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The 1935 Rebellion and the role of Sheriff Lewis

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Next Thursday, October 21, will mark the 86th anniversary of one of the most important chapters in our history; the rebellion of 1935. Unfortunately, save for the seventies and eighties, it will most likely pass without murmur, with little acknowledgement or recognition.

In fact, it is true to say that most Vincentians either have no knowledge at all of the events of October 21, 1935, or of their significance in our history.

It is not the purpose of this contribution to give an historical record of the events that took place in our country on that fateful day and the following days, but it must be made clear that the rebellion was no isolated action. It sprang from the continued exploitation of the working people leaving thousands in extreme poverty and ignorance.

Yet to this day, we are still to officially recognize the significance of the October events and the role they played in bringing about social change. By and large the rebellion of 1935 is still referred to as “riots” by “unruly people, and society as a whole remains unwilling to embrace it. Instead reference is made to excesses committed during the rebellion, as occurred during slave revolts, during the American and French revolutions, during the British overthrow of the Royalty and so many others. It was the planter class, not the so-called “rioters” which committed murder, fatally shooting John Bull right in Kingstown.

It is to the credit of our Prime Minister that he has been the only leader of our country to recognize October 21, 1935, though it is disappointing that his administration in two decades has not done enough to correct the historical wrongs and to educate our youth in particular, about the significance of 1935.

Class bias has played a major role in the continued denigration of those simple folk who had the courage to stand up to the might of the British Empire on that day. Yet it was the action of Samuel ‘Sheriff’ Lewis, aka Haile Selassie and his colleagues, including Bertha Mutt, which helped to spur on constitutional and democratic change leading to Adult Suffrage in 1951. They were the sacrificial lambs on the backs of whom society as a whole and our middle class in particular have benefitted.

The rebellions of the 1930s in the Caribbean forced democratisation and social change – the right to organize in trade unions, the right to vote etc, and paved the way for independence, which in our case came in the same month of October. Without October 21, 1935, our history would have been far different. As we celebrate Independence next week, let us remember and pay tribute to those who helped to make it possible.

In particular, I must pay tribute to a late comrade of mine, Caspar London who did not only research documents about 1935, but made the effort to interview Samuel ‘Sheriff’ Lewis, aka Haile Selassie, Donald “Poor Fellow’ Romeo and other working class protagonists of 1935 which gave me a true insight into the 1935 rebellion. He helped to give voice to the voiceless, the people denied from a hearing because, in the words of “Poor Fellow”, his class was “too poor” to be heard. Thanks, Bro. Caspar!

Sheriff

 “In the ensuing melee, several outstanding leaders emerged. Chief among them were Samuel ‘Sheriff’ Lewis and Sister Bertha Mutt, known as Haile Selassie and Mama Selassie for their identification with the African cause in Ethiopia. ‘Sheriff’ had a rough childhood. As a young man he had travelled to Cuba, Santo Domingo and St. Thomas where he had noticed that the condition of black people was the same.This experience had helped to mould his consciousness.

“By 1935, he was already acknowledged as the leader of the ‘Ranch’, an old building on Back (Grenville) Street next to what was Hinds Trading Co. where working class men gathered. Leaving the ‘Ranch’ that morning, (just a stone’s throw away from the Court House), it did not take them long to get caught up in the revolt.

‘Sheriff’ assumed the role of giving directions. His first instructions were for some men to go to the Arrowroot Pool and tell the women to stop working. This was immediately done. Instruction no. 2 was that Martin Durham and Gordon Joseph were to take the same men and go to Sion Hill and stop traffic from coming into town. Thirdly, an order was given to two men to tell teachers not to attend afternoon school.

Then it was the turn of the prisons, but Mr Joshua, (the father of E.T. Joshua) would not obey the instruction (unlawful) to set the prisoners free. Joshua’s refusal meant that the prison gate had to be broken down and those prisoners in the yard freed.

“The purpose of all these actions was to bring the town to a standstill until the Governor would do something about employment, and withdraw the tax measures…”

By Caspar London writing in FREEDOM , Oct.22,1975 following an extensive interview with ‘Sheriff’ Lewis.
Dear Reader, based on this narrative, how could one ignore the role of ‘Sheriff’ on October 21, 1935? Are these the actions of some lawless rioter?

Judge for yourself.     

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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