Caribbean crusade of the rebel peer


Mark Branagan (Express, 23 September 2018) writes about Oliver Ridsdale Baldwin, 2nd Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, who served as governor of the Leeward Islands from 1948 until 1950, and was based in Antigua. The article underlines his unconventionality and the rejection he suffered for his homosexuality, for his socialist policies, and for not adhering to strict (racist) social conventions of the time. Branagan writes:

Trouble was brewing in paradise when prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s son became the spy who came in from the cold. Arriving in the blazing Caribbean heat in 1948 from drab, post-war London, Oliver Baldwin was the shock choice for Governor of the Leeward Islands.

The Labour peer and former major in Military Intelligence was greeted with suspicion by the sugar planters who lorded it over thousands of downtrodden islanders.

Although a lover of cloak and dagger, he arrived at Government House on Antigua to find that his reputation had preceded him. Oliver had already fought in the Great War, fallen out with his uncle Rudyard Kipling, been elected an MP and spent time in jail wrongly accused of spying for Russia. He came to the diplomatic service straight from Casablanca, having spent the Second World War as a spy in North Africa.

But despite his dashing good looks and privileged background Oliver Ridsdale Baldwin, 2nd Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, had never really “belonged” anywhere. [. . .] As a young man, Baldwin had been virtually adopted as a son by Kipling, whose own boy Jack died in the First War Battle of Loos. But Uncle Rudyard was horrified when he discovered that his favourite nephew was homosexual. The rift would last beyond the poet’s death as Baldwin continued to attack his relative’s rigid views.

While the Second World War had swept away the past in Europe, in the Leeward Islands life was going on as it always had. For centuries, the local economy had been based on sugar – a trade controlled by the British using the island population more or less as slave labour. Little had changed by January 1948, when Baldwin took charge of Antigua, Montserrat, Barbuda and St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla.

[. . .] Arriving in Antigua on March 23, three weeks after his 49th birthday, with his life partner John Boyle, Baldwin was shocked by the chasm between rich and poor. He wrote home: “There is a great deal to do. I find the owners thinking I have a bomb in each pocket and the black workers expect me to bring them a new world.”

There was a honeymoon period in which he sorted out the age-old water shortage. Long lost files in the National Archives reveal how he paid for water diviner Claud Bell to come from Jamaica to search for wells and underground streams to water both cattle and population. The files record: “By June 1948, he was able to report the digging and sinking of five wells and successful supply of water to locals. He attempted to make land (on government-owned plots) available for small agricultural holdings.”

Negotiations were opened with a Liverpool shipping firm to build refrigerated steamships to carry the tomato and fruit crops to the UK. He also founded a cottage industry in the use of bagasse, the fibrous matter that remains after sugarcane stalks are crushed to extract their juice. Even today, this is used in biofuel and building materials.

Baldwin had a journalistic and theatrical background, including staging amateur plays and musicals in 1930s London. Knowing the importance of music to the islanders, he actively sponsored the new steel bands, choosing names to irritate the establishment who were dismayed to find Red Army, Brute Force and Hell’s Gate playing outside Government House and at community fetes.

In case that failed to shock the white elite, he also started to invite the poor to black-tie events. Another letter recorded that Baldwin “went to a dance in aid of the hospital and danced with the blackest woman in the room, much to the annoyance of the whites”. [. . .]

How the true scale of caring Governor’s islands’ shake-up finally came to light

Oliver Baldwin’s time in office has been downplayed by those who despised him both as homosexual and socialist but a true picture of his legacy has emerged from two important files found in the National Archives. The first is a Colonial Office photographic album compiled by his private secretary, Ross Hutchinson.

Several years ago, the National Archives posted the album to photosharing site Flickr, trying to find out more about them. It seemed anyone who might know anything was dead, until US academic Dr Barbara Paca, Cultural Envoy to Antigua and Barbuda, put the Archives in touch with Jules Walter, an Antiguan now in the UK. Mr Walter, a historian and retired actor, identified key personalities in the album.

This led researcher Michael Mahoney to delve into the second secret file, revealing the controversy around his recall to London. “The brevity of Baldwin’s term might be an argument for a more steady-as-she-goes professional,” Mr Mahoney said. “However, this would overlook his achievements: his determination to mediate in strikes, to provide relief from poverty by providing a water supply, his support for cultural initiatives and social engagement among all the social classes. Above all, it seems that he strove to foster a more just and equitable society.”

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