R. Rose
October 21, 2005
Not even after 70 years

Some 70 years ago, St. Vincent and the Grenadines experienced a social explosion brought about by years of colonial oppression, slavery, plantation servitude, racism and the abject neglect of the welfare of thousands of exploited people. It was the classic confrontation between oppressor and oppressed, lord and servant, exploiter and exploited, figuratively caused by the explosive combination of matches and kerosene. Why matches and kerosene? Because these staple items of providing energy, since most households had no electricity, were among a number of goods on which the colonial administration had chosen to raise taxes.{{more}}

It must be remembered that in October 1935, democracy as we know it now was non-existent. Sure, there was a legislative body, the Legislative Council, but since adult suffrage (one person, one vote) was unheard of that apology for a Parliament was dominated by the planter and commercial big-wigs, working in collaboration with the colonial government. The vast majority of the people were excluded from proceedings; they had NEITHER FACE NOR VOICE. They were not represented in Council, yet were governed by its decrees. This was what the American people had rebelled against, violently and successfully, 160 years before, “Taxation without representation.”

But it was standard practice in the Caribbean. There was a colonial administrator and occasionally the Governor of the Windward Islands would put in an appearance, listening to the grievances of the tiny minority which occupied the seats on the Council. For the rest, it was a shut-out. Just check this excerpt from the famous trial of George McIntosh, then the champion of the masses, who was charged with sedition as a result of the rebellion of October 21, 1935:

Prosecutor: Do you attend these meetings (of the Legislative Council)?

Donald Romeo: No, I can’t.

Prosecutor: When the Governor comes here, people who have grievances would like to see him?

Romeo: People of my type have obstacles put in the way, My class is too poor. We can’t see him.

That was the political reality of the time. The economic and social realities were equally disgraceful. The plantation owners ruled the roost, lording it over a system that one writer of the day described as “semi-feudal capitalist exploitation,” the rural poor literally tied to massa’s fiefdom, and those in Kingstown barely any better off. Child labour, illiteracy, hunger, disease, “tobo and yaws” characterized life of the day. Commenting on living conditions of the time, the Moyne Commission, sent out by Britian in 1938 to investigate the causes of the rebellion said:

“… in the poorest parts of most towns and in many of the country districts, a majority of the houses is largely made of rusty corrugated iron and unsound boarding … sanitation in any form and water supply are unknown in such premises.”

In other words the material conditions were present to bring about a social conflagration. All it took was the matches and kerosene… And, THE PEOPLE. Because in spite of their abject poverty and oppression, among many of the downtrodden, there was no poverty of the spirit. With no apparent saviour in sight, the people took matters into their own hands, rallied around their own leaders in the persons of Samuel “Sheriff” Lewis, Bertha Mutt and others and stormed the colonial bastions. It is an event in history which was to have far-reaching consequences. That role of the working people is often ignored by those who choose to downplay its significance, given their contempt for the “common people”. Whether it is the colonial government of the thirties who chose to ascribe all the “riot” and “wrong-doing” to that anti-colonial activist, George McIntosh or those of the 1981 who saw “communist agitation “behind the “Kill the Bills” manifestation or those of the 21st century who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge and recognize the role of the workers and farmers in the mass movement of 2000 (the ODD led demonstration), there is the same fundamental flow in analysis.

As long ago as 1935, our people made themselves subjects of history, not mere objects. Their actions, before those of “more developed” workers’ organizations in Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados or Guyana, served as the catalyst to the dismantling of the colonial planter alliance which had dominated social, economic and political life in SVG. It was because of 1935 that the middle class expanded, became “Grammar School Boys” and “High School Girls”, received education and social acceptance (to some extent). October 21 1935 was the forerunner of Adult Suffrage, of majority rule, of self government and later of independence. We have come a long way since.

The irony is that we do not seem to value the progress that we have made, nor to appreciate the tremendous sacrifices made in order to reach where we are today. You need to look no further than our attitude towards October 21st our lack of knowledge, never mind respect for Sheriff, Bertha, George McIntosh and the other people, leaders of the time. They may not have been UWI trained intellectuals but their contribution towards breaching the colonial turrets is no less monumental.

Yet, 70 years on we are still to officially inscribe that day in our historical calendar, not even the government of the day, led by persons who have played important roles in spreading awareness of October 21st and its rightful place in our annals and according to its leaders their rightful place in our political development. The anti-colonial process cannot be complete without it.