George Padmore 1938
From: Controversy, Vol. 2, No. 17, February 1938.
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg for Marxists.org July 2007.
DESPITE the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into labour conditions in Trinidad, the general political situation in that colony is going from bad to worse. Temporary economic concessions, such as increased wages and shorter hours, which many sections of the working class forced the employers to concede as a result of the general strike, are now being threatened. For the Government is inaugurating a policy which savours of Colonial Fascism, and which, if not challenged immediately, is bound to deprive the workers of their most elementary civil rights, such as freedom of the press, speech and assembly.
The authorities have proposed the enactment of a new Sedition Bill; public open-air meetings are being prohibited; newspaper editors are threatened with prosecution; British troops have been landed to garrison the industrial centres of the island; the sum of $51,000 has been voted for the purpose of arming a special middle-class volunteer force in order to protect vested interests; while several trade union leaders, including Uriah Butler, President of the British Empire Workers’ and Citizens’ Home Rule Party, were arraigned before the Criminal Assizes on charges of murder, sedition and incitement to riot. Butler has been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. A wave of terrorism and intimidation is sweeping over the co um try.
West Indian workers, Negroes as well as East Indians, are among the worst paid labourers in the world, and in consequence their standard of living is extremely low. In recent years their conditions have become almost intolerable, due to unemployment and the rising cost of living. Unorganised and without any political rights, they have been unable to obtain any form of social relief, despite the fact that for years Captain A. A. Cipriani, who, until recently, was looked upon as the undisputed leader of the toiling masses of the island, had been appealing to the Government to take measures to ameliorate the conditions of the workers.
Cipriani is a native-born white man of Corsican ancestry and a descendant of the Bonapartes. He is the President of the Trinidad Labour Party and one of the seven unofficial elected members of the Legislative Council.
Last May Cipriani was appointed by the Government as one of the two representatives of the colony to the Coronation. During his absence, the employers, especially those on the oilfields, started to rationalise industry, and the workers, goaded into desperation, declared a stay-in strike on June 19th. Immediately the strike was declared, the managers of the companies called upon the Government to assist them in crushing the strike. Police were despatched from Port of Spain to the south of the island, the centre of the oil industry. On arrival there they began to beat up the strikers and to drive them off the oilfields. In Trinidad most industrial and agricultural workers live in huts or barracks on the premises of the companies so that whenever they dare to strike the first thing the employers do is to declare them trespassers and evict them and their families. Although the workers protested against being thrown on the streets, they agreed to vacate peacefully the property of their masters.
It was while Butler, the strike leader, was addressing the workers on an open lot near the oilfields that the trouble started. The police, armed with pistols, attempted to break up the meeting and arrest Butler. This precipitated fighting in the course of which a police corporal was killed and several civilians wounded. On the following day the Governor ordered the commander of the local Forces to recruit a volunteer corps from among the European community. These men were armed and put in control of the oilfields at Point Fontin and Fyzabad. This was an incitement to further rioting, resulting in the death of ten workers and sixteen wounded. In the meantime the Governor cabled the Colonial Office for reinforcements. On the morning of June 22nd H.M.S. Ajax arrived in Port of Spain and landed hundreds of marines and bluejackets. Two days later the cruiser Apollo landed more troops, which were assigned to control the oil refineries and strategic points in the capital.
By this time the strike had already reached Port of Spain, where lightermen, stevedores, porters, carters and public works labourers declared solidarity with the oilfields workers. Processions were spontaneously organized and the workers marched through the busy section of the town with banners and slogans declaring: “We ask for bread and they give us hot lead.” “Stop the murder of defenceless workers in the oilfields.”
Despite all the military display which the Government mobilized to intimidate the people, the strikers refused to return to work until their grievances were redressed. By this time the strike was island-wide. Thousands of East Indian agricultural labourers on the great sugar plantations refused to work. Motor transport in many parts of the country had to stop for want of petrol; ships arriving in the harbour of Port of Spain were unable to discharge their cargoes. The entire economic life of the country was at a standstill.
Alarmed at the tremendous wastage of petroleum on the oilfields, the companies decided to negotiate with the strike leaders. The Government, however, obstructed negotiations by threatening to arrest Butler, who by this time had gone into hiding. The police, bent upon getting their man, went to the extent of offering £100 to any worker who would betray their leader. The strikers, however, spurned this offer and appointed a delegation to confer with the employers. After much haggling the companies agreed to certain of their demands and the men went back to work.
The Government Departments, especially the Public Works, also increased the pay of their workers and instituted an eight-hour day. Even the scavengers employed by the City Council of Port of Spain received an increase in wages.
Reviewing the situation before the members of the Legislative Council, the Governor, admitting the justice of the workers’ case, declared that:
“When I arrived in Trinidad, I was very painfully impressed by the effect of poverty here, more particularly by the physical appearance of the East Indian population. I have come from the South Seas where East Indians were introduced in exactly similar circumstances, brought in for the sugar estates, but the men there are of definitely finer physical figure. I think over my report written in 1935. It refers to a visit of a Dutch doctor. He was some weeks going through the country associated with one of our medical officers. He was always shocked by the evidence of malnutrition which he observed in these areas. He stated he had 20 years experience in these Dutch East Indies and, although he had personal knowledge of conditions resulting from vitamin deficiency, he had never seen such distressing conditions as existed here among the East Indian labouring population who were apparently – men and women – suffering from the absence of all the known vitamins. At the hospital the doctor took cases at random and showed me the ravages which are being caused by deficiency diseases among the East Indian labouring population.”
