Since the declaration of October as the month of Independence, little attention has been paid to the St. Vincent Riots of October 21 & 22, 1935. The uprising of working people here was the third of a number that took place throughout the region in the 1930s, “the 1930s Revolution” as Hilary Beckles called them. The riots and disturbances that rocked the Caribbean helped to awaken the British government to the plight of the working people and to pave the way for constitutional development leading to Adult Suffrage in 1951, in the case of SVG and the smaller colonies and to a federation of the colonies in 1958, despite it being short-lived. Those two days are therefore of great significance and bear testimony to the power of the people.
When it was known that October was to be our month of Independence, I had hoped for October 21, highlighting the day on which the working people struck a blow against colonialism.
There were no organised working people groups in St. Vincent, but they knew that what was taking place in the Legislature was going to affect them and they turned out to follow what was happening.
Today, 21st October would be 87 years since they gathered at the yard of the Court House where a meeting of the Legislature was taking place, to express their dissatisfaction over a Customs Amendment Law, Minimum Wage Bill and a Workingmen’s Compensation Law. It all started on Friday, 18th October when two revenue generating bills were read. Among the items on which the increased duties were to be raised was matches. The price of matches was to go from three boxes for a penny to one box a penny.
While increased duties were placed on other items like beer and cigarettes used by working people, the reduction of import duties on motor vehicles showed a high degree of insensitivity to the plight of the working people who were experiencing severe financial difficulties.
Some persons had approached George McIntosh who was a pharmacist, his drug store being near to the market. He was a member of the Representative Government Association and was considered a champion of the working people. At the meeting of the Legislature on 21st October McIntosh took a letter to the governor asking for an interview to represent the concerns of different people.
The governor indicated that he would see him at 5. The crowd had grown in the yard of the Court House, and they were not prepared to accept the governor’s word that he would meet them at 5 because they expected that he would then be on his way back to Grenada where he was based.
The majority of persons at the Courtyard were women with stones, sledgehammers,cutlasses and knives. Joining the crowd were members of the Ranch, a club at Paul’s Lot that included Sheriff Lewis, Martin Durham and Donald Peters. The noise coming from the Courtyard forced the governor to suspend the session and to go downstairs. He was met with cries of “We can’t Stand any more duties on our food and clothes!” “We want work!” “We are hungry!”
“Something will happen in this town today if we are not satisfied!”
The Times newspaper described the scene; “Sticks and other weapons were brandished over the heads of the Governor and Administrator . . . The Attorney General was given two cuffs by one who alleged that he was kicked by him.”
The situation then got out of hand with doors and windows of the courthouse being smashed as were cars of the governor and other members of Council. Police were called in, while some of the crowd had gone to the Middle Street and began attacking the
Liquor and Dry goods stores of Corea who they associated with the measures introduced into the Legislative Council.
Other disturbances took place near to the Guides Hut, at Cane Garden and later at Georgetown and Byera. On the following day when it was assumed that the rioting was over, it actually shifted to Camden Park with the stoning of the business place and home of John DeSousa of Portuguese origin.
DeSousa had lent a box of bullets to Syl DeFreitas who was a member of the volunteer force. Was this to shoot black people they asked? DeSousa was carried through the cane fields and down the river where he was able to get a boat to take him to Kingstown.
The issue of race was introduced because of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) Developments were followed by way of the cable board outside the Cable Office. Their sympathies lay with the people of Abyssinia.
Sheriff Lewis at a meeting discussing the Italian invasion vowed to fight with the Abyssinians and became known after as “Haile Selassie!” While in other Caribbean countries the disturbances/riots were associated with the estates or oil fields as is the case with Trinidad, in St. Vincent it was sparked by a meeting of the Legislative Council. Let us not forget that our fore parents had stood up and let their feelings be known!
Future constitutional, political and social developments owed much to the fortitude of our working people.
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian