Labour rebellions of the 1930s in the British Caribbean region colonies – Richard Hart

 

This was a really great read, on the labour rebellions that took place across the British Caribbean colonies. What strikes me the most is the fact that these strikes were not coordinated between workers of the islands, nor were they organised under revolutionary theory, but were spontaneous, and paved the way for trade unions to continue securing rights for workers. Link for the full post here

 

  • The Majority of the present day population in the islands Britain colonised descend from the millions brought from West Africa as slaves, or those imported from India as contracted labour after the abolition of slavery
  • Common causes of working class unrest same throughout the region:
    • low wages
    • high unemployment and underemployment
    • racist attitudes of colonial administrators and employers
    • lack of representation
    • no established structure for resolution of disputes
    • economic crisis
  • despite lack of contact between colonies, these factors resulted in labour rebellions across the region

Early Warnings

Belize:

  • In Feb 1934 a group called the ‘unemployed brigade (UB)’ in Belize marched to the Governor stating their families were starving bc men couldn’t get work, demanded gov payments of $1.00 a day to unemployed.
  • Sept, a barber named Anotonio Soberanis accused leaders of UB of not being militant enough, organised a petition demanding Gov find work for unemployed at $1.50 a day, led a protest of about 3,000, and organised a strike which won an increase of pay from 8 cents to 25 cents per hour
  • Soveranis continued to organise mass meetings across the country
  • New legislation put in place to curb activism, w/ prohibition of processions w/o police permission and a Seditious Conspiracy Law, so Soberanis could be prosecuted for sedition (any action, especially in speech or writing, promoting such discontent or rebellion).
  • May 1935: Strike of Railway workers w/ organisation Soberanis was involved in- police intimidated strikers to return to work
  • Soberanis prosecuted for seditious language. Workers across the country contributed money to provide him w/ legal representation. All public meetings during tral were prohibited. He was acquitted and fined just $85.

Trinidad

  • 1933, march organised by National Unemployed Movement, demanded relief work for unemployed and rent controls. Organised another march in 1934 of 400/500 people
  • demonstrations on sugar estates e.g. 1934, 800 workers from two plantations (Brechin Castle and Esperanza) demonstrated in front of the warden’s office, complaining of lack of work. Police attempted to keep demonstrators away from business and commercial area- violence erupted. Overseers were injured and offices of the company stoned and set on fire. Occurred on other plantations
  • demonstrations led to the gov setting up a wages advisory board and commission of enquiry

Guyana

  • Strikes across different plantations
  • e.g. a strike on Plantation Uitflugt, where 2000 workers prevented the start of milling operations
  • another strike took place on Plantation Leonora in Sept 1935 in support of wages being restored to previous levels, after having been reduced in 1930

Jamaica

  • May 1935, workers loading bananas in St Mary went on strike, blocked roads to prevent strike breakers from being brought in, cut power lines – led to riot. Armed police sent to the town.
  • Same month, port workers in Trelawny went on strike, developed into riot when attempts to use strike breakers threatened, one worker killed by police gunshot.
  • Kingston, banana loaders went on strike and organised march, on second day of strike, police opened fire on crowd, wounding a woman
  • May 1936, Jamaica Workers and Tradesmens Union, a trade union, launched

Sugar Workers Rebel in St Kitts in 1935

  • 28 January 1935, cane cutters refused to start reaping new sugar cane crop on Shadwell plantation after being forced to accept low wage rates the previous year.
  • News of their refusal to work spread and workers in other plantations also refused to work
  • A new spirit of determination to fight for their rights spread throughout the island as groups of workers went from plantation to plantation on foot
  • workers prevented work from starting, or, persuaded workers to stop working. Led to a general strike of sugar workers
  • workers in sugar factories also went on strike, demanding a wage increase as their wages had been reduced
  • on 29 January 200-300 workers, some armed with sticks, entered Buckley’s plantation, and refused to leave. Stones were thrown, and the manager fired gunshots, injuring workers. Armed police arrived but workers refused to obey orders to disperse, demanding the manager be arrested
  • by the time the local military force arrived the crowd had reached 400-500 people. Military fired into crowd – 2 labourers and a factory watchman were killed and 8 others wounded.
  • the next day marines arrived, resulting in period of intimidation.
  • 39 strikers were arrested and 6 sentenced to 2-5yrs imprisonment

