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As we celebrate and reflect on Independence…

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October is the month of Independence. We celebrate and sing patriotic songs and do a host of other activities in schools and elsewhere. Whether we do these because we feel we have to is a question. We all profess to be proud about our Independence, although we might not necessarily be sure about what we are proud. Sometimes, when we look at the way things have been moving, we have to wonder what this matter of Independence was all about.{{more}} Certainly we should take pride in being an ‘independent’ people. What we should be disgusted with is how far those who have assumed the ranks of leadership, since then, have fallen short. And I am, of course, referring not only to political leaders. Independence was supposed to be the beginning of a process that was going to transform our lives and create a truly ‘independent’ people with the tools to chart our own destiny.

Having said that Independence or what some call ‘Flag Independence’ was a reality, the question we have to always ask ourselves is where did we go wrong. But I am posing here a different issue. Among the factors that have stimulated our move to independence via adult suffrage and Federation, were the disturbances of the 1930s that found shape in St Vincent in the riots/disturbances of October 21 and 22, 1935. There had been disturbances in the broader Caribbean and particularly in St Vincent before, as seen for instance with the 1862 Riots. The 1930s were different and the persons who prepared the report that looked into the disturbances pointed to what was different, “… the discontent that underlies the disturbances of recent years is a phenomenon of a different character, representing no longer a mere blind protest against a worsening of conditions but a positive demand for the creation of new conditions that will render possible a better and less restricted life…” (West India Royal Commission Report).

The Riots pushed McIntosh into greater prominence and he seized the opportunity to build the first mass organisation in the country to the extent that, in about a year after they set up the Working Men’s Association, they put themselves in a position to dominate the Legislative Council and really led the struggle from 1937 to 1951. They were helped by the fact that the uprisings of 1935 helped to conscientise the working people who in the period before the Riots had expressed little interest in the workings of electoral politics. 1935 changed that, because the people realised that what they had done on that day forced those in authority to listen to them.

McIntosh and his Working Men’s Association highlighted and fought for issues that were important to working people. They forced action on land settlement, on workers’ rights, started to establish unions, struggled for the rights of Shakers to practise their religion. In 1939 McIntosh successfully moved a motion in the Legislative Council to establish an agricultural scholarship for Vincentians.

He was one of the country’s delegates to the 1945 meeting in Barbados that launched the Caribbean Labour Congress and at that meeting chaired the proceedings on education. He was in the forefront of the move toward a political union of the Caribbean colonies, fought for adult suffrage and sympathised with the Russian Revolution, as did a number of progressives at that time. He wore a red tie and had at least one dinner for poor people in the honour of the Russian Revolution. McIntosh’s struggle was not a one-man struggle. He had others who fought alongside.

The struggles of the years following the 1935 riots paved the way for the development of a modern Vincentian society. All of this did not happen in a vacuum. The fact that there were a number of riots and disturbances in other Caribbean colonies helped to force the hands of the British Government. We have forgotten or have paid little attention to the riots of 1935 and the disturbances throughout the region. It would have been a grand move if Independence had been put for October 21, the first day of the riots. That would have more clearly established the relationship. The whole point of this article is to remind ourselves that Independence did not fall out of the skies. It was built on the struggles that had taken place before and there was none more significant than that of October 1935.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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