Another October 21 has passed like any normal weekend with little mention of the importance of that date in our anti-colonial calendar and the political and constitutional progress of our country and its people.
Once more I wish to emphasize that the information contained in this series in relation to the events of 1935, is based on an extensive interview with “Sheriff” Lewis on the 40th anniversary of the 1935 uprising. It is a precious opportunity because on the one hand there are no existing tapes of the interview, only notes and witnesses, and on the other because “Sheriff” died after being struck by a vehicle on Back Street, Kingstown, on July 14, 1978. The man who led the revolt and who survived a long jail sentence and exile to Grenada, died on the streets of Kingstown, largely ignored by the mass of our people primarily because they knew nothing about him.
We left off last week with “Sheriff” and his colleagues unable to see the British Governor to air their grievances. They retreated to their hideout, the “Ranch” as it was called, to discuss what next because, according to “Sheriff”, “something had to be done about the situation”. Here, “Sheriff” demonstrated his leadership capacity. He told us that he gave instructions as follows:
Some men were to go to the Arrowroot Pool and urge the women working there to stop working. This was done.
Next, two men were to go to Sion Hill to try and prevent any traffic (very little in those days) from coming into town. Instructions were given to urge schools to close down and even to the Prisons to free prisoners, since, in “Sheriff’s words again, “slavery was over”.
There were reports of workers at the Cotton Ginnery walking off the job, but I am not clear whether “Sheriff” and his cohorts had anything to do with it.
Significantly though, “Sheriff” when asked what the purpose of these planned actions was, explained that it was “to bring the whole town to a standstill until the Governor could tell us something about employment and withdraw the taxes”.
If ever there was a refutation about the insistence that October 21, 1935, was nothing but an unruly riot, here is some clear purpose to actions planned. No doubt in the ensuing melee, there were excesses on both sides, but the so-called “rioters” never killed anyone, never shot anyone. The same cannot be said of the other side. It is clear that the idea was to get the Governor to withdraw the planned tax increases and to do something about alleviating the poverty and hardship of the people. These men, and women, with limited education, had the courage to stand up.
Very often, because of their lowly social status, the level of understanding of social and political affairs of working people is underestimated in the wider society and they are considered mere followers of “better off people”. It is a fatal mistake often repeated. In the height of the Black Power days, the upper and middle classes could not credit black youth for standing up for their rights, their explanation was that they were being “misled by University graduates”. How wrong they were then, as in 1935!
“The highlight of the evening was the feature address given by Comrade Ralph (Gonsalves)…In the 1935 People’s Uprising, he stated, the masses provided its own leaders including such persons as “Sheriff” (Lewis)…” Quote taken from FREEDOM newspaper, August 8, 1975.
The unrest was rooted in the material conditions as spontaneous acts of rebellion in the country followed reports of developments in Kingstown. The leaders of the rebellion were rounded up, arrested, tried and received heavy jail sentences of up to 45 years. The 12 considered “most dangerous” were even exiled to jail in Grenada.
Yet by the next year, the colonial government, shaken by the revolt in SVG and other islands, increased the number of elected (by a minority group) seats in the Legislative Council by two seats. With even larger rebellions in other countries in 1937 and 1938, after the war, the British Government was forced to concede Adult Suffrage, one person one vote. Ministerial government was to follow in 1957, leading up to first, Associate Statehood and then Independence in the next two decades.
For these achievements, men and women fought and died, were jailed and brutalized, shot in Kingstown and Questelles. We cannot deny the significance of these events nor hide behind, “unruly riots”. Colonial plunder, slavery and genocide were not only unruly, but they were also illegal and deadly. We must not be ashamed to recognize the efforts of brave men and women with very limited means, but courageous enough to challenge the might of the colonial government. “Sheriff’ Lewis was no Nelson Mandela, no Martin Luther King, but just as possessed with the desire to improve the lot of his people. We can at least acknowledge that.
We owe it to our reclamation of OUR Story to fittingly honour the date October 21, 1935, and the role played by those who stood up and demanded and suffered for it.
I end as I started, by quoting Lord Hawke’s immortal calypso, “It does really hurt me as man, to hear dem calling Paul’s Lot De Slum”. Challenges to colonial rule, be it George McIntosh, “Sheriff” Lewis or Bertha Mutt, emanated from there as well.
- Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.