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October: A month of significance (Part 2)

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by Renwick Rose

Wednesday, October 21, marked the 85th anniversary of one of the most important chapters in our history, the rebellion of 1935. Unfortunately, like in so many years save for the seventies and eighties, it passed 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 short 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. Indeed, it is important that our people get to know that similar acts of rebellion, against British colonialism, plantation slavery and persistent poverty occurred in most of the Caribbean islands throughout the thirties, from Belize right down to Guyana. Our country can be proud of the fact that we were one of the first to openly rebel.

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. His activity and booklet on Wednesday of this week though are to be commended.

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 and turn out to vote the following week, let us remember and pay tribute to those who helped to make it possible 85 years ago.

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 “Poorfellow’ 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 “Poorfellow”, his class was “too poor” to be heard. Thanks, Bro. Caspar!

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