Walter Rodney

Masses in Action

First Published:1966
Source: New World Quarterly 2:3 (1966), 30-37.
Transcription:Susan Campbell
Markup:Steve Palmer
Copyleft: Copyright New World Quarterly.

Over the past decade, Guyana has been stirred into a state of constant self-examination. The results, however, have been meagre and disappointing, largely because the discussion has been confined to the period after 1953, and to the personalities, failures and recriminations of that era.[1] There is a tacit assumption that only in 1953 did mass involvement in Guyanese political affairs begin, national political leaders arise, and racial suspicion and strife find expression. Guyanese history began a long time ago. Even the beginning of this century is an arbitrary and not entirely satisfactory point at which to take up the story of the Guyanese masses; but it does allow some scope for at least an interim examination of the Guyanese past in terms which are relevant to the working class.

By the end of the nineteenth century the net result of nearly three centuries of varied activity by external forces on the Guyana mainland was the creation of a small society limited to the coastlands, to the production of sugar and to all that went with sugar in terms of class stratification and foreign exploitation. Today, the fundamentals of the situation remain unaltered, with sugar accounting for more than 40% of the revenues. Yet the old colonial system had its critics, the most serious of all possible critics - the working masses. It is the contention here that both the marginal modification of an entirely sugar-bound society and the hostility evoked by that society are to be traced to the years after 1900, and in particular to the period of the first World War.


In the economic sphere the principal supplement to sugar in Guyana today is bauxite. At the outbreak of the war a number of mining concessions were issued when geological evidence indicated that extensive deposits of bauxite were likely to be encountered in Guyana. The largest concession was held by the Demerara Bauxite Company, which was registered locally in 1916, backed by American and Canadian financial interests. The Demerara Bauxite Company built the town of Mackenzie before the end of the war; and early in November 1919 there was a Chronicle report that the Company had just exported 1,500 tons of bauxite - its fourth shipment.[2]

All Guyanese welcomed the discovery of bauxite, but there was a revealing debate about the role of American capital, when it was ascertained that the Northern Alumina Company of Toronto of which the Demerara Bauxite Company was a subsidiary, was merely a facade for U.S. capitalists. Primarily, the question was posed in terms of British imperial interests versus those of the U.S.A.; and in fact the British government suspended the granting of mineral concessions in Guyana during the latter stages of the war, with the hope that British capital would give a better account of itself after the struggle in Europe had ended. But there was also the underlying assumption in the Guyanese press that local interests could well have been jeopardised by U.S. capital, and local entrepreneurs demanded the opportunity to be allowed to raise capital and take the initiative in the bauxite industry. As it turned out, the North American financiers and industrialists had the field to themselves. The Demerara Bauxite Company quickly joined forces with and took partial control of Sprostons, the most important engineering and shipping firm in Guyana at that time; and together they came to dominate the Demerara river and a significant section of the economy.

Growth of U.S. Imperialism in Latin America

Stimulated by wartime conditions, trade between Guyana and the U.S.A. was on the increase, and imports from the U.S.A. were rapidly outstripping imports from Britain. Guyana was but a small part of a process of development taking place in the whole Latin American and Caribbean area. In Jamaica, the U.S.A. had gone further towards capturing the local market than in any other British West Indian territory; while in Surinam it was also U.S. capital which had started the bauxite industry. This new U.S. offensive was a further stage in the decline of European influence in the Southern Americas, a process which started with the Haitian revolution.

The nineteenth century had already shown that European decline meant replacement by U.S. domination. This situation was being seriously discussed in the Caribbean and Latin America at the end of the first World War. The Argosy gave prominence to a discourse by an Argentine intellectual on the dangers that were imminent because of U.S. imperialism. All the British West Indian islands were particularly concerned that the British were planning to relinquish their Caribbean possessions to the U.S.A. The answer to this new threat, they felt, was a Federation, though curiously enough, this too was envisaged in broad hemispheric terms to include Canada. Subsequently, the hopes of Federation were dashed, while the fears that the British would relinquish their possessions to the U.S.A. were fully justified in every respect except that of international law.

Simultaneously with bauxite, the more glamorous attraction of diamonds was presented. By 1922 the diamond industry was flourishing, accounted in value for one quarter of the exports of Guyana. Since gold had been discovered in 1882, with rubber and balata providing further incentives, and with bauxite and diamonds in the offing, it is not surprising that the 'bush' acquired a new meaning for Guyanese and the habit of looking inland was probably enhanced by the partial breakdown of the traditional relations with Europe, which the war effected. During the war people keenly debated the feasibility of such schemes as a road to link up with the main Pan-American highway, and a railway deep into the hinterland, while an economic survey of the Rupununi was proposed.

