The impactful life of a legend: Ashton Chase, OE,SC
“A leader’s legacy is only as strong as the foundation they leave behind, that allows others to continue to advance the organization in their name,” – Simon Sinek
By Tassia Dickenson
Ashton Chase (July 18, 1926 – July 10, 2023) was renowned for making an exceptional contribution to Guyana’s nationalist struggle and political history, and was the last surviving member of the Political Affairs Committee (the forerunner to the People’s Progressive Party) which was established in 1946.
Having had the title ‘The Bengal Tiger’ bestowed upon him, Chase’s life reflected that of the majestic being: which conjures assertion, fierceness, and deep strategic intelligence. His defense of the unyielding rights of liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the right to work, as well as other esteemed qualities, led to him earning the country’s highest national award, the Order of Excellence (O.E.) in October 2000.
Chase was born on Sunday, July 18, 1926 in Hadfield Street, Werk-en-Rust, Georgetown, a few doors from the Roman Catholic Church. His parents were Cleopatra King (later Cleopatra Marshall) and Samuel Chase, who became famous as the comedian Sam Chase. Ashton was christened at St. George’s Cathedral, and had a sound Christian upbringing.
He resided in several areas in Georgetown, including Charlotte Street, Regent Street, Russell Street, Waterloo Street, George Street, Lodge, and Evans Street, Charlestown.
He first attended a private learning institution on Hadfield Street, and thereafter the St. Thomas Scot’s School in Tiger Bay, from where he was later transferred to the St. Andrews Scot’s School on Brickdam, after the St. Thomas school had closed.
At the age of 12, he attended Alleyne’s High School on Regent Road Bourda, Georgetown, where he played cricket and football and was nicknamed ‘Golden Boy’ after a notable footballer from the Infantry Club. Significant sacrifices were made by Chase’s grandmother, Adriana King, to keep him at that school, so he could continue his education.
On February 25, 1955, Chase got married to Audrey Salamalay at the Paddington Registrar’s Office in London. They later adopted a baby girl of about two years of age, whom they named Serita. after the couple separated, Serita settled in quite comfortably with Chase’s new family.
Soon after, his only son, Ronald Chase, was born after a relationship with Megan Moore, who helped in his research for his most authentic publication – “The History of Trade Unionism in Guiana. She later emigrated to England, and is now Mrs. Megan Bates.
On September 27, 1977, Chase exchanged vows with Deborah Chase (nee Ross) at the Registrar’s Office in Georgetown, and she remained his wife until his day of death (D.O.D). She is the mother of his second daughter, Pauline Chase.
At an early age, Chase was elected to the National Assembly, became the Minister of Labour, and was foremost a trade union leader in Guyana, working along with the likes of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, who is often referred to as “The father of The Trade Union Movement.”
Not only was Chase vibrant in the sugar industry, but he spent his early days with the waterfront workers, and played a leading role in the British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU). Chase also served as Chairman of the Council of Legal Education of the West Indies, and was President of the Guyana Bar Association in its most vibrant years in the 1980s and 1990s.
HIS ROLE IN THE PPP/C
As a founding member of the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) and its sequel the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), Chase has etched his name permanently in the political foundation of both pre- and post-independent Guyana. The other founding members were Cheddi Jagan, Janet Jagan, and H.J.M. Hubbard (all deceased).
After the PPP’s victory at the 1953 elections, Chase was appointed as Minister of Labour, Trade and Industry, following the introduction of the Ministerial system of Government. With limited powers and an unsupportive colonial bureaucracy, the Government under the leadership of Dr. Cheddi Jagan managed to secure some fundamental gains for the Guyanese people in vital areas of agriculture, education, health, housing, labour relations, and others.
As the first Labour Minister, appointed at the age of 28 after universal adult suffrage had been granted by the Colonial Government, Chase was responsible for piloting legislation permitting the recognition of trade unions on the basis of a majority vote among employees. He worked tirelessly to put laws in place to protect the workers, and achieved quite a lot.
Chase was the first to pilot the Labour Relations Bill, which sought to democratize the labour movement. That Bill had its first reading, but before its second reading, the Constitution was suspended in 1953. This groundbreaking legislation, bringing the freedom to choose their own representation to workers across Guyana, was put on hold until 1997.
After the suspension of the Constitution, the remarkable progress made by the PPP Government’s short term in office was documented by Chase in his book “133 Days Towards Freedom in Guiana”, which has put to rest the wild and unsubstantiated allegations made by the Colonial Office to the effect that the PPP Ministers were found wanting in initiative and vision.
On the contrary, the party showed that even though it lacked experience in the area of governance, it was able to provide fresh and innovative thinking and perspective, in particular in those areas that impacted the quality of life of the poor and the oppressed.
Chase migrated to England in 1954, where he pursued his studies in law and subsequently was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn in 1957. In the same year, he obtained his Bachelor of Law degree, with honours, from London University. He had since been in private practice, specialising in Industrial Law.
During his long and distinguished career as an attorney-at-law, Chase wrote extensively on industrial relations, labour, and employment law, and published several books in the field, such as The Law of Workmen’s Compensation (1963); A History of Trade Unionism in Guyana (1966); Industrial Law (1974); Trade Union Law in the Caribbean (1976), and Industrial Relations (1981).
The late Senior Counsel had appeared in dozens of cases that are now reported in the West Indian Reports, six of which have also been reported in the Law Reports of the Commonwealth, and many more which are reported in the Law Reports of British Guiana and the Guyana Law Reports.
