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posted 27 Jun 2014, 21:39 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 15 Jul 2014, 12:09 ]

Arthur L. Mcshine
On Tuesday 24 June 2014 at NALIS in Port of Spain, a book by Arthur L. Mc Shine was launched describing some of the exploits of Captain Andrew Arthur Cipriani one of our country’s foremost anti-colonial politicians, fighters and advocate for working peoples’ rights. The book is titled “VICTORY AT DAMIEH – CIPRIANI'S SOLDIERS IN PALESTINE. 

Cipriani’s exploits in the first World War which began in 1914 is covered in Arthur Mc Shine’s book as well as some important speeches made by Cipriani which will certainly be an eye opener for many students of our history 

The author Arthur L. Mc Shine is a descendant of the Mc Shines and Pujadas who like Cipriani were anti-colonial fighters and associates of Cipriani in his struggles against discrimination, crown colony rule and for the improvement of the lives of workers. Mc Shine was educated at Queens Royal College, did editing for a PAHO conference, was a fellow at Princeton University and contributed articles to the
Trinidad and Tobago Review. He is also a board member of TTARP. 

The book is very informative and provides a bit of war history unknown to Trinbagonians. In addition to Cipriani’s fight against the British in defence of West Indian soldiers, he was successful in persuading the military officers to have the West Indian soldiers engage in combat which proved decisive in the victory over the occupying Ottoman Turks in Damieh, Palestine during the First World War 

McShine’s research came up with some astonishing surprises. Two of which were Cipriani’s association with the famed Lawrence of Arabia and his encounter with Sir Hubert Young who eventually became Governor of Trinidad and Tobago. Both were instrumental in the division of the Arab World which up to the present time is a source of violent conflict. 

In the second part of the book the author reprinted some of the famous speeches of Captain Cipriani in his battles against colonial rule and discrimination against citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. This section of the book with the fiery speeches is great reading for students of Trinidad and Tobago’s history. 
Speakers at the launch were the author who gave brief but interesting aspects of the book. The Chairman of proceedings was Cecil Paul former 1st Vice President of the OWTU and now Vice President of National Workers Union (NWU). 

Paul congratulated the author and made the historical connection of Cipriani with TUB Butler, Adrian Cola Rienzi (Krishna Deonarine) Jim Barrette, Elma Francois and Christina King the anti-colonial and freedom fighters of the period. They all had their disagreements with Cipriani and went on to form their own organizations and made valuable contributions to the development of the modern working class and trade union movement in Trinbago. 

Professor Emeritus Bridget Brereton of the University of the West Indies gave an account of books dealing with the struggles of Captain Cipriani by authors like Bukka Rennie and CLR James. However she said none of the authors have dealt with his life in a detailed manner. She announced that she is currently working on the introduction of a reprint of the CLR James book “The life of Captain Cipriani”. 

Attorney at Law Vashist Maharaj, a close relative of politician and representative of that period, Chanka Maharaj dealt with some of the contradictions in the ideology of Captain Cipriani and quoted extensively from statements made by Cipriani. He also read statements made about Cipriani during the heyday of the Captain’s struggles. 
At the ending of the launch, the author reflected on his work on the book and those he came in contact with while doing his research. He also read messages and commendations from military officers Major General Ralph Brown, and former lieutenant Raffique Shah. Noted national historical author Fr. Anthony de Verteuil also sent congratulations to Arthur Mc Shine on his informative piece of work.


by Raffique Shah


My apologies for not being present with you at the launch of Arthur McShine’s ‘Victory at Damieh’.


I commend Mr McShine for having the foresight to produce a publication that deals with aspects of the First World War that are relevant to us in Trinidad and Tobago during the centenary year of the Great War that was touted as ‘the war to end all wars’. One hundred years later, we know that not only did the Great War spawn an even bigger and more barbaric sequel (World War II), but that warfare seems to be part of the DNA of mankind, that world history is written in the blood of mainly young men who are made to fight wars devised by older men.

But I digress. The book ‘Victory at Damieh’ records the role played by troops of the British West Indies Regiment in a decisive battle in the Middle East theatre of the First World War. The author tells us that Captain Cipriani had to lobby to have the BWIR (British West Indies Regiment) troops engage in combat against forces of the Ottoman Empire, which was a hell of a thing—soldiers fighting for the right to fight!

That, however, was reality in the skewed world 100 years ago. In a war that would result in the deaths of an estimated 10 million combat personnel and seven million civilians, the Allies were not inclined to allow black soldiers to fight against white men. These trained men, who had volunteered for battle, were consigned to peeling potatoes, digging trenches, hauling artillery and lending logistical support—only because of their race.

Interestingly, other WIR troops had already engaged in combat action against the Germans in West and East Africa (Cameroons, Kenya, Tanganyika), with some soldiers distinguishing themselves by bravery.

In Palestine, as the author of this book records, it was different. When, grudgingly, the British high command allowed them the opportunity at Damieh, they fought doggedly against the seasoned Turks, and were part of a larger force that triggered the retreat and eventual routing of the enemy, the beginning of the end of four years of brutal war.

The book highlights the pivotal part played by Captain Cipriani in getting the BWIR troops on the front line. Caribbean troops deployed in the European theatre of that war faced similar discrimination. In fact, the book refers to an incident in Taranto, Italy, that occurred shortly after the war had ended. West Indian soldiers found themselves doing menial tasks—loading ammunition, cleaning latrines, etc. The breaking point came when white British soldiers were awarded a pay hike and blacks were excluded.

