The ‘enduring mystery’ of Maurice Bishop’s remains

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"Maurice Bishop" by Paul Lowry (Flickr)

In 2010, I published a book titled Time to Tell – the Grenada Massacre and After….  Grenada Diary 14-25 December 1983.  As the title suggests, the book is mainly a diary I kept on a visit to Grenada a couple months after military conflict in the US led invasion of Grenada had ended. 

The diary is effectively a narrative of the fears, dashed hopes, anger and anxieties about the future of the traumatised people of Grenada.  But, it also calls upon Bernard Coard and all those responsible for the massacre on Fort Rupert and for controlling the country in the immediate aftermath of that 19 October tragedy to tell the Grenada people and the world what they did with the remains of those who were murdered or otherwise met their death on or near Fort Rupert on that fateful day.

Following the publication of the book, Selwyn Strachan visited the UK and had a public debate with me about the matters I wrote in the book and about his part and that of his comrades (the Grenada 17) in the events of October 19, 1983.  One of the things Strachan told the audience in Brixton on the second of that two part conversation we had is that he had in his possession a letter which was written by a member of the Jamaica Regiment that had been detailed by the invading forces to ‘sweep up’ matters to do with the leadership of the Revolution, in which this person was claiming to have been present when the US armed forces took away the half burned bodies of Maurice Bishop and some of those who perished with him on the Fort Rupert.

On 11 February 2011, I wrote to President Obama sending him a copy of “Time to Tell” and asking him to tell the people of Grenada and the world what the US invading bodies know of the whereabouts of the bodies of those who perished on the Fort. I made no reference then to Earl Brown’s claims as I had not seen his email at that point (Selwyn’s visit to the UK was a full 4 months later).  There has been no reply from Obama, nor have I sent a follow up letter based upon the Earl Brown email.

Last month, an Associated Press correspondent based in Jamaica sent me an e-mail, asking me a few questions about what he described as the “enduring mystery of Maurice Bishop’s remains”. Using the opportunity to shed some light on the case, I sent him the following notes:

Do you believe that achieving full closure and reconciliation in Grenada is only possible when Bishop’s and the other victims’ remains are finally found and a proper burial can be done?

Grenada as a nation, not unlike other parts of the Caribbean, has an approach to death and to burying the dead which might be described as a public expression of private grief. You do not need to have known the deceased or to know the bereaved for you to don your funeral attire to go to the funeral. Given the fact that the island is small and everybody tends to know everybody, or at least someone connected with them, funerals are never a private affair for family, relatives and close friends. Furthermore, news of deaths and details of funeral arrangements are published in death notices broadcast by the various radio stations, thus ensuring that the deceased gets ‘a good send off’ or ‘a big funeral’.

Such are the rituals surrounding death that the ‘bigger’ as in ‘more important, prosperous and well known’ the deceased is, the more interest there is in their death. Citizens would flock to such funerals out of curiosity and to be part of the crowd as much as anything else.

Against that general background, for the best loved and most popular Head of State in Caribbean history to have been murdered alongside the woman he loved and who was heavily pregnant with his child, and for there not to have been any bodies for the nation to pay its respects to and to mourn over and see put in the ground is something that will forever remain unfinished business in the consciousness of the present and succeeding generations of Grenadians.

As a country with a small land mass that is surrounded by the sea, fishing is and will always be a key occupation for Grenadians. Occasionally, and thankfully very rarely, fishermen are lost at sea and their bodies never recovered. Such events get etched into the memories of relatives and the fishing communities alike. But, even then, there is closure because family and all islanders are aware of how lost loved ones were claimed by the sea. Contrariwise, there cannot be closure in the case of the martyrs of October 19 for the following reasons:

