Thursday 16 February 2012

Cola Rienzi

Both the Trinidadian Cola Rienzi and the originator of his nom de plume shared the fate of power being placed into their hands and taken out of their hands because of their character.

An upstanding, handsome man, a lawyer by training, he had been born Krishna Deonarine. That morning, the 28th June 1937 to be exact, as he walked past the police sentry standing crisply at attention before the guardhouse at Government House in Port of Spain. He had some years before become Cola Rienzi.
Trinidad, not Tobago, was gripped in crisis. The grinding poverty, the outright racism of both the British and the "local whites", had alienated the working class long ago. The confrontation that now challenged the colonial administration and the moneyed interest had to do with the destruction of human dignity and self-respect in that overwhelming force was about to be brought to bear.
As he walked up the long, curving, dappled driveway, surrounded by rolling lawns and birdsong, the peaceful atmosphere seemed like another world. Its calm suspended time and place. Its order inferred confidence and power.
To Rienzi, the tropical adaptation of European elegance seemed like a stage set, designed to unnerve the insecure and to convey the awkwardness of not belonging there. The government had expected strike action for June 22 in the oil belt. In response, police and volunteers had been moved south on the 18th. As the sun lowered into the placid Gulf of Paria, the police had moved to arrest Uriah Butler at Fyzabad when he was in the process of addressing a meeting of workers. Butler escaped. Inspector Bradburn was killed and so too Carl King, a police corporal who was burnt to death.
The governor, Sir A.G.M. Fletcher, went south to see for himself. Already there were two British warships on the scene. There was significant property to be protected. Within days, the strikes had spread to the sugar areas and Port of Spain. Government workers had joined in. 350 special constables "of all races" were enrolled to protect the capital. There was a reward posted now for Butler and a massive manhunt was on for the man who had mobilised the masses.
Butler did not want, however, to vanish. He did not want to be out of touch with the workers in these most crucial times. He knew well the power of the imperial forces arranged against him. He needed to be out in the open to control events, and he needed protection from the authorities.
Rienzi took the low and wide flight of steps quickly into the  marbled shade of the Victorian mansion. The tall mahogany doors swung open to receive him. The young, clear-eyed British officer gestured in an cultured manner towards the door through which the governor would arrive shortly and indicated a low seat where Cola was to wait upon the governor's pleasure.
Historian Michael Anthony, writing many years later, felt that this was where Cola Rienzi performed a most outstanding role, not merely because he was Butler's friend and comrade, but on behalf of the entire labour movement. Rienzi, Anthony wrote, asked the government for a safe conduct for Butler. Governor Fletcher, however, held that in the colony's interest it was crucial for the oilfield strike to end and that until the strike was called off, there could be no talks with Butler. Rienzi pressed on, pointing out Butler's legitimate right to call upon his followers in the oil belt to stop work in support of obviously just demands. But in pursuit of peace, Rienzi promised that he would press Butler to hold off the strike.
Governor Fletcher was adamant that there could be no safe conduct for Butler.
"This was the little interlude when Rienzi, had he been an insincere and self-seeking man, could have walked right in, usurped Butler's position, and taken over whatever labour movement there was by installing himself as the chief of the labour movement," writes Anthony. "He had already gained the confidence of the oilworkers and the authorities ... but Rienzi was anxious to see Butler come back amongst the oil workers and he felt that the time was now."
A.C. Rienzi was Butler's "accredited emissary" and was regarded by the Colonial Office as a communist agitator. The stalemate deepened when Butler wrote "deeply" regretting that as a result of a "referendum" he was not in a position to call off the strike and that the workers were prepared to put up a last ditch fight to secure at least a general allround increase in their wages as a prerequisite to going back to work.
The government sensed that it had won the day. Adrian Cola Rienzi left government house as the evening shadows lengthened. The blackbirds called plaintively in the quiet, windless trees.
This was merely one high moment in a significant career in the life of a man who burned with zeal to improve the standard of living for the working class in Trinidad and Tobago. The 1920s and 30s were the crucible in which significant leaders of labour emerged. Captain Arthur Cipriani was by far and away the most remarkable of these. Rienzi joined the labour movement and was swift in making his presence felt in the nascent trade union movement. Himself, Uriah Butler and Cipriani made a formidable trio of Indian, African and European ancestry. Rienzi, however, was the one most filled with impatience. He thought of his two compatriots as men of words and of himself as a man of action.
Rienzi formed the Trinidad Citizens League which appealed essentially to the sugar workers who were of course mainly East Indian. The TCL too was branded communist by the colonial government. Butler, in the meantime, took his message to the workers in the oil belt, most of whom were of Africa descent. Rienzi became the legal representative of Butler's party. He worked assiduously during Butler's absence to group together all the workers in the oil industry, as Michael Anthony remarks, "to give them courage and at least a sense of direction". In this, he was successful. He was not present at the first meeting of the newly formed Oilfield Workers Trade Union on July 25, 1937, but he was asked nonetheless by them to become their President General. Afterwards, he was elected president of the Trade Union Council. In January of 1940, Rienzi launched a paper, the "Vanguard". Anthony records his words from an editorial:
"During the latter part of 1939, the capitalist democracies launched what we now know is another imperialist war. Then as now people were called upon to give their lives for King and Country, then as now they were told it was a war to make the world safe for democracy... Yet these great exponents of democracy have a colonial empire in which millions of their subjects are denied the elementary principles of democracy."
As Anthony goes on to quote Rienzi:
"The intensification of the class struggle in south and central Trinidad, in two of our major industries, namely, sugar and oil, has made it exceedingly necessary that the workers in these parts should have an organ of their own."
The Vanguard in those days was edited by Donald Moses and was published from 16 Coffee Street, San Fernando. Its pages denounced crown colony rule and went on to predict its passing.
It hurt Rienzi that Butler was not given a safe conduct. In fact, Butler was sentenced to 2 years in prison in September of 1937 and re-arrested when war was declared. Rienzi worked to maintain the ranks during this period of Butler's incarceration. He fought a general election in 1938, in which he won the San Fernando seat in the Legislative Council. Rienzi tabled a motion to make June 19, the day that Inspector Bradburn and Carl King were killed, a public holiday in place of Empire Day, May 24. Cipriani was appalled and declared: "We do not want a day for the making of false heroes."
Krishna Deonarine, Arthur Cipriani and Uriah Butler were in their time the standard bearers for the labour movement. Their struggle was one not only for better wages. It was one that mainly had to do with escaping the yoke of crown colony rule and the demeaning life of not merely racial prejudice but actually being considered somewhat less than human by the colonialists.
Their battle was not only to defeat the imperial power that exploited the worker and the produce of the land, but also to liberate the workers themselves from the inherited "mental slavery".
A difficult and thankless undertaking. Adrian Cola Rienzi was a legislator long enough to see the  crown colony system pass away. He saw the advent of adult franchise. He became Mayor of San Fernando from 1939 to 1942. After his retirement from public life, Rienzi lived in a quiet style until his passing in July 1972, doubtlessly in the certain knowledge that he had fulfilled his personal legend, a tribune or protector of the people's interest.

Where he got his name from
Adrian Cola Rienzi is now, as it is often the fate of many significant individuals who are possessed by "Zeitgeist", the spirit of their era, all but forgotten. From his youth, he had immersed himself in the reading of history and from very young had defined for himself his own personal legend, which focussed upon an Italian patriot and reformer who had lived some 600 years before: Cola di Rienzi (c. 1313 - 1354). The Italian patriot had been born in Rome of humble parentage. At the age of 30, he went wit a deputation to Avignon to beseech Pope Clement VI to return to Rome. In 1347, Rienzi successfully incited the citizens to rise against the rule of the nobles. Rome's senators were driven out, and Rienzi suddenly held dictatorial power. Rienzi requested the Italian states to send representatives to Rome to divise rules for the common good of the country. With nobles and finally also the Pope against him, Rienzi's tribunal ended after seven months and he had to flee to Naples. There he immersed himself in a religious life for two years. In 1349, he decided to get back into political reforms, only to be taken prisoner by the emperor of Rome and sent to Avignon. The new Pope Innocent VI sent Rienzi back to Rome to crush the power of the nobles. Rienzi succeeded and aimed at re-establishing his authority. In August 1354, he attempted a sort of triumphal entry into Rome, and was murdered on this occasion.

RIENZI, Adrian Cola, B.A., LL.B., Barrister-at-Law, Second Crown Counsel, Trinidad and Tobago. Born: l9th January, 1905. Only son of Deonarayan Tiwari and Lutchmin Devi. Married. Education: C.M. School, Naparima College, Trinity College, Dublin. Middle Temple, England.
Elected  President of Workingmen's Association  at age 19. Met Gandhi during Round Table Conference in London. Worked with Shapurji Saklatvala on various London Committees. One of the Joint Secretaries who convened the third lndian Political Conference in London, 1933.
Founder of Oil, Sugar and Transport Workers' Trade Union. President  of Trade Union Council 1938-44. Mayor of the Borough of San Fernando for three consecutive years, 1939-42. Member of Legislative Council, 1938-44. Member of Governor's Executive Council, 1943-44.
Attended as a Delegate from the W.I. the World Youth Congress at New York, 1938. Served on almost every important Government Commission and Statutory Board, 1938-44. Prepared and presented Workers' Case before the Oilfield Arbitration Tribunal presided over by the late Sir James Bailey.
Represented the Workers before Forster and Moyne Commissions. Served on Planning and Housing Commission, Control Board, Trinidad Transport Board, Joint Sugar Board, Oil Conciliation Board, and the Franchise Commission. His Minority Report received the approval of the Secretary of State for the Colonies and aroused widespread Indian protest against the Language Qualification as a condition to use the ballot.
Clubs: India Club (President). Address: " Bourgainville, " London Street, San Fernando.
(from: Indian Centenary Review, Kirpalani, Sinanan, Rameshwar, Seukaran, edts., 1945)


Anonymous said...

That Cola Rienzi was a true fighter .

Anonymous said...

He was one of our only true patriots who was not swayed by materialism as is shamelessly seen today .