Sun | Jan 29, 2023

EDWARD SEAGA: My life and leadership, Volume 1: Navigating the early years: Valuable lessons learned early

Published:Sunday | February 14, 2010 | 12:00 AM


Today we continue a special series of excerpts from the autobiography of former Prime Minister Edward Seaga with the kind permission of MacMillan Publishers. Mr Seaga's autobiography will be launched on Wednesday, March 3, at the Mona Visitors' Lodge, beginning at 6 p.m.

Sensing the need to move again, the family migrated to Boston where they operated a boarding house. Phillip Seaga had by then met the beautiful, vivacious, young Erna in Kingston. He pursued her to Boston where he lived by working at the big Filenes Department Store as a salesman. He eventually won her hand and they married in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 19 October 1929. She was 18 years old and Phillip, 29. They lived at 284 Western Avenue in Cambridge. The only persons present at the wedding were the witnesses. He kept the news of his marriage from his Boston cousins, the children of the only one of the six Hanna daughters who did not migrate to Jamaica. The secret was spilled one night when a call was received by one of his cousins with whom he was playing poker. A nurse from the Evangeline Booth Salvation Army Hospital called to advise Phillip Seaga that his wife had given birth prematurely to a baby boy.

time for celebration

My birth, on 28 May 1930, was cause for celebration among those of my family who resided in Boston - my mother's parents and her siblings lived there, as well as my father's aunt. The celebration was particularly meaningful to the paternal side of the Boston family as the baby was a boy, the valued gender among people with Middle Eastern traditions. The hospital was located at 202 West Newton Street, Newton, Massachusetts. The receipt for payment of my birth was $28.50.

At the hospital, Erna 'Babs' Seaga was both disappointed and worried. She had expected a girl. The furnishings for the baby were all pink. But she was also disturbed when she noted that the head of the baby was elongated at the back. She thought that there was some abnormality and expressed her concern to a nurse who comforted her with the assurance that the elongated shape of my head could be because it was "full of brains". At any rate, four girls were born later to our family of five: Fay (1931); Jean (1933); and twins Pamela (Pam) and Patricia (Pat) in 1944.

At the time of my birth, America was feeling the woes of the Great Depression. Poverty was sweeping the land as the financial crash wiped out more than 90 per cent of the stock market, creating 26 per cent unemployment. Fortunes were lost. Even the rich were devastated. This was not a good place to be, with the entire country experiencing the panic induced by the sudden collapse of the economy. Phillip

Seaga decided to return home when I was a four-month-old infant. The little family left Boston by steamship. But there was a big problem awaiting them. Phillip was the first of George Seaga's children to marry, and the first son at that. He was expected to marry a girl of Lebanese origin. Indeed, one had been picked out for him, a daughter of the Issa family. The Issa family home was close by at the corner of South Camp Road and Seaforth Street (now part of the Motor Sales complex). By marrying outside his ethnic group, he was exposing himself to the strange ways of another culture in which the migrant people did not feel fully comfortable. Their customs, beliefs and values would be different. The security blanket of living among those who you understand and who understand you would not be present.

George Seaga, popularly known to his children, friends, business customers and ordinary people on the street as 'Baba' (the Arabic word for 'Papa' - people who speak Arabic have difficulty pronouncing the letter 'p'), knew nothing about the marriage of his son or the birth of his first grandchild. With great trepidation my father made the announcement to his family. They were furious and quarrelled openly and bitterly. A week later, Phillip Seaga solved the problem. He took his wife and infant child to meet his family. My grandfather bent over to look at me. I smiled at him, as four-month-old infants often do. That 'smile' was the end of the argument. It was love at first sight"

The high school years

"Wolmer's, founded in 1729 with a bequest from a goldsmith, John Wolmer, was a school with an illustrious history. It was arguably the oldest school in Jamaica and had an outstanding record academically as well as in breaking down some of the social barriers in the education system by broadening the admissions policy after emancipation. Although I had been in Montego Bay for a while, I knew a few people when I started at Wolmer's. George Lazarus, also Lebanese, was one; other friends from those days were Don Brice (my permanent secretary when I was prime minister) and Tom Stimpson, Leslie Wilson, Bobby Jordan and Peter Wackerling. I was not restricted to socialising only with the Lebanese; we didn't live in a Lebanese area and moved several times, living in Bournemouth Gardens, Lady Musgrave Road and Waterloo Avenue, near Half-Way Tree.

weak curriculum

The first three years at Wolmer's did not stimulate me. The headmaster, Rev Lewis Davidson, a Scotsman, did not have a grip on the school. The curriculum was weak and some masters unimaginative and lazy. Geography was a matter of learning the names of countries, capitals, rivers, oceans and so on; history, the dates of battles and the reigns of English monarchs; literature was the memorising of verses of Wordsworth and Keats and reading Shakespeare. None of this attracted me. I got more deeply involved in sports and my grades fell, placing me near the bottom of the class. On one occasion, during the summer holiday of 1943, I waylaid the postman bringing my report so as to prevent it reaching my father's hands. I also enjoyed spending time raising pet animals: rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, white mice, poultry, birds and tropical fish. My deep love for animals began at this period and has continued ever since. I developed this passion from my grandfather George Maxwell, who was retired and living with us. We were very close; in many ways I had more of a relationship with my grandparents than with my parents. Like many Scotsmen, my grandfather disliked the English. In the evenings during the Second World War he listened to the news broadcasts of William Joyce ('Lord Haw-Haw'), the English traitor who had defected to Germany and was used as a principal instrument of propaganda. He did not trust the BBC. It was English and, therefore, in the view of a real Scotsman, lied.

