Caribbean Beat Magazine

Compassion and power

Ian McDonald on Sweetening Bitter Sugar: Jock Campbell: The Booker Reformer in British Guiana, 1934–1966, by Clem Seecharan


Issue No. 3 – February 2005

Ian McDonald on Sweetening Bitter Sugar: Jock Campbell: The Booker Reformer in British Guiana, 1934–1966, by Clem Seecharan

Sweetening Bitter Sugar: Jock Campbell: The Booker Reformer in British Guiana, 1934–1966, by Clem Seecharan (Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 9766-371-938, 675 pp)

In my last months at Cambridge University, in early 1955, I was offered a number of jobs, including one by the Shell Oil Company to work for them in Trinidad, where I had been born and lived as a boy and gone to school. I had decided to take up this offer when out of the blue I was asked if I would be interested in a job in British Guiana with the sugar company Bookers. The job sounded interesting and I went up to London to meet the chairman of Bookers, Jock Campbell, for an interview over lunch. It is nearly fifty years ago, but I remember that meeting as if I were there earlier today.

I had already met a number of very remarkable men, including my tutor at Cambridge, the future Regius Professor of Modern History, Geoffrey Elton; the dedicated and daunting English lecturer, critic, and editor, F.R. Leavis; the celebrated economist Arthur Lewis of St Lucia; and an astonishing sportsman named Dennis Silk, who later became president of the MCC; but now I found Jock Campbell easily the most charismatic man I had encountered in my life.

It is impossible to convey by simple description the force and compelling attractiveness of a truly charismatic person. How can you exactly describe an emanation of energy, a unique aura that goes far beyond physique and appearance and words uttered? The word derives via ecclesiastical Latin from the Greek kharisma, meaning a divinely conferred power or talent. That captures something of the essence of what is involved, since it infers that the charismatic person attracts and deserves devotion. I was a Jock devotee from the very start.
Jock Campbell’s eloquence made the heart beat faster, and my young undergraduate mind and soul responded to his fervour. That first meeting lasted for a long time, well past the cheese and liqueur part of lunch, and by the end I was completely and utterly converted to this extraordinary man’s vision of how practical good could be done in this world. I have been in the Guyana sugar industry for nearly fifty years, and I have never stopped looking upon what has to be done not just as a job — though of course it is that, too, and has to be done well — but also as a sort of crusade. The Jock effect has never really worn off.

I remember him at that meeting as restlessly enthusiastic, inspired with convictions that he could hardly contain. I recall to this day how one expansive gesture scattered green peas all over the table. I was enthralled by the man and the story he told, and the ambitions he held and wanted to explain. Jock told me then of his early days in British Guiana and his shock at the terrible conditions he saw at first hand on his family plantations, and his determination to introduce root and branch reform as soon as he had the authority. He described the steps he had already taken to reorganise completely the chaotic shambles of the sprawling Booker empire in British Guiana into separate companies with their own boards and well-defined areas of operation and responsibility: Bookers Sugar Estates, Bookers Stores, Bookers Shipping, Bookers Rum, and Bookers Industrial Holdings. He had put in train, and was determined to carry through, a revolution in the whole ethos of Bookers — how it was run, what it would try to achieve, how people throughout the whole organisation must be made to matter. He told me of the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement — I found out later that he was its principal architect — which provided a secure basis on which to build improved conditions for those who worked in sugar.

For the first time — and I was to have the concept elaborated often in the future — Jock gave me a glimpse of his belief that Bookers had to exercise a four-fold responsibility: to shareholders, who provided the investment and deserved a return; to employees, who were the company’s lifeblood and deserved decent remuneration and ever-improving life conditions; to customers, without whose satisfaction no business could exist; and to the community and country in which the business operated, since the ultimate test of a company was how much it contributed to the enrichment and modernisation of the whole civic body. Nowadays, the concept of balanced responsibilities in the business world may seem well worn, but fifty years ago it was new and revelatory. If any concept held sway then, it was the imperative of maximising profit, which Jock rejected completely.

