1934: SUGAR WORKERS REVOLT

The article published here was written by Keith Look Loy and first published in two parts under the headline UP TO FREEDOM - OUR ROOTS in HOLD THE FORT (vol. 6. no. 4 November/December 1988 and Vol. 7 no 1. February/March 1989 , the newspaper of the now-defunct Committee for Labour Solidarity.

The article is re-published as part of the observation of Labour Month (June) as we move to celebrate June 19th, Labour Day, the day in 1937 that launched not only the modern trade union movement but was crucial in the struggle for democracy and independence. Another article published in honour of Labour Movement, also written by Keith Look Loy is published here under the headline 1919 GENERAL STRIKE - T&T's FIRST GENERAL STRIKE
 

Between May 1845 and July 1917 Indian immigrant workers were brought to Trinidad to labour on the sugar, cocoa and coconut estates of the big French Creole landlords.

With the abolition of slavery in 1838 the Africans chose to leave the plantation and to seek an independent existence in the interior of the island. In order to prevent the free African from escaping the domination of the planter class, laws were passed which made it extremely difficult for the ex-slaves to exist outside of the cash economy.

For example, all foodcrop producers were required to pay certain taxes. In addition, the cost of a plot of land was driven up to exorbitant levels by the planters. All of this meant that the African was forced to squat close enough to the plantation to take up occasional wage labour in order to pay taxes, buy goods and so on.

But the rationale behind slavery, and the source of the planters’ profits, was the absolute dependence of the plantation labour force on the planter, and his ability to exploit his workers mercilessly

Occasional labour by free Africans was too independent and it was not open to the brutal exploitation of slavery, and therefore the ruling classes looked elsewhere for a new rural labour force.

Having tried limited numbers of Portuguese, Africans from other West Indian islands and Chinese under an indentured labour scheme, the planters and their allies in the colonial state finally settled on India. This was because it had a vast population of millions of landless, oppressed peasants, many of whom were willing to come to Trinidad given the picture which was painted for them of the island being a new “promised land”.

Under the indentureship contract, these workers agreed to work for a specified number of years in return for specified wages and a free return passage to India. In the l880’s the free passage was exchanged for land.

Isolated on the plantation, and in a new and hostile environment, the Indian population became the ruling classes’ new slaves dominated and dependent in spite of their "free” status.

Various methods were used to keep the Indian worker in place, methods which had been refined under slavery. In the first place, harsh laws were applied to the Indian working class as a method of discipline.

For instance, absence from the plantation without a pass was punishable by imprisonment (and this pass system would later be applied to Africans in South Africa). One day’s wilful absence from work carried a fine of $2 or one month’s imprisonment; three days’ absence meant a fine of $5 or two months in jail.

If one failed to produce the relevant personal, and employment documents to a police constable the penalty was $1 or two weeks in jail. All of this was meant to keep the Indian on the plantation and force him to work.

But the planters had other ways of ensuring their domination. One of these was to ensure that State and plantation officials loyally performed their duties in the interest of the ruling classes. As one historian has written, “with few exceptions, the stipendiary magistrates, overseers, sirdars, and headmen appointed guardians of the system were invariably henchmen of the planters, some of the sirdars and headmen were open scoundrels who cared less for the interests of their countrymen than for the open enhancement of their own positions in the plantation hierarchy”


Newly arrived Indian immigrants gather at depot to be assigned to estates
Even the official Protector of Immigrants "fell prey to the power and whims of the planter because he was of the planter’s class and race and therefore identified more closely with the planter than the Indian”.

Finally, the planters used racial and ethnic divisions to ensure their domination. Africans were placed over Indians; Madrassis were given authority over men from Upper India and high caste Indians were put under the supervision of low caste drivers. The goal of this was obvious - the manipulation of racial and cultural divisions to undermine the ability of the exploited to unite against the exploiter.

Indians in India, in particular, waged a long struggle for the abolition of the indentureship system, and with the outbreak of World War I, finally in 1917 the scheme came to a halt. But the end of indentureship did not mean the end of exploitation of Indian labour just as the end of slavery did not mean true freedom for the African. Generally, the condition of the Indian population deteriorated after 1917.

This pauperisation affected the entire working population. Grinding poverty and brutal exploitation provoked the general strike and insurrection of 1919 and the urban working class embarked on a period of intense political organisation and activity. But what of the Indian, largely rural, workers!

During the 1920’s and 1930’s, in the absence of any legal constraints and given the possibilities presented by the global (and therefore local) depression, planters embarked on a policy of lengthening the hours and lowering the wages of Indian workers.

Having no legal responsibility for housing, they allowed the already poor condition of the estate barracks to deteriorate even further. Social conditions and terms of employment for the Indian working class descended to previously unseen levels.

The Moyne Commission, which investigated the situation in the West Indies after the regional insurrection of 1937-1938, had this to say regarding the health of Indian workers, "it appears from the evidence. that hookworm must be a major factor in reducing efficiency among the East Indian community. Generally, we understand that the Health Department, is tending more and more to the opinion that malaria and hookworm will be found to be the cause of the greater part of the debility and sickness in both East and West Indians in country districts”. In fact, the records show that infestation in Cunupia was 80%, the same in Caparo, Todd’s Road and Guaracara.

The same Commission referred to estate “housing” saying, “it is hardly too much to say that on some sugar estates the accommodation provided is in a state of extreme disrepair and thoroughly unhygienic”. They concluded that the fact remains that the present condition of a large section of agricultural workers justifies the view that many managements display a surprising indifference to the welfare of their labour”.

The combination of poor living and working conditions was one which had to provoke rebellion. It came in June and July of 1934. The revolt of 1934 was not the first time Indian workers had rebelled. The traditional grievances, size of the task, reductions h wages, victimisation, breaches of the indentureship contract and sexual exploitation of women, had always provoked resistance in the form of strikes, beatings of overseers and drivers and near rebellions.

As far back as 1847 an overseer was beaten on Carolina estate. In 1882 there were strikes on the Naparima and El Socorro estates, and in I890 a strike and near rebellion occurred at Golconda. In 1914 there was a revolt on the La Reunion estate and in 1919 Indian workers joined the African urban working class in open rebellion.

The emergence of clear Afro-Indian class unity in the general strike and insurrection of 1919 forced some of the major French Creole planters and merchants led by George F. Huggins to write to the Governor stating, "In years gone by the large East Indian indentured population, numbering many thousands and largely under the control of their respective plantation owners, managers and overseers, was looked upon as a substantial safeguard 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”

While the racism contained within this Statement is clear, as is the ruling class policy of promoting racial division, the letter reflected the state of panic into which the French Creole was thrown at the very thought of working class resistance.

The ruling class response to such resistance was, therefore, harsh and Indian workers who went on strike were usually imprisoned and then leaders deported to India. One such case involved a strike in Harmony Hall in 1900. The leader Daulat Singh was repatriated to India and sixty-four of the strikers were sentenced to twenty days in jail. But none of this could prevent the explosion of 1934, given the existing conditions.

For some time prior to June 1934, plantation owners had been retrenching workers due, they claimed, to extended drought which reduced the amount of work to be done. Those workers who were kept on faced increased task sizes while at the same time the managers began the practice of withholding the workers’ wages for as many as two to three weeks.

Given the reduced circulation of money, workers lost the credit that they had with village shopkeepers, and above all of this, the prices of necessary goods were rapidly increasing. In the face of their powerlessness, lacking any political or trade union organisations which could seriously take up their cause, Indian workers spontaneously rebelled.

Orange Grove sugar estate
Altogether, some fifteen thousand workers took part in an uprising which was limited mainly to County St. George East and the Central region. There was action at Orange Grove, Woodford Lodge, Frederick Settlement, Forres Park, Brechin Castle and Esperanza among other places.

The rebellion began with a demonstration by unemployed workers at Brechin Castle on July 6, 1934. Eight hundred workers from Esperanza and Brechin Castle (BC) mobilised to protest against two months of unemployment. Recognising the potential for major unrest, the Colonial state attempted to nip trouble in the bud and distributed $534.63 to "those in dire need”.

Predictably, instead of bringing m end to the building tension, this attempted bribe provoked more demonstrations because it failed to address the very real problems of workers. As the Port of Spain Gazette editorialised,  "On occasions of the kind, it should be the aim of sound and far-seeing statesmanship to provide not merely palliatives but really curative measures providing lasting results. To deal with the effects and leave the causes untouched seems merely putting off the evil day.”

Meanwhile by late July workers had gone beyond mere demonstration and had begun to attack managers and representatives of the planters. On Esperanza estate the manager (L.S. Dougall) and the overseer (A. E. Mitchell) were booth seriously injured.

At Caroni the offices were burnt and stoned. At Brechin Castle the driver and his son were beaten, and strikes broke out at Woodford Lodge, Forres Park, Sevilla and Esperanza among other estates.

At the Spring estate in Balmain the manager was attacked by women after he refused to reduce the size of the weeding task. And women did play an important role in the rebellion. In fact, there was one particularly militant woman leader whom the members of the radical Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association, supporters of the rebellion, named "Naidu” after Indian Congress member Sarojini Naidu.

By mid July the Indian working class had also resorted to hunger marches of both strikers and unemployed. An important development of class solidarity, these marches broke any attempt by the planters to pit employed against unemployed.

Estate Officers were attacked, homes of the rich were burnt, telephone wires were cut and shops looted. At Charlie Village, Chaguanas, St. Joseph, Todd’s Road and Freeport among other places, flour, saltfish, ground provisions, cakes and drinks were taken from shopkeepers. The Indian working class was unleashing all its fury at those who were responsible for its oppressed condition.

Inevitably, the ruling classes sought to repress the uprising. Hundreds were arrested, the numbers being so large that it was impossible to hold at Chaguanas in the station cells. Many were transferred to the Royal Gaol. A large number were fined between $5 and $10.

The colonial officials were convinced that this was the only effective way to handle the situation, an attitude summed up by Acting Governor Grier who said that "too much licence is given to agitators and to the press in the West Indies where the bulk of the people are excitable and inflammable."

As usual, a Commission of Enquiry was established to investigate the causes of the uprising and the ruling classes ensured that their views would be dominant by appointing representatives of the planters and business, such as M.A. Maillard (businessman), ].H. Taylor (manager of Orange Grove) J. Forbes (President of the Agricultural Society) and Seereram Maharaj (a big cane farmer and contractor).

There was no worker representation on the Commission. Captain AA. Cipriani was a member of the Commission but even he had been disregarded by the Indian workers during the struggle, and by this time he was at the rear of the developing workers’ movement and under challenge from more militant members of the Workingmen’s Association and workers generally.

The Report of the Commission agreed that Indian workers had legitimate grievances but refused to criticise the planters and their representatives. Refusing to accept the size of the task as a serious grievance, the Commission recommended the following.

1. An unemployment register in all counties.

2. A daily roll of all employment.

3. Closer checks on overseers

4. An effort to provide part-time employment.

5. Prompt payment of wages.

6. Improved mobility for the police.

The inclusion of the last recommendation in a report on the causes of the uprising clearly indicated the view of the ruling classes that the response of the Indian working class to just grievances was a security problem which needed, in the final analysis, a military response.

This was considered to be so, particularly since the 1934 rebellion confirmed the 1919 French Creole fear that the “creole coolie" was no longer content to accept oppression as the necessary price of one day returning to India with some accumulated wealth.

The 1934 uprising marked in the most serious way the full emergence of the Indian working class into the turbulent politics of the nation, and initiated the independent working class activity which was s major characteristic of the 1930‘s. The refusal of Indian workers to accommodate Cipriani and the Workingmen’s Association with their constitutional approach to social change signalled the end of the era of Cipriani’s domination of working class politics and entry into the period of militant action.

Out of this period has come the modem political arrangements we take for granted - the right to vote, legal trade unions, party politics and political independence.

Following upon this uprising; in 1935 Indian and African workers once again began to demonstrate and agitate against poor living and working conditions.

Hunger March 1935
In March 1935 oilworkers at the Apex fields stood up against the practice of “black balling” (banning of "trouble makers” by all oil companies), also staging a hunger march. In May, water and port workers went on strike. In August, the unemployed of Port of Spain staged a series of demonstrations in defence of their right to work. This trend would culminate in the general strike and insurrection of June 1937.

But the uprising of Indian workers in 1934 was a spontaneous action while it was instinctively anti-ruling class and anti-colonial, it had no organised structure and no political direction. Moreover while it drew the support of the African workers, it had no organised relationship with that section of the working class.

This would come in 1937 at the height of the workers political activity. Despite the constant attempts of the ruling classes under colonialism and since independence to destroy this tendency toward Afro-Indian working class unity it has refused to disappear, always seeking to reconstitute itself at times of crisis when the requirements of struggle demand solidarity
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