In the 1920s, it was the oilfield workers who forced the hand of the all-powerful colonial government to introduce electoral participation in the lawmaking process - a mantle that inspires the O.W.T.U. and other trade unions to this day.
By the end of the First World War, the economic landscape in Trinidad had changed forever. Having taken its first halting steps into an industry-based economy, it was about to suffer several body blows.
During the war, shipping between Europe and the West Indies had been severely disrupted. Shortages of every sort halted trade, agriculture and infrastructural development. Inflation climbed to an unprecedented 145% by 1919.
The cocoa economy, so vital to the cash flow of many small and medium import-export companies, almost ceased to exist as its main markets in Europe lay in shambles. Sugar, King Sugar, was also failing on the world markets. Unemployment climbed as more and more men returned from the First World War.
These men returned with a heightened political consciousness. They returned with news of the Russian Revolution and socialism. The compensation they received from the Imperial Government left much to be desired and they resented that treatment.
‘Black consciousness’ was stimulated with the circulation of literature coming out of Jamaica’s Marcus Garvey movement. News of labour unrest in England began to trickle into Trinidad despite the censors. Indian immigration to the colony was stopped in 1917, and by 1921, indentureship had ended. Suddenly thousands of Indians who had been sheltered by that system were released into the overall labour market. The competition for jobs was becoming fierce.
The result of this was a series of strikes and social disturbances in 1919 and 1920. The strikes spread in the oil and asphalt industries, with dock and rail workers following suit. Workers’ representatives cried out against increasing inflation and low wages.
The colonial government responded to the 1920 strikes by sending out troops to crush the workers and by passing the ‘Strikes and Lockout Ordinances’ and the ‘Seditious Act and Publications Ordinances’ in an attempt to stop the strikes and to prevent subversive, inflammatory literature, such as the ‘Negro World’ from reaching the workers. A commission of inquiry, appointed by the Crown, recommended the introduction of elected members in the Legislative Council. This resulted in 6 unofficials nominated by the Governor, 7 elected unofficials, 12 officials and the Governor. The elected members were thus in the minority.
The franchise was extended to women over 30 and men over 21 years of age, with specific property and income qualifications. In fact, only 6% of the entire population was entitled to vote in the first legislative election in 1925. The turnout was very good, and Captain Arthur Cipiriani, Timothy Roodal and Sarran Teelucksingh were elected. All three were representatives of labour. For the first time, middle class labour had a voice in the lawmaking body of the colony.
Cipriani’s achievements for labour in the Legislative Council were limited. He was unable to get a law passed for an 8-hour work day, despite the fact that Britain had signed a minimum wage fixing agreement in 1925 with the International Labour Organisation. The Workingman’s Compensation Ordinance of 1926 did benefit some industrial workers, but not agricultural workers. Cipriani’s struggle against ‘the powers that be’ on behalf of the workingman faltered when he signed the report of the Wages and Advisory Board, which set the minimum wage for urban and rural workers at a level below the existing wages. Workers now understood that the process set out by the imperial government would not work for them.
The Trinidad Workingmen’s Association which had been founded in 1897 and which had its origins in the coloured intelligentsia of an earlier generation that had promoted social awareness for people of African descent became increasingly involved in the arbitration between the Government and the striking industrial and urban workers. They were marginally successful in that they got wage increases for the dock workers.
Besides the already sizzling situation at the homebase, there were other developments in the world which were to impact on Trinidad. The discovery of very large oilfields in Texas and other parts of the U.S.A. had the result of a steep decline in oil prices. From 1930 onwards, oil prices stooped from over one dollar a barrel to as low as ten cents.
Against all this, the stock market crashed. This too contributed to the oversupply of oil. Automobile production fell by some 47%.
Trinidad’s oil economy was soon caught up in this free-falling tumble as both management and staff in the oil business were laid off. Trained people left the fields, some never to return. The happy days of an easy worker-management cooperation ended abruptly. Workers could not understand what was taking place in the ‘real world’ and saw only the hunger in the faces of their families and felt only the frustration and increasing desperations in themselves.
Oil technologist George Higgins writes in his book ‘A History of Trinidad Oil’:
“The Petroleum Association of Trinidad considered all possible ways of reducing the hardship and attempted to keep as many people employed as possible. Working hours were reduced from nine to eight hours a day and drilling shifts were changed from two of twelve hours to three of eight to spread out the work.”
Every effort was made to become more cost effective. More efficient production methods resulted in a record 10 million barrels being produced in 1930. This work was to pay off as the years went by, resulting in a production of 20 million barrels ten years later in 1940.