The parallel with Guyana of 1966 is striking. The interior can be seen to represent in the consciousness of the Guyanese an escape from the insular and colonial relations of the narrow coastal strip and, incidentally, it is clear that the masses are taking the initiative in the matter. This consciousness, for obvious geographical reasons, is absent from the islands of the Caribbean, but it is not unique so far as the mainland territories are concerned. A modern historian sees the most characteristic element of Latin American history as being its "El Dorado Spirit";[3] and that spirit was perfectly exemplified by the Guyanese 'Pork-Knocker', as well as being shared by those who remained behind.

Precious little emerged out of the hope that the interior offered Guyana a brighter future. All that came of the scheme of communication with the hinterland was the Rupununi cattle tract, which was opened in 1917. The gold rush of the 1880's had declined considerably in the early years of this century. Mushroom companies had collapsed as yields proved unremunerative, and the diamond industry was to follow a similar pattern. Both minerals continued to produce regular revenue, but the scale of operations was small. At a glance, it seems that Guyanese had over-estimated their resources, but it was those who believed that the country had only minor alluvial deposits of gold and diamonds, but no supplies at great depth, who were living in a world of fancy. The woeful ignorance and apathy of the colonial regime militated against the rational utilisation of Guyana's resources.

Indentured Immigration

The conception of change which the Guyanese workers entertained during the war was by no means restricted to the exploration of the interior. On a number of vital fronts they were prepared to wage a struggle against the forces of oppression. One of their most crucial battles was for an end to indentured immigration, and subsequently for the prevention of exploitation of the same ilk.

There were veiled indications in the Guyanese press that when McNeil and Chiman Lal, the two commissioners from India, visited Guyana in 1916 to investigate the indenture system, they were carefully guided to their sources of information; and there were strong assertions on the part of the Indian and Negro workers that they had struggled uncompromisingly against the system of indenture. The commissioners' report was not decisively condemnatory, but in any event, the 18th April 1917 saw the arrival of the last ship bringing indentured immigrants from India. By the time that the last indentured contracts were served, all sectors of the society became nominally free.

Indenture, unlike slavery, was constantly producing free citizens in large numbers, some of whom were repatriated at the expiry of their contract. Indeed the rate of repatriation was quite high. In the twenty years between 1891 and 1911 a total of 36,016 Indian immigrants returned home, compared with 65,764 who arrived during the same period. Many of the Indians who remained in Guyana, like the freed Negroes, moved away from the sugar estates and attempted to set themselves up as an independent peasantry. In 1890, 30% of the East Indians earned their living outside of the sugar estates; while by 1911 less than half of those labourers brought to Guyana in the interest of the sugar industry were still to be found on the sugar estates. The population of Guyana in December 1917 was 314,000, out of whom 137,000 were Indians, and only 62,000 of them were on the sugar estates.


Rice provided the basis for the East Indian withdrawal from the sugar plantations. Some African slaves and their descendants had planted rice in Guyana and elsewhere, but it was not a crop which was widespread in West Africa, in contrast to India, whence the indentured immigrants brought techniques of irrigated rice farming. As early as 1905 Guyanese rice imports began to drop, and shortly afterwards the local rice industry was not only taking care of the domestic consumption but was also exporting. Under wartime conditions, the rice industry was able to set its sights clearly on exports, because it was easy to capture the West Indian market which was starved of food imports. In Guyana itself there were food shortages, making it necessary for an embargo to be placed on the export of rice in 1917. However, in March 1919, permits were once more issued for the export of rice to the West Indian islands, so that the rice industry emerged from the crucible of the war as Guyana's second agricultural activity.

Naturally enough the East Indian peasants wanted land. The planter and government attitude towards the settlement of indentured immigrants on small holdings was not initially favourable, but both in Trinidad and Guyana they were prepared to grant small amounts of land if this would keep labour from returning to India. Besides, the land had to be properly drained and irrigated for rice farming, and the crop needed to be financed and marketed. All these problems have only been successfully tackled in the last few years, so that for decades the rice farmers waged a constant struggle against drought and flood, and against the voraciousness of the Georgetown merchants who advanced credits and then bought the paddy or rice at ridiculously low prices. Yet, for all this, the East Indian peasant, like the ex-slaves who had managed to set up free villages in Guyana, had to some extent escaped the toils of the plantation system, and it is probably significant that, according to Chandra Jayawardena, "the Indians of the rice-growing villages consider the Indian plantation labourers to be disorderly and immoral".[4] Throughout the Caribbean the heritage of sugar is one of degradation.

