George Padmore 1945

A Political Review of the Colonies

Source: Left, No. 100, February 1945.
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In spite of the limitations which the war has imposed upon the Nationalist, Labour and progressive political movements which began to emerge and crystallise in many parts of the British Colonial Empire just before the outbreak of the war in Europe, it is possible to record significant gains and substantial achievements along Trade Union and political lines in Africa and the West Indies during the past year.

West Indies Lead Towards Political Democracy

The movement for constitutional reforms directed towards real democracy had its beginnings in the West Indies and was precipitated by a number of Labour riots and strikes which swept over Trinidad, Barbados, British Guiana, St. Vincent, St. Kitts, Jamaica and the Bahamas during the years 1937 and 1938.

Labour’s challenge to the status quo became so threatening that the British Parliament appointed a Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Lord Moyne – who was later murdered in Cairo by Jewish terrorists – to visit the West Indies and report on the economic, political and social state of affairs prevailing in these Caribbean territories.

As a result of the findings of this and other local Commissions, the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission was set up for the purpose of carrying out long overdue reforms. While the Colonial Office had no intention of changing the old Crown Colony Constitutions under which the West Indies have been administered for the past hundred years, the Secretary of State was forced to make certain political reforms as a concession to the aroused political consciousness of the masses and middle classes, who expressed dissatisfaction with the existing methods of government.

Jamaica Receives Representative Government

After considerable haggling, Colonel Oliver Stanley, head of the Colonial Office, agreed to grant Jamaica an experimental Constitution, based upon universal adult franchise, early in 1944. Under the terms of this new Constitution Jamaica has set up a two-chamber Parliament.

  1. The House of Assembly, consisting of 32 members elected by all natives over the age of 18. This is the first time that a Colony with an overwhelming majority of coloured inhabitants has been granted universal suffrage since Ceylon was endowed with this right about ten years ago.
  2. A Legislative Council, consisting of 15 members, all of whom are nominated by the Governor. While this Chamber will apparently have power to initiate Bills, the actual function of government will be vested in another body, called the Executive Committee.

This Committee will consist of 10 members, 5 nominated by the Governor and 5 chosen from among the members of the House of Assembly, which corresponds to the British House of Commons. The Executive Committee will be presided over by the Governor, who will have a casting vote, but not an original vote. The Committee will have power to prepare the annual budget and to approve all Government Bills before they are presented to the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council for debate. The Executive Committee will, therefore, be the real organ of power, subject to the Governor’s powers of “certification,” or veto. During the five years’ experimental period of the Constitution the Colonial Office has promised to institute a sort of Cabinet, or department system as obtains in Ceylon, whereby the main departments of the Civil Service will work in close co-operation with corresponding sub-committees formed from among the members of the House of Assembly.

The new Constitution was put into operation on November 20, 1944, preceded by a day of special prayers in all the churches throughout the island. The first general election was held on December 14 and was contested by three major parties:

  1. The so-called Labour Party, under the leadership of the island’s most picturesque demagogue, a moneylender named Alexander Bustamante;
  2. The People’s National Party, headed by one of the most brilliant West Indian barristers, Norman Manley, K.C., a former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford; and
  3. The Jamaica Democratic Party, a nondescript organisation of employers – Kingston merchants, shopkeepers, shipping agents, manufacturers and planters, dominated by the Chamber of Commerce and agricultural and landed interests.

Under the spell of Bustamante’s oratory and lavish promises to grant all things in heaven and earth to the long-forgotten, downtrodden masses, the workers and peasants have swept him into power. His party secured 22 seats out of 32 in the House of Assembly, while Manley’s party obtained most of the rest.

Who Is Bustamante?

Considering the political backwardness of the masses, who until now have never had an opportunity of participating in the political affairs of their country -- hitherto the exclusive privilege of the upper classes – it is not altogether surprising that they supported Bustamante, who established a place for himself as their national “hero” during the labour disturbances of 1938-39.

