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From rebellion to independence

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Neither of the numbers 78 nor 34 is considered particularly significant in terms of the observance of anniversaries of historic events. Our traditional method seems to concentrate on the fifth, tenth, twenty-fifth anniversaries, and so on. This week, beginning with October 21, the anniversary of the 1935 rebellion on our shores, and ending on October 27, the date of our Independence in 1979, covers the 78th and 34th anniversaries of those two landmarks in our history. The observance of those events is relatively low-keyed, partly due to the reason mentioned above.{{more}}

There is a natural correlation between the events of October 1935 and the progression of our nation to political independence 44 years later. The pity is that the “founding fathers” of our nation’s independence, those in the leadership when we assumed full responsibility for our affairs, lacked the vision to make the connection. As a result, although both events took place in the same month of October, we marched on to independence without recognition of the role that the struggles of 1935 had played in advancing our political and social status.

The happenings of October 21, 1935, in St Vincent and the Grenadines, were not isolated, stand-alone events. They formed part of a general anti-colonial tide that swept the Caribbean in the thirties. The oppressed people of the Caribbean, mostly living in extreme poverty, a century after the emancipation of 1838, rose up in rebellion in St Kitts, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Jamaica. Vincentians were part of that stream, being among the first to rebel, in 1935.

These rebellions forced the British government to set up a Royal Commission, led by a Lord Moyne, to look into the causes of the area-wide rebellions and to make recommendations to improve the economic and social well-being of the people of the British Caribbean colonies. However, the Commission, more interested in re-establishing political stability and preserving British rule, fell far short of the expectations and demands of the Caribbean people in its weak recommendations.

Our collective failure to properly document the events of 1935 and to treat them as important levers in our struggle to get rid of colonial rule have caused much confusion and controversy in our recollection of events. In addition, the ambivalence of our educated folk towards the events led to us being almost apologetic about and largely ashamed of those happenings. So, for us, October 21, 1935 was largely seen as a blot on our history, and went down in official annals as the “Riots”.

When you also consider that much of what took place was largely spontaneous, it is easy not to give credit to those brave men and women who had the courage to stand up to the might of the British Empire on that day. The fact that the leaders of the assault on the courthouse, seat of the colonial legislature, was led by persons from the “lower classes”, not recognised as political or social leaders, and certainly not intellectuals, has served to help to diminish the significance of their actions.

Samuel “Sheriff” Lewis and his colleagues, while not part of any organised political movement with clear aims, nevertheless were able to make the connection between their status and white minority rule in the shape of the alliance between the colonial authorities and the white planter and merchant class. It is not by accident that business places owned by some of these persons came under attack too. While we seek, for the sake of historical documentation, to establish as much of the facts as we can now gather, it must not in any way belittle the efforts of those who stood up, and were punished for it. The historical context is crucial.

“Sheriff” Lewis, Bertha Mutt and company may not have been on the same pedestal as Ebenezer and Ivy Joshua; “Sheriff” is not of the iconic status of Paramount Chief Chatoyer, but he nevertheless had the audacity to tell British colonialism, Governor and all, that “enough is enough”. The acts of defiance of October 21 cannot be swept under any carpet, nor must they be blanketed in shame. Unorganised though the rebels were, there is evidence of a collective will to resist. That indomitable will is what ran through the veins of their forebears and which, inevitably, led to the lowering of the Union Jack from our flagpoles.

With the advent of October 27, 1979, we could proudly pledge never to be slaves again. October 21, 1935 is an integral part of that journey and must be remembered and commemorated.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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