The Caribbean’s Diplomat
Reflections on the contribution of Sir Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal, Chancellor Emeritus of The UWI
by Professor Norman Girvan
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Sir Shridath Ramphal: The Caribbean's Diplomat. Photography courtesy Sir Shridath Ramphal and Hansib Publications.
‘The Caribbean Community is now our regional mansion within a global home’. The words quoted above, from a speech to Caribbean jurists in 2009, sum up much of the essence of this extraordinary Caribbean statesman: regionalist, yet global; visionary, yet practical; erudite, yet accessible.
The man who was to become the Commonwealth’s longest serving Secretary General, and to put his unique stamp of excellence married to passionate commitment in national, regional and global affairs; was born as the second decade of the 20th century was coming to an uncertain end.
The people of the West Indies and of the entire colonial world were about to take charge of their history. And Sonny Ramphal would become one of their most brilliant and articulate spokesmen.
The place of birth was New Amsterdam, in what was then British Guiana. The provenance was at once East Indian and West Indian: his father, a descendant of indentured immigrants reaching Caribbean shores in the 1880s; his great-great grandfather on his mother’s side, an immigrant from Barbados.
“I have been a West Indian from the first moment of awareness of such things”; he recently declared; “and wherever I have lived in the region—from Guyana to Trinidad, to Jamaica, to Barbados—I have been in my West Indian home.”
Learning, and public service, infused the very pores of his upbringing. James I Ramphal was a pioneer of secondary education in British Guiana; becoming a headmaster, founding his own private school, and rising to become the first ‘native’ Labour Commissioner in the colony—anticipating his eldest child’s shattering of the informal colour bar applied to the Commonwealth’s highest office over 30 years later.
“He believed in the basic goodness within all men” recalls his son; a legacy that implanted confidence in the power of advocacy to move people to work for the common good.
Like many others of his generation, law was the chosen field of the younger Ramphal. A Bachelor’s degree from King’s College, London; the Bar; and a Master’s degree; followed in quick succession as the 1940s ended.
But if law was his profession, public affairs was to become his vocation.
His apprenticeship began in 1951 under the famous Dingle Foot, then chairman of the Britain’s Liberal Party; and continued with his return to British Guiana in 1953, the year of Britain’s infamous coup d’état which overthrew the democratically elected government of Cheddi Jagan.
As a young lawyer in the Attorney General’s office; he saw it all from the inside.
Yet it was regionalism, rather than Marxism, that captured his imagination; and constitutional law that became his specialisation. And when he worked as Assistant Attorney General in the Federal Government of the West Indies in 1958-1961—British Guiana’s absence of the Federation notwithstanding—it marked him for lifelong preoccupation.
The federal experiment died; but in the ensuing decades Sonny Ramphal was to play a key part in keeping alive the federal dream.