Indian "Middle Class"

While the mass of the East Indian population were either labouring on the sugar estates or in the rice fields, there were also small numbers of merchants and professional men of the race already prominent by 1917, precisely because indenture had long been producing free citizens. Clearly such individuals had already acquired interests quite different from the East Indian workers and peasants. It was an East Indian landowner and rice miller, Gayadeen, who was a principal opponent to the scheme of setting up a cooperative rice mill, when this was proposed late in 1918. His intention was that the peasants should be entirely dependent on him, and he issued a thinly-veiled threat to increase the rent of the ground and the houses of the East Indian peasants over whom he held the whip hand. Veeraswamy, a Georgetown lawyer, was accused of hypocritical posturing when he called upon the East Indian workers of Guyana to fight for king and country, while allowing himself to be persuaded that he was too valuable an asset to Guyana to risk enlistment. However, it was the small East Indian section of the "middle class" to whom the indentured and ex-indentured immigrants looked for guidance and leadership, and in turn the lawyers and merchants sought to articulate the interests of the East Indian community as a whole.[5] For instance, when there was a serious disagreement on a sugar estate, the labourers would trek to Georgetown and seek the assistance of prominent individuals like Luckhoo and Veeraswamy.

Racial Consciousness

It appears that by the 1890's the East Indians had begun to consolidate some sort of community life. By 1917 there were forty-six mosques and forty-three temples, while only two temples had been seen by a royal commission in 1870.[6] The end of indenture, though not as decisive as the end of slavery, produced a new wave of communal feeling among the East Indians of Guyana, one of the products of which was the British Guiana East Indian Association. The idea was put into practice on the initiative of Mr. Mudhoo Lall Bhose, and the other signatories of the first circular calling for the formation of the Association were J. Viapree, Rampersaud Sawh, E. Kawall, J.D. Rohee, M. Ishmael, A.S. Ruhoman and Peter Ruhoman. On the 13th February, 1919 the Association came into being with Mr. J. Luckhoo as the first President.[7] The aims and objects of the British Guiana East Indian Association were the social, intellectual, and moral improvement of its members by means of debates, lectures, writing of essays, and the provision of library and recreational facilities. After some disagreement, it was decided that the Association should also indulge in political activities. The Association also published Indian Opinion as its official organ, championing the cause of the East Indians in Guyana. In addition there was a keen interest in the affairs of the Indian sub-continent. The editorial of an early issue of Indian Opinion published in May 1919 dealt with the recent disturbances in India and the affairs of the Indian National Congress.

There was a simultaneous resurgence of Negro racial consciousness. It was also linked to the end of indenture, since discussions of the role and status of the East Indians in Guyana inevitably involved comparisons with the Negroes. But even more decisive was the impact of the American Negro struggle.

The government twice attempted to pass legislation (in 1918 and 1919) against the importation of American Negro literature, which was widely read among the Guyanese Negro masses. The end of the war saw the attempts of the Pan-African movement to lobby the Peace Conference in France. Meetings were held in various places, notably in the Town Halls of Georgetown and New Amsterdam, to discuss the question of sending a delegate to the Peace Conference. Letters to the press, lectures and sermons on the problems of the Negro were all common, drawing frequently on examples from the U.S.

By 1923, the Negro masses had formed organisations such as the Georgetown branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Marcus Garvey's), the African Communities League and the Negro Progress Convention. The relatively small Portuguese community also sought to organise itself around the Portuguese Benevolent Society. There was much talk among them of their "Portuguese patrimony", of the need to preserve the Portuguese language in Guyana, and of the desirability of a Portuguese political party.

The Class Struggle

Co-existing with the emphasis on racial identity was a powerful upsurge of class consciousness. The Rev. M.A. Cossou, speaking at McKenzie in February, 1919, remarked that "if, as President Wilson has said, the world must be safe for democracy, the relations between capital and labour must be of the best". Three months later, the preamble to a resolution of workers in Georgetown proceeded as follows: "That this meeting of the working classes in the City of Georgetown and delegates from various associations of the working classes in the electorate of the counties of Demerara, Essequibo, Berbice and the Town of New Amsterdam, expresses .... etc." These were typical expressions of the awareness of the fundamental class contradictions in the society.

Rising Prices

During the war, prices had rocketed. A commission appointed to prepare a report on the salaries of civil servants found that on the average the cost of living had increased 150% by 1918. What improvement would the end of the war bring? This was the principal question posed by Guyanese as the conflict in Europe neared an end. In December, 1918, shortly after the Armistice of the previous November, Rev. R.T. Frank, a great champion of the workers, warned them not to expect too much. In particular, he was gloomy but realistic in his assessment that the cost of living would not fall. He urged the formation of labour unions, and it was precisely the high prices of goods during and after the war which forced the workers to organise themselves.

