Richard Hart obituary

Richard Hart, West Indian trade unionist and historian of the CaribbeanIt was with great sadness that we learned of the death of Richard Hart, who passed away at the end of last year aged 96. Hart was a central figure in People’s Freedom Movement in Jamaica in the 1950s, and later in life became a Pluto author: his book From Occupation to Independence: A History of the Peoples of the English-Speaking Caribbean Region was published in 1998.

The following obituary written by Richard Drayton was published in the Guardian on Thursday 20th February.


My friend Richard Hart, who has died aged 96, was a central figure in the early history of West Indian trade unions and nationalist politics. In Britain, where he lived from 1965 onwards, he became a prolific and influential historian of the Caribbean.

Born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, into a wealthy family, he was sent to a British boarding school, Denstone college, in Staffordshire. He later joked that this experience made him a “class traitor”, teaching him what it meant to be not white and a colonial.

Dick returned to Jamaica in 1937 and the following year became a founder member of the People’s National party (PNP). He was also a troublemaking journalist and a key trade union organiser. After qualifying as a solicitor in 1941 he served as president of the Jamaica Government Railway Employees’ Union (1942-48). The colonial government detained him twice as a subversive during the second world war.

In 1945 he helped found the Caribbean Labour Congress. As its general secretary (1947-53), he was involved in organisation and disputes up and down the island chain.

An open Marxist, in 1952 Dick was one of four expelled as “communists” from the PNP. In 1953 he founded and led the People’s Freedom Movement (later the Socialist Party of Jamaica), while practising as a solicitor.

In 1963 he left for British Guiana, now Guyana, to edit the Mirror, the organ of the then ruling People’s Progressive party. From there he went to Britain, where he worked as a local authority solicitor in Surrey, and later lived in London and Bristol. Even in his 90s he was active in black British cultural and political life, notably as a founder of Caribbean Labour Solidarity in 1974. In 1982, he returned briefly to the Caribbean when invited by Maurice Bishop to be attorney general of the revolutionary government of Grenada.

Dick was part of a wave of historians who around 1940 began to show how slave resistance across the Americas was central to the ending of African slavery. Following his two-volumed Slaves Who Abolished Slavery (1980-85), he published four books on the history of national politics in Jamaica and the Caribbean after 1945. He received honorary degrees from the universities of the West Indies, Hull and the West of England, and was honoured by the Society for Caribbean Studies, which he helped found in 1976. His last book, a history of the British in Jamaica, was published in 2013.

A wit and a composer of comic songs and verse, Dick had an extraordinary curiosity about people and things, and cultivated friends in every walk of life. His correspondence with the Rev John Bennett in Guyana between 1965 and 1982 led to an Arawak-English dictionary (1989) and was published as Kabethechino (1991).

Dick is survived by Avis Ho-Young, his partner for more than 50 years, three sons, one daughter and eight grandchildren.

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