june 19th 1937: general strike and insurrection


by Gerry Kangalee

When striking oil workers gathered at Bhola’s Junction in Fyzabad on June 19th 1937 to listen to the Chief Servant, Uriah Butler, little did they know that day would go down in history as the most significant date in the shaping of modern Trinidad and Tobago.

The social, political and economic situation of the working class, whether African-descended or Indian-descended, had not changed substantially for a hundred years since the emancipation of the slaves in 1838.

Trinidad had been a crown colony since the British conquered it from the Spanish in 1797. This means it was ruled directly from London and there was not even pretence at representative government up until 1925, when the first elections were held in the colony of now Trinidad and Tobago under limited franchise.

The 1925 constitution provided for election of seven members in a legislative council which also consisted of six members nominated by the British Governor who generally were representatives of the planters, oil industry, chamber of commerce etc. and twelve government officials. Even so the Legislative council could only recommend laws to the governor who was not bound to accept their recommendations.

Because of the high property and income qualifications, less than seven per cent of the population was entitled to vote. Males over twenty one could vote, but women had to be over thirty and could not run as candidates in the election. The Trinidad
Captain Arthur Cipriani
Workingmen’s Association, which had led the 1919 general strike, and which was now under the leadership of Captain Cipriani contested the election.

It is clear that while Cipriani could use the council as a forum for TWA’s demands, there was no real channel for the political demands of the workers to be met. When this is added to the repressive laws against freedom of expression (sedition act, laws restricting cultural expression, laws prohibiting certain literature) and laws prohibiting the formation of trade unions until 1932, it can be appreciated that the working class was subjected to political and cultural repression.

In addition, workers were toiling daily under conditions of extreme exploitation. This exploitation worsened after the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 which affected the entire capitalist world. This led to the sugar workers’ revolt of 1934 and kicked off a period of strikes, hunger marches and demonstrations that climaxed in the general strike and anti-colonial revolt of 1937 which began on June 19th.

FIFTY YEARS OF PROGRESS, a magazine produced by the Oilfields Workers Trade Union, states: “Poverty was the rule rather than the exception, unemployment was, even in those days high. Workers slaved away in the producing fields and in the refineries, under backward and dangerous conditions. The work was hard since there were few machines to ease the burden of labour.

Working hours were long, many injuries to life and limb, and little or no compensation. Housing was a major problem, health services almost non-existent, and malnutrition rife. Wages were next to nothing, some workers only earning seven cents an hour.

In the words of one worker who wrote a heartfelt letter to the "PEOPLE" Newspaper: ‘For years now we have been appealing to them (the management of the Oil Companies} for more wages to meet the Cost of Living; and we want to make it known that it is not since the rise in the Cost of Living that our wages cannot meet our need but years before, and now it is worse through the increase in the Cost of Living.”

…The antagonism was heightened by the overt racist attacks on the workers by the white bosses and managers. This attitude was typified in the comment of one manager: “THESE BLACK DOGS ONLY BARK THEY CANNOT BITE." Total Subservience for the working class was the order of the day.”

This period saw the workers who had supported Cipriani since the 1920’s turn away from the “champion of the barefoot man” and seek more militant leadership. Cipriani urged the workers not to take militant action but to stick to constitutional measures under his leadership, but as was pointed out before, the constitution was horribly undemocratic and could not satisfy the cries of the workers.

Krishna Deonarine aka Adrian Cola Rienzi
New leaders like Adrian Cola Rienzi (Krishna Deonarine) and Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler came to the fore in the South and adopted militant approaches to try to force the colonial government and the employers to mitigate the conditions of the working class. In the North the Negro Welfare Social and Cultural Association (NWSCA) led by people like Elma Francois, Jim Barrette, Christina King and others organised
Jim Barrette
workers in the city. A National Unemployment Movement also developed

There were numerous strikes, marches and demonstrations during the nineteen thirties and particularly after 1934. Butler tirelessly traversed the oil belt; Rienzi formed the Trinidad Citizens’ League after a bitter breakup with Cipriani and the NWSCA was very active in the Port of Spain area.

The period was one of intense agitation, discussion and consciousness-raising as the message was rammed home that only militant action could advance the interests of the workers. It was a time of great political awakening and everyone expected that sooner or later there would be a social explosion. Workers demanded political representation; modern trade unionism and home rule or independence.

The authorities expected that Apex workers would go on strike on June 7th 1937…nothing happened. They prepared for June 16th…all was quiet. The strike was actually set for June 21st and the authorities became aware of this and moved armed re-inforcements to the South and began to detain and rough up workers seeking information. This forced Butler's hand  and in the early hours of June 19th, workers at the Apex oilfield in Fyzabad downed tools. Within a few hours the word was spread throughout the oil belt by workers moving on bicycles and by the time Butler emerged to address the workers on the evening of June 19th, the oilfields were all down.

During the meeting, Corporal Charlie King attempted to arrest Butler. “Shall I go, comrades?” asked Butler for whom there were
Uriah Butler
warrants for his arrest for sedition. The crowd, then, attacked the police and Charlie King (after whom the junction is now named) was killed. The police sent in a force under Inspector Bradburn to retrieve Charlie King’s body. Bradburn was shot and killed and the police were driven out of Fyzabad.

Within a matter of hours the strike and insurrection began to spread to all sectors of the economy and to all areas of the country. There were clashes with police, the militias and Bluejackets (British marines) who had been summoned to put down the insurrection. The armed forces of the state and the workers waged pitched battles in Point Fortin, San Fernando, Penal, Ste. Madeleine, Waterloo, Woodford Lodge, Port of Spain, Rio Claro, Dinsley Village, Palo Seco, Sangre Grande and other areas. Many workers were killed in these clashes. A worker named La Brea Charles was shot because he was taken for Butler who had gone into hiding.

Troop trains heading for South to pacify the situation were derailed, telegraph and telephone wires were cut, oil was thrown on to the roads to slow down troop movements, power stations were occupied, trees were used to block roads in rural areas, retail establishments were shut down, the Port of Spain waterfront workers came out, railway workers, small manufacturing, sugar cane workers, cocoa estate workers, tout bagai joined the struggle!

Useful information from the period
 is contained in this book
Trinidad became a war zone. The British military cordoned off entire villages and arrested all males over
Useful information on the period is contained
 in this book
fifteen. People were arrested, beaten and tortured; many of the leaders were arrested. It took nearly three thousand men to put down the insurrection. But the situation could never return to the status quo. Our country was changed forever.

Although a trade union ordinance has been enacted since 1932, few unions registered because Cipriani had dissuaded them from doing so because the law did not make allowance for peaceful picketing and there was no immunity from legal action taken against unions. By the time the insurrection was suppressed, many unions were formed and registered including the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union, the All Trinidad Sugar Estate and Factory Workers Trade Union, the Federated Workers Trade Union, the Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union and other unions.

The general strike and anti-colonial insurrection which began on June 19th 1937 ushered in not only the era of trade unionism and the recognition that there are something called workers’ rights; it ushered in a period where the ruling classes and the colonial authorities were forced to concede political rights, although very distorted, to working people and it set the stage for the flag independence of Trinidad and Tobago, although under the control of Eric Williams and the professional middle classes and not the working classes, but that is another story.