Labour Rebellion in St Vincent

  • Oct 1935- To increase gov revenue, was proposed that customs duties on popular items be increased, increasing the price of essential goods.  The high tariff on sugar would also be maintained. Led to mounting opposition.
  • a crowd gathered in front of the shop of George McIntosh, a popular Town Councillor, on the day when the decision would be made to approve the proposals. They wanted him to inform the Governor of their opposition and present him with other grievances e.g. lack of employment and poverty.
  • Grew suspicious he wouldn’t tell the Governor-  so demonstration took place outside the Court House where the Council was meeting, demonstrators armed with sticks and stones, some forced their way into the building
  • windows smashed, cars of officials damaged, shouts of “We can’t stand more duties on food or clothing” “We have no work. We are hungry.”
  • Governor hit, and Attorney General, who drafted tax measures, cuffed by protester. prisoners broke out from prison, and business premises of a member of the council and the largest plantation owner ransacked
  • crowd fired on, killing one and injuring several. news spread and riots spread.
  • telephone wires cut and bridges destroyed
  • military volunteers from other islands, and armed police guarded cable and wireless station and electricity plant
  • British warship arrived 21 October
  • State of emergency declared 22 October
  • disorder in Kingstown ended by end of first day, in rural areas continued two days. strong resistance in some places, in demand for land and higher wages.
  • state of emergency continued for 3 weeks
  • 23 Nov, George McIntosh, who had become acknowledged as leader of the workers, arrested for charge of treason felony, although he had tried to restore calm. Case against him collapsed.

Unrest and intimidation in St Lucia

  • end of 1935, strike of coal loaders in St Lucia
  • Governor mobilised local military force, marines patrolled streets
  • due to massive show of military force, strikers returned to work to see if their demands for wage increases would be met – all demands rejected

Labour Rebellion in Barbados

  • Clement Payne, born to Barbadian parents residing in Trinidad returned to Barbados in March 1937 and began to hold street meetings, announcing his intention to form a trade union. His meetings attracted large crowds of workers.
  • government took action- Payne believed he was born In Barbados and stated so, but this was untrue, so he was prosecuted for making a false declaration and fined- he appealed and was granted bail
  • the next day he led a march to the Government House demanding to see the Governor and was arrested, along with others. His followers paid for his legal representation. Although the appeal was successful he was secretly deported to Trinidad and arrested for possession of prohibited literature.
  • There was an angry response to his deportation with widespread rioting:
  • Shop windows were smashed, cars were pushed into the sea, passers by were attacked, police patrols, caught unarmed and unawares, fled beneath a hail of bottles and stones…During the next two days the ‘trouble’ spread to the rural parishes where a few lawless souls stoned cars on the highways while bolder spirits among the hungry poor took advantage of the general fear and confusion to break into shops and raid sweet potato field…Shops remained closed, work came to a standstill in town and country alike.”
  • At the same time lightermen were on strike, and resumed work when demands were met
  • more strikes and threats of strikes occurred in other work places. The gov ruthlessly suppressed unrest, with the police sometimes using firearms
  • The final toll: 14 dead, 47 injured and more than 500 arrested.

Labour Rebellion in Trinidad and Tobago

  • June 1937 – Uriah Butler, former oilfield worker, called for a strike of oil workers in the premises of Trinidad Leaseholds Limited, in demand of wage increases
  • An attempt to arrest him at a public meeting led to frustration from the crowd, lead to an unpopular police corporal attempting to arrest Butler being burned to death and another policeman killed. Butler went into hiding.
  • Within 2 days the strike engulfed the oilfields and other industries and occupations, before the entire economy was paralysed by the strike
  • state of emergency declared, two British warships arrived with marines and sailors. Also mobilised local military forces.
  • Numerous arrests and imprisonments, Butler not arrested until September
  • Governor and Colonial Secretary admitted publicly wages were too low and employers in oil and sugar industries and government had an obligation to ensure workers were treated fairly.
  • However, share-holders in the industries were influential in decisions made, resulting in Governor being forced to retire and Colonial Secretary transferred, to avoid improvements to working conditions being made.

