When considering the crowning achievements of West Indian social and cultural developments—and I include sports in that list—the 1960s and 1970s is often identified as the period of greatest productivity in the English-speaking Caribbean.
From Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) to Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards thrashing England in the final of the 1979 Cricket World Cup, the region underwent a process of emergence and transformation that to this day shapes the image of the Caribbean abroad. The development of the tourism industry often went hand-in-hand with the edicts of independence, the flourishing of patriotism, the emergence of a national identity, and the dismissal of previous—colonial—economic models. But, foundational as these changes were, often the stature of these historical giants overshadow equally important and possibly even more pivotal circumstances in the recent past of the Caribbean.
Such is the case with the crisis that spread in the mid-1930s all across the West Indies, as conditions remained inhumanly precarious for workers regardless of the industry and the island in which they performed their trade. Between 1935 and 1938 a series of strikes and protests broke out in St. Kitts, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Barbados, British Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica in a fashion that was not entirely dissimilar to the wave of unrest that swept through European countries in 1968. These protests were sparked by different circumstances and had as protagonists distinct portions of the population. But beneath these apparent differences underlies a common grievance and a shared ailment: the desperately poor social conditions the Empire had allowed to reign in its colonial possessions.
Labour in the West Indies is a small pamphlet originally published by the Fabian Society in 1938 and resurrected in 1977 by New Beacon Books. I just stumbled upon it one day, visiting the book shop of NBB, an intriguing little publisher, now all but defunct, which at one time placed much emphasis on Caribbean culture. Penned by St. Lucian economist and Nobel prize winner, (Sir) Arthur Lewis, Labour in the West Indies is both fascinating and incredibly dense at the same time. Written before the publication of the official Report of the Royal Commission, looking into the conditions that led to the outbreak of widespread violence in the West Indies at the time, the text is clearly filled with the idiosyncrasy of the time but also bitterly sensitive about a crisis that was not so much fresh in the memory but actually still unfolding.
Lewis’ analysis of the social conditions that triggered the unrest in the different islands serves as crude reminder of the desperate inequality and tragic neglect the population at large had to endure in the Caribbean even 100 years after slavery had been abolished. But the focus of Lewis’s treatment lies on the development of workers’ movements and labor unions in each of the territories mentioned above. The civil militancy that hopped from one island to the next between 1935 and 1938 left a balance of 49 dead, 429 injured and thousands jailed. Lewis quotes the tension between a largely destitute population and the ambitions of regional governments totally identified with planter interests as the most determining factor in the ultimate breakdown of relations between the establishment and those over whom it was meant to preside.
But educational as these elements are—and there are some truly enlightening facts in this little book—the most striking aspect of Labour in the West Indies remains the recurrent allusions Lewis is able to make—sometimes even unconsciously—to the people, the leaders, and the events that would later—in the fabled ’60s—inevitably and irreversibly shape the future of the region. For instance, when touching upon the revolt of the cane field workers in St. Kitts, an island of merely 20,000 people at the time, Lewis glosses the emergence of the Workers’ League, the union that would nurture and mold the political thought of Robert Bradshaw, unquestionable leader and father of the nation of St. Kitts and Nevis.
Lewis gives as detailed an account as was available at the time of the protests that shook St. Vincent in 1935 and St. Lucia in 1936 (led by the coal workers) and 1937 (led by the agricultural laborers); the disturbances sparked by the militancy of Clement Payne in Barbados in 1937, and the generally appalling conditions that led to a series of shake-offs in British Guyana between 1935 and 1937. Nevertheless, the thick of Lewis’s account focuses on the two major regional powers at the time, Trinidad and Jamaica. His analysis of the situation in Trinidad takes him back to the “Water Riots” of 1903, although the emphasis is evidently placed on Uriah Butler, the orchestrator of the major oil workers’ strike that assailed the country in 1937. Nevertheless, it’s probably when it comes to Jamaica and the conditions that sparked the rivalry and also the animosity between Alexander Bustamante and his cousin, Norman Manley, the two pivotal figures in the Jamaican political landscape of the XX century, that Lewis’s narrative comes to life.
Lewis’s conclusions about the social discontent that caused all the trouble, and, most notably, the solutions he proposes to curb the situation are deeply entrenched in a different world-view, in a different time, belonging to a civilization which had not yet seen the horrors of the Second World War. This, however, does not mean that Labour in the West Indies is no better than a curiosity or a melancholy archive drawn from a dusty old bookshelf. On the contrary, the same detachment from our current reality which informs Lewis’s opinions with a sense of anachronism works in the opposite direction when it comes to presenting the facts. Despite the austere language of an economist from the beginning of the XX century, Labour in the West Indies is vivid in its details and rigorously informed in its accounts. Therefore, it provides us with a unique opportunity to approach a long-forgotten episode of our recent history in almost undiluted form. The fact that this episode is both foundational and deeply influential in the development of a vast number of our immediate neighbors only adds to the relevance of a study that is meritorious on its own. So happy read!
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday, May 18, 2013.