George Padmore

Poverty, Disease Is Native’s Lot
in West Indies

(June 1940)

Originally published in J.R. Johnson’s column, The Negro’s Fight, Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 10, 17 June 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The column this week is devoted to the first portion of an article on the West Indies sent us by George Padmore, a Negro revolutionist now living in England.

After very considerable delay the Imperial Government has at last issued the recommendations of the West Indian Royal Commission, but significantly enough it has refused to make public the Commission’s findings.

The fact that the Government has been forced to suppress the evidence of its own Commission is in itself the gravest indictment of its imperialistic misrule.

All attempts to whitewash colonial administration, however, are of little avail, since it is impossible to conceal the shocking conditions which prevail. Every report – Royal or local – since the last World War tells the same story – a story of unmitigated widespread poverty, of disease, starvation and stark exploitation. Not without reason, Lloyd George has referred to the West Indies as the “slums of the Empire.”

This description can with equal truth be applied to other colonies, even on the basis of conservative official reports. Thus the report of the Colonial Office Committee on Nutrition (published in 1939) says among other things that “almost everywhere health is impaired to a greater or lesser degree by malnutrition, and in most parts there is insufficient wealth, either in food or in money, to supply requirements.” The report is, in fact, a lengthy catalogue of poverty and squalor. In very few colonies does the income of the native peasant exceed $25 a year.

Describing conditions witnessed by members of the Royal Commission, the Jamaica Standard writes:

“At the first house visited it was pointed out that a father, a mother and a child would sleep in one bed while the rest of the children slept on the floor underneath. There was one small pit latrine for four families. The residents crowded around the Commissioners, shouting, ‘We are suffering greatly, Sir, and want help right now. We are all starving, we cannot get work and the Government won’t do anything for us.’

“The Commissioners then walked down Ackee Walk, forty acres of tumble-down shacks without ventilation or the most elementary sanitation. Barrack-like, with as many, as fifteen rooms in one range, they have been made from bits of wood from motor packing cases, tin or old boards, with roofs of dry coconut palms. Improvised beds on which five or more persons slept were frequent here, and many more slept on the floor underneath. There was no ventilation in any of the rooms and some were completely dark.

“At Orange Bay, the Commissioners saw people living in huts, the walls of which were bamboo knitted together as closely as human hands were capable; the ceilings were made from dry crisp coconut branches, which shifted their position with every wind. The floor measured 8 feet by 6 feet. The hut was 5 feet high. Two openings served as windows, and a third, stretching from the ground to the roof, was the door, A threadbare curtain divided it into two rooms. It perched perilously on eight concrete slabs, two at each corner. In this hut lived nine people, a man, his wife and seven children. They had no water and no latrine. There were two beds. The parents slept in one, and as many of the children as could hold on in the other. The rest used the floor.”

Governor Sacked for Exposing Conditions

In Trinidad the Governor, Sir Murchison Fletcher, was forced publicly to condemn conditions as disgraceful. He declared that “the white employing class will find a shield far surer in showing sympathy to the colored workers than in a forest of bayonets.” Referring to the report of a doctor from the Dutch East Indies, Sir Murchison said,

“He was obviously shocked by the evidence of malnutrition ... He informed me that though he had had twenty years’ experience in the Dutch East Indies and although he had first-hand knowledge of conditions resulting from vitamin deficiencies, he had never seen such distressing conditions as existed here among the East Indian laboring population, where apparently men and women suffered from the absence of all the known vitamins ... Every adult over the age of twenty years was affected and ... the working life of the population was reduced by at least 50 percent.”

The Governor made an appeal to the sugar industry, which he declared had been placed in a position of prosperous stability due to the action of the British taxpayers. “I hurriedly looked up some figures last night,” he told its representatives in the Legislative Assembly, “and I find that with respect to last year (1936) the Usine Ste Madeleine paid 5½ percent dividends, Caroni Sugar Estate 6 percent, and Orange Grove 7½ percent and arrears on preferential shares. I do appeal to that industry to examine themselves and see whether they cannot spare something more for labor!”

The sugar king and oil barons were indignant. They replied to the Governor by securing his recall to Britain, where he was sacked by Lord Harlech, then Secretary of State for Colonies.

(To be concluded)

Last updated on 28.8.2012