Labour Rebellion in Jamaica

  • First quarter of 1937, growing unrest among peasants and landless agricultural workers
  • Robert E Rumble, a small farmer, formed the organisation ‘Poor Man’s Improvement and Land Settlement Association’
  • By March 1938, 800 members
  • April 1938, organisation addressed Petition to the Governor:

“We are the Sons of Slaves who have been paying rent to the Landlords for fully many decades we want better wages, we have been exploited for years and we are looking to you to help us. We want a Minimum Wage Law. We want freedom in this the hundredth year of our Emancipation. We are still economic slaves, burdened in paying rent to Landlords who are sucking out our vitalities” 

  • Rumble and his organisation worked to secure land for peasants and for better wages for agricultural workers
  • A movement to refuse to pay any more rent to landlords spread and people began to seize land- fuelled by the belief that  Queen Victoria promised that 100 years after emancipation, slaves would inherit the land
  • End of 1937, workers on eastern end of the Island refused to reap crop at rates offered, convincing 400-500 others to strike too. 63 were arrested, and tried, though sentences were lenient
  • due to increasing dissatisfaction among lowest paid manual workers, Gov announced a Commission to look into rates of wages and conditions of employment
  • On eastern end of island, in beginning of 1938, thousands of workers working in a sugar factory went on strike, stating they would only continue if their wages were increased. Violence followed. Four people were killed by police, 25 injured (possibly more but in hiding, and up to 96 arrested.

“The old factory on the estate, which up to Friday had been grinding canes, is entirely in the hands of the strikers … I hear rifle firing, followed by shrieks and cries … I can see men on the ground. Some are motionless, others are staggering to and fro or crawling away on their hands and knees. The strike has culminated in stark tragedy. A few minutes later I hear that three are dead, eleven wounded and that the police are making many arrests.”

  • 27/109 strikers were arrested
  • This demonstration sparked demonstrations of unemployed workers in Kingston, the capital, with workers of different industries striking in demand of increased wages
  • Further strikes unleashed when William Alexander Bustamente, popular figure who had spoken at public protests and written to British MPs about workers conditions and his assistant were arrested and refused bail. Gov eventually agreed to bail being granted to ease situation, but revolt had spread throughout Jamaica and continued for weeks.
  • Situation calmed as a result of Bustamante launching a trade union to support workers, a Royal Commission planned to investigate conditions, and loans announced to finance land settlements and infrastructural developments

Labour Rebellions Renewed in Guyana

  • Rose sharply in 1938, with over 30 disputes involving 12,000 workers  Jan-Sept.
  • Feb 1939, major strike in Plantain Leonora, 70-100 strikers entered factory and persuaded factory workers to leave. Though peaceful, armed police arrested 5 strikers, who were pelted with stones. A large crowd assembled at entrance to factory
  • Police fired on crowd- 4 killed and 23 injured
  • To calm situation, Sugar Producers Association agreed to recognise the Man Power Citizens Association, a trade union formed to organise field workers in sugar industry but hadn’t been recognised.
  • Commission of Enquiry appointed by gov to look into protest

Conclusion

  • labour rebellions of the 1930s increased self-confidence of workers in colonies and convinced them of the influence they could exert by united action
  • forced the realisation among the British that trade union legislation in the colonies needed to be in line with legislation in Britain
  • trade unions made lawful in colonies where they had previously been unlawful
  • in all colonies legislation amended or introduced making peaceful picketing of employers’ premises lawful and gave trade unionist immunity from actions that breach contracts as a result of strikes
  • foundations laid for modern trade union movements, which continue to contribute to the struggle for improved standard of living
  • these uprisings may have been spontaneous and uncoordinated, with no kind of revolutionary demands, but this does not take away from the historical significance of these events

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