October 19, 1983 and the Murder of Maurice Bishop

Michael Roberts

I can still remember that October 19, 1983 day in Grenada. 35 years ago I was there. I remember it was a kind of barmy day — not too hot, not too sunny. And despite a nagging common cold that made me very uncomfortable, I’d come to the capital, St. George’s, to handle some business chores at the government-owned Grenada Beach Hotel in Grand Anse, being a member of its Board of Directors.

A week before, on October 12, 1983, I was at Butler House, the Office of Prime Minister Maurice Rupert Bishop that also housed the country’s nascent National Security Department. There, an almost unanimous Congress of the New Jewel Movement (NJM) voted to put the immensely popular Prime Minister under house arrest. His crime? He’d failed to honor a previous agreement to share leadership of the New Jewel Movement (NJM) with Deputy Prime Minister, and the de facto ideological and organizational leader of the party, Bernard Coard.

But there were tensions brewing inside NJM as far back as 18 months before when the 600+ members of the party became very concerned over the disproportionate workload by a few (the classic 80/20 rule situation), and the fact that many of the hardest workers were tired, worn out, getting sick, and productivity was falling within NJM. I can attest to that — I was Head of Special Branch, also overseeing the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Firearms Department, the Immigration Department, and the Criminal Records Office (CRO).

In addition to that workload, as demanded by the party, I was engaged in other civic activities as a board member of the government-owned Grenada Beach Hotel, member of the Parish Coordinating Body (PCB) of St. John’s parish (local government organization), and as a political instructor for workers on a major estate in that parish. My workload was so heavy that my first daughter, Asha, who was born one year before the Revolution (March 1978), would run away from me during the rare times when I was home during the day. I would normally arrive home at around 2 a.m. and leave by 6 a.m. in the morning.

Concerns over the party’s cadre and the kinds of workloads described above caused an internal debate by the leadership. As part of my workload, I returned to Grenada from Cuba in July 1983 when the friction and debate were approaching fever pitch. By August and September, things were heading into crisis mode. The debate? How to recalibrate and reorganize the party in light of enormous and incredible social and economic strides with the growing fatigue of some of its members and the fact that a majority of the comrades were not effectively pulling their weight.

This was and is the central issue that consumed NJM, its leadership, and members. AT NO TIME IN THIS INTERNAL PARTY DEBATE was leadership or the government (The Peoples Revolutionary Government) ever came up. So the false and flawed reason and justification for the assassination of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop on orders of Deputy Prime Bernard Coard as part of some power struggle for the POLITICAL CONTROL of Grenada, Carriacou, and Petite Martinique is patently false, erroneous and dead wrong. Maurice Bishop’s position as prime minister of Grenada and leader of the Grenada Revolution was NEVER up for debate, never challenged and never, ever in question.

In fact, the party wanted to marry the talents of BOTH of its leaders to do what they did best — Maurice to continue to “sink the roots of the party among the Grenadian masses” (NJM’s language) and Bernard to be responsible for “internal party organization and ideological development” (again NJM’s language). This was not difficult to understand sine NJM in opposition had TWO Joint Co-coordinating Secretaries — Unison Whiteman and Maurice Bishop. In response to this proposal, unanimously voted upon by the party at its congress, including Prime Minister Bishop, (only ONE person voted against) he (Prime Minister Bishop) said that he just needed time — a few days – to “internalize and operationalize how this was going to work now that we (NJM) were in power.” (His words, I was there). He added that he had no problem with this configuration/organization in principle.

But influenced by some close associates and elements hostile to the Grenada Revolution, the prime minister reneged on his position. This is a fact. In a juvenile, immature fit, the military and hardline factions of the NJM’s Central Committee pushed the idea to put Bishop under house arrest, ultimately influencing the membership to support that politically dangerous call.

After the house arrest (on October 18) I had the opportunity to visit Prime Minister Bishop at his official residence at Mt. Weldale around 3:00 p.m. I went there along with General Hudson Austin since it was felt that both of us had always had a great personal relationship with him. After all, I was his first Head of Personal Security (a unit that I built) and personal bodyguard from March 13th — the day the Revolution triumphed. Yes, I knew him far better than most. At his residence he greeted us in great spirits dressed as he did at home in short pants, shirt jac (light blue) and rubber slippers.

We spoke about the present situation and I told him that he needed to diffuse it before things got out of control. As usual, I gave him my best professional advice, telling him that in my opinion, the revolution was in peril and grave danger of imploding if this situation was not quickly resolved. He agreed and told us that he just wanted to speak to “Dix” (Kendrick Radix) and George (George Louison). I also suggested to him that he do a Radio Grenada address and then work to bridge the internal party divide. Smoking his 555 cigarette and holding a drink, Maurice nodded and said that after he spoke to both Louison and Radix he would work out the details of how to inform and engage both the people and the split in the party. I left in high hopes and headed home. I still had that bad cold.

Space does not allow me to tell the rest of the story here. Suffice to say it involves subterfuge, political opportunism, and a set of wheels set in motion that would ultimately kill the revolution. It also is about who gave the order to execute Prime Minister Bishop. For me, 35 years after his murder, the answer is to be found in a simple process of elimination and military command structure.

1. There were only two (2) people who could give the order to send armed soldiers to retake the fort occupied by the Bishop loyalists — Colonel Ewart Layne or General Hudson Austin. The St. George’s – based Permanent Battalion (PB) was commanded by Col. Layne. They would retake Fort George.

2. General Austin, a kind and decent man, was, with all due respect, the figurehead of the military (Peoples Revolutionary Army). I was standing with him at Fort Frederick (on October 19) when the forces left to retake the military headquarters at Fort Rupert. He could not have given that order.

3. Nor could any other civilian political leader from Bernard Coard on down. None of them could give me a command that I was bound to obey. My reporting was to Colonial Liam James and then Prime Minister Bishop. I did not report to Bernard Coard or any of the other civilian leadership.

4. The only other ranking member of the military who could have given that order was Col. Liam James. But he could not and would not have overstepped the command of Col. Layne. Besides, James was the de facto Head of National Security responsible for the security apparatus — intelligence, counter-intelligence, police etc. He reported to Prime Minister Bishop.

So I leave the possible answer to you, dear readers.

You can tell this story from many perspectives based on individual experiences and contacts on October 19. Many times there are “historical assumptions” and “personal biases” injected into the story. It’s the human condition of being socially relevant. However, there is the TRUTH – not individual opinions – that’s immutable and constant. The events that spawned October 19 have never been adequately addressed or analyzed but superseded by the emotions of that day. October 19 was the disease but the symptoms started long before that. In fact, I would say about 18 months BEFORE that fateful day.

Moreover, the day in question spun out of control with unintended consequences and was egged on by local anti-Grenadian, counter-revolutionary elements in collusion with foreign intelligence forces and powers. The decision by a civilian-led group of demonstrators (nobody stopped the demonstrations) to invade and take over the military headquarters, break open the armory, and arm innocent non-military civilians was an irresponsible, reckless and dangerous act. Can you imagine American demonstrators trying to do that to the Pentagon?

October 19, 1983, can be blamed on BOTH sides of the POLITICAL split. On one side was the hardline leadership of the NJM that literally usurped the powers of the PRG (Peoples Revolutionary Government) pitted against the faction that included loyalists to Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. Bishop’s house arrest was ill-conceived, stupid and fraught with serious unintended political consequences. But so was the co-opting of a legitimate and genuine popular, people’s demonstration by counter-revolutionary forces that created the conditions for the situation to become untenable and spiral out of control.