This admission so aroused public opinion that the Governor, with the approval of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, appointed a Commission to investigate the cause of the unrest and the conditions of labour in the island.
Inspired by their success, the workers began to organise trade unions for the first time in the history of the island in order to safeguard their gains and to press for the right of collective bargaining. But as was to be expected, the employers, who are organised into a powerful Chamber of Commerce, bitterly opposed trade unionism, denouncing the unions as unlawful bodies, hot-beds of sedition and Bolshevism, and would have no dealings with them. On the other hand, the Government, while recognising the unions, has adopted a policy which, if continued, will reduce their effectiveness and usefulness in defending the economic interests of the workers.
In order to stifle all criticism, the first thing the Governor did was to impose a censorship upon the press during the strike and to threaten native editors with summary imprisonment if they dared to comment upon the military measures he had adopted, and especially the hunt which the police, aided by marines and volunteers had started for Butler and other strike leaders. Entire villages were rounded up and house-to-house searches carried out.
Since then a more direct move to curb the activities of the unions by denying them the possibility of public assembly has been made. It is significant that the Government made this move immediately after the United Kingdom members of the Commission departed from the colony. In a letter addressed to the Mayor, Aldermen and Councillors of the Municipality of Port of Spain, the Colonial Secretary, the Hon. A. W. Seymour, C.M.G , appealed to that body to co-operate with the Government to prohibit the workers from using public squares and open spaces in the city for meetings.
In Trinidad, like most other colonies, there are few halls suitable for workers’ assembly, and those which exist are owned by employers who, naturally, would not rent them to unions, even if the workers were in a position to hire them. The only places, therefore, where workers can hold their meetings are on common lands; and since such places are under the direct control of the Municipal Corporation, the Government, in order to carry out its attack upon free speech and assembly, is importuning the Civic Council. The Government has even gone a step further in its determination to stifle all criticism and to put the fear of God into the hearts of the natives.
At a meeting of the Legislative Council on November 13th, a body whose majority are Government officials and nominees of the Governor representing vast interests such as oil, agriculture, commerce, etc., a new sedition ordinance received its first reading. The Bill provides that:
Three days later, to coincide with the opening of the trial of Butler and other trade union leaders before the Criminal Assizes, the Governor ordered H.M.S. York to Port of Spain and brought a company of Sherwood Foresters from Bermuda by Canadian Government steamer, as a salutary gesture to the populace. And to add insult to injury the maintenance of these troops will be borne by the taxpayers.
Intimidation has reached such a stage that even members of the Legislative Council cannot open their mouths without running the risk of being jailed. For example, at a recent meeting of the Legislative Council the Governor, in addition to charging the colony with the upkeep and maintenance of the British garrison, voted the suit of $51,000 for rearming the volunteer and local forces, on the excuse that it is necessary for the colony to prepare itself against foreign invasion. Captain Cipriani, however, objected to the expenditure of such a large sum upon military purposes at a time when the workers are suffering from economic depression. He described the measure as class legislation: arming the forces to quell labour unrest in the interests of the employers. The Governor took objection to Cipriani’s statement and said he would refer the matter to the Attorney-General, adding the warning that there was no privilege to members of the Legislative Council.
Mr. Lloyd Smith, a native journalist and editor of the Sunday Chronicle, is being charged with sedition for publishing a letter signed by an ex-civil servant, alleged to be derogatory to the service. Mr. Smith will appear before the next Criminal Assizes.
A similar wave of repression is sweeping over the island of Barbados, a neighbouring colony of Trinidad, also recently the scene of labour disturbances. A number of workers’ leaders are now being charged before the Criminal Assizes with sedition and rebellion. The trial of all the accused has not been completed, but one man by the name of Ulric Grant has been sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for taking part in a demonstration of unemployed in Bridgetown, during which six workers were shot and several wounded. Marines were also landed on the island. Since then, the Governor of Barbados, Sir Mark Young, who is reputed to be less sympathetic to natives than Fletcher, has been sent to Trinidad, where the Duke of Montrose, the chairman of the oil companies, has demanded that the Colonial Office establish a naval base to protect vested interests.
On January 10th Mr. Ormsby-Gore announced that the King had accepted the resignation of Sir Murchison Fletcher. This should he an eye-opener to Socialists. The Governor was an Imperialist, but because he had the courage to criticise publicly the slave conditions in the island, the sugar kings and oil barons could not forgive him.
After 140 years of Crown Colony rule the people of Trinidad and other West Indian colonies are still smarting under a number of economic, political and social grievances which are becoming aggravated by the autocratic methods of administrators. It is high time for a fundamental change in the political constitutions of these colonies, along the road of self-determination. This is the task which history has placed on the toiling masses of the West Indies – Indians as well as Negroes; for the West Indian bourgeoisie is one of the most reactionary colonial ruling classes and will never make any concessions unless forced to.
It is the duty of British Socialists and trade unionists to help these colonial workers.