Fifty years on, I find Professor Clem Seecharan’s book on Jock Campbell magnificent. Because I held Jock in such esteem, and still hold his memory in high honour, if this book had fallen short in telling his story I think I would have been the first to be critical. But it measures up exceedingly well to the man and what he tried to do and what he achieved. It is a book of immense significance in telling the story of Guyana at a particularly important juncture in its history — the era just prior to independence. But, for me, it is also a book which tells the story, and fills in countless interesting details, about the life of an extraordinary man who was my friend and mentor in an unforgettable period of my life.

I joined Bookers, in 1955, at a time when the Jock Campbell revolution was in full flow. I found myself in the middle of a process in which Bookers was being completely recreated. In this process, the sugar industry in British Guiana was transformed from a run-down, unprofitable, inhuman, paternalistic, and plantocratic expatriate family concern into a rehabilitated, forward-looking, productive, and dynamic enterprise basically run by Guyanese for the much improved good of Guyanese and Guyana.

Sugar production grew from 170,000 tons to 350,000 tons. Estates were consolidated and factories modernised. Drainage and irrigation facilities and the whole infrastructure of field works were completely revamped. Agricultural practices and applications were overhauled in line with current world-class technology. The first sugar bulk-loading terminal in the Caribbean was established, to replace the drudgery of loading sugar in bags.

And the people side of the industry was simply revolutionised: remuneration vastly increased; the old logies (communal housing structures similar to those known elsewhere in the Caribbean as barrack-yards) eliminated, and 15,000 new houses in 75 housing areas built, with roads and water supplied; medical services upgraded to cater for all sugar workers and their families, and the scourge of malaria eradicated; community centres established on all estates, and welfare, sporting, cultural, and library activities expanded; training and education immensely stepped up; a world-class apprentice training centre established; a cadet scheme and scholarships introduced; and, all along, Guyanisation pressed forward until the time came when the industry was being run almost entirely by Guyanese. It was an era of tremendous growth and change for the better in the sugar industry, and indeed throughout all the enterprises making up the Booker Group in Guyana at the time.

I cannot forget that wonderful time. All that was being done was captured in a sentence Jock Campbell as chairman used in all his key addresses: “People are more important than ships, shops, and sugar estates.” We tried to act in the belief that business could not possibly just be about making money, if only because that would be soul-destroyingly boring. Business had to be about making the lives of people better and more fulfilled. People, in any case, always came first, however you considered what you were trying to do in business. Creating profit was vital, not just for its own sake, but for good, everyday, ordinarily human, immediately flesh and blood, life-enhancing purposes.

Working in that old Bookers with Jock Campbell was marvellously exhilarating. There was a feeling of fervour and achievement — even, in a small way, of being involved in making history. Getting things done in a good, progressive cause was the essence of the job, not simply maximising efficiency and making profits, which were to be seen as necessary means and never as ultimate ends. I remember the clear purpose, the hard but satisfying work, the extraordinary leadership, the good humour, the enthusiasm and high spirits, the overall intelligent humanity of the operation, the camaraderie and the sense of fulfilment.

Seecharan’s book is a big book in every sense — well over 600 pages in length, brimmingly rich in original research, scholarly detail, and precious interview material, above all large in purpose and achievement. I am sure it will be considered an absolutely essential text in understanding a crucial era in Guyana’s history, and as time goes on I believe it will be regarded as a classic in the nation’s intellectual journey.

You can get a good idea of the scope of the book from glancing at its table of contents, which sets out the results of the writer’s ten-year scholarly odyssey in eight main parts:

• Part 1: Forces that Shaped a Radical Temperament
• Part 2: The Guyanese Sugar Plantation and the Making of a Reformer, 1934–1940
• Part 3: Getting into Stride: The Case for Reform Vindicated, 1941–1949
• Part 4: Revolution or Reform?: Jagan’s Marxism vs Campbell’s Reformism
• Part 5: Sweetening “Bitter Sugar” I: Shaping the Instruments for Reform
• Part 6: Sweetening “Bitter Sugar” II: Modernising Booker, 1950–l951
• Part 7: Sweetening “Bitter Sugar” III: Reforms on the Plantations, 1934–1964
• Part 8: Jagan, Campbell, and the Politics of Sugar in the Context of the Cold War, 1960–1964

I believe that, every step of the way, the reader will be challenged and fascinated by the author’s findings. I confess that most fascinating to me are the chapters on Jock Campbell before he got personally involved in Guyana, simply because these details of his ancestry, his childhood and youth, his years at Oxford and before he came out to British Guiana for the first time (to break off a love affair at the behest of his parents), are substantially new to me — as, indeed, is much of the material in the important chapters telling the story of the years in Bookers, leading up to the time he became chairman in 1952 and took charge of his life’s work.

