire was not brought about by a magnanimous gesture “from above” inspired by Christian charity, but by the realization of the British ruling class and government that if they did not take the initiative to emancipate the slaves, they would be faced with increasing, and increasingly successful, slave rebellions which would eventually lead to the loss of their colonies. Nor was slavery in the British West Indies somehow benign; it was an outrageously cruel and oppressive system.
At the beginning of the 19th century, a number of powerful slave uprisings took place in Jamaica. According to Hart, one of the most important was the “Emancipation Rebellion” of 1831, in Western Jamaica, in which 20,000 slaves participated. The rebellion, led by a literate Baptist slave named Sam Sharpe, was put down with extreme cruelty, and Sharpe and hundreds of others were executed. The planter-slave owner elite on the island angrily defended their brutal slave system, but the government in London decided to cut its losses, and, after a failed effort to turn slaves into “apprentices,” all the slaves in the British Empire became free on August 1, 1838. However, the racist attitudes, practices and institutions built up under slavery continued after emancipation.
In 2001, Hart’s membership in the People’s National Party, under the leadership of Prime Minister P. J. Patterson, was restored to him, without his having to repudiate one iota of his Marxist principles.
Photo: Richard Hart in 2006 via University of the West Indies.