I can remember the Sunday morning when I heard Roosevelt's broadcast after Pearl Harbor. I was 11 and we were living at Lady Musgrave Road. We were all invited to be part of the war effort. Fay and Jean used to sing at army bases, and we used to collect scraps of cloth and knit blankets (I knitted too) in our spare time. It was not until I reached fifth form at school that I began to blossom in all directions; socially, athletically and academically. I discovered girls at 15 years of age and, thereafter, I had multiple girlfriends. I would go to the cinema regularly with my sisters - we used to go to the Carib no matter what film was showing. As soon as the lights went out, there was a lot of shifting of boys to sit beside girlfriends, and a lot of smooching went on. We would also go to dance parties at private homes. Later on, we went to the Glass Bucket Club where everybody knew everybody. I excelled in some sports, notably rifle shooting, where I broke the record for the small-bore 22-calibre rifle with a score of 199 out of 200, winning the Perkins Medal. I was selected for the all-schools hockey team. I played tennis and swam for the school. I tried boxing but abandoned it after I got knocked out in gym practice by one of my close friends, George Lazarus, normally a gentle spirit. I was blossoming as a good cricket player, my favourite game, when time caught up with me. I had to leave Wolmer's to take up admission to Harvard University. This robbed me of the chance to exercise my full potential. I always felt wonderful behind the stumps as a prime wicketkeeper, knowing that I was potentially involved with every ball of the game. I insisted on opening the batting line-up and taking the first ball. I could not stand waiting while the game was in progress; I wanted to be out there from the beginning. Eventually, there was to be some compensation when I captained the cricket team at Harvard, comprised mostly of Commonwealth students.

A turnaround

Under a new headmaster, J.R. Bunting, an Englishman, the school took a complete turnaround. He recruited new staff from England. Suddenly, in geography, the interrelationship of nature's forces was brought to the forefront, forcing students to understand how geographical features interacted with nature. History was now an exercise of the shaping of world events. Literature came alive with character sketches, though not everyone understood that a character sketch was a written characterisation. One boy, when asked in an exam for a character sketch of Othello, did a drawing of Othello carrying two swords.

I was made a school prefect by the headmaster, who, in interviewing me, asked what I would do if I saw a boy committing an infringement. I said I would warn him. "And if it happened a second time, what would you do?" he persisted. I replied, "Warn him again." John Bunting looked across his desk directly into my eyes; leaning forward, he imparted a guiding principle and sent me out into the world: "Never warn twice." Throughout later life, I became judged as a "hard marker" and stern disciplinarian who demanded excellence. It began with Bunting's warning. But, of course, I used some discretion.

I was elected captain of the champion house, William Crosse. But that senior position did not stop me from being undisciplined myself. At a hockey game, the sports master, Wallace, known as 'Walrus', kept instructing me loudly from the sidelines what to do with each play, thereby giving away the tactics. Furiously, I turned to him and yelled, "Why don't you shut up?" The next morning the headmaster called me to his office. I could see that he was disappointed as he told me that he was suspending me as a prefect, but I should not let anyone know. It meant the loss of certain privileges, but I should keep on acting the role without the privileges. He was afraid that the school would react if they knew of my suspension, as Wallace was very unpopular. I maintained silence, and after a few months was reinstated. The incident pointed to a lack of temper control which continued to be a frailty for a good part of my life. I moved from a worst case, placing 27th out of a class of 30 in fourth form, to fourth position in fifth form. In my school-leaving Senior Cambridge Certificate exam I missed a Grade One pass by failing Spanish, an exam which took me by surprise because I misread the date.

unforgettable experience

Wolmer's was an unforgettable experience because my training was not only academic. I acquired a value system:

respect for authority

the necessity for strict discipline

understanding the true meaning of sportsmanship and its connection to fairness and justice.

In later life, I realised the British design of these schools. These values had to be inculcated in the training of new generations of administrators and executives in order to maintain control over a dissatisfied and underprivileged people to ensure perpetuity of power. But these values, I recognised, were themselves of great importance regardless of the intended purpose, if put in a correct perspective.

Don't miss part three of this special serialisation in next week's 'Sunday Gleaner'. Also, part two of Laura Tanna's extensive interview with Mr Seaga will continue on March 7.

Edward Seaga (right), presenting his recording of folk music to the general manager of the African Ballet Company in 1968. The members of the Company were his guests at a brunch at Vale Royal. From left: Zambo Italo, Sakho Sekou and prima ballerina Bah Sadio.- File photos