Dockers' Agitation

As early as 1905, H.N. Critchlow, then eighteen years old and a dock labourer, conceived with some other waterfront workers the idea of going on strike for higher wages. It was put into practice that very year, precipitating widespread rioting which was answered by the guns of the police. When another attempt at strike action was made the following year, Critchlow, as the spokesman of the dock workers, was brought before the City Magistrate on a charge of "preventing a labourer named Abraham Richie from earning an honest living". The charge was dropped but so was the scheme for striking. It was not until 1916 that a new move was made. The hours of work exiting for workers on the waterfront at that time were 6.30 a.m. to 6.00 p.m., with an interval of one hour for breakfast. The dockers determined that the hours should be reduced and that the wages of 64 cents per day should be increased to 84 cents. With the help of J. Sydney McArthur, a Georgetown barrister, and Nelson Cannon, a member of the Court of Policy, they prepared a petition to the government. When this failed, militant strike action gained the workers their demands.

The first success of the waterfront workers in 1916 was an empty one, since prices continued to spiral, and in September, 1918, they returned to the attack. Led once more by Critchlow, they demanded increases for both casual and full-time workers, a different system of payment and a reduction of hours. The dockers bargained astutely, drawing up a detailed cost of living index showing the increases in the prices of foodstuffs and other essentials. Working a full six-day week of sixty-nine hours, regular employees could earn a maximum of only four dollars and eighty cents per week, which was manifestly inadequate when placed against the cost of living index. The Chamber of Commerce, which handled the negotiations for Bookers and other Water Street firms, claimed that they were not responsible for the rise in the prices of basic foodstuffs, and they were at first prepared to grant no more than one shilling per week increase. The dockers were adamant, and won their point. In a final letter conceding victory to the workers, the Chamber of Commerce added ominously -- "the Council hopes that this will place a period on recurring demands".

The length of the dockers' working day then stood at nine hours. The "Eight-Hour Day" became the next rallying cry of these workers, and claims for this were pressed on the Chamber of Commerce early in December, 1918. The Chamber had already hinted that they intended to call a halt to any further improvements in the lot of the dockers; and they now expressed "extreme regret and surprise that the labourers, within six weeks of a generous and liberal concession of all the terms demanded in their petition dated 16th September, 1918, should again approach the Chamber for further concessions". The merchants claimed that since the beginning of the war the scale of payment had risen by nearly 100%, and, to knock off one hour from the nine-hour day would mean in effect another increase of 10%. The Chamber's continued rejection of the dockers' claim for the eight-hour day was categorical, leaving no room for bargaining. Thus, in January, 1919, militant strike action was decided upon, leading directly to the formation of the British Guiana Labour Union.

The British Guiana Labour Union

The B.G.L.U. celebrates its anniversary on the 11th January, but the organisation which was in existence on the 11th January, 1919, seems to have been no more than a "Porters Union", an unofficial entity called into being by the waterfront strike. It was on April 6th that a meeting was held at the Unique Friendly Society in Regent Street at which Critchlow proposed a resolution for the establishment of a labour union, and this was carried. Two representatives of Bookers were also invited, and from them came the suggestion for the formation of an Industrial Council for settling disputes between the dockers and the Water Street employers. The three-man Council met shortly afterwards, and recommended the eight-hour day and certain wage increases.

Out of the agitation of the dockers arose an organisation which transcended their own struggle. As one correspondent to the Argosy pointed out, the tense post-war labour situation in the world at large which was regularly treated in the Guyanese press could not help but influence the Guyanese proletariat. It was a testimony to the revolutionary mood of labour throughout the land that requests started pouring in for membership of the B.G.L.U. from various parts of the country.

In April a meeting was held at Victoria (East Coast Demerara) which decided in favour of a labour union branch for the area. The following month the workers of Bagotville (West Coast Demerara) followed suit; and these were typical examples of the movement which led to the rapid establishment of a countrywide workers organisation. All sectors of labour were involved, including tradesmen. The first President, M. Hosanah, was a tailor; and there were even jibes that residents of the Alms House or Old People's Home were allowed to join the Union. This came about because the Union was also a Friendly and Burial Society, thus grafting itself on to one of the oldest forms of social organisation which the masses of Guyana had experienced.

The B.G.L.U. had a wide base of direct industrial action. The latter portion of 1919 and most of 1920 witnessed a succession of disputes and strikes, involving, among others, the Railways, the Electric Company, the Sawmills, Sugar Estates, the Argosy and the docks. The pressure of this agitation, carried on by manual workers, was sufficient to gain advantages even for the Water Street clerks, though it was not surprising that these white-collar workers never showed real loyalty to the workers' movement.

The first annual general meeting in 1920 was something of a fiasco, and the Union nearly disintegrated. Membership fell from a peak of 13,000 to a few hundred, but the Union continued to function as a pressure group. By 1923, the delegates to the general conference could look back on a few years of solid achievement. One Union campaign had led to the passage early in 1922 of a Rent Restriction Bill. There was a rumour in January 1923 that the Rent Act was about to be repealed, and the workers prepared to resume the fight if necessary. This was one of several ways in which the workers indicated that they would use the union to undertake tasks other than wage negotiations.

