1919 GENERAL STRIKE

T&T’S FIRST GENERAL STRIKE

The article reprinted here was written by Keith Look Loy and published under the headline: 1919 – THE FIRST GENERAL STRIKE in HOLD THE FORT (vol. 6 no. 2. June 1988); the newspaper of the then-extant Committee for Labour Solidarity.


The years immediately after World War 1 saw the beginnings of organised political activity by the working-class. While the workers in the country had challenged colonialism during the 1800’s, the resistance to foreign domination had been more or less spontaneous, as in the case of the Canboulay and Hosay Riots.

After the War, however, the working masses began to develop their political activity in a

organised manner as their condition under colonialism deteriorated.

The year 1919 was a key period and provides us with one of the most important episodes in the working people’s history of struggle.

Between 1914 and 1919, because of the war, prices had risen by145%. The impact of this, particularly on food, led to demands for higher wages and protests when these were refused.

In 1917, oil and asphalt workers went on strike and British troops were called in resulting in the arrest and imprisonment of five leaders,

Even before that, in 1916, the East Indian Destitute League was established by Mohammed Orfy to agitate on behalf of impoverished Indians. Orfy was deported in 1918.

The colonial state, therefore, did not hesitate to repress the resistance activity of the working masses and by the end of the war
in 1919 Indian and African workers were restless and agitated by the merciless exploitation of the French Creole merchants and the ruling state.

But there were other reasons for the explosion which would come towards the end of 1919. One of these was the return to Trinidad of ex-servicemen who had been to war in Europe as part of the British West Indies Regiment. These soldiers had been radicalised by their experience at the hands of the White military authorities. They had been refused the opportunity to fight on the grounds that they were black (black soldiers fighting and killing, whites was unacceptable to colonialism).

They were forced to perform menial labour, wash linens and clean latrines. They had seen their brothers die from neglect in

Soldiers returning from World War 1 land at the Port of Spain docks
in 1919.
white-run hospitals

A Trinidadian soldier in Egypt had written to a friend that "We are treated neither as Christians nor as British citizens, but as West Indian ‘niggers" without anybody to be interested in nor look after us”.
Finally in 1918 in Taranto, Italy these black soldiers mutinied. They also formed a secret Caribbean League the goals of which were social reforms, West Indian unity and self- government for the colonies. These were the men who re-entered Trinidad after the war.

A final contributing factor was the race consciousness of the mass of working people which served as a militant defence mechanism against the oppression of white colonialism. The Garveyite movement was a very powerful force among African workers spreading its message through the illegal circulation of its newspaper THE NEGRO WORLD.

Among Indian workers, a similar consciousness had developed as they watched the unfolding anti-colonial an anti-indentureship struggle in India led by the Indian National Congress. Importantly, the growing race consciousness of African and Indian workers did not lead to conflict between these two groups as events later in the years would show.

Early in 1919, dockers, railwaymen, city council workers and electricity and telephone workers went out on strike. Asphalt workers struck and won a 33% increase in May, and by July both the American Consul and the French Creoles were uneasy about the building resistance movement among workers. The US diplomat expressed his concern to the State Department and group of leading white citizens wrote a “confidential” letter to the Governor calling for the arming of the white population and the creation of a unit of white regular troops.

They also expressed their concern over the disappearance of the division between Indians and Africans – a division which they had always promoted in order to ensure that workers never united against them.

The letter concluded as follows:

“One more point, in the years gone by the large East Indian indentured population numbering many thousands and largely under the control of their respective plantation owners was looked upon as a substantial safeguard against trouble with the negroes and vice versa. With the abolition of immigration such a counterpoise has ceased to exist and the “creole coolie ’ will either remain an interested spectator or join the mob.”

George F. Huggins, Chamber of Commerce heavyweight held
major interests on the Port of Spain waterfront.
Dockworkers were in the forefront of the strike wave
that rolled through Trinidad and Tobago leading up to
 the November 1919 general strike.
The letter was signed by George F. Huggins, C .de Verteuil, J. A. Smythe, A. S. Bowen, A. H. McLean and H. H. Pasea.

By November 1919 dockworkers were on strike again. Colonialism sought to break the strike by importing labour from Venezuela, Barbados and rural Trinidad. After three weeks on December 1st the dockers attacked the warehouses, ran off the scabs and marched on the city. Within days the entire country was seized by a general strike and colonialism was brought to its knees.

In Toco, Sangre Grande and San Fernando workers struck in what had become a political action. The worst fears of the French Creole were realised as Indian workers in Chaguanas and Couva joined cause with African workers against colonial oppression with one Indian worker being killed at Woodford Lodge.

In Tobago workers also rallied and attacked the Wireless Station in Scarborough where the police killed Nathaniel Williams, the leader.

Colonialism responded by creating a white volunteer force, the colonial vigilantes, comprising members mostly of the racist Union Club which today remains in existence.

Americans in the oil and asphalt industries were armed by the British and 360 British marines were called into the colony.

Refusing to accept that the uprising truly represented the sentiment of the mass of working people the Trinidad Guardian, true to its role of spokesman for the ruling elite contemptuously editorialised that, “it is a dreadful thing that an ignorant and naturally peaceful people should be so shamefully misled and deluded by a handful of gimcrack anarchists?”

It blamed small island immigrants for causing the trouble and called for the deportation of these 'scum of the wharves of the West Indies’”. The British also sought to control the situation by passing repressive laws such as the Strikes and Lockout Ordinance, the Industrial Court Ordinance and the Sedition Ordinance which made action by workers very difficult and often illegal.

Defeated for the moment, the workers' movement would rise again and continue to develop during the 1920’s. Another thrust for freedom would come in 1937. But the general strike and insurrection of 1919 was the first time in the history of the country that colonialism and the rule of the capitalist elite were shaken to their very foundations.

This would be repeated in 1937 and 1970. The political basis of the challenge of 1919 would be duplicated in 1937 and 1970 - the transformation of an economic struggle into one which had political goals, and the unity of ‘the African and Indian workers in defence of their class interests and in spite of cultural differences.

The events of 1919, therefore, marked the beginnings of independent working class political action which would lead ultimately to the death of colonial rule as one milestone in the long march of the working people out of slavery, through indenture and up to freedom.

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