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Dame Hilda Louisa Bynoe née Gibbs An Inspiring Journey

Merle Collins

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Hilda Louisa Bynoe, nêe Gibbs, died quietly at her home in Diego Martin, Trinidad & Tobago, on the morning of Saturday April 6, 2013. She was 91.

Hilda Gibbs was born on November 18, 1921, on a hillside in Crochu, St. Andrew’s, Grenada. She was the daughter of Joseph Gibbs and his wife Louisa Gibbs, née La Touche. Because Louisa’s mother had died young, she was brought up by her grandmother, who was known as Mayet. Mayet, who lived to be 105, died when her great-granddaughter Hilda was 7.

Hilda Gibbs grew within an extended family, conscious of the continuing importance not only of Mayet, her maternal great-grandmother, but also of her father’s mother, Ma Sese, whom she talked of as a Yoruba woman who had migrated from neighboring Dominica in the immediate post-emancipation period. Of her great grandmother Mayet, she remembers that she (or her mother) was a Carib woman stolen from Trinidad by British sailors just before Emancipation. Dr. Bynoe respected, loved, and was keen on reconstructing the stories of the extended family on both her maternal and paternal sides.

She thought of her life as part of those of her ancestors buried under the plum trees on the hillside. She was unfailingly proud of being descended from the original Amerindian inhabitants of the Caribbean. She summed up her multifaceted ancestry by explaining that her “ancestors came out of Europe, out of Africa and out of ancient America, a wee bit of all sorts of things and a preponderance of Africa. Ancient America I’m particularly proud of because it was the land of my Carib ancestors”.
Growing up with Hilda and her sister Josephine in the Gibbs family household were cousins and other relatives who were de facto sisters – Ros (now Baroness) Howells, Enid and Gladys David, children of her mother’s sister, who had died when her girls were young. Hilda Gibbs’s childhood experience was of extended and close-knit family connections. When Hilda was a child, playing with other children on the illside in Crochu, one day they were all talking about what they would like to be when they grew up. Generally, the children reached for the examples around them. They wanted to work in the cocoa, to be bus-drivers, driving fast along the winding roads. The message was that they wanted to be and they were looking around for models of how to be. Hilda reached outside the circle of their everyday experiences and boldly said that she wanted to be a doctor. As the story is told, one can imagine the child’s daring and the way those listening pause to look at her, how the adults glance at each other, proud, expectant, attentive. The family, originating among the working people and ambitious, already in the 1930s moving up in the social ranks as primary school teachers and
small proprietors, never let Hilda forget what she said she wanted. Thereafter, if she hesitated with spelling, if she faltered at Math, in the days before she began to excel at it, Hilda was reminded that she wanted to be a doctor.

As Hilda grew up, she was influenced by the ideas of T.A. Marryshow and in particular by ideas about Caribbean federation. In 1933, aged 12, Hilda Gibbs won one of the few scholarships available for young people to have an opportunity for high school education. She attended St. Joseph’s Convent high school. Before her high school education was finished, Hilda lost her mother, who died tragically in a motor vehicle accident. Her father, T. Joseph Gibbs, known in Crochu and environs as Uncle Joe, became mother and father to the young Hilda. In this he had support from an elder daughter, Josephine (Phine), from Hilda’s cousins Enid and Gladys, and from other members of the extended family. After time as a boarder at the St. Joseph’s Convent, young Hilda Gibbs went to Trinidad, where she finished her high school
education at Bishop Anstey high school for girls and taught Mathematics at the newly opened St. Joseph’s Convent high school in San Fernando. Back in Grenada after a couple of years in Trinidad, the young Miss Hilda Gibbs taught at St. Joseph’s Convent High School, St. George’s, and then won a scholarship to study Medicine in England.

In London, Hilda Gibbs not only finished her medical degree, but also met and married a young Trinidadian RAF officer, Peter Bynoe. Peter Bynoe was studying to be an architect and both were part of West Indian student groups and organization in London in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Meantime, as constitutional change came to her native Grenada, Hilda’s father Mr. T. Joseph Gibbs was a figure of rising importance in Grenadian politics and in the union/party organized by Mr. Eric Gairy.

By the time Hilda Gibbs, now Dr. Hilda Bynoe, returned to the Caribbean in the early 1950s, she did so with her husband, Peter, and their two young sons, Roland and Michael (Mickey).  Moving between Grenada, Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana in search of jobs, Dr. Hilda Bynoe learned what it was like to be a young woman professional in the 1950s Caribbean, married, with young children, and also anxious to advance professionally in her medical career. In the colonial Caribbean, she encountered discrimination against women professionals. Both the young Dr. Hilda Bynoe and her architect husband, Mr. Peter Bynoe, also encountered racial discrimination in the colonial Caribbean. Black professionals, they found out, were not accorded the respect given to their white counterparts. Hilda Bynoe was already proud of both her Caribbean identity and her African ancestry and this period of struggle may have served to defiantly solidify that pride. Eventually, the Bynoes settled in Trinidad, where Dr. Bynoe worked as a government doctor and, as she tried to combine social welfare interests with her work as a doctor, she particularly valued a working alliance with Ms. Muriel Donawa McDavidson, then a Minister in Trinidad’s PNM government who shared her interest in social welfare.

