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Perhaps one of the most human accounts of T&T’s transition into Independence was provided by the late Eustace Bernard, a former Police Commissioner, who wrote in his book, Against the Odds of an incident that took place on the night of August 30, 1962, outside the Red House as the national flag was being raised for the first time.
Bernard recalled: “A petty officer of the Coast Guard was given the signal honour. I, however, noticed that the officer was unsteady and swaying, and realised that his nerves had gotten the better of him.
“I kept telling him, “Swallow your saliva, man, swallow your saliva.” He tried manfully, but just at the moment the British flag was lowered, he collapsed. I caught him in the crook of my left arm and with my right, pushed another Coast Guard man in position, telling him “pull the flag,” which he did. And so, Trinidad and Tobago became the 15th nation of the British Commonwealth.”
Many citizens alive today, 55 years after that landmark event, can’t even begin to imagine the range of emotions that swept across the twin islands on that night.
Beyond the nervousness of that Coast Guard officer faced with a key role at an historic event, the uncertainty of the road ahead must have generated a great deal of anxiety and fear mixed in with all the excitement of becoming an independent nation.
By some accounts, the very idea of becoming independent from Great Britain was unsettling for many citizens. This was not a status fought for and won in the usual way but the result of a process started a few years earlier as the British Empire sought to divest itself of its many dependencies.
Independence followed close on the heels of a failed attempt to establish an independent West Indies Federation comprising most of the former British West Indies. Disagreement led to Jamaica’s withdrawal, inspiring that famous declaration by our founding father Dr Eric Williams: “One from ten leaves nought.”
The Federation collapsed and T&T achieved full independence via the Trinidad and Tobago Independence Act 1962 on August 31, 1962.
Independence from Great Britain resulted in a twin-island nation within the Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth II as its titular head of state, Dr Williams as its first Prime Minister and Sir Solomon Hochoy as Governor General.
This was a nation stepping into a vast unknown of political, social and economic responsibilities.
All these decades later, patriotism and a tinge of romanticism lead to more focus on the pomp and splendour of the festivities on that first Independence Day. That is because faded newspaper clippings and old Government Broadcasting Unit (GBU) film footage of the nation’s birth cannot capture the range of emotions that must have swept across our islands as the red, white and black T&T flag was raised for the first time.
By today’s standards, the crowd of just 40,000 people gathered on the grounds of the Red House in Port-of-Spain to witness the country’s first few minutes of independence might seem small.
The country has grown in so many ways since then and continues to develop and transform in a world that is radically different from the one that existed in August 1962.
On that first Independence morning, T&T was at the end of a long road to self government—a journey that started decades earlier in 1924 with the granting of the rights to vote, the granting of universal adult suffrage in 1945 and development of the electoral and governing process.
The end of one journey, however, was also the start of another which continues to this day as the country strives for developed nation status.
New challenges have emerged for a nation still struggling, after more than five decades, to grasp the full significance of independence and the responsibilities involved.
What we celebrate today is that Trinidad and Tobago still stand together, two islands in the Caribbean, growing, learning, struggling, evolving and leaving their mark on the globe.
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