Trinidad 1919: A glimpse of liberation

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Members of the British West Indian Regiment during the First World War

Returning soldiers and sailors became the driving force behind a series of mass strikes that, says Christian Høgsbjerg, created a ‘social volcano’.

The year 1919 was one of intense class struggles in Britain, perhaps best remembered for the mass strike in January 1919 and the resulting tumult in Glasgow’s Clydeside for the 40-hour week and which had seen over 40,000 engineers and shipbuilders on strike alongside 36,000 miners and electricity supply workers. The secretary of state for Scotland, Robert Munro, argued that “it was a misnomer to call the situation in Glasgow a strike — it was a Bolshevist uprising”, and 12,000 English troops, 100 military lorries and six tanks were deployed to maintain order.

The fear of Bolshevism in Britain was overstated, but understandable given the rising wave of class struggle which was part of a wider revolutionary wave across Europe, and beyond. One lesser known upheaval came in the small Caribbean island of Trinidad, where from November 1919 to mid-January 1920 a rolling mass strike shook this outpost of the British Empire to its foundations.

Imperial loyalty

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, there was a great show of imperial loyalty from colonial subjects across the Anglophone Caribbean, with some 16,000 black West Indians answering the call to defend the British Empire. Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican Pan-Africanist and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), had given his blessings, arguing that it “was the duty of every true son of the Empire to rally to the cause of the Motherland”. Yet workers’ resentment grew as the bloody conflict dragged on.

In Trinidad, devoid of elected representatives above the municipal level, and governed by officials appointed by the Crown headed by a governor, anger at price rises and mercantile profiteering amid low wages, underemployment and unemployment escalated. In spring 1917 oilfield, dock and asphalt workers in the south in Point Fortin, Brighton, La Brea and Fyzabad took strike action, particularly against the United British Oilfields company and the American-owned Trinidad Lake Asphalt Company.

One beneficiary of the workers’ strike action was the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association (TWA), a social democratic organisation with links to the British Labour Party. During 1917 international developments, including the hopes fired in the hearts of black colonial subjects globally by the Russian Revolution, helped encourage a new emerging radical mood in the TWA. In early 1919, with a rising level of class struggle, the TWA now unanimously voted to make representations on behalf of any group of workers to the government or their employers, and also to accept affiliation from any group of workers who wanted it.

Racist riots

Workers in Trinidad were angered to read in the summer of 1919 of horrendous bloody racist riots underway in Britain, carried out by demobilised British soldiers and sailors. The riots were directed against mainly black colonial seafarers in the port areas of Liverpool, Glasgow, London, Cardiff, Manchester as well as Hull, Barry and Newport. As Adam Ewing notes, the local press in Trinidad featured “reports of gangs of white soldiers and sailors ‘savagely attacking, beating and stabbing every negro they could find’ in the streets of Liverpool, including a Trinidadian, Charles Wootten”, who was effectively lynched.

The summer of 1919 also saw British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) veterans return to unemployment, underemployment, food price rises, rises in the cost of living, poverty and overcrowded housing. Following their experience of institutionalised racism in the British army (which had prompted a mutiny at Taranto in Italy in 1918) this proved to be the spark that threw many British colonies into turmoil.

Strikes and riots rocked Jamaica, Belize and British Honduras. In Trinidad, on 19-21 July returning soldiers were given pride of place at a parade to mark the Peace Celebrations, but only 132 soldiers fell in. As the local Inspector General of Constabulary, Colonel May, noted, many of the veterans were disappointed they were not going to be armed for the occasion as “some who had possessed themselves of ammunition whilst on active service intended to load with ball cartridges during the feu de joi and shoot down all the officers”.

By August 1919, BWIR veterans in Trinidad had formed the “Returned Soldiers and Sailors Council” — soon to be led by Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani, a white Trinidadian BWIR officer who had defended the Taranto mutineers. They had agitated for material support at the same level as that received by white soldiers. In September 1919 there was a mutiny on the SS Orca, carrying black seafarers and military prisoners of the BWIR. The BWIR veterans’ agitation led to a growth in membership of the TWA, as many former soldiers joined.

