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An 80-year anniversary has slipped by

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Every year, October 21st slips past us, as we focus on Independence without recognizing any connection to that date. Last Wednesday will have marked 80 years since the outbreak of riots in St Vincent. This is a serious landmark, because along with disturbances and riots in other Caribbean colonies, as they were then, it marked the birth of our democratic process.{{more}}

On that Monday morning in 1935, Vincentian working people stormed into the Court Yard while the Legislative Council was in session discussing new revenue measures. They were signalling that they would no longer be political outcasts, excluded from a system that enfranchised only those owning land and earning an income at a certain level. Reports were that 15 women with sticks led the way and were later joined by a crowd of some 300 to 400. The noise in the Court Yard led to the adjournment of Council. The Governor, accompanied by members of that body, came downstairs to try and calm the crowd. Their cries of ‘We want Work’! ‘We want money’! ‘We want food’! stunned the Governor, who had to acknowledge that the people shouting at him and waving sticks and cutlasses over his head were not represented in Parliament. He tried to pacify them by professing a willingness to provide work on a road on the windward side of the island and pledged further land settlement programmes. His efforts were fruitless, as his voice could hardly be heard because of the deafening noise. An attempt to ask for representatives to join him in the Court House proved to be of no avail, as the crowd, in an angry mood, stormed into the room.

Things got out of hand. Cars were damaged, windows broken at the Court House, the prison broken into and prisoners released, material contents were damaged, warder Johnson wounded and chief warder Joshua struck on his hand, his quarters broken into and bicycle damaged. One person, ‘John Bull,’ was shot. Sections of the crowd moved across the market square to the business places of Corea, which they proceeded to loot.

What prompted this? Revenue creating measures to address the colony’s desperate financial situation were first introduced at a meeting of the Legislative Council on the previous Friday. These included a tax on what the Governor considered luxury items, but astonishingly included matches, a basic item for the working poor. On the weekend, word got around that prices of goods had been increased, and this created great anxiety.

The working people of the country were under severe economic pressure, with high unemployment and poor living conditions. Sugar was no longer a dominant crop and so there was little work available on the estates. Besides the only working sugar factory was at Mt Bentinck. The two main crops were arrowroot and Sea Island cotton, which attracted small cultivators, because they could be grown on the kind of lands available to them. In fact, those who owned land produced a large percentage of what was exported. For minor products, markets were available in Barbados and Trinidad. So, as far as the people were concerned, there was a way out of their economic difficulties, but it had to involve land settlement.

Because they had been locked out of the formal political system, the working people paid little attention to the workings of Parliament and the discussions taking place there. It would have dawned on them on that eventful day that what took place in that ‘hallowed’ chamber had a serious impact on their lives. They felt empowered too, that the Governor was actually listening to them and pledging to address their needs. The colonial officials, with their primitive and racist views about the black working people, felt that there must have been a mastermind behind those developments; working people were incapable of taking such action on their own! Into the picture came George McIntosh, who had assisted them in trying to mediate with the Governor to address their concerns. McIntosh was charged for allegedly being the mastermind behind the people’s rebellion.

The dismissal of the charges against McIntosh on the fifth day of his trial brought a great deal of rejoicing. The working people lifted him on their shoulders. McIntosh recognized a vacuum and along with the more progressive members of the Representative Government Association, formed a new body, the Workingmen’s Cooperative Association. The extension of the franchise to accommodate more members of the middle class pointed the way for McIntosh. His Association, which was the first organized body to represent working people, entered the political fray and dominated the Legislative Council from 1937 to 1950.

The backward labour legislation prevented his organization from being registered as a labour union, but it, in fact, carried out some of the functions until, with the liberalization of the laws, they began to set up the first unions in the country. McIntosh and his men advocated to have matters of concern to working people put high on the agenda. He fought, among other things, for land settlement, for progressive labour regulations, for the first agricultural scholarship and to revoke the ordinance that made Shakerism illegal since 1912. As members of the Caribbean Labour Congress established in 1945, they pushed with regional labour for a more progressive regional agenda. When adult suffrage was to be introduced with a literacy test, McIntosh went against his colleagues and fought it. Any literacy test was a contradiction of what adult suffrage meant. The events of October 21st really paved the way for a democratic society. The working people had become a force and supported McIntosh and his men fully outside the Legislature.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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