  1. There is abiding resentment about the fact that those whose reckless actions led to the crisis and the massacre are not alone still alive but have been reinstated within civil society and in some cases into political life in Grenada;
  2. The decision to take away the bodies and destroy them by burning was a second stage massacre that was directed at the deceased families and the entire Grenadian nation and was seen as a symbol of the political repression that was to come;
  3. There is the belief that under interrogation the surviving leaders of the revolution told the US armed forces what they had done with the bodies and that the US violated the Grenadian people twice: first, by invading the country and killing armed resisters and innocent civilians alike and second, by denying the families and the nation the right to claim and bury their dead;
  4. Every October 19, the Government of Grenada performs a perfunctory memorial ceremony on Fort Rupert to commemorate the massacre. It is minimalist, puny and insignificant and unworthy. Yet, on 25 October, the entire Government goes to church and encourages the nation to give thanks for the invading forces and their so-called ‘rescue mission’;
  5. As long as that travesty goes on, the memory that those whom they are thanking have never told the Grenada people what they did with those remains or what they knew of their whereabouts continues to engender anger, bitterness and divisiveness within the society;

That is why those who know, including the US State Department, must come clean and tell the whole truth in order to bring closure to that most barbaric episode in Grenada’s and the Caribbean’s post-colonial history.

Why do you think that finding evidence of the remains has proven so elusive over the decades?

The position taken by Bernard Coard and most of those imprisoned for or implicated in the massacre is:

  1. That the chain of command on 19 October 1983 effectively fell to pieces and there were on the spur of the moment decisions being made and actions taken by random individuals within and outwith the People’s Revolutionary Army;
  2. That both Hudson Austin and Leon ‘Bogo’ Cornwall have been wrongfully demonised by the Grenada people and their overactive rumour mills and that people are wrong in assuming that there was an orderly command in place during and immediately after the massacre;
  3. That the transporting and burning of the bodies had not been authorised by what was left of the leadership and that once it had become known that the bodies were being burnt, immediate steps were taken (involving Selwyn Strachan himself) to go and stop the destruction of the bodies;
  4. That once the invasion occurred, the US Armed Forces were effectively in charge of everything, including what was left of the remains once the burning had been interrupted;

None of that answers the question as to why, given the fact that the General Hospital and public mortuary are but a stone’s throw from the scene of the massacre, the bodies were not taken there for relatives to claim and bury, or why, once the burning had been notified, those who foiled attempts to dispose of the bodies did not immediately arrange for their transfer to the public mortuary.

The fact is that a full six days had elapsed between the massacre and the invasion in the early hours of October 25th. Who was hiding the bodies in those six days when the entire country was paralysed with fear and foreboding and was totally traumatised, under curfew, and trying desperately to come to terms with what had happened on October 19.

Confusion, misrepresentation, claims and counter claims clearly abounded among those ultimately responsible for the demise of the Revolution and some of its finest leaders, as among the population itself. Once the invasion occurred and Coard and those loyal to him had been rounded up, however, the nation and particularly the relatives of the deceased expected that their interrogation would lead the invading forces to either hand over the bodies or tell the people what had been done with them before 25 October. No such categorical statement(s) were forthcoming. In this sense, it could be argued without a hint of cynicism that it served the interests of both sides to be able to blame the other for the disappearance of the remains of those who perished in the massacre. The PRA could say that the Americans intervened before they could gather themselves and do the right thing. The Americans could say that they rounded up the living and not the dead as they had not been involved in the massacre or in disposing of its hapless victims.

What do you make of the lingering theories that US troops took Bishop’s remains to avoid a funeral that could whip up anti-American backlash?

As observed above, that main contention is supported by Earl Brown although he says, notably, that:

Someone had knowledge of the body bags and what became of them when we left Grenada.

He does not say whether by ‘we’ he means the combined armed forces or just the detail from the Jamaica Regiment. It could therefore be inferred that he means the entire invading force, including the Americans.

So, the finger is pointing to Paul Schoon, the then Governor General of Grenada. I well remember Selwyn Strachan saying that Schoon was being consulted by the remnants of the revolutionary leadership even before the invasion. Schoon will clearly not have disposed of those bodies himself and if any Grenadians had done so on his behalf, I am sure that that by now somebody will have spoken up. On the other hand, I cannot imagine for one moment that the Americans (and Gillespie who was running the show from the US Embassy in St George’s in particular) would have allowed Schoon to dispose of those bodies without US involvement or say so.

