By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 16, 2022
“Trade Union Movement in Trinidad owes Mr Rienzi a great debt of gratitude and particularly the Oil and Sugar Unions which he pioneered until he left for the Civil Service.”
—John Rojas, former
Leader of the OWTU
Although Adrian Cola Rienzi struggled to achieve self-government at home and to make working people aware of their rights, he still found time to participate in the revival of Caribbean trade unionism after it lapsed in 1926. Brinsley Samaroo, the author of Adrian Cola Rienzi: The Life and Times of an Indo-Caribbean Progressive, noted that Hubert Critchlow convened the first Caribbean trade union conference “to coordinate the activities of the various trade unions towards the overall improvement of the Caribbean workers”.
In 1938 Captain Cipriani and Rienzi were delegates to the second pan-Caribbean trade union conference in Georgetown, where Rienzi was elected as the general secretary of the British Guiana and West Indies Labour Congress. In his address, he urged his fellow trade unionists to “Organise, Centralise and Revolutionise”. As general secretary, he placed his talents at the disposal of the entire Caribbean working people.
By 1939 Rienzi was the mayor of Port of Spain and the legislative representative for Victoria. He advocated for comprehensive education in Caroni and Nariva, where illiteracy was very high; and the cutting-up of the large cocoa estates, which was subsidised by the taxpayers, into three-acre plots for peasant agriculture.
In 1941 the Trinidad and Tobago Socialist Party was formed. Rienzi and John Rojas were its joint presidents. Its resolutions, which were sent to the Colonial Office by the governor, demanded early elections and universal suffrage. Samaroo notes: “They were also added to the anti-Rienzi dossiers of the local elite for further reference.” His becoming a member of the Socialist Party solidified his reputation as a “dangerous Communist”.
In 1943 he was appointed to the Executive Committee that ran the affairs of the island. One is not too sure if he was appointed to the Executive Committee to stymie his political activity or because the colonial government felt he could make a contribution to the island’s social development. While the trade union movement and Indo-Trinidadians were pleased with his elevation, the commercial interests were aggrieved. The Agricultural Society was against his appointment. It informed the secretary of state that “Rienzi’s appointment will do nothing to satisfy the needs of agriculture in the island”.
Rienzi, a proud Indo-Trinidadian, wished to bond more deeply with India, his mother country. In 1946 he founded the Indian Cultural Association so that Indo-Trinidadians could have a more in-depth knowledge of their motherland and a better appreciation for Indian culture. Each prospective member took the following pledge: “I believe in the ancient wisdom and humanising influence of India. I believe, too, that in the future, as in the past, India will be the spiritual torch bearer of the world. Separated as I am from the sacred soil of the Motherland… I hereby undertake to study and actively propagate the noble and glorious culture and sublime philosophy which is my heritage.”
In 1946 he started a long correspondence with the Department of Commonwealth Relations of the government of India, with a view to granting Caribbean students the opportunity to study in India since there were no existing facilities of higher education in the island. Even in this gesture he did not forget Afro-Caribbean students. He wrote to the Department as follows: “I would appreciate it if a percentage of the number suggested would be reserved for students of African descent.”
Rienzi was an accomplished lawyer who had studied at Trinity College in Ireland and Middle Temple in London. He was called to the Bar in 1934. In fact, it was his legal acumen that allowed him to accomplish as much as he did in the island. When he retired from active politics in 1944, he was made a Second Crown Counsel, First Crown Council in 1949, Senior Crown Counsel in 1952, and assistant attorney general from 1953 to 1958. However, he was denied a judgeship in 1958 because of his “communist” past. In 1965 he was appointed as assistant solicitor general to make up for the judgeship the government denied him.
In 1965 he made a brief foray into politics. Samaroo notes that he was a member of something called the Tuesday Group, which was formed to discuss current issues. His home became a regular meeting place for trade unionists and “aspirants to political office”. Many of them became founding members of the Workers and Farmers Party that was organised primarily by CLR James and Mitra Sinanan. Try as he may, he could not release himself from his socialist roots. He died in 1972.
Samaroo’s book is a treasure trove on Rienzi’s life. Most of what I have written here is documented in his book. No one really understands the full dimension of Trinidad and Tobago political history without knowing the life and times of Adrian Cola Rienzi. Brinsley Samaroo’s book is a literary nugget placed into our hands so that we can better understand ourselves. It not only chronicles the life of one our most distinguished citizens, it helps us to reshape and re-imagine the trajectory of history in its fullest dimensions. It also fills a gaping hole in our political history.
Rienzi was one of our most powerful intellectuals and committed activists. He cared immensely about his fellow citizens, even as he took pride in his heritage. Like him, we too should commit ourselves to building our society through our interracial discourses and honouring the gifts each of us brings to the table of nationhood. We need it for our intellectual and political sustenance.