George Padmore 1938

Labour Unrest in Jamaica

Source: International African Opinion, Vol. 1, No. 1, July 1938.
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg with thanks to Marika Sherwood.

Just before he died, King George V. was alleged to have put what must be the most remarkable and unexpected question asked by a dying man: “How goes the Empire?” But, like Pilate, he did not wait for an answer.

To the critical observer it would seem that the Empire is in actual truth “going.” Hardly a day passes without the report of some disturbance, some riot, some protest against imperial rule in the colonies. It is not strange, therefore, that just at the time when Lord Elgin, President of the newly opened Empire Exhibition at Glasgow, was informing their Imperial Majesties what a glorious contribution to the peace and prosperity of the peoples of the Empire this Exhibition represents, the working masses of the West Indian Island of Jamaica were being shot and bayoneted for demanding a betterment of their miserable conditions.

The events giving rise to the disturbance climaxed a deep-seated unrest of long duration. An imminent explosion was prophesied by a leader of the workers, Alex Bustamente, in the Manchester Guardian of April 8th, unless immediate remedial steps were taken. Even to the uninitiated it must be obvious that conditions are intolerable when hundreds of ragged men, women and children clamour for admittance to prison in order to obtain food, as happened a short while ago in Kingston, the capital.

Used as we have now become to descriptions of the manner in which great masses of people within the Empire live, even a brief review of the conditions of the Jamaican workers comes as something of a shock. Jamaica is entirely agrarian, and its economy is absolutely dependent upon the export of bananas, coffee, ground nuts, sugar and its by-product rum, pineapples and other tropical fruits. Its population density is heavier than in many European countries, about 290 to the square mile. (England has 269.) Of the total population of 1,138,558, the majority are Negroes, descendants of African slaves. There is a large half-caste population and a number of Chinese and Indians. But the 20,000 whites are the real masters of the colony. They and the absentee landlords form the plantocracy. Many of the local-born Europeans are also engaged in trade. They and their agents dominate the commercial and political life of the country.

Of the colony’s 4,450 square miles, about 140,000 acres of land is divided into peasant cultivation (chiefly bananas), but large scale agriculture predominates. The large proprietors own 837,000 acres, which are divided into plantations. This unequal division has created an intense land hunger among the peasants, and the demand has in recent years driven rents from 20s. to 34s. a year for an acre. The satisfaction of their land needs is obstructed by the planters, who fear labour shortage and higher wage demands.

Natives owning small plots are harassed by high taxation, the rising cost of living, and decreased prices for their output; but the great mass of them remain without land. With or without land, circumstances force them to sell their labour power, and there is a continual migration from the rural districts to the towns, where they live, penned together like cattle, in stinking-slums. Writing from Jamaica, the Correspondent of the Daily Herald says, “I entered the wooden houses, little more than huge dog kennels, of men who are expected to live on ninepence to two shillings a day wages. Families of six were living in one room, eating one poor meal a day and supplementing it with a few odd coconuts blown from trees.”

This testimony to the appallingly low rate of wages is borne out by the Government’s latest report on economic and social conditions in the island. “During 1935,” it states, “a four pound loaf of bread cost 1s. 4d.., and a labourer’s pay, therefore, provided he worked six days a week, was equal to fifteen loaves in Government employ and thirteen in private.” High rents are extorted for their disgusting living quarters. Even the most primitive public hygiene is lacking; sewage disposal by water is found only in the most favoured residential areas. Miserable housing conditions and malnutrition are the cause of the amazingly high death rate. Thus the Schools’ Medical Officer reports that out of every 100 children examined, 44 are absolutely undernourished. In the rural parishes as many as 96 out of 100 school-children are affected by hook-worm, that deadly disease of diet. A fact which would promote public indignation in England but which passes without comment in Jamaica, is that out of every 1,000 who die, 301 are infants under two years of age.

So heavy is the demand for work that wages are depressed almost to vanishing point. Last January 15,000 labourers refused to cut the sugar canes for the wages offered. “There are at least 75,000 unemployed and the majority are very little better off, for they work on empty stomachs,” wrote Bustamente in the letter to which reference is made above; and “about 50,000 children are roaming the country parts, not being able to go to school, chiefly because of lack of food and clothing.” With bread at 2d. the half-pound, flour at 1.5 to 2d. a pound, salt fish 4d., mackerel 6d., salt pork 9d., salt beef 6d., margarine 6d., and condensed milk 5d. a tin, it is hardly possible for wages of less than 3s. a day to provide the barest necessities.

