Counting Our Blessings

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 10, 2007

Trini PeopleTrinbagonians have much for which they should be thankful although I am not too sure that we always realize it. Today, our wages are the highest in the Caribbean; our per capita income stands at about $11,000 US; and we enjoy many modern conveniences. Yet, like Oliver Twist, the cry goes out for more. Surprisingly, we never think much about who or what is responsible for our economic success which is why on June 19, 2007, we need to give thanks and praises to those brothers and sisters who fought so gallantly to make us who we are and those who were responsible for bringing us to where we are today.

The nineteen thirties was a difficult time for the working people in the West Indies. The prices of West Indian exports were halved between 1928 and 1933; workers had to take drastic cuts in wages; and unemployment was rising faster than we could measure it. The world wide depression was having drastic effects on our economy. Although Trinidad and Tobago possessed an extracting and refining oil industry, the conditions of the workers in the oil and sugar industries were pretty bad.

In spite of some progress in the oil industry, the workers did not always enjoy the benefits of their labor. The white planter and oil producers creamed off the profits and enjoyed a fairly good life. One man in particular, Uriah Buzz Butler, was important for transforming this condition and to him we owe a great deal of praise. I know that we love to praise Eric Williams-and he must be honored and praised always-but we should never forget what Butler did for us.

On June 19, 1937, a critical date in this historical evolution of the working class, every single worker on the oilfields put down his tools and stopped working. Workers’ unrest spread to the agricultural areas throughout the country. It was a day that marked the transformation from middle class to working class consciousness in our island. I know of what I speak. My grand father, “Roggie” Cudjoe, a worker at the Trinidad Sugar Estates, in Orange Grove, Tacarigua, was among those who downed his tools and supported the progressive elements of his time. Mac Donald Stanley, Butler’s chief lieutenant, also came from Tacarigua. He was the son of Joshua Stanley, a lay-reader at the St. Mary’s Anglican Church.

The actions of the oil and sugar workers led to the social and political transformation of our island. In February 1935, Butler organized a hunger march from the oil fields to Port of Spain to protest working conditions in the island. In 1936, he formed the British Empire Workers and Citizens Home Rule Party. He was not big on education but had a lot of street smarts, common sense, and tactical abilities. Although the authorities expected the strike to take place on June 7, it did not occur until June 19 which took the authorities by surprise. When it did, he had the people behind him.

Being wrong and strong-and certainly secure in their power of whiteness and the Crown-the Government authorities tried to arrest Butler as he addressed a meeting on the first evening of the strike. That was not a smart thing to do. All hell broke loose. The workers routed the police and Butler was set free. As was their custom, the British Government summoned their warships from Bermuda. When the dust had settled 14 persons were killed; 59 were wounded and hundreds were arrested. Butler was arrested eventually, but the psychological damage had been done. A general strike followed and the people were on their way to freedom.

Sir Arthur Lewis, Nobel Laureate, said that this period gave rise to two things: the rise of the trade union movement in the Caribbean and the entry of the working classes into West Indian politics. In 1938, Norman Manley formed the People’s National Party in Jamaica which quickly affiliated itself to the working class movement. In Trinidad and Tobago, Butler’s activities paved the way for universal adult suffrage in 1946 that contributed to the development of mass-based political parties at the end of the 1950s. It was left to Eric Williams to integrate some measure of working class politics into his People’s National Movement although the teachers’ movement played a dominant role in his entrance onto the stage of our politics.

Dr. Williams contends that although Butler became a national hero and had a messianic impact upon the masses, he “proved inadequate to the task either of forming a political party or of organizing the oilfield workers.” Despite his popularity and his unswerving demand for self government, Butler was unable to mobilize the people to capture of state power. Dr. Williams and his colleagues had the honor of achieving this goal and ushering the independence of which all of us should be proud.

As we remember Butler and his remarkable contributions to our freedom let us also remember that development is about people and that political liberation cannot be achieved without cultural development. Norman Manley, it seems, got it correct when he said “history is the living garment of a nation. The culture and traditions that are embedded in the history of the people are the very life soul and life of nations.”

We forget our history at our peril. If we fail to honor our leaders of the past there is no reason why we should honor our present leaders in the future. It is only though cultural education and the development of our historical consciousness can we ever hope to be free. Let us give praises where praises are due and remember those who gave their lives that we might be free.