Bustamante, a native of the island, migrated to Cuba several years ago, where he acquired certain experience of Labour and Trade Union affairs. He is said to have served in the Spanish Army in Morocco and finally drifted to New York, where, it is alleged, he made some money gambling on the stock exchange. With this capital he returned to Jamaica in the ‘thirties and set up in business as a local moneylender.

His opportunity came in 1938, when the dock workers in Kingston, and the agricultural labourers on the sugar plantations, revolted against their intolerable working conditions. Bustamante, who had been in conflict with the then Governor, Sir Arthur Richards, over the moneylending racket which he operated among the badly-paid native civil servants, took up the cause of the strikers and succeeded in obtaining increased wages and improved conditions for the workers. The Governor ordered his arrest and imprisonment, an act which made Bustamante a “martyr” for the cause of Labour. By the time he was released Bustamante was everywhere proclaimed the “national hero” of Jamaica.

Exploiting his popularity and hold over the masses, Bustamante organised a number of Trade Unions, each bearing his name. He elected himself president for life of each of the seven Unions now operating throughout the length and breadth of the island, and usurped the right to appoint and dismiss all officers. Today he is a virtual dictator. Not without reason he boasted to Sir Walter Citrine, who served on the Moyne Royal Commission, that he (Bustamante), had more power in Jamaica than all the British Trade Unions in Britain. Unfortunately, the result of the recent elections lend claim to this boast.

The People’s National Party

After the workers had won their initial victories in 1939, Manley and other middle-class intellectuals offered their services to Bustamante and the newly-organised Trade Unions. For a time a working agreement was effected, but Bustamante, intoxicated with his newly acquired power over the masses, took matters into his own hands, expelled all democratic elements from the Unions and set up his one man dictatorship over the organisations. Faced with this split, Manley and other intellectuals gathered round them the more politically advanced workers and formed the People’s National Party, based upon a definite Socialist programme and democratically operated. The Party has adopted a local “Beveridge Plan,” advocating agrarian reforms, industrialization, slum clearance in the big towns, improved education and medical services, etc.

Commenting on the elections, The Times (December 18, 1944) observed that “His (Bustamante’s) reputation for constructive statesmanship is yet to win, but no one in Jamaica can equal his power over a popular audience. He has shown his capacity as an organizer in building up the Trade Unions which bear his name, and charges of autocracy have in no way diminished his hold on his followers. A more balanced element in the new House will be provided by the handful of members of the People’s National Party, but it has suffered a severe loss in the defeat by a narrow margin of its leader, Mr. N. W. Manley, who has an admirable record of public service and has done more than any Jamaican to educate his fellow-citizens in political realities.”

Barbados Victory Welcomed By British Progressives

The election results in Barbados afford greater satisfaction. Like Jamaica, the franchise in this island has recently been changed. Barbados falls into a special category of Colonial administration. The Constitution, unlike those of most other dependent territories, is based upon a 17th century form of representative government. The local parliament consists of two chambers: (1) The House of Assembly, and (2) the Legislative Council.

Recently the income qualification for exercise of the franchise was reduced from 60 to 20. This reduction has enabled a wider section of the working class to participate in the election of members to the House of Assembly. As a result, the Progressive League, which represents the interests of the Negro masses, secured 15 out of a total of 24 seats in the House of Assembly. The membership of the Legislative Council is hand-picked by the Governor.

Fortunately for Barbados, the standard of literacy is much higher than in Jamaica, and there is more unity among the local politicians. The League, which was opposed by the white planters and merchants, went to the polls on a programme of social reform and progressive working-class legislation, which was endorsed by the overwhelming majority of newly-enfranchised voters. It is the first time since the emancipation of the Negro slaves that representatives of their race form a majority in the House of Assembly, until now dominated by the descendants of the former slave owners and plantocracy.

Credit for organising and leading the Progressive League goes chiefly to two Negro barristers, Grantley Adams and Hugh Springer. Both men are Oxford graduates who, like so many of the younger coloured Colonial middle-class, are taking an active interest in the welfare of the under-privileged masses, the section of all Colonial communities which stand most in need of intelligent leadership.