One resolution of the 1923 conference aimed at the establishment of a voluntary organisation to provide advice which would prevent the masses from indulging in petty litigation in cases which could be settled out of court. Another principal concern was with unemployment, against which a petition was organised. Perhaps the most ambitious of the moves taken by the B.G.L.U. was its attempt to convene the first ever West Indian Conference in 1920. Unfortunately, only the Trinidad Working Men's Association was able to send delegates - the remaining territories expressing willingness but inability to attend. The chance to develop a common West Indian perspective for the labour movement was therefore lost, though workers' struggles in Trinidad were closely watched in Guyana.

Rural Revolution

It is necessary to stress that the awakening among the Guyanese masses was countrywide, and not simply confined to the activities of the urban workers in Georgetown. The B.G.L.U. took an interest in plantation labourers also, though its activities on the plantations were severely limited by the managers' opposition to their labourers joining the Union. East Indian labourers for the most part continued to use Crosby* and the Immigration Department to voice their problems, asking prominent Indian lawyers to intercede on their behalf. This was by no means a passive arrangement. Both the Crosby and the Indian lawyers had to meet huge deputations who arrived in Georgetown from the particular plantation or area, where the grievances were felt.

Often the whole plantation staff left en masse as happened in 1917 and again in 1924 with labour from Ruimveldt. On the latter occasion there was an encouraging unity between rural and urban effort. 4,000 Indians and Negroes started to march on Georgetown with flags, sticks and their tools - some to meet Critchlow at the B.G.L.U. office and others to the Immigration Department to complain about irregular wages.

Apart from the formation of the Labour Union, the initiative on the issues concerning the well-being of the masses came from the rural peasantry. The Chairman of the Victoria Institute remarked in April 1919 that "Georgetown looks to the East Coast to decide its political matters", and the facts did bear out this situation. The weapons which the rural proletariat and peasantry fashioned for their struggle included credit banks and agricultural societies, while the Village Councils and the Village Chairmen's Conferences were forums for the expression of the will of the rural masses and their determination to confront the planter class. In February 1919, the Attorney General accused A.A. Thorne, a workers' representative in the Combined Court, of wanting to see a set of Bolsheviks in some village led by the Village Chairman. In reply the Chairman of the West Bank Agricultural Society noted that "the Attorney General has brought in the ominous Russian term ... The question was one of capital and labour. Labour was represented by the Farmers' Conference and the Village Chairman's Conference. --"

Cane Farming

One of the most significant trends during the war era was the development of a system of cane growing on a peasant farming basis. In 1897 a Royal Commission had recommended grants-in-aid to cane farmers. Very little was done by the government to implement the report, but farmers and sugar planters worked out private arrangements on some estates. The farmers faced considerable difficulties, such as the transportation of their cane to the factories and its unloading, but they organised themselves to overcome these problems and to win higher rewards from the sugar estates which purchased their product. In March 1919 the Cane Farming Movement proposed legislation to regularise the relationship between the small cane farmer and the estate which bought and milled his cane. They pointed to Trinidad where there was a small amount of legislation passed on the subject in 1902, though what the Guyanese farmers would have preferred was an extensive code such as that which was in existence in Queensland, Australia.

Co-operative Credit Banks

Alongside the Cane Farming there sprung up the Co-operative Credit Bank movement, since loans over the period from sowing to crop time were essential. In fact, credit facilities played an ever greater role in the young rice industry. A number of Co-operative Credit Banks were established early in the century, but they became really important as the cane farming movement intensified, as the rice industry grew, and when the popularly influenced Local Government Board took over the scheme in 1916. At the end of 1915, only three banks were registered; by the end of 1916 they had increased to 18; and by 1918 there were 26 Co-operative Credit Banks in existence. The numbers of shareholders increased from 220 in 115 to 5,815 in 1918; and in the same period the working capital had risen from 611 dollars to 28,020 dollars.

The operations of the Ann's Grove-Clonbrook Co-operative Credit Bank can be taken as a typical example. During the year 1918 it issued loans to 156 shareholders amount to 2,508 dollars. These extended over periods of from one to twelve months and involved sums of from five to twenty dollars. Clients were chiefly paddy growers, along with provision and cane farmers, hucksters, coconut-oil makers and small businesses. Their efforts were obviously small, since there were narrow limits to what could be wrung from the colonial regime.

The Reaction of the Plantocracy

Every one of the tendencies so far pinpointed represented a direct or potential threat to the old colonial system. The opening up of the interior, the end of Indian indenture, the rise of cane farming and the organisation of the proletariat were all seen by the plantocracy as undermining the structure of the sugar society.

