C.L.R. James

British Barbarism in Jamaica –
Support the Negro Workers’ Struggle

(June 1938)

Source: Fight, Vol. 1 No. 3, June 1938), pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed: Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘... I cannot believe that I was unsound in stating that the West Indian labourer does not even remotely resemble the English labourer ...’
Leonard Lyle, President, Tate and Lyle Ltd.
(From a letter to The Times, 10 May 1938).

Tate & Lyle, as everyone who buys sugar should know, make a fortune every year by selling to the British workers sugar grown by Jamaica workers. They must keep these two divided at all costs. Hence with that solemn shamelessness so characteristic of British capitalism, Mr. Lyle discovers that the West Indies labourer does not remotely resemble the English labourer. The real trouble is, of course, that he resembles the English labourer too much for Mr. Capitalist Lyle.

Jamaica is the largest of the British West Indian islands, and has a population of almost a million, the majority negroes. The negroes are descendants of slaves whom the British capitalists agreed to free a hundred years ago because slave-labour in the West Indies no longer paid. These negroes today have no language but English, they have lost touch with Africa, their outlook is Western, and in some islands over three-quarters of the population is literate. But white capital has always dominated the islands and continues to do so. The government is in the hands of the whites, local and British. These give the coloured middle class good jobs in the civil services to keep them quiet. The constitution of the government gives a grudging concession here and there but the Colonial Office sees to it that power remains in the hands of the Governor.

Sir Leonard Lyle will say it is because the West Indian labourer does not resemble the British. But there is more in it than that, much more.

In 1929 came the crisis and British capitalism was up to the nose. What was to be done? Not very much, but they could at least squeeze the colonies a little more. At Ottawa they decided to keep cheap Japanese goods out of the colonies and make these blacks, so different from the British worker, buy higher-priced goods with lower wages. The islanders had no say in the matter being, of course, under the benevolent protection of Britain. The result was widespread misery. Then came “recovery”, i.e. unemployment became 1.5 million instead of 2.5. But profits went up. The West Indian labourer can read and write. He could see the profits going up, but he still had to live on his one or two shillings a day. Further, on some of the sugar estates the workers still lived in the hovels of fifty years back. The workers know about the social services in Britain, unemployment pay, small as it is, etc. But they are not allowed to have Trade Unions. They demanded better pay and better standards. The employers, like Leonard Lyle, however, thought that these men were impertinent. The result has been a series of riots in which the Government has not hesitated to shoot, arrest leaders, imprison and deport agitators. But the situation is so bad and the workers so determined that the Government and the capitalists see that they have to make some concessions, and gestures such as a few new houses, etc. They have allowed trades unions in Trinidad but they want them controlled by the Government.

What the West Indian workers need is a radical change in the whole system of Government. In 1897 a commission went to the West Indies and recommended that the big estates be broken up and peasant proprietors established. The secretary was a young man who in 1930 went back again on another commission, this time as chairman. Lord Olivier. He recommended again that the uneconomic estates should be broken up. But nothing has been done. The Government is in the hands of the capitalists and planters and they are concerned with themselves and their profits. Trade Unions? Manhood suffrage? A government elected by the people? Impossible! For, says Sir Leonard Lyle, the West Indian labourer is fundamentally different from the British worker.

A powerful movement is now well under way in all the islands. The British workers must support it. Once the West Indian workers have their democratic rights they are able and willing to struggle. The magnificent general strike in Trinidad proves that, as does the militancy of the Trinidad workers. Citrine and Transport House take no initiative in helping to organise them. The British workers must, in their unions, press for full democratic rights for the West Indian workers. Tate and Lyle are planning to open factories in Jamaica. They want to take advantage of labour which has not the right as yet to protect itself. Thus black is used against white and Leonard Lyle seeks to poison the mind of the British worker against the colonials.

On May 23rd, American sailors in the harbour of Kingston, Jamaica, refused to blackleg on the black dock-workers and collected subscriptions for the strikers. That is true international solidarity. British workers will not be behind. Those who wish to send a resolution of protest to the Colonial Office, or of solidarity to the West Indians and a subscription, however small, can do so through the office of Fight or through the International African Service Bureau of 129 Westbourne Grove, an organisation devoted to the interests of the negro struggle.

Last updated on 27 April 2018