January 2015 marks the centenary for Sir Arthur Lewis, who was born in the then British West Indies that he directly served in the 1960s through leading the then University College of the West Indies (UWI) and in the 1970s through the founding of the Caribbean Development Bank.
Lewis, a development economist who was knighted in 1963 and received the Nobel Prize in 1979 was an early achiever academically, finishing secondary school in his native St Lucia at age 14 and working as a clerk until he was old enough to take an entrance exam for the London School of Economics in the UK. He had dreamed of being an engineer, but pragmatically assessed that this was not then a field where a Black colonial could succeed in the West Indies. He therefore chose to study commerce, and after gaining a first class honours degree, shifted to Industrial Economics for his PhD and then into the history of the world economy and development economics. He was a pioneer in the advance of Black academics in the UK, where he would most famously be Stanley Jevons Professor of Political Economy at Manchester University and a ‘Consultant Physician for Ailing Economics’.
Invited to lead the UCWI, he became its first West Indian Principal, and then led it into independent degree-granting university status in 1962, becoming its first Vice-Chancellor. En route, he led the extension of the regional College from one location, at Mona in Jamaica, to three – the others being Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago. He also pressed for the appointment of more West Indian academics, as long as they met the appropriate standards, insisted on relaxation of stringent residential requirements, and oversaw a spate of building.
But the break-up of the nascent West Indies Federation, whose development the UWI was designed to serve, caused agony for Lewis, who was also seeking more time for research and writing rather than administration. He moved to Princeton University – his academic home thereafter – though he maintained links to the UWI and returned to the region in the early 1970s to establish and serve as founding President of the Caribbean Development Bank.
Arthur Lewis died in Barbados in 1991, and was buried in St Lucia, in the grounds of the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College.
The UWI has memorialised Lewis through the work of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social & Economic Studies, named in his honour in 1999, and the Sir Arthur Lewis Hall at the St Augustine campus in Trinidad & Tobago. But for many persons, especially those outside the world of economic theory, Lewis’s memory has faded with the years.
His centenary is certainly a timely reminder of his relevance to the development of the UWI, through the short but intense part he played in laying many of the foundations of the UWI as it is today. The UWI Museum has mounted a cameo exhibition on Sir Arthur Lewis, which will run through the month of February.