Established in 1958, the West Indies Federation comprised the ten territories of: Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, the then St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, Saint Lucia, St Vincent and Trinidad and Tobago. The Federation was established by the British Caribbean Federation Act of 1956 with the aim of establishing a political union among its members.
The Federal government was headed by an Executive Governor-General, appointed by Britain and included:
- A Prime Minister, elected from among and by the members of the House of Representatives
- A Cabinet, comprising the Prime Minister and ten other elected Members chosen by him
- A Council of State presided over by the Governor General. The Council included the Prime Minister and Members of the Cabinet as well as three senators and three civil servants. The senators and civil servants were chosen by the Governor General. (The Council of State was the principal policy (decision)-making body at the start of the Federation. In 1960 Britain agreed to abolish this Council and allow the Cabinet to take over the powers of the Council)
- A forty five-member House of Representatives, with Members elected from among the Territories; and
- A nineteen-member Senate, nominated by the Governor General following consultation with the Prime Minister
The Governor General was Lord Hailes of Britain and the Prime Minister was Sir Grantley Adams, (Premier of Barbados). The Federal capital was located in Trinidad and Tobago.
During its brief existence (1958-62), a number of fundamental issues were debated with a view to strengthening the Federation. Among these were direct taxation by the Federal Government, Central planning for development, Establishment of a Regional Customs Union and Reform of the Federal Constitution. The issue of direct taxation was particularly controversial. The Federation was not permitted to levy (impose) income tax for at least the first five years of its life. Added to this, were the greatly differing positions among the Territories with respect to how other federal taxes should be levied.
In addition, the Federation began quickly to seek to establish federal institutions and supporting structures. It created a federal civil service; established the West Indies Shipping Service (in 1962) to operate two multipurpose ships – the Federal Maple and the Federal Palm – donated to it by the Government of Canada. It had embarked also on negotiations to acquire the subsidiary of the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), namely British West Indies Airways (BWIA).
Cooperation in tertiary education was consolidated and expanded during this period. The then University College of the West Indies (UCWI), which was established in 1948 with one campus at Mona, Jamaica, opened its second campus at St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago, in 1960.
The Federation however faced several problems. These included: the governance and administrative structures imposed by the British; disagreements among the territories over policies, particularly with respect to taxation and central planning; an unwillingness on the part of most Territorial Governments to give up power to the Federal Government; and the location of the Federal Capital.
The decisive development, which led to the demise of the Federation was the withdrawal of Jamaica – the largest member – after conducting a national referendum in 1961 on its continued participation in the arrangement. The results of the referendum showed majority support in favour of withdrawing from the Federation. This was to lead to a movement within Jamaica for national independence from Britain. It also led to the now famous statement of Dr Eric Williams, the then Premier of Trinidad and Tobago that, one from ten leaves nought, referring to the withdrawal of Jamaica and signifying and justifying his decision to withdraw Trinidad and Tobago from the Federal arrangement a short while later.
The Federation collapsed in January 1962.