In the 1890's, when the gold fields were opened, the sugar planters found great difficulty in maintaining a steady supply of labour at the wages they offered and this was the situation which gave rise to the Royal Commission in 1896. But the recommendation of the Royal Commission that Crown Lands should be opened up to peasants was anathema to the planters. According to J. Eleasar, a Georgetown solicitor, "the Crown Lands were locked up and kept from the people's reach for many, many years because it was thought by the planters that anything done to settle the people on the land would tend to take away labour from the sugar estates". That was common knowledge among the masses. By the end of the war the planters were more anxious than ever, because bauxite, balata, rice, gold, diamonds, cane-farming and irrigation schemes offered alternative employment to Guyanese workers formerly bound to the sugar estates. The planters therefore embarked on a counter-revolutionary offensive.

After the 1896 Commission, the proprietors of Vryheid's Lust (Berbice river) encouraged the cultivation of canes on their estates by farmers, the lands being given free of rent. This practice was adopted by a number of other estates. In December 1918, the cane farmers were suddenly told that they would have to pay nine and twelve dollars per acre. No notice was given, neither was there any increase offered to the farmers for their canes. La Bonne Mere was the only estate which did not pursue this reactionary policy. In vain did the farmers propose alternative schemes for the continuation of the cultivation of estate lands. What the planters wanted was an excuse to introduce legislation for further immigration, the only method which they knew to maintain the hierarchal plantation system. They took land out of production which the cane farmers were eager to work; and within a short period, in Berbice alone, the estates of Adelphi, Canefield, Bath, La Retraite, Highbury, Goldstone Hall and Everton were closed, ostensibly because of shortage of labour, when in fact there were many people willing to work, if only the starvation wages were increased.

The Colonisation Scheme

Early in 1919, the Chairman of the Planters' Association approached the Attorney General claiming that there had been a reduction of 6,000 acres in the cane industry, and that there was a prospect of greater reduction if planters did not get new supplies of labour. Out of this request was born the Colonisation Bill, which aimed at introducing into Guyana another influx of cheap labour, preferably from India.

The planters introduced the measure at a time when wartime Defence of the Colony Regulations were still in force. Thorne complained that "it was manifestly unfair that when the labourers who were interested in the matter were told they were not to deal with the matter as a result of the times in which they lived, that on the other hand the capitalists could meet together and formulate a scheme". However, the workers refused to be gagged. They recognized the Colonisation Scheme for what it was - an attempt to undercut local labour and keep them in a position of subjection. They campaigned vigorously against the proposal when it came before the Combined Court, and warned the elected representatives that they should express popular opposition to the bill. A Chronicle editorial countered by saying that "the elective members would be very foolish to be terrorised by agitators, who warn them not to vote for these proposals at the peril of their seats". It hinted darkly that such action would supply the strongest arguments for the creation of Crown Colony Government. Such threats did not stop the workers all over the country from making their position plain. Every one of the Anti-Colonisation meetings held all over the country was a success, while the Pro-Colonisation faction found that their meetings were invariably fiascos.

Although the Combined Court did send a mission to England and India, nothing came of the Colonisation Scheme. Nevertheless, it was the most important issue of public debate in Guyana at the end of the first World War, and it showed decisively how keenly the masses were assessing their colonial situation and how determined they were to put an end to it. In the mood they were in, nothing escaped the vigilance of the masses. When the government introduced legislation to ban the import of Negro American literature, the workers fought this on two occasions; when a reactionary Jury Bill was brought forward, the workers again fought bitterly, though without success; and on yet another occasion, popular opposition nipped in the bud a proposal of the Governor's that a Vagrancy Law should be passed to coerce labourers to work on public works at ridiculous wages.

The Constitution

A reminder of the type of political system existing in Guyana is necessary at this juncture. In 1891, the Court of Policy, which was until then a purely nominated body, was reformed to allow the election of fourteen members along with the eight members nominated by the Governor, who together sat in the Combined Court. There were also two elected Financial Representatives, though the power over finance was constantly in dispute, because it introduced a clash with the executive authority of the Governor. In any event, it took some time before the governing body reflected the change in the Constitution, the nature of that change being to give some representation to the coloured and Portuguese "middle class".

Given the very narrow and restricted franchise, it is obvious that the new representatives in the Combined Court after 1891 were not elected by the workers, and did not represent the workers. But some benefits were derived by having in the centre of local political power a group of individuals who were opposed to the planter class and to many aspects of the old colonial system. For instance, as Raymond Smith noted, it is probably significant that the rice industry started at a time when the sugar industry was depressed, and when the new "middle class" were coming into power after the Constitutional reforms of 1891. Besides, the "middle class" themselves were not satisfied. They clamoured for more control over the affairs of the country, especially in the financial sphere; and as so often happens, they encouraged the workers to shout along with them to make as great a noise as possible.

