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The Garvey movement in St.Vincent – Some reflections

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August 17 was one hundred and twenty four years since the birth of Marcus Mosiah Garvey who was born at St. Ann’s Bay in Jamaica. Garvey created a movement which spanned many countries and had an impact on blacks everywhere. A chapter of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was started in St.Vincent, with Stubbs being its base. By 1919, its membership was reported to be about four hundred and seventy five, with two hundred and seventy five of them having come from Stubbs.{{more}} Its President was Horatio Huggins of Stubbs, a shoe maker, and its local organiser and spokesperson was R.E M Jack, a School Teacher.

The work of the local chapter of the UNIA in mobilising working people and giving ideological direction and organisational form to their struggles greatly worried the authorities, particularly when it drew the connection between race/colour and poverty. The Garvey’s paper, The Negro World, was said to have been extensively sold in St.Vincent. The Administrator Popham Lobb in a memo in 1919 described it as anti white in tone and drew attention to a recent piece in the paper that suggested that negroes turn their attention to Lenin and the Bolsheviks for assistance against their real enemies, the leaders of the so-called free world. This was the period following the First World War when economic conditions were appalling and the Russian Revolution had been set in motion. It was a period when there was serious agitation by blacks against racism and poor conditions in different countries, among them Trinidad. In fact, the Secretary of State had urged the suppression of publications which he considered to be seditious and meant to incite the ‘natives’. This coincided with the sentiments of the Governor of the Windward Islands who had taken steps to have the organ of the Garvey movement banned. At the beginning of October the Government Gazette published a Notice banning the Negro World.

“Any person who knowingly brings into the colony or who procures the introduction into the colony of, or who has in his possession or circulates any copy of a New York paper called “The Negro World” shall be guilty of an offence against the regulation.” Punishment was imprisonment with or without hard labour for a period not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds or to both imprisonment and fine. The reactions of Huggins and Jack were quite interesting. Huggins stated that “The Government have to cut off my head in spite of the Seditious prohibition bill to get me stop from reading my ancestors life and works…”

Jack begged the Administrator to allow him one copy of each issue that was kept in the Post Office. He was prepared to read it in his private home and pledged to respect the Ordinance by not sharing it with anyone. The Administrator, as one would have expected, was not in a position to accommodate his request.

It is not clear why Stubbs became the Centre of the Movement, but that village was, of course, one of the earliest villages to have emerged following emancipation. Clare Valley, one of the early land settlement areas, was another place that had a number of members. In January of 1920, Jack visited Clare Valley by the invitation of residents and was able to sign up twenty eight members, thus increasing the membership there to 51. He stated that “everyone paid the full amount to be installed as a full member of the Association. Jack, however, regarded the people of Stubbs as containing the only wise negroes in St.Vincent, with the village having more than half of the total membership of the organisation.

It was from Stubbs that a number of people were drawn to go to Government House to call for increased wages for workers. Jack stated that during the interview, all the negroes in Kingstown hid themselves in their houses. A petition signed by 348 people was taken to the Governor by a delegation of about 30 working people. The names of people from Stubbs stood out. Among them were Wilfred Dick, Ethelene Sutton, Eustace Sutton, Newsam Benjamin, Elfreda Bailey, Napier Burnett. Along with them were Alice Benn of Victoria Village, James Saunders of Calder Estate and Alexander Bynoe of Brighton. (These were names on the only part of the petition that I was able to find).

The persons behind the Garvey movement were largely people of the peasant and labouring class, the middle class focusing on gaining acceptance into white society, hoping to share whatever spoils there were. There was nonetheless strong racial consciousness arising from the prejudices to which they were subjected in their quest for recognition. The newspapers highlighted the achievements of blacks and celebrated anything that glorified the black race. This was seen in 1921 when a black Martiniquan, Rane Maran, won a top French Literary prize. This was widely publicised in St.Vincent. Despite this, the middle class was somewhat ambigious and kept a distance from the movement in St.Vincent. By the early 1920s, the chapter of the UNIA in St.Vincent was all but dead. Huggins complained to his colleague J.R Ralph Casimir in Dominica: “I am sorry I am here because when I read of numbers in other places and I see our people should have been on the same patch it make (sic) me feel like leaving them and if I leave it would fall flat to earth.”

By 1937 when Garvey visited St.Vincent a lot had changed. The 1935 riots had taken place. Garvey’s rhetoric appeared not as threatening then to the white establishment. The middle class was ready to embrace Garvey. George McIntosh called a meeting to organise a reception and welcome for Garvey. McIntosh was to chair the session that was to be addressed by Garvey. Other members of the Working Men’s Association were involved in moving the vote of thanks and in organising the event. Garvey gave two addresses, one on his way to Trinidad, and one on his passage back. (Next week I will deal with the addresses given by Garvey to packed halls, with the audience having to pay a small fee to cover the expenses.)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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