The small banana growers are no better off. They are completely at the mercy of the foreign monopoly capitalists. The United Fruit Company of America and the Standard Fruit and Steamship Company control the export market and dictate the price of bananas. They work hand in glove with the big planters who are organising the Jamaica Banana Producers’ Association, which is subsidised by the Government.

The Jamaican toilers tried, unsuccessfully, the quieter ways to obtain redress of their grievances. “We have spoken in a peaceful way; the Government has apparently deafened its ears; but sometimes the deaf can be made to hear,” declared the local Labour leader in a statement to the British Press.

Hungry people are driven to desperate measures, and the suppressed have nothing to lose but their servitude. Therefore, unorganised though they were, and without experienced trade union leaders to negotiate with the employers, 600 labourers, accompanied by their wives and ragged children, marched on Monday, May 2nd, to the office of Mr. Lindo, the European manager of the West Indies Sugar Company’s factory at Old Frome in the parish of Westmorland. It seems a slight disturbance had occurred on the previous Friday at the Frome estate, where a new factory was being erected. Some windows were broken, but there were no casualties and quiet was restored in an hour. The day following, between 400 and 500 labourers employed on the new factory struck for higher wages. The strikers behaved in an orderly fashion. but ninety extra police were, however, drafted to the area.

On Monday, the spokesman of the deputation to Mr. Lindo asked a daily 4s. minimum for field labourers and higher rates for skilled artisans, such as carpenters and mechanics. The Company, which is owned by Messrs. Tate & Lyle, has been snaking enormous profits in recent years. Nevertheless, the manager, on the Company’s authority, refused these quite moderate demands, offering a flat rate of 2s. for unskilled and 3s. 6d. for skilled labour. If the men refused to accept these terms, construction work would cease. The crowd was addressed by its leaders. and the slogan “A dollar a day or no work” was taken up. The temper of the men rose. They formed into groups, and. arming themselves with sticks and tools, attacked the office and beat up the European staff.

All the time the police had been standing by, and on the arrival of a fresh crowd, fixed bayonets were ordered and men were prodded out of the yard. Unarmed, the crowd took to throwing stones. A warning came from the police. The Riot Act was read and shots were fired over the heads of strikers. More stones were thrown, and the next volley, lasting for ten minutes, was directed straight at the men, women and children, who by that time numbered over a thousand. Many were wounded, and four workers were killed. One of them, an old Negro woman, was bayoneted to death. The crowd went wild, and, rescuing as many wounded as they could, they retreated into the fields, setting the canes on fire. The manager and his staff fled from the scene, but were later rescued by the police and brought to Kingston in disguise. Among the workers 93 arrests were made. Several of them have been convicted for rioting and sent to prison for periods varying froth one to 12 months’ hard labour.

On receipt of this news the Colonial Office stated that the disturbances were entirely local in character, but events have given the lie to this statement. Even while Britain was celebrating Empire Day and the Duke of Kent was assuring the nation that the Empire is today united as never before, a general strike covered Kingston. City cleaners and wharf labourers ceased work. For days the garbage remained uncollected. Factories were closed, shops and offices were forced to shut; tram, bus and rail services ceased. Even the Fire Brigade threatened to strike. The Daily Telegraph bemoaned the fact that European households were without ice.

Cruisers and armed forces failed to intimidate the workers. Dock labourers in Kingston returned to work only after a compromise agreement was made with the employers granting them an extra 2d. an hour. Workers’ pressure forced the release of Bustamante the moneylender and his aid, St. William Grant. Throughout the rest of the island there is a state almost of insurrection. So desperate are the workers and peasants that bullets and threats cannot deter them from struggling violently for an improvement in their conditions. The Colonial Office stated quite plainly that a readjustment of wages could not be made until the submission of the report by the Commission now making its investigation of the island. But it can meanwhile set military to put down “mob rule” and create further killings and woundings.

The workers of Jamaica want to know why the Government can intervene always only on one side – that of the capitalists. After over three hundred years of “democratic” British rule, this is the situation in Jamaica today. Deprived of the elementary rights of trade union organization, parliamentary representation, freedom of speech and Press, the Jamaican toilers are unable to improve their conditions by peaceful means. They appeal to the workers of Britain, therefore, to support them in their desperate fight to obtain, besides their immediate demands, these fundamental democratic rights. British workers must insistently press their leaders, both in the Labour Party and the trade unions to urge the granting of these legitimate demands to the masses of Jamaica; they must spur their leaders to action in order to secure within the colonial sections of the Empire that democracy about which they are so concerned in Europe. This is the least that workers of Britain can do to demonstrate their solidarity with these colonial workers.