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George Charles and the Eight Army of Liberation

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“The crowd, which had now grown to about two thousand headed by their leader, wearing evening dress with a six inch scarlet red sarong across his shoulders and bearing a wooden sword, marched to the tune of two brass bands all the way to Victoria Park singing patriotic songs for a distance of about three miles.” {{more}}

The occasion was May Day 1951 and George Charles had made his entry onto the national political scene leading the newly formed United Workers Peasants and Rate Payers Union in a march from the King George V Playing Field at Arnos Vale to Victoria Park. The Vincentian newspaper, with a great deal of scepticism and with tongue in cheek heralded the occasion.

The president, “who went before the mike and several people who heard and saw for the first time this bearded man, who within the short period of a little over three months rallied around him a little over 8000 members. In very dramatic style he took a Bible and swore to be faithful to the Union promising never to let them down. Continuing, he said he was prepared to fight constitutionally until all the wrongs for the workers were righted.”

It was a grand occasion made more so by the news that George Charles’ union intended contesting the next general election, the first to be fought under Adult Suffrage. The dominant political organisation at that time was the St. Vincent Labour Party, the political arm of the St. Vincent Working Men’s Cooperative Association (WMA). That body had since September 1950 announced its slate of candidates, George McIntosh, Ebenezer Duncan, Edward Joachim, O.D. Brisbane, C.W. Prescod, R.S. Brisbane, St. Aubyn Cato and Floris Simmons. By 1951, with the impending constitutional move to Adult Suffrage, the situation called for new blood. In fact, McIntosh had been spending a lot of time fighting off questions about his age. Dr. Frank Ellis had launched his New Era Party, and individuals such as B.R. James, A.C. Allen and Sam Slater had produced manifestoes. The United Workers, Peasants and Ratepayers Union had begun to electrify the atmosphere, its members seen as persons with a message and mission. At the same time, however, they generated much scepticism.

The Registrar of the Supreme Court who had the responsibility for the recognition of the Union, while showering praises on George Charles at the May Day Rally, stated that it wasn’t clear to him who George Charles intended to have as candidates, for based on the procession “few are capable of holding their own in a fair-to-middling debate and on questions of any technical significance nearly all will be completely at sea”.

The arrival of Ebenezer Joshua from Trinidad to test the political waters further heightened the atmosphere. F.J.V. Patterson, describing one of the early meetings following the arrival of Joshua, referred to his “good, old rabble rousing oratory”. George Charles, like Joshua had spent some time in Trinidad where he became involved in local council politics. It isn’t clear, however, that he was to any extent intimately involved in the trade union movement there. His return to St. Vincent was at a critical time when the workers were beginning to distance themselves from George McIntosh and were excited about the prospect of voting in 1951, something they could not do before. Throughout the period leading to the general elections on October 1951, the new men on the scene were under close and critical scrutiny by the planters and black middle class. Charles, however, continued to cut a colourful and dynamic figure. F.J.V. Patterson, who had been reporting on the meetings of the Union, referred to the enthusiasm that accompanied their meetings and was certainly attracted by Charles and Joshua. Patterson writes, “…when Comrade Charles in the plenitude of his zeal vociferously promised his audience the spectacular exhibition of a ‘political fight in underpants’ for the eight seats of the Legislative Council, he hastened to quiet the ensuring roar of laughter of the crowd by reminding them that it was a ‘serious matter’. “

The Vincentian editorial of August 25, 1951 argued that both political organisations led by McIntosh and Charles were offering men who were unqualified to deal with the duties they would be called upon to perform and that they seemed more interested in filling the Council with 8 seats than with quality. It was becoming clear that Joshua was the man to watch but George Charles was leader and led his party/union to a landslide victory, capturing all seats. Charles contested the Central Windward seat where he received 1,634 votes against St. Aubyn Cato’s 277 and Lewis’ 215. The other successful members of Charles party were Sam Slater, Herman Young, Rudolph and Julian Baynes, Evans Morgan, Clive Tannis and Ebenezer Joshua. The group was seen as a symbol of the times, reflecting the changes that had been taking place in society.

The Eight Army of Liberation entered the Legislative Chambers at the height of colonial politics when the Colonial Office through the Administrator and Governor had full political sway. The relationship with the Administrator and Governor was one of the sensitive areas that led to conflict. There were others, some involving personalities. Joshua’s motion for the recall did not find favour with some of the members. Moreover, the Eight Army which emerged from a union base was more union than party and was perceived as having different heads, the official leader Charles, and Joshua who was seen by the people as head. A range of other issues including the organisation of union funds widened the conflicts further. Within a matter of months the grouping was split with Joshua forming the PPP in 1952 after which he clearly became the dominant figure in Vincentian politics. George Charles laboured on, winning his seat again in 1954 as an independent, the Eight Army having then disbanded. In fact, seven of the eight from 1951 won their seats with Evans Morgan having left the country within months of the 1951 election. Charles ran in 1957 for the Peoples Liberal Movement, in 1961 for the St. Vincent Labour party, and again in 1974 when he stood with the Windward Islands National Party (WINP), on those occasions being beaten by Ebenezer Joshua who had switched to Central Windward. Although not making a mark as an elected representative Charles has to be remembered for using the opportunity in 1951 to organise the workers and to lead his team to a historic victory. With the death of Charles, Evans Morgan who lives in Canada remains the only one of the eight still alive.