October 3, 2014

Forgotten, but historically important

My reference here is to the St Vincent riots of October 21 and 22, 1935, 79 years ago. It is sad that this event, if one can call it that, is so little known, because it was perhaps one of the most important events in the history of our country. What added to its importance was that it was among a number of riots and disturbances that rocked the Caribbean in the1930s and forced a new look at conditions in the colonies.{{more}}

We can look at what happened as marking the birth of a new society that brought the ordinary man and woman to the attention of the authorities and created the climate to put their concerns on the national agenda. If one discards Belize, the St Vincent riots would have been the second, following St Kitts. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court classified the disturbances here as constituting a riot, since it was directed at the authorities, unlike St Kitts, where it was plantation based. In fact, this stands out about St Vincent compared to a number of other countries, since the plantation was not a major force here at that time. It is interesting that in Georgetown the rioters vented their anger not on the Mt.Bentick estate, but on symbols within the town.

Frank Child was singled out at Grand Sable for particular problems he had there. He was attacked by some of the workers who refused to allow the doctor to come to his attendance until the early hours of the morning when that became possible.

In 1935, St Vincent was deeply affected by the Great Depression. The Governor, in one of his addresses, declared that ‘This colony is very near the rocks’. The cry from merchants and shopkeepers in Georgetown was that ‘Things were very bad’ and that ‘there was little money in circulation’. People wanted land and work. The working people, who were unable to meet the franchise that would have allowed them to vote, took very little interest in the formal political structure. The Italian invasion of Ethiopia had also created anger and strong passions among many who followed what was taking place from the Cable board at the Cable Office. In fact, earlier in October TA Marryshow of Grenada spoke on the situation in Ethiopia to a large crowd at the Public library. At that meeting some Vincentians offered their services to fight for the Ethiopians, among them Sheriff Lewis, who gained the nickname ‘Haile Selassie.’ It was in this climate that the Government chose, on Friday, October 18, to introduce two bills into the Legislative Council. Higher rates of duty were imposed on items which the authorities considered items of luxury. But this included beer, cigarettes and matches. The second measure aimed to reduce the import duties on motor vehicles. The rationale given for this was what today we might call a ‘master stroke’, encourage the importation of motor vehicles by reducing the duty, while at the same time increasing licensing fees. Even before the bills were accepted, it appeared that some shopkeepers and merchants had on the weekend begun to increase prices on some of these items. One that stands out was that matches, which used to be sold at three boxes for a penny, increased to one box a penny.

Peasants who took their fruit and vegetables to the market on Saturdays and bought groceries and other goods to take home became aware of the increases. Some of them went to the drugstore of George McIntosh near to the market, since he was one who always had a sympathetic ear for them. On Monday, when the bills were to be read again and passed, crowds of people began to flock to the Court House, some women even armed with sticks. McIntosh, who was among those in the audience at the Court House, had informed some angry persons among the crowd that they should take a letter to the Governor, asking for an audience with him. He wrote the letter with the assistance of some members of the Repre­sentative Govern­ment Association. This was handed to the Governor, who agreed to meet him and other representatives at five in the afternoon at the Public Library. When this was communicated to the crowd, they became angry, because they were of the opinion that at that time the Governor would have been on his way back to Grenada, where he was based. A number of things began to happen, leading to attacks on the Prison and physical confrontation at the Court Yard, followed by an invasion of the business places of FA Corea near to the Market Square, where PH Veira is now located and in the area now currently housing Bonadie’s Supermarket and the Bank of StVincent and the Grenadines. It should be noted that Corea (Casson) was a member of the Legislative Council. Bolts of cloth and other items were thrown out and carried away and one woman, who seemed not to have had anything to do with the invasion of the business places, was shot.

Later, a few members of the crowd moved to the North River Road area, near to the residence of merchant AG Hazell and patrolled along the Wilson Hill road and on to Level Gardens, armed with sticks and cutlasses. They were confronted by a small party of police and volunteers, resulting in the arrest of two men, one hiding under a bed. A member of the police party, PC Roberts, was hurt in the incident and had to be hospitalised.

Three other areas became centres of activity, Cane Garden, Georgetown and Campden Park. These, I will look at next week.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.