By Raffique Shah
March 10, 2020
Last week, as I noted the absence of Indo-Trinidadians from the Black Power Revolution of 1970, I made a grave error for which I apologise to readers and to persons who may have been aggrieved by it.. I don’t know how I forgot that Winston Leonard, an Indian, was prominent in National Joint Action Committee almost from its inception—and he was not window dressing. He was vice-chairman of the organisation, a frontline speaker on its platforms, and he remained a member long after the dust from the upheavals of 1970 had settled.
Leonard did not bring with him any Indian supporters, which might explain why I forgot his involvement. I was making the point that from a national perspective, Indians were conspicuously absent from the mass upheavals that almost brought down the Government of Dr Eric Williams. Not that the NJAC had any such obligation: from the start, it promoted Black Power, and it harnessed the potent wave of Afro-consciousness that had spilled out of the United States of America and awakened millions of descendants of the slave trade in the Americas and the Caribbean.
But even as it attracted the biggest crowds ever seen in local political history, NJAC’s leadership will have realised that for the organisation to transform its scope from ethnic to national, it needed to mobilise Indo-Trinis, who comprised 40 percent of the population. It was in that context that the long march to Caroni was conceptualised, the banner “Indians and Africans Unite” extending a hand in friendship, and, on April 6, NJAC ventured into uncharted territory.
Before the march turned south of the Caroni river, it passed in front of the twin-bungalows in Champ Fleurs owned by Bhadase Sagan Maharaj, who saw himself as the overlord of the Indians. He and his thugs stood at a safe distance from the march and made feeble attempts to intimidate the marchers by waving what appeared to be guns. The marchers responded with a few signature shouts of “Power!” as they punched their clenched fists in the air.
South of the Caroni, the residents did not roll out the red carpet or rush to join the march. But the people were hospitable, offered the participants water and refreshments, and some gave the “Power” salute. Late that evening, when the march reached its destination, Couva, there was a fairly large group of sugar workers awaiting them. There were speeches and expressions of solidarity. The mostly-Indian workers interacted with “the brothers”, but their main focus was OWTU leader George Weekes, a man for whom they had great respect, and whom they had tried to woo as far back as in 1965, when, amidst widespread industrial unrest, the Williams Government had hastily enacted and proclaimed the controversial Industrial Stabilisation Act.
The sugar workers’ quest was a bread-and-butter issue: they wanted badly to rid themselves of Bhadase as their union leader because they knew he was not pursuing their best interests. In fact, they insisted that he was being bribed by Tate & Lyle, British owners of Caroni Ltd, to accept petty increases in wages and salaries while Weekes was winning big for the workers in the petroleum industry. The sugar workers offered to stage a reciprocal march to Port of Spain. The date they proposed was April 21. There was no coincidence that it was also the date on which the Government declared a state of emergency and moved to crush the revolution.
The prospect of Indian-African unity at the grassroots level was grim for any government in T&T, and for all conventional political parties. Shortly after he was briefed on the sugar workers’ response to Black Power, Williams spoke with Bhadase, his not-so-secret ally in the Indian commuity, asking him to ensure that the workers did not carry out a reciprocal march. Bhadase assured him that would not happen. He gathered his thugs and proceeded to the Brechin Castle factory near Couva where he kicked around the first worker he made contact with.
He then had management summon all workers to the factory yard where, in his croaking voice, he warned them, “You will not march with the niggers!” By then, however, his body was ravaged by addiction to a derivative of morphine (Pethidine). The workers shocked him by advancing on his “posse” of thugs in a threatening manner. His choices were to open fire on them or run for his life. He chose the latter. He later telephoned Dr Williams and said, “I can no longer control the sugar workers.”
That was when Williams decided he had to use drastic measures against the Black Power movement and prevent the mainly-Indian sugar workers from joining the revolution. The workers took strike action from April 19th, shutting down the BC factory, and a day later Ste Madeleine. In the wee hours of April 21st, with the Emergency in effect, police swooped down on NJAC’s leaders, among them Khafra Kambon, Clive Nunez, Weekes and Leonard. Daaga was in South Trinidad where he had planned to lead the sugar workers’ march. The police would not capture him for two days, The workers defied the police and persisted with a march on April 21st, but they were eventuallybeaten into submission.
The facts as I have presented them here—I have documentation to support them, including declassified US State Department and British Foreign Office communications—show how far governments will go to prevent the two major ethnic groups from joining forces. The Black Power Revolution came closest to uniting them in struggle, but time was against them. A similar unity was forged in 1937 when Uriah Butler had led what started as a strike in the oilfields, but soon spread to the sugar plantations, the port and other workplaces across the country That, too, was crushed by the intervention of British troops on board two British battleships, the Exeter and the Ajax. T&T was then a British colony.
I submit that the failure of the mass movement to capitalise on the opportunity to unite Indians, Africans, and nationals of other races who were ready for unity rendered the revolution incomplete.