Led by a group of sergeants, the West Indian soldiers mutinied. In the aftermath, many of the leaders were jailed and the WIR troops were denied the honour of participating in the victory parade. They returned to the Caribbean and demobilised. They were also demoralised—no jobs, no housing, nothing.

It was against that background and such discriminatory treatment that some of these ex-soldiers became champions of the people in the struggle to dismantle colonialism. Cipriani in Trinidad emerged as the ‘champion of the barefoot man’. Norman Manley, an artillery gunner from Jamaica, would likewise lead the anti-colonial movement there and later become Jamaica’s first prime minister. And Grenadian soldier Uriah Butler would migrate to Trinidad to work in the oilfields and give birth to the trade union movement in 1937.

This book does not detail these peripheral but important sequels to what happened in Palestine in the First World War. The author confines his focus to Captain Cipriani and his troops and the battle at Damieh. He focuses, too, on the introduction of the then superior Lewis machine gun that gave the Allied forces an advantage.

He weaves into the story two other personalities, one the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, the other Sir Hubert Young. Post-war, these two men would be assigned to carve up much of the Middle East and North Africa into countries and colonies with arbitrary borders that to this day remain contentious. Lawrence left his mark in the Arab world and Young would end up Governor of Trinidad and Tobago. His wife carved her name into our landscape — think Lady Young Road.

Outside of the war, Mr McShine’s book comprises a selection of Cipriani’s speeches. The Captain, who went on to be the first populist political leader of the 20th Century, was no intellectual. But from what CLR James wrote, he was a great orator and fighter for the downtrodden...until he was overtaken by history, displaced by Butler.

His speeches are important when placed in an historical context, not in the pantheon of intellectual contributions. Recently, I re-read Dr Eric Williams’ ‘Massa Day Done’ for the umpteenth time, and I was enthralled as ever by its depth,  his wit, and his ability to command the attention of a large partisan crowd in a politically-charged environment with so much pedantic material.

Cipriani was not from that stratosphere. But he could nevertheless move the masses, and that is what mattered in a legislature dominated by the Governor and agents of the Crown. His was the voice or the ordinary citizen who did not yet have the vote, far less a say in his own affairs.

Mr McShine did well to re-publish some of his speeches at this time when, sadly, mudslinging and superficiality are all we get from today’s politicians.

Being a student of military history and a trained soldier, I expected to find in the book more details of the actual Battle of Damieh—strategy, tactics, commanders deploying their troops and armaments on the battlefield. Cipriani was a captain, so he must have had a battalion commander, an overall field commander, and so on.

His subordinates—NCOs and junior officers—will have played some part in that battle and in the lead-up to it. Most battles are won by these lesser mortals who, in any event, conduct most of the fighting. It is they, not the generals, who man the machine guns, engage in frontal assault, engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat.

Bear in mind that was an era in which bayonet charges were still commonplace, when the cavalry meant horses (and camels in the desert), when infantrymen trekked on foot for hundreds of miles as they pursued the enemy. Tanks and motorised divisions were unknown to man, and jet fighters and bombers were only ideas.

In so many ways, the battlefields were primitive.

I was disappointed to find little or no mention of Cipriani’s soldiers or greater details of the Battle of Damieh. I know accessing such information is a huge challenge for writers and researchers. Still, now that the book is in print, I hope Mr McShine musters the courage and finds the time to do a second edition that will contain these missing elements.

What the book exposes, though, is our near-complete ignorance of our own military history. That thousands of West Indians were involved in the First World War, many of them seeing combat and more than a few dying on battlefields far from home, is unknown to almost everyone in this country. Even serving soldiers do not have this sense of history, and here I speak from personal experience.

On Remembrance Day every November, when we adorn ourselves with poppies and parade at the Cenotaph at Memorial Park, do we really understand the homage we pay to those who fell in two world wars?  Do we know how critical Trinidad’s oil and aviation fuel were to the Allied war machine in World War II? Are we aware that the Gulf of Paria, the biggest natural harbour in these parts, was the assembly point for huge convoys of vessels that transported food and war materiel from South America and the Caribbean to a besieged Britain?

In the Second World War, many more sons and daughters of this country fought bravely against fascism, only to find themselves prisoners of imperialism after the Allied forces had vanquished the axis of Germany, Italy and Japan.

Ironically, in the immediate aftermath of that war, Germany, Italy and Japan became more important to the USA, Britain and Western Europe than colonies such as Trinidad and Tobago. Because that war was followed by the so-called Cold War that pitted the communist Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies against the West, the enemies of yesterday, Germany, Italy and Japan, received more monetary aid than colonies such as ours that sacrificed so much and contributed even more to stave off the march of fascism.

Mr McShine’s book is a small effort to capture a miniscule part of our military and political history. We need many more people like him who are prepared to do the necessary research and who have the courage to document our history. More than that, institutions such as our universities and the relevant ministries and agencies must support such exercises, which, I can tell you, are time consuming and call for much sacrifice.

I commend Mr McShine for having written, compiled and published ‘Victory at Damieh’. I hope it inspires him to improve on his own book, and it inspires others to document so much of our history that is unrecorded.