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Placing October 21 in proper context

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Two days ago, the 80th anniversary of a very momentous occasion in our nation’s history passed relatively unnoticed, certainly without much fanfare, busy as we are in preparation for our 36th Independence anniversary celebrations and the upcoming general elections.

Yet there is a strong connection between that 80th milestone and those two more recent developments, a connecting thread which seems to have been lost to most of us.{{more}}

On October 21, 1935, the pent-up feelings of suffering of the poorer folk in Vincentian society after a century and a half of colonial plunder, slavery and plantation rule, exploded in a rebellion which started against the colonial administration in Kingstown and quickly spread to several rural areas. It was not planned, poorly organised, yet it so frightened the ruling classes that British troops were quickly summoned and the uprising brutally crushed.

The leaders of the revolt jailed, one of them, the brave Samuel ‘Sheriff’ Lewis, also known as ‘Haile Selassie’ because of his support for Ethiopian resistance to Italian invasion of that country, even sent to Grenada prisons. One nominee for the title of National Hero, George Augustus ‘Daddy Mac’ McIntosh, was dragged before the court on charges of treason, from which he was subsequently acquitted.

Three and a half decades after Independence, we are yet to come to grips with the full significance of those events of October 1935, or to be able to relay a clear record of them to our people. Thus there is still wide ignorance both of what took place and the implications for our political, social and economic development. This is not surprising since, as is customary in HIS-story, it was the colonial view of the uprising, branded as shameful “riots” which have prevailed, and those who stood up against the might of the colonial administration and the planter class were branded as “hooligans”, “thieves” and even “rapists”.

Their role was belittled even by some historians who were by no means apologists for colonial rule on the grounds of there being little evidence of any form of organisation of the uprising, the spontaneous nature of it all, and the fact that there were excesses, as any expression of oppressed people rising up would necessarily reveal. That ‘evidence’ was contained not only in colonial archives, but investigation and dialogue with the chief “rioters”, all now since deceased, would have revealed a truer picture.

The late trade union leader, political activist and socialist, Caspar London, did such investigation, conducting interviews with ‘Sheriff’ Lewis, Bertha Mutt, the lone woman arrested, Clifford ‘Hit me hard’ Hinds, and several of those arrested and jailed. I was honoured to be part of those investigations, and while it is true that our own anti-colonial enthusiasm may have found expression in some possible overblowing of roles, there is no doubt that what took place here was not simply a “riot” by the “rabble”. Far from it.

It is worth noting that what happened here was not an isolated series of events. In almost every Caribbean country, whether English-, Spanish-, or French-speaking, there were rebellions, uprisings, strikes and industrial unrest in the 1930s, in the aftermath of the Great Depression which began in the late twenties. Our uprising was one of the earliest, following that in St Kitts at the beginning of the year and before bigger, more organised outbreaks in Barbados and Trinidad (1937), and Jamaica (1938).

The late Jamaican trade unionist, political activist, intellectual and historian Richard Hart, in his book, “Labour rebellions of the 1930s in the British Caribbean region colonies”, had this to say of these massive social upheavals:

“What occurred in the 1930s was a series of spontaneous, uncoordinated uprisings. There had been no advance planning. Neither the leaders who emerged nor the participants had had any premeditated conscious objectives. Nor during the course of the rebellion, did the workers or their leaders develop any revolutionary demands, such as the expropriation of property, the seizure of power by the working class or the achievement of political independence. But this does not in any way detract from the historical significance of what had taken place”.

You see what I am saying. I shall conclude next week.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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