Incidentally, Mr. Springer served as a member of the Commission on Higher Education in the West Indies, set up by the Colonial Office to plan the establishment of a West Indian University. He is also the secretary of the Barbados Welfare Association, the first Co-operative organisation in the island.

Adult Suffrage in Trinidad – Votes for Women in Bermuda

Other significant Constitutional changes effected during the past year are: -

  1. The granting of universal adult suffrage to the natives of Trinidad, and
  2. The extension of the vote to women in Bermuda.

The Trinidad reform came about as the result of agitation by the local Trade Unions and progressive parties, and was achieved against the violent opposition of the capitalists and plantocracy. Forced to give way to popular demand, especially after a similar measure had been granted to Jamaica by the Imperial Government, the representatives of vested interests serving on the local Franchise Commission recommended to the Governor that the vote should only be extended to those who can understand English. Since the majority of the East Indian immigrants on the sugar plantations of Trinidad don’t understand English, such a language test would dis-qualify them. The planters, who exploit the cheap labour of these Indian workers, are afraid that should they be given the right to vote, they would bring about a betterment of their conditions by sending representatives to the Legislative and other Councils to look after their working-class interests.

The Trinidad Trade Union Council and the West Indian National Party, both of which are largely under Negro leadership, have taken up the cause of the East Indian coolies and are demanding that they, too, should enjoy equal rights of citizenship with the natives of African descent.

This is a very significant gesture and indicates the political maturity of the Labour Movement in Trinidad, where the Trade Unions and political parties embrace people of all races – Africans, Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, and mixed-blood elements.

Colonial Office Oppose Literacy Test

While Trinidad has made a positive advance, subject to the reactionary attempt to deprive the Indians of the vote, the situation in British Guiana is less hopeful.

The Franchise Commission in British Guiana, unlike that in Trinidad, opposed by a majority vote the extension of adult suffrage to all sections of the population.

The motive, no doubt, was the same as that inspiring opposition in Trinidad. The local planters and other sections of vested interests fear that the Indians, who form the largest ethnic community, would exercise too much political power should the existing property and literacy qualifications be abolished.

Consequently, the Commission has recommended that the property qualification for voters should he retained and as a minor concession to Indians and Negroes, the two largest sections of the population, that the property and income rate should he reduced by half or more. The Guianese Franchise Commission has also recommended to the Governor a literacy test in English, but official circles in London doubt whether the Secretary of State for the Colonies will agree to the literacy test, as this is against the established policy of the Colonial Office in territories inhabited by non-speaking English races, such as Hindus, Chinese, etc.

Duke of Windsor Demands Secret Ballot for Bahamas

The greatest opposition to any form of Constitutional reform comes from the Bahamas, governed by the Duke of Windsor, former King-Emperor of the world’s greatest Empire.

Ever since the Duke took over the administration of this ancient British colony he has been trying to break the economic and political power of the white minority who control the local parliament, known as the House of Assembly. Thanks to the high property qualification, only about 20 percent of the inhabitants of the inhabitants of the Bahamas are able to exercise the vote, and even less have any hope of ever being elected to the Assembly since the property qualification governing membership is 200.

The Duke recently introduced a Bill asking for the introduction of the secret ballot, but the European businessmen and property owners have opposed it and lave threatened the Duke with trouble if he persists in changing the 250-year-old Constitution. In this connection it is interesting to recall that the Bahamas, like Bermuda and Barbados, has one of the oldest Colonial Parliaments in the Empire. It was originally granted to a company of British merchant adventurers in the I-17th century. These slave-owners were later reinforced by a number of Loyalists who fought against the armies of George Washington in the wars of the American Revolution. When they broke with the American colonists they took with them the mace formerly used in South Caroline legislature. Any visitor to Nassau, the capital of Bahamas, will see the mace in the Council Chamber of the Bermuda House of Assembly.

Constitutional Changes in West Africa

Inspired by the lead given by the people of the West Indies, West Africans, too, have been pressing the Colonial Office for new Constitutions.