In 1967, Dr. Bynoe’s father conveyed a message from Grenada’s Premier Mr. Eric Gairy, that he would like her to be Grenada’s Governor. In that year, Grenada and other islands of the Eastern Caribbean became Associated States in the British Commonwealth of Nations. This meant, essentially, that they were on their way to Independence, with control over their Internal Affairs, while Britain retained responsibility for External Affairs and defense.

After some discussion on both sides, Dr. Hilda Bynoe accepted the post and, in 1968, began her period of office as the first woman Governor of Grenada and the first woman in the British Commonwealth to hold that post. In 1969, the British Crown accorded her the title Dame Commander of the British Empire. Thereafter, the Governor became known as “Dame Hilda”.

It seems impossible to overestimate what a pioneering role as the first woman Governor meant for Dame Hilda in 1968. She was a Black, Grenadian woman in a role traditionally held by white, British men. She was a local person in a post traditionally held by expatriates. She was a Black woman thinking about issues of hair and style at a time when notions of Blackness were being explored worldwide and when the chant of Black Power and ideas about black beauty were revolutionizing nations. She was a popular figure in a government that was becoming increasingly unpopular among the young people of her tri-island nation. Soon, in those questioning times, she was a Black Governor who sported an Afro hairstyle. In 1968, Dame Hilda was 47, an ambitious, thinking woman who, as the first woman in the role, had to construct her own road maps for steering her way politically through a region and a world in transition. It is important to nk here not only of her pioneering role as woman in the post but also her role as a Governor of a small state. At first, she did not even have an advisor and had to struggle to find someone who might be willing to act in that role.

Dame Hilda was Governor of Grenada for a little under six years, ending her period of office prematurely, in January 1974, just before Grenada’s February 7 Independence date, in the midst of tremendous turmoil and local disaffection with the regime that had invited her to be Governor. One of her most painful memories was of those final days in Grenada, when demonstrators, dismissive of the Gairy regime and all who had anything to do with it, had not only chanted that “Gairy must go”, but added, “and the Governor, too”. It was over, she decided, and submitted her resignation, adding that she would stay if demonstrators indicated that they wanted her to. They didn’t, and at any event, Premier Eric Gairy, annoyed at her even listening and responding to demonstrators, was not sympathetic to her cause. Theirs had never been an easy relationship, perhaps because Dame Hilda Bynoe showed her independence of spirit. Part of the problem for Dame Hilda was that she was the first Governor with not only a nominal duty to the British Crown but also ancestral roots in the hillsides of Crochu, St. Andrew’s. It is not without significance that Dr. Hilda Bynoe was sitting in a plum tree
when her Governorship was announced in 1968.

After the Bynoes left Grenada, they stayed for a while in Guyana, and finally returned to Trinidad, where, after an nitial period of readjustment, they again picked up their separate professional careers in Trinidad & Tobago. Dr. Hilda Bynoe built a private practice in Maraval, Port-of-Spain, and worked successfully until 1990, when, unusually for the times, she thought, she retired from private practice at the age of 69. She spent the first few years of retirement enjoying the company of her husband, Mr. Peter Bynoe, and exploring her interest in creative writing. In 1996, she published a poetry collection, I Woke at Dawn. Her husband Peter passed away in 2003, and that, she said, was “my Calvary”.

From her days as Governor, Dame Hilda had been a Patron of the Caribbean Women’s Association (CARIWA). She was a Patron of the College of Family Physicians and the John Hayes Memorial Kidney Foundation. She was a member of the Academic Board of St. George’s University, an American institution located in Grenada, established during the tenure of Prime Minister Eric Gairy.

In the final years of her life, Dame Hilda lived quietly in Diego Martin, Trinidad. For a while after her retirement, she continued to have residual responsibilities as a doctor. She had a circle of friends and relatives who visited. She had her sons Roland and Mickey, her grandchildren Olukemi and Nandi Peta, and all those who supported her in various ways. In her last years, Dame Hilda Louisa Bynoe took quiet pleasure in contemplating the past, her own fading present, and the promising future, perhaps most represented by the youngest of her immediate family, her great granddaughter, Anaia. Hers was a long, inspiring, thought-provoking journey.

Merle Collins has spent time interviewing Dame Hilda Louisa Bynoe and writing about her life. Her biography, The Governor’s Story, will be published by Peepal Tree Press later this year.


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