Things that Matter: Sir Frederick ‘Sleepy’ Smith: Dreaming a Nation
“Looking back from where we are now, in my 90th year, I marvel at how improbable it all seems – that we, as Barbadians, have built a nation, however small, and with whatever challenges, that will be approaching its 50th year of existence in 2016. It is almost too good to be true. It is as if, true to my name, ‘Sleepy’ Smith is dreaming.” (Sir Frederick Smith, from the first page of his autobiography.)
“It is for you the pupils to say ‘I am going to be like him; like Mr. Smith, come from poor, make good of myself, study hard and be something and contribute to my country.’ That is all I want you to do.” (Sir Frederick, to the students of the Frederick Smith Secondary School, from the last page of his autobiography.)
The inimitable Sir Frederick Smith – far, far better known as ‘Sleepy’ or even ‘Sir Sleepy’ – is the first Barbadian politician to produce a full-length autobiography, with the skilful assistance of his nephew Alan Smith. It’s not only a “good read” but it sheds enormous light on both the man himself and on Barbados and our political history over the last sixty years. And it reveals the humour and the quirks of a most honest, down-to-earth and practical politician with an irrepressible frankness.
I’m an insatiable reader, and I especially enjoy good autobiographies and biographies by and about people who’ve “made a difference”. But since my days are full, doing or writing, I only set aside a couple of hours at night for reading. And I could hardly put down Sir Sleepy’s Dreaming a Nation, finishing it in just a few nights. In fact, he and Alan had a delightful way of dropping teasing remarks at the end of each chapter, to whet your appetite for the next!
I was pleased that the story began with the story of his great ancestor, Adam Straw Waterman. Adam Straw was the great, great grandfather of our hero, on his mother’s side. He was reputedly born in 1803, into slavery, but bought out of slavery by a white woman, whom he married. He became a mason, and then a builder – perhaps what would have been called a master builder, in great demand in the rebuilding after the great hurricane of 1831. He is credited for the important move from building masonry buildings with rubble stone to the superior technique of block coral stone or sawn stone. He died on August the 20th, 1887, and was buried in the churchyard of St. George’s Parish Church. He was given a glowing obituary, and Sir Fred makes the point that “if they say half of what the Barbados Globe said about him, I would be a proud man.
This story sets the scene for Sir Fred’s life – working hard and raising himself up by the bootstraps from a poor background. (His father was a primary school teacher and his mother a Waterman, so he was a cousin of Freddie Waterman, QC, and Cecil Waterman.) And he tells many stories of his focus and determination, his deep and abiding faith in God (becoming a Methodist lay preacher) and living a life dedicated to truth and justice.
Without wanting to rob readers of the thrill of the book, here are a few examples of the topics covered.
Childhood: as the son of a primary school teacher, he was one of the NUMEROUS distinguished Barbadian leaders of the 20th century grounded in the “holy mantra” of education and Christian values. These many achievers include Sir Fred, Sir George Alleyne, Sir Courtney Blackman and many others. And his mother, Lilian Angelique, was a formidable woman, running a household of 10 children with an iron grip, insisting on good manners. Sir Fred says she whipped brother Lionel for running past a lady in the village without saying good morning.
Early political days, being elected first chairman of the Democratic Labour Party and first election to Parliament in 1956. In that chapter he tells the stories of TT Lewis and Sir Douglas Lynch. And he makes it perfectly clear that TT Lewis was a unique Barbadian hero, losing his job, his health, (his wife too) and literally his life at an early age, for his passionate striving for democracy, for equal opportunity for the poor masses, and above all for free secondary education: “It is entirely fitting in 2014 that there is discussion of whether he should get a more formal and wider recognition by the Barbados nation. He was a hero.” In fact, I have repeatedly extolled the justification for making TT Lewis and Sir Frank Worrell National Heroes, as proposed by the first two National Hero committees, of which I was a member, as well as Clennell Wickham, so Sir Fred’s views are well received.
His courtship of his wife Lois, Jamaican born public health doctor, their long engagement and very long marriage of 60 plus years, makes a beautiful story. He makes it plain what a wonderful (and long suffering) and forgiving wife she has been!
Barbadian politics: he tells many stories, provides many little known insights, and makes many solid judgements. He emphasises the importance of the solidly built institutions of Barbados that have helped us to perform well for most of our last few decades, contrasting it with other places where personality cults perhaps played the major roles. His comments on the successes and failures of our political leaders are insightful and frank. The complexity of Mr. Barrow’s personality is clear. He recounts how his (Sir Fred’s) congratulating to Sir Grantley Adams on his appointment as Prime Minister of the West Indies Federation resulted in Mr. Barrow giving him “a good cussing”! He is frank in explaining why Mr. Burton Hinds was an inappropriate appointment as Speaker of the House in the Tom Adams administration. And he extolls, as I did in our CBC TV film series Parliament 375, the courage of Sir Lloyd Sandiford back in 1993, when he refused IMF advice to devalue by cutting public sector salaries by 8 per cent.: “…examples of unselfish, tough decision-making where the long-term interests of the country were rightly regarded as the main priority.”
Perhaps the only place where I think Sir Fred was a little out of date was in his comment about the economic structure of the country, and the old aristocratic families still controlling the economy. Most of those families are long extinct or emigrated, and the Goddards’ enterprise is a rags to riches story less than a century old, while the real commercial Bridgetown is now owned by the Trinidadians!
The humour of Sir Sleepy is everywhere in the book. He tells a story, possibly apocryphal, of Sir Lloyd Sandiford making 100 in singles. He claims to have scored 100 before lunch against Lodge School, which as a Lodge School boy caused me a sleepless night last week! How could that have been possible? Sir Frank Worrell or Sir Everton Weekes, perhaps, but Sir Fred?
Modest and down-to-earth in so many respects, he was blunt in discussing his ambitions: “The positions I most coveted were Minister of Finance, Prime Minister and Governor General.” He was perhaps the best potential Prime Minister that never was, of the many ambitious politicians of the last 50 years. But the moral of his story and his brilliant, successful life is: “Study hard, work hard, be something and contribute to your country.” Well done and well said, Sir Fred. And congratulations on your lives, Lois, and on the book, Alan! It should be essential reading for us all.
(Professor Fraser is Past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology. Website: profhenryfraser.com)