Nevertheless, the central core of Seecharan’s seminal book are the chapters on Jock Campbell’s impact on the Guyana sugar industry, and therefore on the history of the country in the pre-independence era of Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham, and I suppose these are the chapters which will be read with the most avid interest. In this respect, it may well be that Seecharan’s analysis will be considered controversial by many, especially the politicians. In this book, Jock Campbell’s contribution in radically reforming the sugar industry in Guyana is seen as absolutely vital, far more far-reaching and fundamental than political leaders of the time gave him credit for.

In any such controversy, I am sure of one thing — Jock Campbell was not forced by any politician into doing the good that he did: his astonishing achievements in restructuring and humanising the industry were conceived and carried through with great determination out of an inner desire to change and improve the lives of hundreds of thousands for the better. Having said this, I would be the first to agree that Jock himself saw things a little differently. In a letter to me in February 1984, after then attorney general Mohamed Shahabudeen had published his book From Plantocracy to Nationalisation, Jock put it like this:

I suppose I could claim that if I could not get the confidence of shareholders and bankers I could not do all the things I wanted to do. But the truth is that Guyanese pressures forced the pace; and enabled me to gain acceptance of reforms that never would have been accepted in a quiescent Guyana.

I am particularly pleased that Seecharan in this book frequently captures Jock Campbell not only as a man who conceived and carried out great tasks as a captain of industry, business philosopher, a major figure in the world of sugar, and an important player in Guyana’s history, but also as an individual who intensely believed in the importance of small causes. This trait in Jock especially appealed to me. In fact, I think it is a mark of true greatness in a person.

It was Jock who showed me the passage from Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago in which Strelnikov, caught in the in the huge ebb and flow of the Russian Revolution, amid the tremendous events taking place all around him, the giant turns and turnabouts of history, suddenly realises that the small concerns of individual men and women are what count in the end:

And in order to do good to others he needed, besides the principles that filled his mind, an unprincipled heart — the kind of heart that knows of no general causes, but only of particular ones and knows the greatness of small actions.

Understanding the importance of small causes, appreciating the greatness of small actions: that is the essence of compassion in the exercise of power, and that is what Jock Campbell most certainly and most deeply understood.

I remember him as the man who told us in no uncertain terms that no person is ever redundant, only jobs, and we were never to forget that. I remember him as the man who often reminded me, and others, that it was important to pay attention to one man’s grievance as well as to three-year plans. And I vividly remember him as the man who, when he retired as chairman, asked me to keep an eye on six old pensioners who had given him good service in his younger days, and make sure every Christmas to send them a card and a gift on his behalf — which I faithfully did until one by one over the years they died. And so it came to one last Christmas when I had only one card and one gift to send, and my last communication from Jock was a Christmas card of his own, scribbled in his distinctive hand, wishing myself and my family the blessings of the season and, in a postscript, thanking me for again doing him the small service of sending that last old pensioner his greetings and gift for work done so long ago and still so well remembered.

In a letter to me once, he quoted approvingly a saying of the American Irving Howe: “There is utopia and utopia. The kind imposed by an elite in the name of an historical imperative, that utopia is hell. It must lead to terror and then, terror exhausted, to cynicism and torpor. But surely there is another utopia. It cannot be willed into existence or out of sight. It speaks for our sense of what may yet be.” Jock Campbell himself had a profound sense of what should be attempted and what might be achieved in the cause of a better society. All his working life he strove pragmatically to improve the lives of people whom his decisions touched.

I remember it all so vividly. I see now, more clearly than ever, that we lived and worked in an exceptional time for an extraordinary man. I am more pleased than I can say that in Clem Seecharan Jock Campbell has found a historian worthy of his remarkable personality and achievements, and in Sweetening Bitter Sugar a classic book which preserves his legacy for new generations.