Before this, however, some hard times lay ahead. Nature played a dreadful card in the midst of all of this. In 1933, a hurricane struck the island and oil production was severly interrupted. The hurricane - and in those days they were not decorated by names of people we know - struck the east coast at Guayaguayare at about 4 p.m. on June 26th, arriving at maximum intensity at 6 p.m., howling all night. The damage was extensive. The Mora forest, very old and very valuable to the colony’s economy, was devastated, and some of the coconut estates were destroyed forever. Infrastructural damage to roads, bridges, telephone and electricity lines was considerable. In the oil fields, 90 wooden derricks were completely destroyed and another 150 badly damaged. Wellhead connections were destroyed. The industry was brought almost to a stop. Labour, now considerably more organised, rose to the occasion and worked shoulder to shoulder with the managment to restore order and production to the devastated fields.
A new era had been inaugurated, one of collective bargaining. The Trinidad Workingmen’s Association emerged as the sole agent representing the interest of workers. Its success in the 1920 disturbances increased its prestige and its membership. By 1932, the TWA had 98 branches throughout Trinidad. Captain Arthur Cipriani had emerged as its president. A Trinidadian of aristocratic European descent, he was remarkable for his social conscience and the empathy he felt for the working class.
During the 1930s, despite increased oil production, the hardships experienced by the oilworkers only got worse. Once again nature worked against the economy. In 1934, a drought struck the colony. Hunger marches started in central Trinidad. Workers at Apex Oilfields, led by Uriah Butler of the Trinidad Labour Party, which had evolved from the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association, went on strike and planned a march on Port of Spain. The march was stopped by Cipriani and the Police. Cipriani’s condemnation of the strike action and the subsequent expulsion of Butler and Cola Rienzi from the T.L.P. placed Cipriani in approbrium in the eyes of may oilworkers even to this day.
The oilworkers grievances were real. Profits were being made, but their wages were low. White employees were living comfortably in company houses and driving cars. The steady expansion of the fields, the upgrading of plants and expertise were immediately affected by the widening unrest. Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler became more active amongst the oilfield workers and moved them to take strike action. In 1937, riots and strikes spread through the oil belt. The colonial government reacted predictably with a heavy hand.
Brutality was the order of the day, and it was played out true to form on both sides. The order to open fire on the unarmed strikers as they approached the gates at Apex unleashed a hail of bullets fired at close range from Royal Enfield 303 rifles, handled mostly by young Trinidadians of the Volunteer Company. Several people died, many were wounded. On the other hand, police corporal Karl King while he was performing his lawful duty, was murdered by a mob who burnt his still alive body. An uneasy peace settled on the colony after landing parties were put ashore from the H.M.S. Ajax and the H.M.S. Exeter.
Uriah Butler was arrested. When he was released from jail in 1939, he was welcomed back in the oilbelt with ‘warmth and adulation’, as historian Michael Anthony writes in his book ‘The Making of Port of Spain Vol 1’. As Anthony writes further:
“His old and tried companion, Rienzi, was overjoyed. Rienzi showed his feeling at a Legislative Council meeting on June 16, 1939, during a debate on public holidays. Rienzi called on Government to declare the date of the oilfield riots a public holiday in place of Empire Day. Turning to the Attoney-General, Rienzi said:’June the 19th, Sir, is a day which in the minds of the workers marks a landmark in the history of the working class movement.’ Cipriani retorted:’All those who have the best interests of the working classes at heart would like to forget forever June 19 and are not asking for the making of a day for the adulation of false heroes.’”
This holiday was not granted until 1973, and one could ask if the murder of King, a policeman, should be celebrated.
As George Higgins, author of ‘A History of Trinidad Oil’, concludes his chapter about the years of depression and recovery (1930 - 1939):“By 1939, operations were back to normal and looking up. But on the horizon and across the seas in Europe the war clouds were looming, soon to break and affect profoundly the direction in which the Trinidad operations were heading.”
The trade union movement in Trinidad and Tobago really came into its own in the 1930s. Prior to this, the relationship between operators or owners of businesses, whether agricultural or otherwise, and those who were employed by them, tended to be along the lines of masters and servants. Workers, conditioned by the plantation lifestyle and the force of colonial might, which indoctrinated all involved with a certain stereotype of roles along ethnic and gender lines, more often than not just accepted existing conditions, even if it meant near starvation for them. They saw themselves as dependent on one hand on the Almighty God, whose providence made it possible to grow food in a tropical island, and on the other on the generosity of the boss or the proprietor.
Historians affirm that the patois-speaking Catholic black and mixed Trinidadians tended to be subservient to the system, whereas the Small Islanders, in particular the Barbadians, tended to be more independent and more aggressive.
