It has been noted that Trinidad, not Tobago, possesses a cycle of violence. From the time of Governor Sir Tomas Picton, slave insurrection, official violence, torture, public execution, public display of decapitated heads, public whippings (1,500 lashes for desertion) from the army was meted out to both free and enslaved, military and civilian, even to young girls, on through to slave poisonings on the estates.
This happened in a short period from 1797-1805. Then the Port of Spain Riots of 1849 took place, when a British regiment opened fire on a mob intent on destroying the Government building, later the Red House, in protest of a law stating that the heads of debtors be shaved in the same manner as convicted felons. The law was repealed. In the 1890s, the Canboulay Riots and the Hosay Riots took place. This was followed 54 years later by the famous Water Riots, when a mele ensued the burning down of the Red House and 16 people were shot.
Just 35 years later, the country experienced a general strike in which riots swept the city and protesting workers were shot out of hand at various places around the country. In 1970, Port of Spain’s Woodford Square again saw demontrations, riots and shootings. The events of 1990 are well known. This re-occuring cycle of revolt, followed by official reaction, has now become virtually inherited, involving basically the same people for close to 200 years.
In the context of these articles, we will deal with events that led up to the Water Riots of 1903.
Crown colony rule was frustrating for the general populance right accross the board. It was reepressive to the lower classes, mostly black people, and it tended to debar upward mobility confining the children of the ex-slaves to perpetual poverty. It was humiliating to the coloured people and the white middle class, who, notwithstanding the heroic attempts at educating their children and mindboggling and convoluted endeavours to achieve and maintain European cultural moirees and a respectable lifestyle, they were still ouside the pale and likely to remain there.
The upper class French creoles were jealous of the English for their positions and power and smarting at the slights dished out by people whom they considered to be beneath their social standing. They were the grandchildren of the original aristocratic colonists who had, after all, come here first. The Indians were completely out of the equation socially and politically at this point.
In the closing years of the 19th century, opposition to colonial rule became more general and in fact more radical. What was mostly a middle class dissatisfaction evolved into movements that attracted working class support.
Joseph Chamberlain, the Secetary of State for the Colonies, the Govenor’s boss, brushed aside the reform movements and turned down appeals for any form of elected representation in the Legistlature, summing it up thus “Local government (falsely so called) is the curse of the West Indies. In many islands it means only local oligarchy of whites and half breeds - always incapable and frequently corrupt. In other cases it is the rule of the negroes, totaly unfit for representative institutions and the dupes of unscrupulous adventures.” He followed this up by ending the token majority of local unofficials in the Legislative Council nominated by the Governor.
He then moved on the Port of Spain Borough Council. An elected body set up in 1853, it had served as an important forum for local politicians, particularly the black and coloured radicals, and was the only voice through which any national view could be expressed by elected representatives. The conditions placed on the members were tough and they voted not to accept these and, in effect, voted themselves out of existence. Chamberlain ordered a Board of Commissions put in place to run the city. It was felt that this amounted to “the killing of a school to teach people to manage their own affairs.”
These were not significant issues, however, to attract mass support. The young but vigorous Trinidadian Workingman’s Association was much better able to do rally people around their causes, and so too was th Pan African Association led by a London-based lawyer called H.S. Williams. The next and sigificant link was forged by the creation of the Rate Payers’ Association, comprised mostly of professionals and businessmen. This group of taxpayers sought to act as a counter balance against arbitrary measures taken by the government, particularly in the distribution of water in the city. These groups acted, more or less, in an organised manner. The grassroots, however alienated, poor and easily manipulated, were moved by the rhetoric of Rate Payers’ Association’s principle speakers, Emmanuel Lazare, Moresse-Smith and others. Those speakers urged them to assemble in Woodford Square, outside the Red House, on the day when the new Ratepayers Ordinance was supposed to be read. The purpose was to seek to prevent this reading. The Ratepayers’ Association’s radicals made a strenuous effort to excite the assembled crowds against the Government. The outcome was a major riot during which the old Red House was completely burnt down. Much of recorded history was forever lost in this fire. Soldiers were called in, and 42 people were wounded, 16 lost their lives.