1916 appears to have been a decisive year. A Recall Movement was launched against the then Governor, Egerton, who had become unpopular with the Georgetown merchants because he interfered with their unwholesome speculation in rice exports. However, the "middle class" played to a public gallery which had its own reason for abhorring the colonial system and its representative, the Governor. The workers, too, began to take up the cry for a more democratic Constitution and for a political programme for their own betterment. As one correspondent of the Chronicle wrote in October 1918, "It is a common thought among the poorer peoples of this colony that places under British rule do not make rapid progress ... Until the policy of the country gets into the hands of the people through their representatives, it is bound to make slow progress".

By the end of the war, the electorate was faced with a 'Progressive Party', which was not an organisational unit, but an alliance of politicians, which had emerged out of the Recall Movement with the intention of capturing all fourteen of the seats which were to be filled by election. Again they identified themselves with the masses, and this itself was to provide grounds for disillusionment when they were successfully elected.

Political Influence of the Masses

The influence which the workers wielded under the limited franchise of the pre-Adult Suffrage era is usually under-estimated. The physical unrest of the masses was a factor which had always to be taken into account. During the first three decades of this century, disturbances and riots erupted with great frequency. They were called "Bread riots"; and one could not ask for more blatant examples of people asking for bread and being given bullets. The breathless haste with which the colonial regime read the Riot Act was a testimony to their deep-rooted fear of mass action which they had inherited from the sugar planters and slave owners.

Quite apart from the threat of violence, the workers made an impact through public meetings. Georgetown workers met under the auspices of the B.G.L.U. to discuss the relative merits of Percy Wight and P.N. Cannon, concluding that the latter was an enemy of the working class; workers in New Amsterdam met and demanded that Eustace Woolford should return to the constituency and give an account of his stewardship in the Combined Court, and especially to explain his ambivalence on the Colonisation Bill which the workers had denounced; while peasant farmers of the East Coast Demerara met at Victoria Village, condemned the government in power, and agreed to form a 'Political Association', embracing members from Anne's Grove and Bachelor's Adventure. All this was in the period after the Recall Movement and the formation of the 'Progressive Party', and it may appear futile because the workers had no vote.

Yet the popular clamour had its effect on those who held the vote and those who appeared as representatives of the people. By 1923, for example, Cannon had lost the Georgetown mayoralty, and while he himself retained a seat in the Combined Court the candidates whom he supported were all unsuccessful. Proof of the impact of popular agitation against the Colonisation Bill came when the government itself decided to hold a number of public meetings to win support for the measure. The workers simply invaded those meetings, held in 1919, and passed resolutions of their own calling for improvements in sanitation, drainage and irrigation and wages before they would consent to a further influx of immigrant.

The Suspension of the Constitution in 1928

Everyone felt that the Constitution of 1891 had outlived its usefulness. The "middle class" wanted more power, especially over the finances and the executive; while the planter class, having already ceded some of their authority to the "middle class', and seeing the spectre of mass power if more liberal reforms were granted, were willing to let the British crown take direct responsibility for the colony of British Guiana. Dissatisfaction with constitutional forms was in fact general in the British West Indies after the war, and resulted in the appointment of a royal commission, which visited the area and reported in 1922. The Wood Commission, as it was called, rejected the demands of the Guyanese planter class to take a step backward, but neither did it allow the presence of elected members on the Executive as the "Progressive Party" requested. No important changes were made, so the elections of 1926 were held under the Constitution of 1891.

A.R. Webber, one of Guyana's few historians, and an individual who was himself personally involved in the politics of the period, wrote that the elections of October 1926 were "fought with unexampled ferocity", and that "the declaration at the polls showed a sweeping victory for the Popular Party; and a complete and devastating rout of their opponents, who were well possessed of this world's goods".[8] But practically every seat was judicially challenged, and eventually five members of the Court of Policy were unseated on legal technicalities. No doubt the Colonial Office was being informed of these developments, as well as receiving advice from the planter group to put an end to the Constitution which gave power to the upstart "middle class" and encouraged the workers to dabble in politics.

As mentioned before, as early as 1919, there were dark hints that if the elected members allowed themselves to be influenced by popular agitators this would "supply the strongest arguments for the creation of a Crown Colony government". Again in 1925, this idea was publicly voiced by the Governor of British Guiana when he returned to England; and in 1927 it was decided to put it into practice.

No one quite knew what was the purpose of the Commissioners who visited Guyana in 1927 - at least not until the following year when it became clear that they had been seeking excuses to suspend the Constitution. At any rate, the Constitution of 1891 was so radically changed that the effect was to remove all power from the elected representatives. It is clear that even the small measure of representation under the Constitution of 1891 was seen by the colonial regime as a threat. Thus in 1928, not for the first time nor for the last, a constitutional coup d'etat was effected to break local resistance to the British imperial system.

