Remembering the Riots of 1935 (Continued from last week)
Dr. Fraser- Point of View
September 29, 2023

Remembering the Riots of 1935 (Continued from last week)

Reflecting on the riots and disturbances of the 1930s, I had written elsewhere (The 1935 Riots in St Vincent) “The disturbances of the 1930s in the Caribbean marked a significant turning point in the development of the British colonies.

For St Vincent, as with other British colonies, it signalled a new phase that ended with the introduction of adult suffrage in 1951. The governor’s belated acknowledgement, at the time of the riots, that there was a section of the population not represented in the legislative council was critical to what followed. The constitutional and political developments leading to adult suffrage in 1951 provided the context for and shaped other important developments, particularly in religion, education, labour, and land settlement. Adult Suffrage brought a new momentum and different dynamics to the life of the country, and, to this extent, the period between 1935 and 1951, when a number of critical things were put in place, can be considered a watershed.”

Central to what happened in St Vincent and in the rest of the British colonies in the region was the role of George McIntosh with the formation of his St Vincent Workingmen’s Association in 1936. St Lucian born economist and later recipient of a Nobel Prize in Economics Arthur Lewis had written and had published in 1939 following the regional disturbances a Fabian Society pamphlet ‘Labour in the West Indies: The birth of a Workers Movement’. He had the following to say about the St Vincent Workingmen’s Association, “In three short years the Association has become the focus of radical opinion in St Vincent and a body of great political influence. It is not registered as a trade union, but it represents the workers in all negotiations. It has also attracted wide middle-class support, and its candidates were enthusiastically returned at the last General Election. It is one of the new organisations which is changing the orientation of West Indian politics.” (21)

When the Workingmen’s Association was formed there were no labour unions/organisations in St Vincent. What was being developed was an alliance between workers and the progressive forces in the society. As W Arthur Lewis saw it, the Labour Movement was on the march. Hilary Beckles went further and made the point that “British policies of prior centuries had bonded a generation of grieving workers and peasants and discontented professionals.” Governor Grier was clearly out of touch when he singled out George McIntosh as the main figure behind the riots, believing that workers had to rely on a mastermind to stage what took place on October 21 & 22. There was no investigation into the St Vincent riots, the colonial authorities depending on the views of the governor. The fact that disturbances took place in a number of colonies convinced the authorities to undertake further investigation and so a Commission known as the Moyne Commission was set up to investigate conditions in the colonies and to identify the causes of the disturbances. The Commission recognised that what was at play was “a positive demand for the creation of new conditions that will render possible a better and less restricted life. It is the coexistence of this new demand for better conditions with the unfavourable economic trend that is the crux of the West Indian problem of the present day.” Yet the response to the outbursts of the 1930s was a focus on social welfare rather than on economic development.

Hilary Beckles made the point that this period following the riots saw the leadership of the workers movement determining the “general direction of regional politics.” McIntosh and the Workingmen’s Association had become a critical part of the movement. He was one of the delegates at the launching of the Caribbean Labour Congress in Barbados in 1945. Although there was a push for a literary provisio as part of Adult Suffrage, McIntosh was against that and argued for Adult Suffrage without any qualification. As part of his involvement in the labour movement in 1949 he addressed a meeting at Woodford Square in Trinidad that was called by the Trinidad Labour Party. He used the occasion to strongly condemn the restriction placed on the movement of labour leaders throughout the region.

He was also strongly behind the movement for a Federation of the Colonies as a move to independence. The federation that was established in 1958 was short-lived, leading to the push by Jamaica for independence and Eric Williams ‘new mathematics’ that declared one from 10 left naught, a signal for Trinidad and Tobago’s own emergence as an independent state. The smaller colonies looked for different options, but a way was provided when the United Nations general assembly in 1960 declared that size should not be an impediment to Independence. This led to a movement for independence with St Vincent receiving its own in 1979 as the new state of St Vincent and the Grenadines.

The disturbances of the 1930s that included St Vincent’s riots of October 21 & 22 1935 helped to transform the old colonial empire and push the move to dismantle that empire. It also emphasized the critical role of the working class and its progressive allies as the movers of that new thrust. We have for a long time paid little attention to what happened on those two days, a time that is significant in that the working people used a meeting of the Legislative Council debating taxation measures to show their dissatisfaction and to signal that they would be in the forefront of a new thrust that led to the dismantling of the colonial empire for most of the former British colonies. Let us begin to pay more attention to those two days when the working people took things into their own hands and challenged the state.


l Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian