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Workers’ International News, July 1938


A Century of Freedom


From Workers’ International News, Vol.1 No.7, July 1938, p.6-7.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The wave of revolt among the brutally exploited populations of the West Indies spreads from Jamaica to British Guiana. Defenceless workers striking for the bare minimum wage necessary to maintain their very existence are met with terror and violence at the hands of British Imperialism. Already ten have been killed and hundreds wounded, and the rushing of troops to British Guiana signifies more bloody repressions in store for the victims of imperialist greed.

One hundred years ago, in 1838, the negro slaves were finally emancipated from the last disguise of chattel-slavery, the apprenticed-labourer system. Carried in slave-ships to the West Indies in millions, worked in gangs under the lash, they provided out of their very bones the foundations for the edifice of British Imperialism. The Emancipation Act which fixed the date for the ending of their bondage was received by the slaves as the beginning of a new age.

“As the hour of midnight approached they fell on their knees and awaited the solemn moment. When twelve sounded from the chapel bells they sprang upon their feet, and through every island rang the glad sound of thanksgiving to the Father of all, for the chains were broken and the people were free.”

In the report made over a hundred years ago to the London Missionary Society by the Rev. John Smith, who was martyred by the slave-owners of Jamaica for “conspiring to bring about a revolt”, he describes the conditions under which the slaves lived:

“The slaves live in huts that deserve only the name of kennels The only furniture allowed the slave is one iron pot for the family and a blanket for each individual ... The slaves have no time to clean their huts, and as they keep their fowls in them, the state of filth is inconceivable.”

In the London Times of May 25th, 1938, Mr. Harold Stannard describes the conditions of the grandchildren of the slaves of Jamaica:

“The first time I saw one of these hovels I could hardly believe that it was intended for human occupation ... There is no furniture except sacking on the earth and some sort of table to hold the oil stove ... In a region of Kingston are shacks put together an how out of the sides of packing cases and sheets of corrugated iron.”

A piece of sacking, sheets of corrugated iron – these are the improvements that a century of emancipation has brought to the slaves. In every other way they are sunk in the same filth and poverty as their grandfathers; the same brutal methods are employed to perpetuate their slavery; they have exchanged the chains of chattel-slavery for the chains of wage-slavery.

The West Indies provide for the world market mainly tropical agricultural products – fruit, sugar, rubber, tropical timbers, as well as minerals like bauxite and asphalt. The coloured populations exist to gather and ship these products and to serve the white administrators and plantation owners. Their share amounts to an average of 1/3d. for a 10-hour working day during the crop season, with no relief whatsoever in the periods between crops when a third, and in some cases a half of the workers fall out of employment.

During the Great War when the imperialists were busy organising the slaughter of one another's populations, the West Indies received the opportunity to expand agriculture and industry. But after the war, the disturbed markets were reorganised, the production of beet sugar in Europe was resumed, and the West Indian production was faced with new competition. The British sugar monopolies maintained their huge profits only by preferential tariffs and by forcing down the standards of the West Indies workers to the barest minimum necessary to sustain life. Half starved in crop periods and altogether starved between crops, the intolerable conditions under which they live has called forth a strike movement among the workers of Jamaica which finds its echo amongst the peasant populations and the workers throughout the West Indies.

The best land is in the possession of the planters and the sugar and banana monopolies. The majority of the peasants of Jamaica own or hire plots of 5 acres or less in territory so malarial and fever-stricken that the post-offices have to be utilised to provide quinine and anti-fever drugs to the population in penny packages. In British Guiana, the East Indians who were brought to the colony in the first place as indentured coolies, now cultivate the malarial swamps for rice-growing. These small peasants cling to the patches of ground they hire or own, and the planters resort to the whip of taxation to drive them into the plantations and ports to serve as cheap labourers. In Jamaica the franchise is held by barely 5 per cent. of the population; the remaining 95 per cent. do not even possess the meagre qualification; that would entitle them to vote – an income of £50 a year or the possession of property rated at 10/- per year. In British Guiana the position is even worse: only 2 per cent. of the population possess the vote. The privileged minority is thus in a position to enforce the most reactionary and repressive measures against the voiceless masses to extract cheap labour from them. The legislature is hacked up by a militarised police force and by a militia drawn from the upper layers, and confronts the exasperated workers and peasants with a display of armed force.

When the strikers on the Frome Estate in Westmoreland, Jamaica, demonstrated on May 2nd in an orderly fashion with their demand for a living wage, they were met with a volley from the police: six killed, 50 wounded, 93 arrested. Another volley met a workers’ demonstration on Empire Day, May 24th, in Kingston, Jamaica: 3 killed, 203 wounded, 80 arrested, including Alexander Bustamente and other labour leaders.

The general strike which began in Kingston and spread to the countryside included dock and transport workers, municipal employees, food and tobacco workers. The entire working population rallied behind the strikers not only in Jamaica but in the neighbouring colonies, particularly in British Guiana, where the labour conference which met on June 8th sent a cablegram expressing solidarity with the demonstrators in Jamaica in the struggle against inhuman conditions. The stirring of the colonial peoples is met with movements of troops and battleships, the organisation of special police, the wounding and arrests of strikers and demonstrators.

The British Government announces commissions or inquiry and plans for reforms, the Acting Governor of Jamaica proposes a £500,000 scheme of land settlement and the population is urged to return to work and wait for the carrying out of these promises. But British Imperialism cannot, dare not carry out any extensive resettlement of the dispossessed peasants without depriving itself of the cheap West Indian labour upon which it depends in a declining world market. Lord Oliver, himself a former governor of Jamaica has expressed this in Time and Tide, June 18th:

“White imperialism cannot survive in these colonies on a basis of adequately paid and fed coloured workers. If those workers, as they are now attempting, should refuse to work on any other conditions, and are able to maintain themselves independently, such colonies will cease to be assets of the British Empire.”

No more explicit confession of the bankruptcy of British Imperialism can be hoped for.

There is in the Museum of the Institute of Jamaica a relic preserved from the barbarous days of slavery: an iron cage or gibbet, in which a slave condemned to death was hung up till he died. It is shaped to fit round the body, with spiked stirrups for the feet which inflicted excruciating pain on the victim. The cage is designed to be hung in an elevated position so as to be exhibited.

In just such a cage is the colonial victim of Imperialism hung up to-day, imprisoned within the framework of a social system that dare not feed him lest he cease to be “an asset of the British Empire”. The West Indian worker is now on exhibition, like his grandfather was before him, as a warning to mutinous slaves.

The heroic struggles of the West Indian colonial workers must have the firm and loudly voiced support of the British workers. The exploited masses, whether they live at the centre or on the edge of the Empire, have one enemy in common, British Imperialism, an enemy that can only be fought by the international solidarity of the toilers. Down with British Imperialism! Away with the cage that starves and tortures the workers. We can and must fling it into the museum of history. By the united action of British and colonial workers, we can and we must smash out of our path this decrepit monstrosity that constricts and strangles humanity.

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