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Brief Reflections on the 1935 Riots

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Two major events took place in St. Vincent in October, the first was the riots of October 21/22 1935, and the second Independence in 1979. Every year we celebrate Independence with a sense of new-found pride but bypass the 1935 riots although it impacted heavily on the pace with which Adult Suffrage came and ultimately Independence. Not only did the riots stimulate the movement to Adult Suffrage, it also sparked the development of trade unions. Let us not forget that it was the United Workers Peasants and Ratepayers Union, launched on May Day, May 1, 1951, that contested the first election under Adult Suffrage and swept the polls, earning it the label the ‘Eight Army of Liberation’.

     The 1930s was a period marked by disturbances in a number of Caribbean colonies, many of which took the form of riots, following strikes on the plantations. The St. Vincent riots have been given superficial treatment and lumped with the other disturbances in the region. This prompted my 2016  book on the St. Vincent riots making the point that although socio-economic conditions in the colonies were similar there were differences that helped to shape the political economy and influence the nature of political outcomes. Unlike the other colonies, sugar was no longer a dominant crop, its position having been taken by Sea Island Cotton and arrowroot, crops in which the peasants/small farmers were heavily involved. Strikes were absent in St. Vincent and there were no working peoples’ organisations.
     St. Vincent, like others, was feeling the effects of the Great Depression. Unemployment and low wages for those who were employed were major complaints. There was also a demand for land, since the land settlement schemes that started in 1899 and later included Clare Valley/Questelles 1901, Union Island 1910, Sandy Bay 1911, Belair 1912, and Three Rivers 1932, did little to satisfy the demand. There was no organised plan to riot. Working people went to the Court House/Yard to follow developments about the increased taxes that were to be discussed in the Legislative Council. People were angry when the Governor decided he could not meet with McIntosh until later in the day. The crowd became bigger and eventually things got out of hand. There was no mastermind. Sheriff Lewis who was in Paul’s Lot with friends playing dominoes heard the uproar and hustled across. Police officer Clem Cato stated that he described himself as Haile Selassie and seemed to take charge.

     Six persons were killed during the riots, three on the spot and three later from wounds inflicted. Twenty five men were sentenced to periods ranging from 3- 10 years, the heaviest sentences, on Martin Durham and Chester Bulze. Sheriff got nine years. Four women were sentenced, two for five years each and two, four years each. One of the issues that had inflamed tensions was the Italian invasion of Abyssinia/Ethiopia, news of which were carried in the newspapers and on the Cable Board. The Representative Government Association that involved McIntosh, hosted meetings to discuss the situation and had on one or two occasions as guest Speaker A T Marryshow of Grenada, Vice- President of International Friends of Ethiopia. The Italian attack on Ethiopia heightened racial tensions. Martin Durham who was involved in the rioting at Cane Garden was reported to have stated, “We are the Abyssinians, the white men are the Italians. We chop off the white men head tonight.”

    Tensions continued even after the riots. Rumours had been circulating that an Italian doctor was supposed to visit schools to distribute sweets and inject children with a poisonous substance. Children had apparently been warned by their parents to look out for any strange man. On November 25, a Mr. Branch, ‘of fair complexion’ who was a friend of the headmaster visited the Anglican School. All hell broke loose, children scampered away, and parents ran to the school. As the Governor later informed the Colonial Office, once the Abyssinia situation continued, tense feelings would persist. There were of course many other issues.  

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian

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