The Exemplary Life of Honourable Dudley Thompson
An Excerpt from: For King & Country the Service and Sacrifice of the British West Indian Military by Judge Irving W. Andre and Gabriel J. Christian (Pont Casse Press, 2009)
Foreword: On January 20, 2012, Royal Air Force (RAF) veteran of World War II, Dudley Thompson of Jamaica breathed his last. Thompson was a proud Jamaican and Caribbean nationalist and integrationist; he was a champion of Pan Africanism. Indeed he revealed to the authors of For King & Country that he organized the 1945 Pan African Conference in Manchester, England while still clad in the uniform of a RAF Flight Lieutenant. This excerpt provides some insight into this towering figure of our Caribbean and the African Diaspora who dedicated his life to our freedom and betterment. May we always remember him.
On March 1, 2008, Gabriel Christian and I spoke to Honourable Dudley Thompson, legendary educator, WWII fighter pilot, Rhodes Scholar, brilliant lawyer, former Attorney General of Jamaica, Pan Africanist, Ambassador and artist. Dudley Thompson had weaved a wide swath on the intellectual and ideological landscape from Kingston to Kenya and even in retirement had gained prominence as an anti-colonial and post-colonial thinker. His name is mentioned in the same breath with other West-Indian intellectual and radical thinkers such as C.L.R. James, George Padmore and Aime Cesare. Even at 92, with the majority of his contemporaries deceased, Thompson maintains a grueling schedule which would test the mettle of a man two decades younger. He spearheads the international drive for Reparations for the descendants of African slaves, regularly gives lectures in the United States and conducts numerous interviews about his life experiences.
It was therefore with a sense of elation that via a long distance telephone call, Christian and I posed a few questions to Thompson about his wartime experiences. We harboured great expectations about gleaning some details about his experiences given that we had had a very interesting conversation with fellow WWII pilot Judge Ulric Cross. The salient details about Thompson’s life have been set out in his autobiography, From Kingston to Kenya. The Making of a Pan Africanist Lawyer. It has also been canvassed in numerous books, articles and speeches. But we had admonished ourselves that the story is in the details. A life that spanned so many decades would have had twists and turns waiting to be unearthed at each new telling.
And so with the surprisingly clear voice of Thompson resonating over the telephone punctuated by chuckles and a hearty laugh, we learnt of our subject’s life including his WWII experiences.
He was born on January 17, 1917 in Panama of middle class parents. His father, a teacher, had traveled to Panama for work purposes and had returned to Jamaica in 1927. The senior Thompson ensured that his son was well schooled in the rudiments of English, History, Mathematics and Latin and with strict discipline and a near ascetic livelihood, provided his son with the intellectual and indeed moral foundation for a meaningful life in colonial Jamaica.
Dudley Thompson grew up in Westmoreland and was weaned on an intellectual and moral diet concocted by his father. Not surprisingly, upon completion of high school, he won a scholarship to the Mico Teacher’s College where he trained as a teacher for three years. After completing his studies, Thompson went to teach first in the parish of St. Mary and then in that of Westmoreland.
In 1940 an unlikely incident caused a dramatic change in the trajectory of Thompson’s life. On a propitious day, he found himself within the confines of a dentist’s office in Kingston. As he waited his turn, he picked up a magazine which had excerpts from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Thompson started reading out of interest and a necessity borne out of anxiety engendered by his impending encounter with the dentist. Soon however, his attention was riveted to the magazine. Enraged, he read the German leader’s disparaging views about “Negroes.” He was immediately gripped by a sudden anger and desire to fly to Germany and shoot down the German leader.
At that moment Dudley Thompson’s teaching career was over. Resolutely, he decided to join the war effort. He took a ship to Canada to train as a pilot. Upon his arrival, the authorities advised that it would take two years training before he could qualify as a pilot. Thompson did not want to wait that long. He felt that the war would end before he qualified. He therefore decided to return to Jamaica and travel to England instead.
Accompanied by approximately ten of his compatriots, Thompson boarded a ship to England. The ship docked in Ireland. They took a train to Liverpool and Thompson within days of his arrival gravitated towards the RAF recruitment centre.
His timing was impeccable. The application form contained an ominous question: Are you of pure European descent? Many highly qualified West-Indian applicants had been rejected on account of this requirement. When Thompson applied however, it was not rigidly enforced because of the need for more pilots.
Upon completing the form, Thompson replied yes to the question. A burly recruitment officer reviewed the form, stared insolently at the fair complexioned Thompson and asked him if he had understood the question.
“What made you believe I did not understand the question?” Thompson retorted. The officer stared but did not reply. He accepted the form along with that of three of Thompson’s compatriots. Dudley Thompson was ready to rain bombs on Adolf Hitler’s Germany.