By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 09, 2022
“The greatest supporter of the movement is / A young barrister who has made the workers’ struggle his / I’m referring to Adrian Cola Rienzi / Undoubtedly a leader of destiny / Who is working the workers to agitate / To eradicate and co-operate.”
—Attila the Hun, “Trade Unionism”
Last week I concluded my article by highlighting that Independence brought us many challenges. They included fusing the many ethnic groups together, bridging the increasing gap between the rich and poor, and the spectre of corruption in our midst. I hadn’t yet heard Karen Tesheira’s comments on the possibility of the Government’s corruption so I couldn’t comment on it.
Many readers expressed their appreciation for my thumbnail sketch of our political history and in response to the column, Brinsley Samaroo, one of our more distinguished scholars, sent me his illuminating biography on Adrian Cola Rienzi. Although I knew the important role Rienzi played in our political development, I didn’t give him the credit he deserved for his efforts to unite the society across ethnic lines.
More important, I was not aware of Rienzi’s deep involvement with socialism, the breadth of his learning, and his attempt to create a deeper awareness of class consciousness among the working people.
Born in 1905 (his birth name was Krishna Deonarine, which he changed in 1927), he was the only son of Chaithnath Tiwary and Lakshmin Dasrath Maharaj. He studied at Naparima College, after which he clerked at the LC Hobson law office in San Fernando before proceeding to London to study law, which he did with the assistance of LC Hobson.
In 1925 he was elected president of the southern branch of the Trinidad Working Men’s Association. In 1928 he proposed the creation of the Young Socialists League, the formation of the East Indian National Party, and was elected to the Executive Committee of the East Indian National Association. He required those who joined the TWA to swear allegiance to socialism. Horace Archer Bratt, the governor of the island at the time, wrote to Lord Amery, the secretary of state, to say that Deonarine strongly supported the Soviet government. That was obviously a mark against him.
It might have been his conversion to socialism that made Rienzi engage in a heated argument with Seepersad Naipaul, the father of VS Naipaul, who complained in the Guardian that Indo-Trinidadians were losing their identity because they were marrying “outside of the race and the women were part of a dangerous feminine evolution”.
Rienzi responded: “Love knows not race, nor birth nor creed; for if two individuals of different races are attracted to each other; falls in love… no one could be justified in suggesting that such a union would have a demoralising effect on either race.”
Rienzi supported India’s fight for independence. Before he left to study law in England in 1928, he advised Indo-Trinidadians “to take up the torch and set ablaze the whole country with the sacred fires of nationalism and patriotism”.
Samaroo reminds us that The People, a magazine edited by LE Walcott, praised Rienzi’s “emphasis on class rather than race as the basis for Afro/Indian solidarity… The paper was particularly useful as a fund-raiser for Butler during his long stay in the United Kingdom”.
Rienzi returned from London in 1934. Having studied Marxism in greater depth, he became more active in local politics and continued his drive towards interracial and class solidarity. Samaroo notes: “As Cipriani moved increasingly to the right, Rienzi became a part of a younger generation who created a new space, uniting workers on a class rather than an ethnic base. Among these leaders were Tubal Butler, Daisy Crick, Elma Francois, Vivian Henry, Edgar Blades and McDonald Moses.”
The development of this greater class consciousness and the desire for interracial unity drew Rienzi closer to Butler, who he represented legally when he was in hiding from the British. He became Butler’s spokesman during that important moment of the working-class struggle in the island.
Rienzi’s progressive stance was not confined to domestic issues. When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Rienzi called a meeting in Princes Town where he argued that “the freedom of Africa and India must be the objective of the two major races and that ‘Afro-Indian political unity’ must be the objective of the working class. At this meeting, three resolutions were passed, calling for the withdrawal of Italian forces [from Ethiopia] and for Allied pressure on Italy”.
In London, international activists such as CLR James (Trinidad), Amy Ashwood Garvey (Jamaica), TA Maryshow (Grenada) and Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya) were taking a similar position that Rienzi and his friends were taking in Trinidad. They formed The International African Friends of Ethiopia in London to protest Italy’s aggression in Africa.
James hoped to join the Abyssinian (the earlier name of Ethiopia) army to make contact with Abyssinians and other Africans. In 1939 he revealed: “I did not intend to spend the rest of my life in Abyssinia, but, all things considered, I thought and still think, that two or three years there, given the fact that I am a Negro and am especially interested in the African revolution, was well worth the attempt” (New Leader, 1936).
In the early 1930s many of the unemployed people joined the National Unemployment Movement (NUM) that was led by Elma Francois, James Barette and Jim Ashley. In 1935 NUM became the Negro Welfare, Social and Cultural Association, which linked up with Rienzi and Butler in the South. When the uprising began in 1937, NWSCA became the principal organiser of protests in Port of Spain and the North.
These activities laid the foundation for Rienzi’s future work in the island.