From the 1840s, people from the other islands had come to Trinidad in quantity in search of work and a better standard of living. They came from both Protestant and Catholic islands, and as a result had known different cycles of religious festivals. The islands they came from had known slavery since the early 16th century, and there was virtually no coloured middle class there as existed in Trinidad.
Those immigrants assimilated into Creole life in Trinidad, but also kept a lot of their own history and culture. They didn’t necessarily stay on the land, but joined Trinidadians in small trades and crafts.
The Workingmen's Association was at the turn of the 20th century an aspect of the reform movements, and its membership was made up mostly of urban middle class liberals. The process to militancy would require a crucible, which as it turned out was the advent of industrialisation. Several circumstances began to arrange themselves, not the least of which was the demobilisation of thousands of men who had seen foreign service during the first world war. The stereotype of the master-servant relationship along ethnic lines was considerably softened up.
Another factor was the repatriation of migrants from Panama after the completion of the Canal. Many of these were cash-rich, and a lot of them did not return to their own islands, which were by comparison to Trinidad rather backward and prudish, but rather came here.
The nature of the black Creole lifestyle was changing. There was still the pursuit of respectability, of education and of European culture. There was still the overwhelming need to be accepted by the white pastor, the white overseer, the white madame, if only as a fellow human being. But for those who came of age in the 1920s, new ideas such as generated by Marcus Garvey came into play, which were based on personal pride and belief in oneself as a being that creates futures.
The literature of the time affected the thinking of workers, too. It was often banned, and hard to come by, badly printed brochures on cheap paper. The ideas were expressed in little newspapers, such as “The People”, “Trinidad” and “The Beacon”, which all served to define a greater political awareness for a wider circle of people.
Essentially, the social divide in Trinidad was between capital and labour. This became heightened by the fact that capital and labour were visibly different: the small employer class was white, the workers were black or Indian. There was hardly any political representation - only 6% of the entire population had the right to vote. The governor had direct personal rule. All power, all responsibility was centered on him.
Before the transatlantic cable, it took weeks to communicate with the Colonial Office in London. The governor was basically responsive only to the propertied interest. The landowners, the factory owners, the business and shop owners: these were regarded as the people with ‘responsible opinion’ who had ‘a stake in the country’. All others had neither voice nor vote. This situation was in fact not unique to Trinidad, but was the case the world over; certainly in England.
It is difficult for us, born in affluent times where opportunities for self-improvement actually exist for those with ambition and determination, to comprehend the dead-end poverty and the stifling frustration of the period between the wars. When with the great depression things suddenly took a turn for even worse, however, it was hard for all to accept. Money vanished. There was little to buy.
The situation was summed up in Growling Tiger's "Money is King", where the calypsonian says that a lot of education and "broughtupsy" will not help anybody in obtaining food in hard times as these. I quote here from Dr. Gordon Rohlehr's 'Calypso and Society':
"Money is King begins with the assertion that if a man has money people will overlook his leprosy or crime and grant him the highest social status.
But if you are poor, de people tell you 'shoo'
And a dog is better than you'
This thesis is then relentlessly illustrated stanza by stanza. A rich man receives extended credit while a poor man, including the gentleman or scholar fallen on hard times and reduced to eating in a cook shop, will not be credited even a penny by the illiterate proprietor, who will instead mock at his discomfiture.
'A man with a collar and tie and waiscoat
Ask de Chinee man to trus' him accra and float
"Me no trus' am," bawl out de Chinee man,
"You better move on from me fryin' pan.
You college man; me no know ABC
You want-am Accra, gi-am penny."
The worms start to jump in the man's belly
And he cry out 'A dog is better than me!'
Both the well-bread dog and the cur stand a better chance of survival than the poor man, whose very good breeding may reduce his instinct for the hard 'scrunt' of survival.
'A dog can walk about and take up bone
Fowl head, stale bread, fish tail and pone
If it's a good breed and not too wild
Some people will take it and mind as a child.
But when a hungry man goes out to beg
They will set a bulldog behind his leg.
Forty policemen will chuck him down too
You see where a dog is better than you.'"
Even for people who had jobs, the total collapse of the economy in the early 30s brought with it a dramatic increase in the size of tasks and a decrease in pay packets. Smallholders of 2 to 6 acres were badly affected. Many lost their ancestral lands. Sir Norman Lamont, and English planter and member of the Legislative Council, remarked on the system of indebtedness to the local shopkeepers. Dr. Susan Craig in her book 'Smiles and Blood' recounts his speech given to the Legislature in 1938:
"These smallholders are fattened up, as it were, on this bad system of debt until they are ripe for the slaughter and ready for their larger neighbour or the shopkeeper to squeeze them out or buy them in. Everybody is doing it, even the best people!"