The fact is that there was total collusion between the US and Grenadian governments with respect to not making a martyr of Maurice Bishop and whipping up public outrage over the barbaric nature of his murder and that of Jacqueline Creft and the others. Nicholas Braithwaite, the acting prime minister, Tony Gillespie and many others did their utmost to obliterate all references to the Revolution. They got rid of all forms of iconography, they refused to name the Airport after Maurice Bishop and they erected prominent signs for every new arrival to see as soon as they emerged from the airport, expressing thanks to Reagan for invading Grenada.

I believe that those who killed those martyrs took away their bodies and started burning them because they knew that any funeral for Bishop would have brought half the world to Grenada and that the Grenadians masses would regroup and come after them, curfew or no curfew. No armed forces would have been able to control angry crowds at what would have been a mass political rally that would have made the crowds in St George’s on 19 October look like a school outing.

Schoon, Braithwaite, Gillespie and the rest of them had similar fears for their own skin and for the US personnel and general involvement in Grenada. It was therefore of geo-political importance that the US did not give countries friendly to the Revolution or acting in support of or in sympathy with the Grenada people any cause to line up with progressive forces and an angry population against them.

Of course, if you have any other thoughts we would very much appreciate hearing them.

In my letter to Barack Obama I noted as follows:

Mr President, I am sure you will agree with my assertions in the Epilogue of Time to Tell, that:

Countries spare no effort in recovering their dead from conflict zones or at least ensuring they are identified and given a decent burial even many decades after the particular hostilities ended. The people of Grenada have the self same need.

I am appealing to you, therefore, to help all those relatives in Grenada who are still grieving after 27 years and help the nation as a whole to bring closure to this national and regional tragedy by revealing all that the US Armed Forces found and did in respect of those bodies during the 1983 invasion.

It has been announced recently that the US government has spent the last 13 years negotiating the release of the remains of American soldiers held by the Vietnamese since that debacle that was the Vietnam War some 50 years ago. Now, at last, there is to be a return of bodies and of personal memorabilia.

The people of Grenada have the self same need!

The present administration in Grenada, to their credit, renamed the airport the Maurice Bishop International Airport. When I was in Grenada attending their first literary festival and book fair and launching Time to Tell in October 2010, I proposed to the Government that there needed to be a more fitting monument to the memory of Maurice Bishop and the gains of the Revolution than that awful plaque that marks the place of the massacre on Fort Rupert. I promised to work up some proposals and submit to them.

Since then, I sent the attached proposals to which I have had nil response – not even an acknowledgement. In those proposals, the Addendum particularly, I call upon the Government to consider the role a memorial centre and peace garden could have in focusing the nation on the shared values and the need for interdependence that might just help to stem the decline into lawlessness and a growing culture of violent criminality in the country. I drew upon the South African experience and emphasised the importance of reconciliation and peace building.

Week after week, Grenada experiences more and more examples of killings and mindless violence. I am not of those who argue as I have heard many do, that ‘nothing like that could have happened during the revolution’. Societies do not stand still. Culture is fluid and dynamic and the conditions for lawlessness and mayhem are not always confined to social deprivation or worklessness. But I genuinely believe that whether or not people make the association between the unfinished business of the Revolution and present day moral, economic and political challenges, unless something is done which deals with the angst that is deep within the psyche of the nation as a result of how the October 19 massacre and its aftermath were dealt with, the country will drift inexorably into more and more chaos.

With or without this recent announcement about the US government’s negotiations with Vietnam, I frankly do not see the Grenadian government bestirring themselves to make any demands of the US government as far as the remains of Maurice Bishop and the other martyrs are concerned.

My view is that Grenadians at home and throughout the Diaspora, with solidarity and support from civil society and progressive governments everywhere should put pressure on Obama to tell all that the US knows about those remains, irrespective of whether or not they were complicit in getting rid of them in order to bury the memory of Bishop and all that he stood for and represented not just to the Grenadian people but to progressive people throughout the world. In fact, Grenadians and all other progressive forces across the United States should, on the back of these recent announcements about the US/Vietnam nexus, make this an election issue and press Obama on the Grenada massacre question.

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