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A very significant movement in our history

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Today is October 21, 2016. We are a mere week before the celebration of our National Independence on October 27, 1979 and, even as we speak of building national pride and developing our nation, are as disunited as ever. Perhaps we feel we can afford it. We are constitutionally independent and are expending that achievement in vindictive political wrangling amongst ourselves, based on our choice of political affiliation or support.{{more}} We continue to face serious developmental and economic changes, but we now have more mobile phones than people, access to education right through secondary school is officially recognized, and our rights and freedoms are so entrenched that we go to court to decide on even relatively trivial matters.

Yes, this is SVG in the post-independence era, with the conversation being about how best to chart our way forward and our choice of leadership to spearhead that task. Who is best placed to extend and advance our national gains and to reflect national aspirations, is a right so dearly safeguarded that we divide even on our own families on that score.

But stick a pin, as the saying goes. Every time we reflect on our advances or setbacks, our assets or liabilities, we must always consider from whence we came, and how did we get here? Less than two centuries ago, there came the Emancipation Proclamation, ending the inhuman system of chattel slavery, but not yet ensuring the equal treatment of all citizens. One hundred years after Emancipation, most of the people in St Vincent and the Grenadines, and the rest of the Caribbean, existed in squalor, described by observers as “horrendous working and living conditions”, with the “inability of most households to meet the most basic financial needs”, which ensured that “malnutrition and substandard living costs created unbearable conditions”.

That was the reality of SVG on October 21, 1935. A reality where we did not even have the right to form or support political parties; where trade union rights did not exist; where estate owners and their “kith and kin”, the big merchants, lorded over the bulk of the population; where we could not vote or constitutionally change the system; where British colonial governors and administrators laid down the rule and we were forced to comply. Basic primary school education was still out of the sights of many and secondary school education was a privilege. Don’t even mention health care for the majority.

This was the backdrop to what occurred here on that very date, with a confrontation between those conscious of their oppression and exclusion, and the representatives of the colonial government and the plantation system, right before the symbolic seat of power, the meeting of the unrepresentative Legislative Council. The colonial governor, Selwyn Grier, in an address to the same Council one week later, had this to say about the events;

“The meeting of the Legislative Council was in progress…………….when a crowd gathered at the Court House and afterward entered the yard. They comprised the labouring class and those in humbler stations of life……………….There was no member of the intelligent class anywhere near these frantic persons who could exercise any restraint; they were to all appearances, without the advice of anyone who could impress upon them the adoption of a constitutional process…..”

Note the contempt in his language, his dismissal of the “labouring class” as being devoid of intelligence and as being unable to understand the need for “constitutional means”. But the Constitution of the day did not cater for those persons. In the words of one of the rebels, Donald “Poor Fellow” Romeo, testifying in the trial of the patriot George McIntosh, for treason, in response to a question from the prosecutor as to why “constitutional means”, such as via the meetings of the Legislative Council, were not employed,

“People of my type have obstacles put in their way. My class is too poor. We can’t see him” (the Governor).

However historians treat the events of that day, it is clear that race, class and injustice were major issues. Had it not been for the actions of those storming the Courthouse and the anti-colonial agitations of patriots like McIntosh, there would have been no Moyne Commission after the war, no reforms to try and improve the disgraceful conditions of workers and the unemployed, no Land Settlement schemes and the other actions forced out of the British government and the reluctant estate barons and big merchants.

There would have been no adult suffrage permitting us all, irrespective of social or economic standing, to vote in 1951, and no subsequent progression to ministerial responsibility, self-government and eventual national independence. That is the significance of October 21, 1935, a significance that we are yet to grasp and to commemorate. As we justly clamour for National Hero status for George Augustus McIntosh, let us never belittle the actions of those of “the labouring class and those in humbler stations of life” – ‘Sheriff’ Lewis, ‘Poor Fellow’ Romeo, Martin Durham and others, jailed for their actions, and the heroic women, led by Bertha Mutt, who put their lives on the line to pave the way for what we enjoy today.

Our past shaped our present and determines our future, only if we are conscious of it.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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