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The 81st anniversary of the ‘1935 Riots’

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Today is the 81st anniversary of the ‘1935 Riots’, an event that had far-reaching effects on St Vincent, in that it impacted on the colony’s political history and helped to shape the pathway to adult suffrage. Unfortunately, we know little about it and it passes by every year with virtually no acknowledgement of its historical importance. We missed a golden opportunity in 1979 to mark this day as the date of our Independence, for as far as I am aware, the 27th October has no historical significance. The ‘Riots’ was indeed a milestone to our Indepen­dence and represented another chapter in that long march from Emancipation. We were still searching for the promises and expectations of the Emancipation declaration.{{more}}

St Vincent was one of 10 British Caribbean colonies to have experienced disturbances in the 1930s (that is, including Belize and the Bahamas). The St Vincent Riots followed that of January 1935 in St Kitts and had some uniqueness of its own in that while most of the others were centred around the plantations and strikes, here it began in the yard of the Courthouse during a meeting of the Legislative Council in the upper chambers of the Courthouse. While developments between 1935 and 1951 were common in the British Caribbean colonies, St Vincent, like the others, had its own players and peculiar circumstances.

What happened?

The Legislative Council had, at a meeting on Friday, October 18, introduced some financial measures – Customs Duties and Licences Amendment Ordinances. Among the items subjected to increased duties were matches. The price of matches went from three boxes a penny to one box a penny. The measures were introduced on Friday and the Legislative Council was to meet again on Monday, October 21st to bring them into law. Even before the legislation was finalized, it appeared that some merchants, over the weekend, had begun to increase prices. This was of great concern and when Council was reconvened on the 21st, there were many anxious people flocking to the yard of the Courthouse.

The Times newspaper described the scene. Among the first on the scene were 15 women ‘with small sticks’. The crowd later increased to about 200, the majority being men, some with stones, sledgehammers, cutlasses and knives. George McIntosh, after being asked to intervene on their behalf with the Governor, was given a meeting time at 5 p.m. when the session of Council would have ended. The people refused to accept that, fearing that the Governor would have been returning to Grenada that afternoon. Crowds continued moving into the Court yard and the noise brought an end to the Council meeting. The Governor moved downstairs and attempted to address the crowd, but his voice was drowned out. The Cable Office nearby was broken into, as was the Prison; Sheriff Lewis led the charge there, declaring himself ‘Haile Selassie’ and demanding that the prison gates be opened.

Things got completely out of hand. One man was shot. Some persons, including the Chief of Police, were struck. Vehicles of officials parked in the Court yard were damaged. This included the Governor’s car with the official flag. Police reinforcements were called in and the crowd moved to the business places of FA Corea (Casson). The Riot Act was read, but sections of the crowd still remained at Coreas and the Court yard until later that afternoon; three persons died in the process and one woman later.

North River Road and Cane Garden

A few persons had by then been moving to the North River Road and Wilson Hill area. Fred Hazell, prominent merchant and lieutenant in the Volunteer Force, lived in the area where the St Joseph’s Convent is now located. Hazell was accused of shooting ‘John Bull’ during the disturbances at the Court yard, so he might have been a target. A contingent of police and volunteers forced the men out, some moving in the vicinity of the Guides Pavilion and up to McKie’s Hill. Two entered a neighbouring house where they were subdued but not before inflicting a wound on one of the policemen who had to be taken to the hospital.

Cane Garden was the next trouble spot. A squad of police and volunteers, sent to the area was attacked by a group of about 30 men wielding cutlasses and sticks. One of the rioters was shot in his foot but they had already looted some of the houses and cut the telephone wires so that there was no communication with Kingstown. One house that escaped being looted was that of O.W Forde, lawyer and plantation owner who had some of the workers from his estate at Arnos Vale guarding his home.

One of the other areas that witnessed disturbances on that Monday was the area of Byrea, Grand Sable and Georgetown. Telephone wires from that area were cut so information about the disturbances there did not get to Police Headquarters until late that night. Even then it was only with the arrival from Grenada of warship H.M.S Challenger at midnight that they were in a position to send reinforcements to Georgetown. (To be continued)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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