Anger was also rising among the dockworkers in Trinidad’s capital Port of Spain, who had the power to hit the monopoly merchants who controlled trade of basic food stuffs into the colony. Already that year there had been a longshoremen’s strike on the Panama Canal, a mass harbour strike in New York and a successful dockworkers’ strike in British Guiana.

Trinidad’s dockworkers experienced rising living costs, subsistence wages and precarious work patterns, with underemployment as a common feature of life. They faced a repressive shipping company management without any official bargaining system. The intransigence of the shipping company and the colonial government in neither recognising nor acknowledging those workers who organised through the TWA now provoked a mass dockworkers’ strike on 15 November 1919. It was a strike that would rock the Port of Spain waterfront for three weeks. This was, as Kelvin Singh rightly notes, “the decisive event of the year” in the colony, and within a week “the dockworkers’ strike had a catalytic effect on other sections of the working population in Port of Spain”.

“On 21 November city council workers struck for higher pay. On 24 November female coal-carriers employed with the Archer Coaling Company also struck and signified their intention of joining the TWA. On the same day labourers on the estate of the Trinidad Land and Finance Company struck, as did vendors who supplied [char]coal to the city, among whom were Indian wholesalers. In the meantime lower ranking civil servants and shop assistants, mostly black or of mixed ancestry, seized the opportunity to press for a war bonus and higher wages respectively.”

On 1 December 1919 striking dockworkers took to the streets, marching into Port of Spain accompanied by thousands of supporters. They roamed around the business district of the capital city, shutting it down. As WF Elkins notes, “‘Zaffaire Sho!’ (things are hot!), exclaimed an old woman at the onset of violence, ‘affaire sho asso Che la’ (things are hot on the wharf)”. CLR James — a recent graduate from Queen’s Royal College working as a teacher at the time — later recalled how striking dockers “patrolled the town, made business close down, and were at one time in charge of the city”.

Black and underpaid

Colonel May refused to order the (mostly black and underpaid) police to use their batons or open fire on the crowd, sensing the reluctance of the rank and file to follow such an order. May was also conscious of the risk of deploying the white-only Merchants Contingent of former soldiers against a predominantly black populace. Instead, May requested a meeting with the strikers, and managed to set up an arbitration committee including representatives of both strikers and the shipping companies. They struck a deal, bringing the dockworkers’ strike to an end on 3 December 1919, just as the British warship HMS Calcutta sailed into Port of Spain. The dockworkers accepted an offer of a 25 percent pay rise from the shipping companies, and the re-employment of the strikers.

This outcome infuriated the white colonial elite. Edgar Tripp, secretary of both the Agricultural Society and the Chamber of Commerce, denounced “one of the most humiliating surrenders to brute force that had ever been known in a British colony”. Yet for the workers and their supporters, this victory, won through the most militant forms of action, was inspirational. It now triggered what O Nigel Bolland notes was “virtually a general strike” that rolled across Trinidad and even reached Tobago into early 1920, encompassing other groups of workers from Indian estate workers to oilfield workers in the South. As Singh notes: “Emboldened by the success of the dockworkers and the radical leadership of the TWA, other workers in the city, in rapid succession, went on strike: porters, grasscutters who supplied the city with fodder, scavangers and carpenters. In the first three occupations Indians predominated, so that at this stage of the growing unrest the strike movement was beginning to cross ethnic boundaries within the working class. All these ‘malcontents’ were reported to have stormed the office of the TWA to have their cause represented by that body — firm testimony to its growing authority among urban workers.”

Class consciousness began to trump that of race, as East Indians and blacks began to unite for the first time in solidarity. The movement spread to Tobago, where on 6 December 1919 there was a strike by estate workers as well as government employed carpenters. When rioters in Tobago attacked a government wireless station with stones and bottles they were repressed by troops from HMS Calcutta who fired on a crowd and killed two people. Jerome Teelucksingh describes how “at Trinidad’s Central Oilfields, workmen and fitters went on strike demanding a 25 percent salary increase; likewise, striking scavengers employed by the city council demanded a 50 percent salary increase. Strike action spread to the plantation sector and at the Woodford Lodge Estate, Lal Beharrysingh, one of the workers, was killed.” This East Indian worker was trying to persuade a crowd of his fellow estate labourers to strike — the white overseer of the estate was arrested and charged with murder.

