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Linking the 1935 Riots with Independence

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We have, particularly since 1979, been paying very little attention to the riots of October 21 and 22, 1935. The month of October is dedicated to commemorating the country’s march to independence in 1979 and we tend to treat the riots as being irrelevant to independence. The events of those two days in October which became part of a Caribbean wide period of unrest during the nineteen thirties represented a significant landmark in the movement toward Adult Suffrage and, consequently, Independence.{{more}}

What happened on those two days? The desperate economic fortunes of the colony in the wake of the world wide depression of the 1920s/1930s led the colonial government to introduce two bills- a Licences Amendment Ordinance and a Customs Duties Amendment No. 4 Ordinance. These led to higher rates of import duties on a limited number of articles, as the Governor described it. Although he emphasized the position that the duties were on goods classified as luxurious, they included duties on matches, cigarettes, beer and ale. The measures were introduced at a meeting of the Legislative Council on Friday, October 18, and were to be passed into law at a meeting of the Legislative Council on the following Monday, October 21.

On the weekend, there was wide discussion of the bills, particularly since it appeared that some shops had begun to increase prices on some of their commodities. Matches previously sold at three boxes for a penny went to one box a penny. All of this was highlighted by news about the fiscal measures on a blackboard which George McIntosh kept outside his drug store and used for commenting on issues in the colony. One witness testifying at his preliminary trial indicated that on that weekend, reference was made to the island going on the rocks. Some members of the working class had approached McIntosh for help. As a pharmacist, McIntosh had been in close contact with many of the colony’s poor, including peasants who went to his drug store to shop for some necessities at the conclusion of their market day on Saturdays.

On Monday, October 21, a number of persons congregated at the Court House, many out of curiosity more than anything else. McIntosh had been asked to make representation on their behalf. He was part of the audience at the meeting of the Legislative Council. At 12:20 pm, he handed a letter to the Governor calling for a meeting to represent people who had approached him. The governor’s response given to him verbally was that he would meet with him and a delegation at 5 pm at the Carnegie Public Library. Crowds had prior to this been gathering in the yard of the Court House, amounting at one stage to about 300 persons. With noise increasing from the yard, the Governor decided to go down to the Court Yard to disperse the crowd. When it was communicated to the crowd that the Governor was prepared to meet with McIntosh and a delegation at 5 pm, many became angry. They felt that the Governor was fooling them since they expected him to be returning to Grenada that afternoon. The Governor tried to address the crowd, but matters were getting out of hand. He repeated his desire to meet them at 5 pm and then tried to leave the Court House, but as he himself reported, “I found myself again surrounded by a crowd of people who appeared to be in an even more excited condition than before.” Matters were getting out of hand and a section of the crowd turned to the Prisons where they allowed some of the prisoners to escape and destroyed a number of articles there. Later that evening, the rioting spread to Byrea and Georgetown, and on the following day to Lowmans and Campden Park.

The Governor admitted that it then occurred to him that there was a significant section of the population not represented in the Legislative Council and began to identify areas that needed to be addressed to remove the anger of the people. The 1935 riots must not be seen in isolation. The fact that the region between 1934 and 1939 was in a state of unrest convinced the British Government that something was fundamentally out of sync in the affairs of the colonies. A West Indian Commission was set up to investigate matters, but even before this, some of the issues were being discussed. The concerns of working people were put high on the agenda, and matters such as Land Settlement and Labour Laws were beginning to be addressed. One of the major results of the riots was the appearance of George McIntosh’s St.Vincent Working Men’s Association that was formed in 1936, contested the 1937 elections and dominated the Legislative Council from that time until 1951, when they were removed by George Charles’ ‘Eight Army of Liberation’.

Similar developments were taking place in neighbouring colonies and relationships developed between personalities and politicians who had emerged during this period. A strong relationship developed between Albert T Marryshow of Grenada and George McIntosh, Marryshow making frequent appearances on McIntosh’s platform at different activities. Cipriani of Trinidad was also in close contact. The Dominica Conference of 1932 and the launch of the Caribbean Labour Congress in 1945 provided opportunities for the regions new politicians to spell out programmes for carrying the region forward. Important developments took place in areas such as health, education, social welfare, the development of trade unions and labour laws, but even more critical were constitutional and political developments that paved the way to 1951 and 1979. 1935 in St.Vincent represented a significant landmark that pointed the way to mass involvement in politics, to Adult Suffrage and, ultimately, Federation and Independence.

The period of the 1930s was critical to developments in the region, particularly as it signalled a change from elitist politics to the involvement of the trade unions and working people generally. Even though some changes were already in the pipeline, the uprisings of working people provided the momentum to push them forward. St.Vincent’s voices were heard distinctly in regional fora; McIntosh, for instance, was very much involved in the meeting that launched the Caribbean Labour Congress in 1945. We should begin to pay more attention to the riots of 1935 since they were so significant to the political history of this country.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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