The Mysterious Case of the Slain Prime Minister's Missing Remains
Alimenta Bishop went to her grave last month without ever learning the whereabouts of her son.
She was 97 when she died.
“Every time I ask why can’t I get a word about my son’s body, they are saying to forgive,” she once remarked. “But I am saying, ‘How can I forgive when I don’t have results about my son?’”
Alimenta’s son was none other than Maurice Bishop, the left-wing prime minister of the Caribbean island of Grenada, who was first deposed and later executed, on Oct. 19, 1983, along with at least seven others, including three government ministers.
Their remains have never been found – a mystery that assumes additional poignancy now, with the 30th anniversary of their deaths just a month or so away.
A cool, charismatic man, and a committed socialist to boot, Bishop ascended to power in Grenada – popularly known as “the Spice Isle” – when he overthrew his long-ruling predecessor, an erratic autocrat named Sir Eric Gairy, in March 1979.
Described by Bishop and his comrades as a revolution, the change of power has been recorded in the history books as the English-speaking Caribbean’s first-ever coup d’état. It might better be portrayed as a tropical stick-up.
Whatever you call it, the take-over was good news for the Cubans, who gained a small but welcome regional ally, and a source of extreme alarm for neighbouring Caribbean islands, whose leaders feared a fate similar to Gairy's. It was also a minor but persistent aggravation to Washington, which seemed to be losing its grip on small, nearby countries.
Bernard Coard took care of all that.
As deputy prime minister in the newly installed People’s Revolutionary Government, Coard and his wife, Phyllis, were initially among Bishop’s closest allies, but a rift opened between them and continued to widen until Oct. 13, 1983, when the Coards and their allies put the prime minister under house arrest. They were backed by defense minister Hudson Austin.
Less than a week later, on Oct. 19, a large crowd of Bishop’s supporters rounded upon the prime minister’s residence and managed to free the ousted leader.
Accompanied by education minister Jacqueline Creft, foreign minister Unison Whiteman, housing minister Norris Bain, and several other associates, Bishop led the protesters on a march toward the island’s military headquarters, then known as Fort Rupert.
That possibly impulsive decision ended in disaster.
Soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing many and injuring more. The soldiers then captured Bishop and seven others – including ministers Creft, Whiteman, and Bain – whom they promptly executed.
A similar chain of events would horrify people in any country, no matter its size. But imagine how shocking that week must have been for the inhabitants of a miniscule island-state with a population at the time of about 90,000 – roughly the size of Peterborough, ON.
The leaders of Barbados and other neighbouring Caribbean states called on the U.S. to intervene, which it soon did, dispatching warships and ground troops to the distressed island, in an operation that outraged many on the left but that was warmly applauded by a vast majority of Grenadians.
Bernard and Phyllis Coard were put on trial for their role in the bloody upheaval, as were defense minister Austin and 14 others – collectively known as the Grenada 17. They were released from prison three years ago.
But the fallen prime minister’s remains, like those of his murdered comrades, have never been found.
Last year, the Grenada Conference of Churches sponsored a diligent search. Guided by eye witnesses to the killings, a team of nine forensic anthropologists probed for evidence in the St. George's Cemetery, on the side nearest the National Stadium.
They did manage to locate a quantity of bones. Unfortunately, they weren’t the right ones.
“A future search may yield more positive results but would involve resources well beyond the scope of the Conference,” said Father Seon Doggett, a spokesman for the church group that led the effort.
And so the mystery grinds on.
Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto