Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw was born on the 16th September 1916 in St. Paul’s Village, St. Kitts. His mother, Mary Jane Francis was a twenty-year-old domestic servant, his father William Bradshaw was a blacksmith who migrated to the US when his son was only nine months old. Young Robert, who was described by some as a dull and reticent youth, was brought up by his grandmother who ensured that he behaved himself and went to school. The family was far from being wealthy, there was no luxury but food was plentiful and fresh. Robert’s grandmother was responsible for his discovery of something called the Union (the popular name of The St. Kitts Benevolent Association). Every morning before going to school, she took him with her to Belmont Estate where she worked to help her weed cane. On Mondays she would give him a penny or threepenny bit as her Union dues. This, the boy had to give to Gabriel Douglas, the local Union representative who lived just at the entrance to the school.
At the Sugar Factory
By age 16, Robert had earned three Seven Standard Certificates, the highest education attainment in the primary schools of the period. He had even taught as a pupil teacher for a short while before he went to Basseterre where he became a machine apprentice at The St. Kitts (Basseterre) Sugar Factory, the most prestigious employer in the Presidency. His mother was then caretaker of the guest house at the Factory and young Robert moved in with her and got a glimpse of life at the managerial level. The disparity between the lives of the white managers at the factory and those of the black workers in the village where he grew up troubled him greatly. When one day he accidentally discovered a torn document showing the profits made by the factory, he realised the extent of exploitation that was taking place.
In the machine shop, Adam Claxton, a welder, suggested that Bradshaw should join the Workers' League. His membership was seconded by Harry Audain. However his hopes of career as a machinist ended when, in an accident, Bradshaw injured his right hand and the doctors were unable to restore its full use. He continued to be employed in the tool room of the machine shop but he also turned his attention to more academic pursuits. His mother paid for a correspondence course with the Regent Institute in England and two boys from the St. Kitts-Nevis Grammar School who worked in the Factory Laboratory helped him with his studies. Later, Charles Halbert, the owner of a bookshop in Basseterre and a strong advocate of black pride and self-sufficiency became his friend and confidant and helped to inspire and mold his political ideas.
Politics and Trade Unionism
1940 marked a turning point in Bradshaw’s involvement in the union. A strike for higher wages cost him his job at the Factory and he was taken on at the newly formed St. Kitts Nevis Trades and Labour Union as a clerk. Bradshaw also became the first secretary of the Sugar Factory Section of the Union and a member of the Executive Committee. In 1944, following the death of J. MatthewSebastian, Bradshaw became Union President and vice-president of the Workers’ League and four years later lead the Union through the throes of the Thirteen Week Strike. The scope of labour activity had broadened as it was recognised that wages were not the only problem facing the workers of St. Kitts and change had to involve every aspect of life if the situation was to improve. Among the achievements of the period was the fact that workers could no longer be arbitrarily charged for not reporting for work.
The 1948 strike sparked off the Soulbury Commission of Inquiry into the organization of the sugar industry and the Labour Leader was appointed to it. Throughout the hearings, Bradshaw noticed that the planters and factory management had the ears of the Commission but the workers were not given a fair hearing. Dissatisfied with the Commission’s conclusions, Bradshaw wrote a minority segment which was included in the report. He even went to England in an effort to bring this bias to the attention of the Colonial Office. The prolonged nature of the strike drove the more conservative middle class into an alliance with the planter class and the Democratic Party was launched.
Bradshaw’s activities were not limited to the local scene. In 1945 he took part in the establishment of the Caribbean Congress of Labour and was elected its first assistant secretary. In 1947 he represented St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla at the “Closer Union” Conference for the amalgamation of the Windward and Leeward Islands and at the Montego Bay Conference which discussed the Federation of the West Indies. Two years later he participated in the establishment of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in Brussels and was elected to its first Executive Committee.
In 1950 Operation Blackburne found Bradshaw on the streets of Basseterre leading a huge demonstration. It was an effort on the part of the Labour Movement to draw attention to its claim that the Colonial Office should consult the representatives of the people before the appointment of Governors and Administrators for the Caribbean colonies.
Participation in Government
Bradshaw was elected along with J.N. France and Maurice Davis to the island’s Legislative Council in 1946 and later became a member of the Leeward Islands General Legislative Council. He was again elected in 1952 when universal suffrage was introduced. When a ministerial system came into effect in 1956, Bradshaw was appointed Minister of Trade and Production. It was during this period that a rift developed between himself and Maurice Davis and R.J. Gordon of Nevis. It was symptomatic of the growing hostility between the Labour movement on one hand and the middle class and the people of Nevis on the other.
In 1958 Bradshaw was elected to the Federal Parliament and held the position of Minister of Finance. When the Federation was dissolved in 1962, Bradshaw felt that “we were ruining the one great opportunity we had of making ourselves a recognizable grouping on a national scale in the world.... the populations had given their leaders a mandate to form a Federation and bring it to Nationhood. The fact that we did not do so meant that we failed the people.” It was with a sense of weariness that he greeted the next attempt at regional integration as it took shape in the form of CARIFTA and later CARICOM. His commitment to the concept had not faltered but a sense of skepticism over how far it could go invaded some of his public speeches.
