Jamaica’s labour rebellion

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Anger at low wages, unemployment and colonial racism provoked a series of strikes across the British Caribbean 80 years ago. Christian Høgsbjerg describes the events which solidified the working class.

Amid the great depression of the 1930s the British Empire was rocked by a series of mass strikes and anti-colonial revolts across the Caribbean colonies. These events were central in the making of the Caribbean working class and reached their climax in Jamaica from late April to June 1938.

Stuart Hall’s memoir Familiar Stranger gives a powerful sense of the importance of 1938 in the road to national liberation in the British Caribbean. As Hall once noted of the labour rebellion, “workers involved in the sugar industry, in oil, and on the docks — the most proletarianised sectors — became conscious of their power”.

The main causes of the wave of revolt were summarised by the Jamaican socialist Richard Hart, himself a participant in the 1938 rebellion: “Low wages; high unemployment and under-employment; arrogant racist attitudes of the colonial administrators and employers in their relations with black workers; lack of adequate or in most cases any representation; and, no established structure for the resolution of industrial disputes by collective bargaining.”

There was also outrage across the Caribbean as elsewhere in the African diaspora at Mussolini’s barbaric war on the people of Ethiopia in 1935, which fed into this rising mood of resistance at poverty pay among workers. The revolutionary militancy of workers in these colonial dictatorships was somewhat reminiscent of the strikes in Tsarist Russia that precipitated the 1905 Revolution, as described by Rosa Luxemburg in The Mass Strike.

In June 1937 a general strike had swept Trinidad, led by oilfield workers — the most industrialised section of the wider Caribbean working class. Inspired by the “sit-in” strikes of the car workers in the United States, they organised a “stay-in” strike demanding equal pay and conditions with European workers and the right to form independent trade unions. The strike then spread to rural agricultural areas, bringing together East Indian and black workers in a common cause against the white colonial elite.

A month later, in July 1937, Barbados, Britain’s oldest Caribbean colony, erupted in mass strikes and demonstrations.

The wave of rebellion reached its high point the next year in Jamaica. As historian Peter Fryer noted, “Jamaican workers and peasants downed tools, marched in demonstrations, looted shops, cut telephone wires, put up road blocks, destroyed bridges, burnt crops, besieged the rich in their houses, and, armed only with sticks and stones, fought back against armed police patrols and troops. It was officially admitted that crowds were fired on 13 times between 23 May and mid-June 1938.”

The Jamaican labour rebellion was sparked in late April 1938 by a strike for “a dollar a day” by construction workers who were building a massive new factory for the West Indies Sugar Company, owned by Tate and Lyle.

When armed police arrived and began arresting and shooting down strikers, this sparked the first huge protests, marches and then strikes by waterfront workers in the capital, Kingston. By 23 May public sector and transport workers in Kingston also struck, bringing the capital to a halt. Barricades were thrown up as police clashed with strikers.

Faced with this insurgency, marines and six platoons of British troops from the Sherwood Foresters were deployed. Though “law and order” would be restored in Kingston by a combination of repression and promises of a new commission to look into pay, remarkably the revolt now generalised across Jamaica.

Rolling strikes and demonstrations spread across every parish in the island as sugar and banana workers marched from estate to estate, everywhere provoking fierce clashes with police and troops.

Race and class came together in an explosive fashion in a region that had a long tradition of inspiring resistance to slavery and colonialism. As in previous revolts, the labour rebellions of the 1930s were met with brutal state repression as every island’s colonial governor was forced to call for warships, marines and aeroplanes. A total of 46 people were killed, 429 wounded, and thousands arrested and imprisoned.

By the end of June 1938 “order” had been restored in Jamaica, helped by the announcement of a Royal Commission to investigate conditions on the island and the formation of a new trade union — the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union. The union was named after Alexander Bustamante, who established his reputation after being imprisoned during the revolt for his impassioned oratory while campaigning for workers’ rights.

Bustamante would go on to form the Jamaican Labour Party in 1943 and become Jamaica’s first prime minister after independence in 1962, while the JLP’s rival, the more radical People’s National Party, led by the progressive barrister Norman Manley, would also be founded amid the inspiring tumultuous year of 1938.

The Caribbean labour rebellions led to the formation and legal recognition of long lasting militant trade unions such as the Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union in Trinidad. They also forced the British Empire to concede the right to vote in its Caribbean colonies after the Second World War. The road to independence was now open.