During the visit to London in 1943 of the West African Press Delegation, headed by that brilliant journalist and publicist, Nnamdi Azikiwe, editor-in-chief of the African Pilot, of Nigeria, African leaders presented a comprehensive programme of demands to the British Colonial authorities. The memorandum, entitled “The Atlantic Charter and British West Africa,” made a great impression in responsible Colonial Office circles and received favourable comment in the British Press.

Following up this demand, a delegation of Gold Coast chiefs and intellectuals presented a draft Constitution to the Governor, recommending modifications in the existing Legislative and Executive Councils. Considering the modesty of the demands, it is not surprising that the Secretary of State for the Colonies agreed to grant them. In an Order in Council issued from Downing Street last October, Colonel Oliver Stanley announced his approval of a new Constitution for the Gold Coast. Under the new set-up the official majority on the Legislative Council will be transformed into an unofficial majority made up of African chiefs and a sprinkling of elected members, based on a property vote. For the first time, Ashanti and the Northern Territories – two of the hinterland regions of the Gold Coast – will have representation on the Legislative Council. The Governor, however, will retain his reserve powers, which will enable him to veto any decision trade by the African majority on the Legislative Council in “the interests of public order, public faith, or good government.” In other words, the Colonial Office has conceded the form of political democracy to the Africans but has retained the substance. For, as long as Colonial Governors can override decisions of legislatures, there can be no true expression of the people’s will, even where there are unofficial majorities on the Councils.

About the same time as the Gold Coast reform was announced, the Secretary of State made a small gesture to the Africans of Kenya, where, for the first time an African, Mr. Eliud Wambu Mathu, who studied at Balliol, Oxford, has been appointed by the Governor to the local Legislative Council. This timed step forward is still a long way off from real democratic representation for the three and a half million disfranchised natives. Kenya is one of the most autocratically governed Colonies in the Empire. The European population of 20,000 not only dominate the political affairs of the Colony, but control the best lands in the highland regions of the country. They have eleven elected members on the Legislative Council, while the Africans, who form the overwhelming majority of the population, until now had no African representing them. They were “represented” by a European missionary, hand-picked by the Governor.

European Settlers “Revolt” Against London

Considering it an insult to their racial dignity to sit on the same Council with one of the despised natives, the Kenya landlords, under the leadership of the chief legislator, Alfred Vincent, have organised a movement to break away from Colonial Office control. At a recent session of the Legislative Council, the European members passed a motion inviting Field-Marshal Smuts to call a Pan-African Conference of European settlers in Kenya, Nyasaland. Tanganyika, Uganda, Northern and Southern Rhodesia for the purpose of working out plans to unite those territories into a new African Dominion, which would place the African populations under the direct rule of the local whites, who would then be independent from the outside interference of the Colonial Office in London. The promoters of this imperialistic enterprise hope to get the support not only of European landowners and mining companies in Africa, but of influential and industrial interests in Great Britain who are looking towards Africa as a field of exploitation after the war.

“Planning for Africa must be done in Africa,” asserted Mr. Vincent. “I welcome the frank admission of this by the Secretary of State for the Colonies. We merely seek move the opportunity to do that planning. The request for this conference is the acid test of the Imperial Government’s sincerity,” declared the settlers’ spokesman.

Support for the scheme has already been pledged by influential Europeans in other East and South African territories. For example, Mr. Welensky, the representative of the white community of Northern Rhodesia, addressing the Legislative Council recently, attacked the British authorities in London, declaring that it was time for the Europeans in that Colony to be free from the “dictates of the Colonial Office.” He even demanded direct representation for the 15,188 Europeans in the British House of Commons, on the lines of the French system.

At present the local parliament, or Legislative Council, consists of 9 official members, 8 unofficial members elected only by whites, and one European appointed by the Governor to “represent” the 1,366,641 Africans! Having appointed an African to speak for his people in the Legislative Council of Kenya, the Secretary of State has agreed to set up special provincial councils in Northern Rhodesia, where the chiefs and other Africans will he permitted “to speak their minds on matters concerning their territory.”

Not without reason, Mr. Churchill has declared that the principles of the Atlantic Charter did not apply to the native races of the Colonial Empire, whose interests and welfare were already safeguarded under the principles of “trusteeship.”