Dr. Fraser- Point of View
November 3, 2006

Remembering October 21, 1935

In recent times October 21st & 22nd have passed with a resounding silence that defies the significance of those days as anniversary dates of the 1935 riots. The truth is that it has been clouded by the emphasis we have placed on celebrating a month of independence. This is not to gainsay the importance of or the need to commemorate the milestone that was October 27th, 1979. Really what we need to do is to establish a link between the riots and independence and make October 21st & 22nd central to our independence anniversary celebrations. Kenneth John has for some time been making the point that the actual date on which we celebrate independence is a nondescript one that relates to nothing we know. It was, in fact, never made clear why that specific date was selected. Of course, today children who were born on that date have an additional reason to celebrate.{{more}}

The original intention was to foist independence on January 22, a date the colonials celebrated as ‘Discovery Day’ when the Geonese Admiral, Christopher Columbus was said to have reached this island, although we now know that this was never so. By then a growing number of Vincentians had begun to express their dissatisfaction with the recognition of January 22 which they considered a Eurocentric invention or perhaps intervention. In fact, a committee set up by the then Premier James Mitchell had listed that day, January 22nd as one to be removed from our calendar as a public holiday. It would have been a cruel joke if that date was to have retained significance in this way. There were many who suggested that independence be celebrated on October 21st, the day on which the riots started. There were, of course, still those persons who saw that day as a blot on the history of the country.

October 21st was the day on which working people gathered outside the Court House where the Legislative Council met to agree on new import bills that saw an increase in the price of matches and a reduction of the import duties on motor vehicles. Persons gathered to express their concerns and in some cases out of sheer curiosity. The working people had never demonstrated even a remote interest in the formal political process, one that was controlled by and worked in the interest of the propertied class. The working people, of course, were mostly unable to vote, not being able to meet the franchise requirements. The riot which started in the yard of the Court House was a spontaneous affair. It was unplanned but nonetheless marked a significant turning point in the affairs of the country. There were no leaders but leaders emerged, among them Sheriff Lewis and Bertha Mutt, working class persons. George McIntosh’s role was a mediating one. The working people looked up to him and called on him to take their concerns to Governor Grier. He had always made himself available to listen to their concerns especially those who patronised his pharmacy after market on Saturdays. Noise from the Courtyard interrupted the proceedings of the Council and Governor Grier went downstairs to try to speak to the people and calm the situation. Matters soon got out of hand. It is difficult to pinpoint precisely what triggered off the events although some have pointed to the shooting of John Bull by one of the country’s bigwigs. But the discontent was already boiling over when this incident took place.

The working people knew more than ever before that what took place in those ‘hallowed chambers’ was important. The events that followed shocked the governor and made the political and colonial elite take note that there was a large section of the population that had been unrepresented in those chambers and whose concerns were consequently neglected, that is, if they were ever considered. The Governor’s response said it all. He promised to provide work on roads to be constructed in the leeward area. He vowed to ensure that the Minimum wage order was carried out to the letter. Later he took up the issue of making land available and tried to ensure the speeding up of constitutional reform. The crowds on that day shouted their concerns to the Governor; ‘we cannot stand any more duties on our food and clothes”; “we have no work to do”; “we are hungry”; “Something will happen in this town today if we are not satisfied”; and something did happen, something that took the governor completely by surprise.

The governor’s promises were too late. St.Vincent joined British Honduras and St.Kitts, countries that already had serious disturbances in 1934 and 1935 respectively. This pattern was to continue and almost all colonies of the English-speaking Caribbean at some point up to 1938 experienced serious disturbances/riots that began to rock the colonial regime. The old colonial system was creaking at different points and the widespread protests alarmed not only the local officials but also the British government. The British Government’s answer was a familiar one, setting up a Commission of Inquiry that produced a blue print that was to guide colonial policy, part of which began even before the report of the Commission was made public.

After 1935 the concerns of working people took the spotlight as a number of issues affecting them were placed on the front burner. Some of the priority issues centred around measures to improve the conditions of the working class, to provide easier access to land and to speed up constitutional reform, a matter of interest to their middle class allies. The Representative Government Association that had since 1919 fought for constitutional advance and had had some measure of success, limited as it might have been, gave way to the Working Men’s Association. This patterned itself after similar bodies in Grenada and Trinidad and was a creation of George McIntosh who after the enthusiastic reception given to him on the dismissal at the preliminary hearing of the charges laid against him, decided to tap the energies of the people into an organisation that was much more progressive and people based. Between 1937 and 1951 the Working Men’s Association dominated the Legislative Council and raised and fought for matters that were of concern to working people. Foremost among these was the issue of land settlement and the right of the so-called Shakers people to practise their religion in the way they knew and wanted to.

The rebellion of the 1930s is seen as marking the beginning of the democratic revolution and the introduction of Adult Suffrage in 1951 was a significant milestone. Although independence was not raised as an issue in itself the ground work was laid with the call for a Federation accompanied by significant constitutional reform. The 1935 riots might have been considered by the authorities as a significant stain on the island’s history but it put the limelight on the working people and started a process that was to have borne fruit in 1979.