Remembering ‘Sheriff’ and company
R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
October 20, 2023

Remembering ‘Sheriff’ and company

Part 2 of ‘It does really hurt me.’

I concluded last week with a spirited defence of the 1935 uprising in St Vincent and the Grenadines, a rebellion de facto against British colonial rule, which while one of the earliest in the region, was replicated in almost every British colony in the Caribbean. Clearly, by their very nature, and indeed the response of the colonial government and the plantocracy, these were not considered as any mere rabble-rousing riots. The heavy jail sentences of up to 45 years alone would suggest otherwise, those were sentences reserved only for such acts as attempted overthrow of the system.

I believe that the events of October 21, 1935, right here in SVG were what motivated our Prime Minister to call for a nation-wide mobilization and organization of cultural and sporting events in every community this weekend. I don’t know how far the organizers have gotten with this or to what extent the significance of the occasion has been understood, appreciated, and taken into consideration.

That date is a momentous one in our political evolution. In spite of attempts to denigrate the events and the chief instigators, it was October 1935 and the actions of oppressed people, not just in Kingstown, not just in Paul’s Lot, but in Campden Park, Questelles, Barrouallie, Stubbs/Victoria Village, and Byera to give some examples, which led to actions of the colonial government to appease the oppressed people. We shall look at these in the concluding article in this series.

Samuel “Sheriff” Lewis, alias “Selassie”

Readers of my column would know that the name Samuel “Sheriff” Lewis crops up quite often. I feel quite sure that there are some who wonder why I sing the praises of someone who is treated as a nonentity, one of the Paul’s Lot so-called “rabble”, responsible for that “riot” of 1935 for which our legislators apologized profusely to the colonial government. So, who was he?

I must say that I am eternally indebted to the late trade unionist and anti-colonial fighter Caspar London for opening my eyes to the reality of October 1935. He didn’t just do it by providing me with documentation, I had the privilege of interviewing the “Sheriff” himself 40 years later, together with Caspar, and an entirely different picture emerged. I confess that I am no trained historian or researcher, but we had to take advantage of the precious opportunity. I don’t know how many people had that privilege.

“Sheriff’ told us that he was born on December 25, 1905, in Maloney Village in the Buccament valley. He attended primary schools in Buccament and Layou up to Class 6, meaning that, as was the practice in those days, crucially, he learnt to read. Thousands of other working people all over SVG were not so fortunate. Following the death of his mother, he went to live with a woman in Kingstown whom he described as the “half-sister” of his father. After doing odd jobs, he sought employment abroad as many others of the age did, working in Cuba and Santo Domingo, and travelling with his “bossman” to Puerto Rico and St Thomas. From his travels he gleaned one important lesson – everywhere he went, the situation of black people was the same, at the bottom of the economic and social ladders.

On his return home, 1935 was to be a pivotal one for him. Early in the year the Grenadian anti-colonialist and ardent Caribbean nationalist, Theodore Albert Marryshow, one of the advocates of Caribbean unity in a Federation, visited SVG and gave a lecture on the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. According to “Sheriff”, Marryshow ended by saying that our people go abroad to fight for white people in wars, and challenged who among the crowd would volunteer to go to Ethiopia and fight for black people. “Sheriff’ said that he volunteered, even saying that “From this date I am no more “Sheriff’, call me “Selassie”.

“Sheriff’ went on to explain that next to the Hinds building on Back Street in Kingstown there was an old building, the “Ranch”, where he and a few others used to hang out when they couldn’t get work, play cards and dominoes, (no doubt drink some rum
too), but importantly to also discuss prominent developments. If they got their hands on any reading material, those like him, would read aloud for the others.

Thus, it was on the morning of October 21, 1935, when there were strong rumours that at a time of high unemployment, the Governor was coming from Grenada and that the Legislative Council was going to raise taxes on a number of items affecting poor people, including kerosene oil and matches. What could poor people do? It was suggested that they should go to speak to the Governor to ask him how they could raise taxes when poor people couldn’t get work to do.

But as one of the leaders Donald “Poor Fellow” Romeo, remarked at their trial, they realized they could not go to the Council “because my class too poor”. What could be done in the circumstances? They approached the “People’s Tribune” George McIntosh to act on their behalf but given his reluctance to play an active part they tried to return to the Courtyard but were prevented from entering.

(Final installment next week)


  • Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.