Lamont went on to point out over 100 cases in the Manzanilla district who complained that they were no longer paid in cash, but with purchase orders which they could redeem at the local shop. Often the shops did not have the goods required, so they gave the cash less 25% interest. There was also the practice of giving tokens instead of cash. Many estates paid in tokens which could only be redeemed at shops which were owned by Chinese and Portuguese shop-keepers, whose ancestors had come in the mid-19th century.
The wholescale cheating of illiterate people, indebtedness at high rates of interest, lower prices to the smallholder whose crop were mortgaged to the local shop, reduced access to further credit - all this led countless people to the loss of their land, either to the estates or to the shops.
It was a time of merciless usury. Governor Sir Murchison Fletcher (1936 - 1937) remarked:
"When I arrived in Trinidad, I was somewhat painfully impressed by the poverty here.."
It was a time in our history when the interest of the state was hand in glove with the interest of the propertied. It was also a time of official deafness. The authorities could not or would not hear the voices of the people. They ignored the hunger marches, the petitions, the calypsoes; they dismissed the hanging together of hunger, unemployment, economic depression and worker militancy.
The fuse was getting shorter, but no one was paying attention. As far as the governor or the Secretary of State for the Colonies were concerned, there were about 20 men in the colony who really mattered. These were the men who spoke for oil, asphalt, sugar, cocoa and commerce: all that mattered for a "respectable opinion".
Ultimately, political power resided in the ability to control sanctions, particularly by force. The armed forces during that period were organised as follows:
The first line of defense was the local police, mainly black with English officers. The second line of defense was the volunteer force, mainly white-collar workers and led by local whites and expatriate managers. The volunteer force was in fact and extension of the alliance of state and capital. This was an endowment of the rich with police and military powers to shoot to preserve their superior position. In the event of the police and volunteers failing to control unrest in the population, imperial troops and ships were called upon to protect the interest of property. As Dr. Craig sums it up:
"Thus, the employer class was also vital to the defense of the colony and collaborated when imperial troops intervened by providing accommodation and food for them. In so doing, when workers struck a blow at poverty, they were striking too at the state and the whole structure of colonialism."
And what had happened to the "black masses"? Firstly, they were not "asses", as the popular rhyme suggests. They were, however, extremely poor, living in hopeless conditions comparable in the Caribbean today probably with Haiti. Children, whose bellies were bloated and whose navels hang out in a hernia due to malnutrition, shoe-less families, hopeless adolescents: they nevertheless knew exactly what was going on. They knew that the colonial government offered no options, and they knew that they were producing raw materials for things that came back manufactured, and unaffordable to them. They knew they were totally dependent on the patrimony of the colonial establishment.
In the 19th century, loyalty to the British crown was absolute, even or probably especially so by the colonials. To understand this from today's perspective, one can probably compare it to the absolute acceptance and devotion that Catholics all over the world feel towards a Polish Pope who reigns from the far-away peninsula of Italy. This loyalty also diminished in the 20th century. War, increasing communication, and the movies from America that illuminated the silver screens all over Trinidad contributed to this paradigm shift. All of a sudden, the "black masses" realised that white people too were poor, cussed, and were 'ketching their ass'! From then on, the image of the "white man" was no longer exclusive. The Second World War and the stationing of thousands of American servicemen contributed even more to that: in a country of 750,000 mainly coloured and Indian people, there appeared on the streets all of a sudden 500,000 young American men! For many Trinidadians, it only now became ordinary to deal with European-looking people on a day-to-day basis.
But all in all, it was the grinding poverty that drove the black masses and the enlightened elements of the creole middle class to make a change. The strike in the oil fields started on Saturday, June 19th, 1937. By evening, the police attempted to arrest the union leader Uriah Butler, resulting in the death of a police corporal and an inspector. On the following day, Sunday, H.M.S. Ajax was ordered to Trinidad. Governor Fletcher went to the oil belt. The following week, the second cruiser, H.M.S. Exeter, arrived in Port of Spain. Within days, the strike is over.
In 1937, the workers won the right to organise trade unions, but this was accompanied by the determination of the ruling class to control these unions in a way that the gain to labour would be nullified. The establishments of labour departments was an attempt to achieve this.
This entire period of the 1930s was a formative one in the shaping of the modern Caribbean. There were significant reforms; among them was universal adult franchise and political decolonisation. Labour had thrust itself onto the political arena. After the war, labour evolved into mass political parties, ultimately opening the way for West Indian nationalism and political independence.