Among the notable cases in which Chase appeared during his career were Peter Persaud vs Pln Versailles (1970), in which the law of unjust enrichment was accepted 21 years before its acceptance in England; Albert Shanks vs Continental Biscuit Company (1977), the landmark case on wrongful dismissal coming out of Guyanese courts; Guyana Sugar Corporation vs Seeram Teemal (1983), on the inability of an employer to unilaterally vary the terms of a contract of employment; and Sheik Mazahudin vs Guyana Sugar Corporation Ltd (1984), another important case on the principles of wrongful dismissal and more. He served as President of the Senate between 1961 and 1964.
The service of Chase extended beyond the shores of Guyana to the wider Caribbean, as he had the distinction of being the only Guyanese to Chair the Council of Legal Education (CLE), the governing body of the law schools in the Caribbean, from 1991 to 1997. He was also admitted to practice at the Barbados Bar in 1960. For his distinguished service in the law, he was also appointed Senior Counsel in 1985.
Chase played an instrumental role in the automatic entry of the Bachelor of Laws graduates from the University of Guyana (UG) into the Hugh Wooding Law School (HWLS) in Trinidad and Tobago, which was a very controversial issue for many years.
This Guyanese icon had a long connection with the trade union movement. At one point, he served as the Assistant Secretary, then General Secretary, of the British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU), which is the oldest trade union in Guyana. He was awarded a scholarship by the Trades Union Congress, and attended a one-year course (1948 to 1949) at Ruskin College, Oxford, and an ILO Summer School in Geneva in 1949.
In his lifetime as a trade unionist, quite apart from his activism, Chase wrote profusely on the historical evolution and importance of trade unionism in Guyana. Further, he advanced the cause of trade unionism by utilizing his legal prowess in taking numerous trade union struggles into the halls of Justice, where he won major victories for labour and the labour movement.
The Labour Union represented the coal burners and other workers for better pay and conditions of work, and secured for them better housing and improvements in working conditions from the employers. Sawmill workers were another group that the BGLU represented, including those at Pickersgill. Many letters were sent and representations were made by him on their behalf, but he never visited the actual location at the time.
Around the year 1942, the BGLU also made efforts to organize bauxite workers, who were greatly exploited. In 1943-1944, the people worked six days per week, and were only paid overtime rates after sixty hours of work.
Union meetings were prohibited from being held at Mackenzie, and had to be held on the opposite bank of the river, at Wismar and in Christianburg.
Around the age of 17, Chase addressed meetings of workers at Wismar and Christianburg as he sought to organize the bauxite workers. A strike was later called by the workers themselves in 1944, and it lasted for about three days without instigation from the Union. Humbert Nathaniel Critchlow proceeded urgently to the Company at Mackenzie, and he met with the management of the Demerara Bauxite Company. The year 1944 was also significant, as it marked 25 years since the British Guiana Labour Union was founded.
Last Thursday evening, several friends and colleagues, as well as members of the PPP/C, hosted a Night of Reflection in honour of Mr. Chase, wherein many shared tributes and memories they have shared with him. Former Labour Minister Nanda Gopaul spoke about the strike which was led by Chase for better wages and conditions for workers. He alluded to the determination of Chase to ensure these workers get a fair deal.
“Mr. Chase used the sugar boilers as a weapon against the sugar barons. He said if you decide not to pay what the workers want, what we’ve considered to be fair and reasonable, we are going to bring the sugar workers out alone on strike. And we’re going to use the workers’ wages to pay them to be on strike, [which] means you can’t produce sugar. That was a telling blow to the planters at that time. It forced them to recruit… lawyers to represent their interests. Several battles ensued, and Ashton lead them all during that period, including the one leading to a 40-hour, 5-day work week,” Gopaul shared.
President of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union, Seepaul Narine, shared, “Comrade Ashton Chase was a remarkable figure who dedicated his life to championing the rights and welfare of workers in Guyana. As a committed Guyanese, he tirelessly advocated for fair treatment, improved working conditions, and better working opportunities for all. He was a beacon of hope for workers who were cheated by their employers. His advocacy efforts played a critical role in raising awareness about the challenges faced by workers, and in seeking justice and equity for them.”
Attorney General Nandlall praised the work of Chase, whom he had known personally for many years, and from whom he had learned throughout his career. “His accomplishment… was absolutely astonishing. Beginning as a teenager, what mental makeup would a teenager have in the ‘40s to decide to take on the mighty colonial empire, the mighty plantocracy, the social establishment at that time? You had to have a special presence of mind, an acuity of vision that is special; and that laid the foundation of Ashton Chase’s life,” Nandlall remarked.
The legal luminary Senior Counsel Ashton Chase passed away on Monday evening last. Immediately following his passing, President Dr Irfaan Ali posted, “I have learnt with great sadness of the passing of Mr Ashton Chase, SC. His death represents an incalculable loss to our nation. His name and contributions will forever be etched in our country’s political, labour and legal history. He made an exceptional contribution to Guyana’s nationalist struggle and political history, and was the last surviving member of the Political Affairs Committee [the forerunner to the People’s Progressive Party] established in 1946. He was among our finest legal minds, and was a pillar of our country’s early trade union activism, authoring the most authoritative work on our trade union history. I extend my deepest condolences to his bereaved family.”
Chase was cremated on Friday, following an elaborate funeral service at Parliament Buildings, which was attended by President Dr. Irfaan Ali, Members of Parliament, Members of the Diplomatic Community, other officials, his relatives, and members of the public.