The 2021 recipients of the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award for Distinguished Service to Caribbean Letters. are Jamaicans Edward Baugh and Mervyn Morris — both professors emeriti of the University of the West Indies. Baugh and Morris are widely considered pioneers of the study of West Indian literature, over careers that each span half a century.
The Award, established in 2013, is named for the late BBC radio producer Henry Swanzy. Irish by birth, Swanzy worked as producer of the influential Caribbean Voices radio programme — originally founded by Jamaican Una Marson — from 1946 to 1954, becoming an essential figure in the development of modern West Indian literature.
The Bocas Lit Fest founded the award to honour and celebrate the contributions of the editors, broadcasters, publishers, critics, and others who have shaped the evolution of Caribbean literature behind the scenes.
Edward Baugh and Mervyn Morris, the joint awardees for 2021, are both alumni of what was originally called the University College of the West Indies, and spent their careers teaching at UWI.
Based at the Cave Hill, Barbados, campus from 1965 to 1967, then at Mona, Jamaica, Baugh is best known as a scholar of Caribbean poetry, in particular the poetry of Derek Walcott, having written several books devoted to the work of the St Lucian Nobel Laureate. He also edited Walcott’s 2007 Selected Poems. In his book West Indian Poetry 1900–1970: A Study in Cultural Decolonisation, and in his broad-ranging scholarly essays — such as the groundbreaking “Towards a West Indian Criticism” and “The West Indian Writer and his Quarrel with History” — Baugh helped shape a distinctly Caribbean approach to criticism of the region’s literature, grounded in the Caribbean’s unique historical experiences.
Mervyn Morris, a lecturer at Mona since 1966, championed Caribbean oral poetry traditions from early in his career. His 1964 essay “On Reading Louise Bennett, Seriously”, was a landmark in scholarly attention to the literature of Jamaican Patwa, which Morris extended in the 1970s to the growing number of Jamaican dub poets. Many of his key earlier essays are collected in the book Is English We Speaking. Morris also mentored several generations of Jamaican poets, editing and anthologising their work. In 2014 he was appointed Poet Laureate of Jamaica — the first since Independence — in which role he worked to raise the profile of poetry across the country, highlighting the work of younger writers.
Five decades ago, the introduction of West Indian literature as a subject of formal academic study at UWI’s Mona campus was considered a bold and unprecedented development. Baugh and Morris, alongside other UWI colleagues, through their research, writing, teaching, and generous mentorship, were instrumental in decisively establishing a Caribbean school of literary scholarship which has contributed to the flowering of contemporary Caribbean writing and literary studies.
Baugh and Morris are also accomplished and lauded poets, whose creative practice has inevitably informed and enriched their research. But it is their achievements as scholars, teachers, editors, mentors, and advocates which the 2021 Bocas Henry Swanzy Award recognises and honours.
The 2021 awardees join an admirable group of predecessors. In previous years, the Award was presented to publishers John La Rose and Sarah White of New Beacon Books, in 2013; literary critics Kenneth Ramchand and Gordon Rohlehr, in 2014; editor and broadcaster Margaret Busby in 2015; publisher Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press in 2016; bookseller Joan Dayal of Paper Based Bookshop, in 2017; editor and scholar Anne Walmsley in 2018; publisher Ian Randle in 2019; and scholar and editor Kamau Brathwaite in 2020.
The 2021 Bocas Henry Swanzy Award will be formally presented to Edward Baugh and Mervyn Morris in a virtual event on 24 April, part of the 2021 NGC Bocas Lit Fest.