Dudley Thompson – the Burning Spear

Dudley Joseph Thompson, OJ, QC, was born January 19, 1917 and would gain world renown as a Jamaican Pan-Africanist, politician and diplomat. He made an indelible contribution to jurisprudence and politics in the Caribbean, Africa and in other international spheres.

Born in Panama to Daniel and Ruby Thompson, Thompson was raised in Westmoreland, Jamaica, where he was a student at The Mico (now Mico University College in the 1930s. He was a naturalized Jamaican citizen.

After a short period as headmaster of a rural school, he joined the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. He was one of Britain’s first black pilots and saw active service (1941-5) as a flight lieutenant in the RAF Bomber Command over Europe, and was awarded several decorations.

In 1946, he went to England to attend Merton College, Oxford, where he studied jurisprudence as a Rhodes Scholar, obtaining degrees as Bachelors of Arts and Bachelors of Civil Law.

From his university days he was a close associate of Pan-Africanists such as Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore and C.L.R. James. After qualifying as a barrister at Gray’s Inn in the early 1950s, and doing tutelage with Dingle Foot, QC, Thompson went on to practise law in Africa – in Tanganyika and Kenya, where he became involved in the nationalist movements.

He assembled the international legal team that defended Jomo Kenyattain his trial after he had been captured by the British colonialists in 1952 and subsequently charged with treason, accused of being an instigator of the Mau Mau rebellion.

Later as President of Kenya, Kenyatta memorably placed his hand on Thompson sitting beside him and said: “This man saved my life.” In Tanzania, where he was a friend of Julius Nyerere, Thompson is remembered as a founder of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU).

In 1955, Thompson returned to Jamaica to contribute to overcoming the challenges that confronted the masses. He continued to educate people about furthering the links between Africa and the Caribbean, visiting schools to deliver inspirational addresses about the continent. In one example, Jamaica-born writer Lindsay Barrett was inspired to decide to live in Africa by one of such visits that Thompson paid to his school in Clarendon College in 1957.

Thompson practised lawin Trinidad, Barbados, St. Kitts, Dominica, Bermuda, Grenada, The Bahamas, Belize and elsewhere in the West Indies, playing a role in the independence movements of both Belize and the Bahamas. He was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1963.

He served as a member of theJamaican Senate from 1962 to 1978 and a member of the House of Representatives from 1978 to 1983. In the People’s National Party (PNP) administration under Prime Minister Michael Manley, he was Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (1972-7), Minister of Mining and Natural Resources (1977-8), and Minister of National Security and Justice (1978-80). He was also a vice-president and later chairman of the PNP.

An outstanding legal mind, he was accomplished and created legacies in the fields he influenced. He represented Jamaica in many international forums, including the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Thompson was appointed Ambassador and High Commissioner to several African countries, including Nigeria, Ghana, Namibia and Sierra Leone, based in Nigeria until 1995.

In 1992 he was empanelled as a member of the Eminent Persons Group charged with implementing the movementfor reparations for slavery to Africa and the African diaspora, under the auspices of the OAU.

His legacy as a politician and lawyer preceded him into a fruitful life in the field of diplomacy and Pan Africanism where he managed to move tough mountains that for ages had divided African states.

“They (African states) are moving in that direction. The constitution is being ironed out now, a Parliament is being looked at, and I hope to see it before I die,” Thompson said in a Sunday Observer interview in 2010.

“The target is 2017, that’s seven years from now. In seven years from now I hope to see a federation or confederation of Africa. In seven years from now I will also be 100, God willing. I have been through it and I have known every one of the leaders,” Thompson said.

“It would mean one government of a whole Africa… a federal government, which would include the diaspora as the sixth district, by which I mean a jurisdiction of a Central Africa over North Africa, South Africa, East Africa, West Africa, Central Africa and the diaspora as an integral part of the African scenario. That is our aim, and once we do that we would place Africa, us, as a major player in global affairs.”

Thompson who earned the nickname ‘Burning Spear’ because of his defence of Kenyatta once said that Africa had been treated unfairly globally and he wanted all that to change.

“We have been so far cut off from Africa that I have been trying my very best to rejoin. We have neglected Africa, and we are African, no matter how you take it. We must consider ourselves non-resident Africans — Africans residing or naturalising abroad, whatever your citizenship, whatever your residence, whatever your domicile, our ancestors did not give up their citizenship… they didn’t have any passports. They were wrenched from the heart of Africa, taken by force and dispersed throughout the world.

“We who descended from them have always kept up that African-ness. Why is it that we feel good when we hear of a black success… a Michael Jackson, for example? Why is it that we feel good when we see a Muhammad Ali on top? It’s because we feel something with them. There is an ethnic relationship. We have never lost our African-ness and so we are Africans who happen to be residing abroad. That is our status. That is what I have been working for over the last five years in the World African Diaspora Union,” Thompson said.

The eminent lawyer felt the portrayal of Africa was quite unfair with people thinking of it as a continent only of corruption and military coups.

“That is there, but we are thinking about a place that is large enough to include, geographically, the whole of the United States, the whole of India, the whole of China, the whole of Argentina… all of that could fit into Africa. It’s a big place,” he said.

He added: “There are good things that we can take from Africa. There are more people of African descent in Brazil than any country in Africa, except Nigeria. Therefore we (African/Americans) have the buying power in the trillions of dollars. Now, if 10 per cent of that were invested in Africa, you wouldn’t have these pictures of starving babies and famines and so on. We need to make the connection.

“We can bring some things to Africa. We have the know-how. Being African alone doesn’t qualify you to become a member of the diaspora, because we have people on the outside who say, ‘Oh I don’t want to hear anything about Africa… I am not African,’ etc.

“To be a member of the diaspora and to qualify, aside from your descent from your ancestors, you need to have a mind that Africa is your motherland and you have a duty to help her to reach that position of number one in the world. You need to have that mind and that contribution… that’s when you qualify,” he said.

Few could equal Thompson’s oratory and courtroom dramatics when he went before judge and jury.

In one famous post-1980 election petition case, Barrister Thompson, who appeared on his own behalf as the People’s National Party (PNP) candidate for St Andrew West, came face-to-face with aggressive litigant Abraham ‘Abe’ Dabdoub in the St Andrew Resident Magistrate’s Court at Half-Way-Tree.

In one lengthy session before lunch, Dabdoub, representing the defeated Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) candidate Owen Stephenson went on a monologue for close to two hours, at the end of which the presiding judge, Jeff Ramsay, brother of famous lawyer Ian Ramsay, asked Barrister Thompson if he wanted to respond at that time, or wait until after the hour-long lunch break. In a sharp response, Thompson sent the packed courtroom into uncontrollable laughter with the famous words: “This won’t take long, your honour, like my learned colleague and friend, I too have nothing to say.”

Fellow attorney-at-law K Churchill Neita recalled the day in court when Thompson, representing a 70-plus year-old man accused of rape, addressed the court thus: “May it please your honour and the jury to know that my client pleads innocent, however he is grateful for the rumour.”

Thompson, who was married to Genevieve Hannah Cezair (1945) and had three children, relocated to Miami, Florida, sometime after 1995. He continued as an ardent spokesperson for African Unity, socialism and reparations. He worked within the Caribbean Reparations Movement, teaming up with the likes of political activist David Comissiong and historian Sir Hilary Beckles, to strengthen the African Diaspora platform for the World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001.

On January 20,  2012, Ambassador Thompson died at the age of 95. He was accorded an official funeral by the Jamaican Government on February 10 and laid to rest at the Briggs Park Military Cemetery, Up Park Camp.  (Adapted)

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