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A response to Jomo – my take on the 1935 riots

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I have read with great interest Jomo’s pieces of May 17 and 24 captioned “Sheriff Lewis, a National Hero.” I have had an interest in the 1935 riots for a long time. I have read just about every official account, including confidential ones, on the events of October 21 and 22nd,1935.{{more}} I have read newspaper accounts, both local and regional, and have interviewed persons who were involved in the riots in different capacities: Clement Cato, a police constable of two years standing, who was at the Court yard on October 21; Constable Lucas Layne, one of two policemen stationed in Georgetown; Osment Williams, better known as “Mento”; Ronald Paris and Kathleen Sardine, who related what had happened at Lowmans/Campden Park; and Norman Williams, Robert Ogarro and Baha Lawrence. It is therefore from this perspective that I write and I certainly have a different take on the events from that of Jomo.

Some preliminary matters

The events of October 21 and 22 were clearly spontaneous. While in his May 24 piece, Jomo admits that the events of October 21 were “largely spontaneous” (I am not sure if the suggestion here is that the rioting in Campden Park/Lowmans on October 22 was planned), in his piece of the previous week he stated that the Governor introduced the fiscal measures on October 15 and that “during the intervening week there was mounting opposition to these proposals which would increase the cost of living.” The truth is that the measures were introduced on Friday, October 18 and the meeting of October 21 was to approve them. So, there was no “intervening week.” The working people did not normally attend meetings of the Legislative Council, since it catered mainly to the local elites and colonial big shots. (In fact, in the Governor’s response to the riots, he indicated that he had only then realised that there was a section of the community not represented in parliament – a totally absurd statement to make!) News of the measures introduced into the Legislative Council only became known on the Saturday, when prices at some shops were increased. This created a great deal of concern. One can then understand why some of the working people approached McIntosh, asking him to represent their concerns to the Governor. One can also equally understand why the first group of protesters at the Courthouse were women, some of them armed with small sticks. Any increase in the prices of basic items would naturally first gain the attention of the women.

Sheriff and the persons with whom he played draughts and discussed matters were at their usual place at the “Ranch”. They seemed unaware of what was happening. Donald Romeo, one of those playing draughts that day, said, at the preliminary trial of McIntosh, that he heard a great noise and moved across to the Court yard where he saw a big cluster at the gate.

Clement Cato was one of five policemen on guard at the Council Chamber. He indicated to me that Sheriff was among those persons who left to go to the prisons. Everything was then in chaos and there was really no one who seemed to be in charge. Sheriff, no doubt, was one of those in the forefront of what was happening at the Court yard. I am, however, yet to see that he was the inspirational leader who “played the principal agitational role that excited and mobilised the masses.”

We can pick out the ringleaders from among those who were given gaol sentences. Martin Durham’s was the harshest. He got 10 years hard labour. Eight persons followed with nine years hard labour. They are Donald Peters, Sheriff Lewis, Henry McCarter, Theophilus Hackshaw, Ebenezer Jordan, Alfred French, Brisbane Samuel and Edmond Birchwood. Eight persons got seven years hard labour, among them Donald Romeo and Clifford Hinds. Others, like Victor Applewhite got five years hard labour. Of the women, two got five years hard labour. They were Beryl Ollivierre and Lydia Laidlow; two got four years hard labour – Hermina Ollivierre and Beatrice George.

There is nothing to show Sheriff Lewis’ connection with what happened in Georgetown and Campden Park/Lowmans, a matter I will take up in my next column.

I find quite incredible Jomo’s statement that “…Sheriff’s leadership on October 21, 1935 channelled every major political and social development from the formation and legalization of trade unions and political parties to the enactment of universal adult suffrage and the eventual attainment of national independence.” On what is this preposterous claim based? Even if we were to give Sheriff a major role in what happened on October 21, how do you translate that into the claim that is being made? What is the link? Where else does Sheriff feature in the scheme of things? In fact, despite calls for an enquiry into what had happened in St Vincent, the British Government refused to buckle. St Vincent, as an individual colony, did not feature among the British list of priorities. What set things in motion was the fact of disturbances in a number of its colonies and the realisation that there were fundamental problems throughout the region.

The West Indian Royal Commission, in its report, made it known to the British Government that “…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 restrictive life..” It was this and the pressure exerted by the new politicians who began to galvanise the people and build their political consciousness that set the new agenda in motion.

(To be continued)

Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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