By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 25, 2022
A lecture given at The UWI History Fest 2022—April 20.
I have been asked to speak about the “price of progress”, which the organisers of History Fest 2022 suggested should explore some aspects of the political formations of the pre-independence Trinidad and Tobago. While I am not too sure what the price of progress was, I can try to point out a few signposts along that journey and offer a few personal reflections on them.
The struggle for national independence goes back to the abolition of slavery in 1833. Consider these events that preceded independence: the abolition of slavery, for which black people of the time fought; the national revolt of 1849 that was led by black women when the colonial government decided to cut off their hair; the Canboulay and the Hosein revolts of the 1880s, in which both Africans and Indians fought for the right to express themselves culturally; the large demonstrations in 1887 at the Queen’s Park Savannah for representative government; the Water Riots of 1903; Captain Cipriani’s championing of the “barefoot man”, and the subsequent formation of the Trinidad Labour Party (TLP); the oilfields workers insurrection of 1937 led by Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler; the subsequent success of his British Empire Workers and Citizens Home Rule Party in the 1946 general election; the work of Albert Gomes between 1950 and 1956; the formation of the People’s National Movement in 1956; and Bhadase Sagan Maraj who founded the People’s Democratic Party in 1953 and which led to the Democratic Labour Party that was led by Dr Rudranath Capildeo.
Trinidad, if not Tobago, has always been a cosmopolitan society. Immigrants came from all parts of the globe to dwell in this little island. The Chinese arrived as early as 1806, the Portuguese in 1834 and 1839, the French in 1839–40, and the Indians in 1845. In 1848, Lord Harris wrote: “A race has been freed, but a society has not been formed.”
In 1866, WH Gamble, a Trinidadian who had studied at Oxford University, described Trinidad’s multicultural mix: “Many distinct peoples go to make up the population of Trinidad. There are men [and women] from all quarters of the globe, and with little exaggeration, it may be said that, in Trinidad, all the languages of the earth are spoken.”
This blending of the groups has been one of the inveterate challenges that has faced our politics over the years. We are still trying to merge these various strands into a more harmonious whole.
In 1892, some citizens formed a Reform Committee to deal with representative government in the island. After several meetings, the committee sent a memo to the secretary of state that complained that the system of government in the colony “is not only injurious to the best interests of the country and its inhabitants, but is a great public grievance and a cause of general dissatisfaction”. They asked for a Legislative Council of 20 members, 12 of whom should be elected and eight nominated.
The Water Riots of 1903 also led to further demands for representative government. In 1919 we saw the emergence of Captain Arthur Cipriani who became the president of Trinidad Workingmen’s Association—an organisation founded in the last decade of the 19th century.
Cipriani advocated for social and constitutional changes on issues such as minimum wage, pensions, universal suffrage and child labour. In 1934, the country saw the formation of the TLP with “a programme in socialism”, in close communication with the British Labour Party.
The oilfields disturbances of 1937, led by Uriah Butler, demonstrated the deep discontent of the working people. His expulsion from the TLP in 1936, along with activists such as Adrian Cola Rienzi and others, led to the formation of the British Empire Workers and Citizens Home Rule Party, which participated in the general election of 1946—the first to be held on the basis of universal suffrage.
However, it was the language test that proved to be the boogie man of the 1946 election. John La Guerre wrote: “Most of the members of the [Franchise] Committee considered that competence in the English language should be made a condition for registration as a voter. The effect of such a proposal, however unintended, would have been to disenfranchise the predominantly illiterate East Indian community.” It took the objections of Rienzi and ultimately the secretary of state for the colonies to disallow such a proposal.
During this time, there was much discussion of socialist ideas in the air, a growing ascendancy of Pan African ideas, and a rise in Indian consciousness. The latter came as a result of India’s independence in 1947 and the centennial celebration of the Indians’ arrival in Trinidad.
During that period, there was also a rise in Afro-Trinbagonian consciousness. John Rojas of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union and C Lushington of the West Indian National Party attended the Pan Africanist Congress in Manchester in 1945 in solidarity with “Afro-West Indians and Africans and other peoples of African descent”.
Cipriani’s TLP claimed a membership of 123,000 people—nearly one third of the whole population. Cipriani, “a white man of Corsican descent, was completely devoid of racial antipathy and prejudices” (Williams, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago). CLR James writes: “He represents the people so well, chiefly because he is so much one of them.” (The Life of Captain Cipriani)
Rienzi, an Indian leader, also assisted Cipriani and Butler in their efforts. He went on to play an important role in the formation of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union and became an inspiration for Basdeo Panday.
The 1946 election signalled a new phase in T&T’s political development.