W.F. Carlton

Movements for Independence Grow in West Indian Islands

(28 October 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 43, 28 October 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

One sign of the growing political awareness of the Negro people in the United States is their interest in the fate of Negroes in other parts of the world. The Negro papers feature accounts of social and political events in Africa. Their interest in the West Indies is even greater. The history of the West Indian people during the last ten years is one of such tumultuous and rapid development that it is worthy of study.

The West Indian islands are divided into two political groups, the independent islands, such as Cuba, Santo Domingo and Haiti; and the colonies proper, Jamaica, Trinidad, the Windward and Leeward Islands, etc. (British); Martinique, Guadeloupe and other islands belonging to France; and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, belonging to the United States. It is in the British colonies chiefly that the most startling developments have taken place.

The Political Pattern

What is most striking is the political pattern that the developments have followed. Students of politics have long known that in a modern country the working class is the driving force of the struggle for political freedom. The peasants or agricultural laborers as a rule follow the lead of the workers.

Furthermore, the middle class we know to be a vacillatory class, going now with the workers and now with big capital. According to the strength shown by big capital or the proletariat, the middle classes act, going generally with the stronger.

The British imperialists try always to use the colonial middle class against the proletariat and the poor peasants. They corrupt and intimidate their leaders just as the capitalist class in the U.S. corrupts and intimidates the labor leaders.

These tried and tested political ideas have been exemplified a thousand-fold in the recent history of the British West Indies.

Events Develop Rapidly

The most important feature of the struggle is the rapidity with which it has matured.

Ten years ago the islands seemed politically dead. There was a flurry of excitement around election time, but the crown colony system seemed to choke the political life of the people. The crown colony system bears its crimes enshrined in its very name. Under this system the colonies are governed by the Crown, i.e., the British government. Its representative in each colony is the Governor, and he has absolute power.

To assist him he has a Legislative Council. In Trinidad (population 500,000) the Legislative Council consisted of two types of members, 14 government officials and 14 representatives of the people. But the 14 representatives of the people were not all elected by the people. Seven were elected and the other seven were nominated by the Governor. So that the Governor chose these representatives of the people.

Elections Are Stacked

But even the elections were heavily weighted against the people. There was such a high property qualification for voters that only a very small percentage of the population could vote.

Under this system, not only did the majority of the Legislative Council represent the government, but even if the nominated members sided with the elected members against government, the Governor’s officials plus himself could always vote them down. Not only COULD this be done, but it WAS done when necessary. It was official government by a permanent majority of officials. In essence, the Governor held power.

The system still remains today. But it has been cracked in many places. Today, in island after island, there is universal suffrage. There is a majority of elected members in the Legislative Councils. The people are clamoring for complete self-government. All this in the short space of ten years. How has this happened?

Oil Workers of Trinidad

In the British West Indies the most important industrial undertaking is the oil industry of Trinidad, employing 7,000 workers. As out of a blue sky, they staged a sit-down strike in 1937 for higher wages, union recognition, holidays with pay, etc. Overnight the agricultural laborers and peasants followed them. The is land was in the throes of a general strike, which lasted 14 days. The other islands followed, Barbados and in particular Jamaica having repeated outbreaks. In Jamaica the longshoremen took the lead. There was mass strike after mass strike. These began over wages but what began as a struggle for wages soon took advanced political forms.

Political parties sprang up as if they had been growing below the soil. The British government tried to mobilize the middle classes against the workers. But the middle classes, startled out of their traditional subservience to Britain, produced not only leaders of the people, but even gave political support to the workers.

Growth of Trade Unions

Trade unions organized themselves on most of the islands with astonishing rapidity, and have for some years now been linked together in an inter-island federation.

Political parties have sprung up in each island, dominated for the most part by the labor movements. Their programs vary from the socialist program of the People’s National Party of Jamaica to the Program of the United Front on which Trinidad voters were asked to elect candidates in the recent elections. The program consisted of three planks: (1) Self-government; (2) Nationalization of basic industries; (3) Universal popular education.

The United Front did not win a majority of the council members but achieved a striking success, winning important constituencies. Details of these and other developments, the true significance of Bustamente, the Jamaican labor leader, the relation of the labor unions to the political parties, all these will be taken up in succeeding articles. But the great lesson of West Indian class struggle during the last ten years remains. One great group of workers, the Trinidad oil workers, struck for higher wages in 1937.

Thereby they unloosed a labor and political movement which has achieved more for the British West Indies in ten years than in the previous 75 years of their history. In the West Indies as elsewhere the future lies with the working class and the other oppressed classes of the population.

Last updated on 8 July 2019