Bird, Vere Cornwall (Antigua and Barbuda)
A dominant figure in Antiguan politics for more than 50 years, Sir Vere Cornwall Bird led his country to independence from Great Britain and was its first prime minister, holding office from 1981–94. He was credited with turning Antigua into one of the more prosperous of the Eastern Caribbean States, though his rule was marred by allegations of nepotism and corruption.
Vere Cornwall Bird was born on 7 Dec. 1909 in the slums of the capital, St. John’s. He had no formal post-primary education but enlisted in the Salvation Army when aged 18, serving for 2 years and attaining the rank of captain.
In 1939 Bird helped found the Antigua Trades and Labour Union (ATLU), the island’s first union. In 1943 it won legal status and he became its president, a position he held until 1973. Bird worked to secure the rights of workers against oppressive and exploitative conditions, particularly in the sugar industry. He pressured plantation owners to turn over plots and homes to the sugar harvesters who had been their tenants, and fought to improve basic infrastructure. He oversaw improved conditions of work and pay, as well as the abolition of child labour.
Like other Caribbean contemporaries, Bird used union activism as a springboard to political office. After the formation of the Antigua Labor Party, Bird was elected to the colonial legislature in 1945. In 1946 he became a member of the executive council, securing universal adult suffrage in 1951. That same year, union representatives led by Bird won all eight elected seats on the local legislature, a feat repeated at each election until 1967.
Bird was a key figure at the 1947 Montego Bay Conference in Jamaica that led to the creation of the West Indian Federation (WIF). After the collapse of the WIF in 1962, Bird was instrumental (along with Errol Barrow of Barbados and Forbes Burnham of Guyana) in establishing the Caribbean Free Trade Association in 1965 (known as the Caribbean Community and Common Market from 1973).
On 11 Jan. 1960 Bird became first chief minister of Antigua and spearheaded attempts to diversify the economy away from its reliance on sugar. A deep water port and international airport (later renamed Vere Bird International) was built to boost tourism, while a construction boom was fuelled by hotel and resort development.
In 1966 Bird led a delegation to the United Kingdom to seek independence. Britain agreed to Associated Status, giving Antigua and Barbuda’s government control of all internal affairs while defence and foreign affairs continued to be directed from London. In Feb. 1967 Bird was appointed the country’s first premier.
Following elections in 1971, his government was succeeded by George Walter’s Progressive Labour Movement administration. Despite allegations that he had orchestrated bombing campaigns to undermine the Walter government, Bird was re-elected to the premiership in 1976 and had Walter imprisoned for corruption. Bird secured another election victory in 1980, with the nation winning full independence from London a year later and Bird taking the office of prime minister.
He hung on to power for another 10 years. Although he had overseen improvements in the education and telecommunications system and the introduction of free medical services, he was subject to allegations of corruption, nepotism, bribery and money laundering. The Bird family were linked to drug- and gun-running scandals from the late 1970s until the 1990s. In March 1994 Bird retired from politics and was succeeded by his son, Lester Bryant Bird.
Upon retirement Bird was formally accorded the status of the country’s first National Hero and in July 1998 was awarded the Order of the Caribbean Community in recognition of his role in the development of the region. He died on 28 June 1999.