Race and Class

In so far as reflection on the period under discussion is understandably influenced by the present conjuncture of circumstances in Guyana, it is obvious that the question of the inter-relation between race and class consciousness is of the utmost importance. In the decade after 1955 these two factors proved antagonistic, and consequently the anti-colonialist struggle of the Guyanese masses received a serious set-back. However in 1900-1928 the situation was entirely different. Then, it was the awareness among both Indians and Negroes of the peculiar disadvantages under which their own race laboured which precipitated an attack on the colonial society.

Racial consciousness was mobilised when a group felt it laboured under special disadvantages. Indian Opinion launched an attack on the government for keeping the East Indian masses in a state of illiteracy. It pointed out that of 20,000 children of East Indian parentage of school-going age, only 6,000 were attending school. This was branded as "a neglect not only inexcusable, but culpable". On an issue such as this communal anger was jointly directed against the colonial regime, because the Negro masses were at that very moment waging a struggle to lay the foundations of a more democratic educational system, rejecting the "Payment by Results" and other limitations which were in vogue since the Elementary Education Ordinance of 1876. Incidentally, the struggle of the teachers not only on their own behalf, but for a system of education which would benefit their pupils and the country, is undoubtedly one of the most magnificent in the annals of the history of the Guyanese working class.

Apart from the demands for more education, there was also some consideration given to the curricula, and one of the suggestions of the East Indian community was that Indian languages should be taught. One striking feature of the debate on the issue by the Teachers' Association was the position taken by R. French, who argued that unless they took steps to teach the Indian languages, the latter would disappear, as the African languages of the slaves had disappeared, and the community would be the poorer. This, and many other views on related topics, indicated that the racial groups in Guyana were seriously addressing themselves to an examination of where they stood, of what they possessed of value, and of what changes were desirable. At every juncture, they were unmasking the colonial society as the enemy.

When in 1917 the East Indians succeeded in having marriage ceremonies by Moulvis and Pandits recognised, they had gained a victory over the white-christian-capitalist conception of the society,[9] and it was against this that the Negro masses too were directing their fire. They joined in the refrain of the Negroes of the U.S.A. that blacks had fought side by side with whites during the war, and now they should be given new opportunities. It is extremely significant that the colonial administration saw the associations such as the Negro Progress Convention not as racist groups but as class formations. The literature from the U.S.A. was anathema because it was being widely read by "the poorer classes of society"; and it was suggested that the local branch of Garvey's movement should be banned because it was 'Bolshevik'.

The Rev. Frank wrote in January 1919 of the Negro masses of Guyana: "the possibilities wrapped up in them and the powers within them are immense". This applied equally to the East Indian masses; but for the release of the energies of all concerned, there was necessarily a process of self-realisation, which was taking place in a framework of racial groupings rather than in the context of 'nation'. That process of communal self-realisation did not inevitably bring the races into conflict, nor retard the formation of organisations along class lines, nor weaken the struggle against colonialism.

What occurred in the period after 1955 was that communal awareness was for various reasons turned inwards to exacerbate racial contradictions among the Guyanese workers and peasants. I say 'exacerbate' because racial conflict in Guyana was an inevitable concomitant of the fact that indentured labour (East Indian, Chinese and Portuguese) was conceived specifically to break the back of Negro opposition to the planter class. Throughout the decades after Indian immigration began in 1838, there were differences over wages between racial groups on the sugar estates, brought about by the deliberate policy of the planters of playing one groups off against another. No doubt, racial conflict fed racialism, and vice versa; and indeed, there are a host of other such interconnections that one could make. What is certain is that simple and definitive explanations must give way to a more sober analysis of the complexities of the development of the Guyanese mass movement - of the relationship between racial consciousness and racial prejudice, between economic competition and racial conflict, between communal identification and class objectives.

[1] For an exception to this pattern, see New World Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1.

[2] This article is largely based on the newspaper reports for the period, as contained in the Chronicle and the Argosy.

[3] Pendle: A History of Latin America.

[4] Chandra Jayawardena: Conflict and Solidarity in a Guianese Plantation (London 1963) p. 12.

[5] R.T. Smith: British Guiana suggests that this was because the East Indian "middle class" was not accepted by the already established coloured and Portuguese "middle class".

[6] R.T. Smith: British Guiana.

[7] Peter Ruhomon: Centennary History of the East Indians of British Guiana (Georgetown 1938) - He gives the credit for founding the Association to his brother, Joseph Ruhomon, who started an East Indian Association in Berbice in 1916. However, this Association was virtually defunct in 1919, when the Georgetown effort was made.

* MY FOOTNOTE James Crosby, who died in 1880, had been such a powerful 'Protector of Immigrants', and for so long a time (some three decades), that colonial government offices concerned with Indian indentured workers had come to be known by his name.

[8] A.R. Webber: Centenary History and Handbook of British Guiana (Georgetown 1931).

[9] I have been unable to ascertain the exact terms of the concession, but the matter was by no means satisfactorily dealt with, and further measures had to be taken in more recent times.