After the dissolution of the West Indies Federation, Bradshaw returned to St. Kitts and re-occupied a place in the local legislature. Milton Pentonville Allen, relinquished his seat in the Legislature giving the returning Bradshaw the opportunity to return to the House. He won the by-election by a landslide. After the elections of 1966, Robert Bradshaw was sworn in as Chief Minister and on the 27th February 1967 he became the first Premier of the Associated State of St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla.
The granting of Statehood opened the door to secession. Bradshaw had never quite reconciled the economic differences in systems of production of the three islands. St. Kitts was the only one of the three that had a largely landless labour force dependent on sugar earnings. It became the power base of the Labour Movement. However Nevisians and Anguillians were mostly self-employed giving rise to a different point of view in economic, social and political development. Those that made the move to St. Kitts often found that the policies advocated by the Labour Movement worked to their benefit but the ones that stayed behind did not share the experience.
With encouragement of the People’s Action Movement and the procurement of financing from interested foreigners, Anguilla opted for secession immediately. Agitation progressed leading inevitably to British Government intervention. Bradshaw, who had watched with anguish the disintegration of the West Indies Federation was being called upon to dismember his own tiny state into its separate components. He refused to allow secession on the grounds that the constitution stipulated that any such move must be initiated by the Legislature of the Associated State. He felt compelled to stop such disintegration and perhaps driven by this obsession his methods lacked a sound legal foundation. Such was the case on the issue of the detention of suspects, a matter that brought him in conflict with the Governor, himself a constitutional lawyer. Sir Fred Phillip advised that charges be brought immediately and that these be as specific as possible so that a detainee could rebut them without difficulty to avoid challenges in court. However in this instance emotions were running strong and Bradshaw chose to ignore the advice of the Governor and lost the case. In the end, the metropolitan government achieved secession for Anguilla by the enactment of an Order-in-Council. Nevis lingered on threatening to secede at any time but the Premier remained committed to a unitary state and a West Indian Federation.
Outside of politics, Bradshaw had a flare for fine living. This was demonstrated in his interest in antiques which he avidly collected on his trips abroad often to the consternation of those who accompanied him and knew nothing of the value of the items he purchased in markets of England and elsewhere. He also had a taste for good cigars and fine wines and. He also showed a great deal on interest in heraldry. When designs for the Coat of Arms for the new Associated State were submitted, he critically and authoritatively examined all submissions and after some alterations presented the Executive council with a design that he considered “original and appropriate.”
In 1975 the two major campaign issues in the general elections were “that the sugar lands should irrevocably remain the property of the State and that rapid progress towards independent status within the Commonwealth” be sought. Independence talks started in earnest in 1977.
Through out his career, Bradshaw maintained a great interest in the Sugar industry in St. Kitts. Its survival and the welfare of the workers that depended on it were of great concern to him both as a political and as a trade union leader. With the acceptance of Ministerial powers came the responsibility for a viable economy. In the mid-1960s sugar production and international sugar prices were both in decline. Bradshaw embarked on a two-pronged solution - the rescue of the industry and diversification of the economy. Sugar could not be abandoned as seventy per cent of government’s revenue was generated by it and the employment of many Kittitians who were the basis of the political strength of the Labour Movement was dependent on it. However rescue operations were being thwarted by the indiscriminate sale of sugar lands and the inability of the planters to effectively put in place the measures required for the survival of the industry. So in 1975 Bradshaw took the bold step of acquiring the sugar lands and later, the sugar factory. To many planters the move came as a relief but then within a very short space of time their expectation in the way of payment multiplied to a sum far in excess of what the government was prepared to offer. Whilst the land stayed under cane, the matter of payment became the subject of a legal battle that was not resolved till much later.
Meanwhile, underscoring the concept of hard work and self-sufficiency Bradshaw and his administration set about putting in place the machinery that would give the future micro-state a chance to survive. The Central Marketing Corporation was set up to assist local agricultural and fisheries producers to effectively tap the local market and to find markets abroad. Ventures in industrial development as in the case of Calypso Clothes were encouraged and where necessary initiated with Government backing. Similar strategies were applied to tourism particularly to the building of the Royal St. Kitts Hotel in Frigate Bay. Infrastructural development took place at the airport and the deepwater port. Finally to ensure that the citizens of the new state would continue to enjoy the prosperity generated by these new projects, Bradshaw established a Social Security Scheme. For those who wanted to invest in land, houses or business or to save for a rainy day there was the creation of the National Bank of St. Kitts Nevis and Anguilla which was prepared to facilitate the needs of Kittitians more readily than the foreign banks.
By the time Independence talks commenced in earnest in 1977, the foundation of the new state had been placed on sound footings. But the Premier was then a very sick man. He underwent major surgery in St. Kitts in 1976 and had to undergo another major operation in London in January 1978. He died on the 23rd May of that year surrounded by family and friends at his home in Fortlands, Basseterre to which he had expressed a desire to return. Commenting on his legacy, The London Times said, “he has left behind him in St. Kitts a solid structure of social services and amenities considering the slight resources of his State.” Sir Fred Phillip who had to deal with him during the Anguilla crisis said, “For all his faults, he was a man of high principles and had the courage of his own convictions.” On the 16th September 1998, the Labour Government of Dr. Denzil Douglas posthumously conferred on him the title of Knight Commander of the Order of The National Hero.