Three February moments jump to mind with regard to the heritage of the University of the West Indies. The first recalls the first office of the university; the second spotlights the installation of its first Chancellor – an event still remembered through annual Commemoration activities; and the third relates more broadly to the region that the UWI serves.
The first office of then University College of the West Indies (UCWI) opened for business in February 1947, and doubled as the home of first Principal, Dr Thomas Taylor. Taylor, a British chemist, had arrived in Jamaica in November 1946. Until the property at 62 Lady Musgrave Road was leased, meetings were held at the British Council office in Kingston. Ironically, it is said that the previous resident of the Lady Musgrave Road house was a Jamaican journalist who had objected to the notion of a West Indian university!
Within a year, the UCWI had identified its permanent home at Mona, on the outskirts of Kingston, amid wooden barracks buildings that had been a home to Gibraltarian evacuees, European refugees and some German and Italian civilian internees during World War 2; and which had then been a military camp.
Installation of the Chancellor
The UCWI was granted a Royal Charter and the King appointed his cousin, Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, as the first Chancellor. She was installed on February 16, 1950, in an outdoor ceremony held in an area of the campus now known as the Mona Bowl. A church service at Jamaica’s historic Spanish Town Cathedral followed the next day.
Interestingly, Princess Alice’s husband, the Duke of Athlone, was then Chancellor of London University to which the UCWI served an initial apprenticeship.
While the UCWI pre-dated the West Indies Federation, it was established with regional development in mind: “The College, and its new Principal (Arthur Lewis), were closely and continuously involved. Regional agreement and hopes of regional unity had brought it into being. Its students were clowly creating an image of what it meant to be a West Indian. It had begun to serve the Federal government as a resource…” (The University of the West Indies by Philip Sherlock & Rex Nettleford, 1990)
The West Indies Federation lasted only until 1962, and Principal (later, Vice Chancellor) Lewis was hard pressed to develop strategies that kept the UCWI from going the way of the Federation. Nonetheless, the Federation remains a part of the context of the UCWI/UWI and it seems appropriate to remember that in 1957, February 25 was declared as Federation Day.
Our cameo exhibition on the centenary of Sir Arthur Lewis continues through February, alongside our semi-permanent Origins exhibition.