Violent and disgraceful

The official local Indian organisations, the East Indian National Congress and the East Indian National Association, advised their members to abstain from “violent and disgraceful conduct” and trust in the “British sense of honour and fairplay”. However, coming so soon after the Amritsar massacre in India it is not surprising that many East Indian workers joined in the struggle against starvation wages and colonial domination.

On 9 December 1919 Henry A Baker, the local American consul, reported that “there are serious indications from many directions that Trinidad, and perhaps the British West Indies generally, are on a social volcano…which is liable to burst into eruption at any time”. The British now ordered the deployment of 350 troops from the second battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment, at the time based in Jamaica, to restore order. After they arrived on New Years’ Eve, the governor Sir John Chancellor reported their presence had a “sedative effect on the blacks”.

Yet workers’ resistance continued, and on 5 January 1920 a strike erupted at the United British West Indies Petroleum Syndicate at Point Fortin, followed on 8 January by workers at the United British Oil Company. Oil workers now demanded equal pay between “native oil drillers” and “European oil drillers”. On 9 January 1920 cocoa porters struck and on 12 January print workers at the Trinidad Guardian also struck for higher pay, and then on 14 January various groups of tailors joined the fight.

The chief political beneficiary of this workers’ revolt was the TWA. Though many TWA members wore red shirts in solidarity with the Russian Revolution and editorials in the local press sternly warned of the danger of “Bolshevism extending to Trinidad”, it was the radical Pan-Africanist ideas of Marcus Garvey rather than revolutionary socialism that captured the imagination of most leading strikers. As Colonel May put it in his report, the leaders of the strike were “imbued with the idea that there must be a black world controlled and governed by the black people of their own race”, meaning that, as Elkins put it, “the strike demonstrations, therefore, represent a foretaste of Black Power in the British West Indies”.

Garvey’s paper, the Negro World, was published in New York and circulated in Trinidad via seafarers on North American steamships, spreading a doctrine of racial justice and black unionisation and labour radicalism in pursuit of racial goals and African liberation. On 7 June 1919 the Negro World declared that “signs are abundant that the future of the Negro race the world over is inextricably intertwined with the future of radicalism and labor”. Ewing notes that “during the strike TWA meetings often became de facto UNIA [Universal Negro Improvement Association] rallies”.

“According to witnesses, at one meeting James Brathwaite, the TWA’s secretary and local UNIA officer, repeated nearly verbatim the argument that Garvey had been making in the pages of the Negro World. ‘You are a powerful race and our power was proved in the gigantic struggle for British liberty,’ Brathwaite thundered. ‘You don’t think it is a shame for the intelligent negro to remain sleeping and waiting for amelioration? No, we must fight. If we can die for the white man against his German brother we can die better for ourselves.’”

This said, though Garvey’s ideas were mobilised by TWA leaders during 1919 in an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist direction, far from acting as revolutionaries, TWA leaders often played a role during the height of the unrest akin to that played by a classic trade union leader or reformist politician, trying to urge strikers back to work. Amid the strike, the Governor had conceded that recognition ought to be given to the TWA, since it “had now great influence among the working classes, and by meeting representatives of the Association on the Wages Committee, the employers might be able to ensure industrial peace in the colony for a number of years”.

Political dissent

In the aftermath of the strikes, the colonial government clamped down hard, and 82 strikers were either fined or arrested, while some strike leaders and leading TWA members were fined, imprisoned and three deported. A barrage of repressive legislation followed, making political dissent almost impossible in its aftermath — until the Caribbean Labour Rebellions of the 1930s led to the formation of powerful new trade unions and nationalist parties through struggle.

Yet as one militant TWA leader, David Headley, concluded in the aftermath of the mass strike of 1919, the strike had shown a glimpse of how liberation could be won through struggle from below. “Our inherent rights receive emphasis and new assertion at moments of political stress and strain, for whenever society is in travail liberty is born. Evolution is the outcome of revolution, and advancement in any sphere of human activity is expedited by epochal upheavals.”