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Explosion in fyzabad
Seventy-five years ago, on June 19, workers in the oilfields in the deep south of the country, instigated by Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler, initiated a series of riots and strikes which led to the most far-reaching set of social, industrial, political consequences in 20th-century T&T and indeed other parts of the West Indies.
At what has come to be known as Charlie King Junction in Fyzabad, discontent and anger at their abject condition of poverty, made so by unimaginable levels of exploitation and dehumanisation, workers in the oilfields of the deep south of the country vented their built-up rage on police corporal Charlie King; he was set afire.
The incident triggered widespread unrest and strikes in the oilfields, in the railways in Port-of-Spain, in Sangre Grande and on the sugar estates in central and south Trinidad. Instead of seeking to respond to the causes of the violence and strikes, the colonial authorities sent for a British battleship that was in the waters of the northern Caribbean to put down the rebellion. In support of the action of the British Government, chairman of the West India Committee, Lt Col Davson, said “people in the island had forgotten what a British warship looked like.”
Port-of-Spain merchant George Huggins was shocked at the audacity of the workers: “It is the first time in my knowledge that shotguns had been used by natives against white men and such outbreaks should be put down relentlessly.” One poster carried by workers and protesters in Port-of-Spain gave the perspective of the workers: “Not bayonets and blood, but more pay.”
In today terms only a few people (14) were killed; five dozen were injured and hundreds of the rioting and striking workers were arrested. Weeks before the riots, which triggered the strike in the oilfields and reaction in sugar and elsewhere, Butler had written to Governor Murchison Fletcher warning that “the present hostile attitude of the oil workers is the result of the failure of their many and varied constitutional pleas, prayers, petitions for more pay and better all-round conditions of life and labour in the oilfields.”
However, the local and expatriate employers and merchants considered Butler and his colleagues to be no more than troublemakers seeking to agitate workers who were essentially well-paid and satisfactorily housed and fed. But on a visit to Fyzabad, Governor Fletcher, who became sympathetic to the plight of the workers, was given the real story by Elbert Redvers Blades (who remains alive today at 110) and a group of workers.
Mr Blades told me in an interview 13 years ago that when the Governor spoke with them at the administrative offices at the oil company, they invited him to come see their living conditions at the barracks; the British gentleman wisely declined the offer, but supported their case for improved conditions and pay.
But while the explosion took place in Fyzabad in June 1937, like any such significant historical event it was preceded by decades of building protest action and not only in Trinidad. The waterfront workers in British Guiana had struck in 1918-1919, riots had taken place on the sugar estates in Guiana, in St Kitts, Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean workers were demonstrating their dissatisfaction.
Stevedores on the PoS wharf struck in 1919; on sugar estates in central Trinidad, sugar workers came out against their working and living conditions. On the return of West Indian soldiers from the war, they hit the streets in protest against working conditions and rank racism practised against them. Capt Arthur Andrew Cipriani, of the white upper-class establishment, led them into battle.
So too did the consciousness of the likes of JJ Thomas, Henry Sylvester Williams, Muzumbo Lazare and Jamaican Marcus Mosiah Garvey raise awareness amongst the oppressed masses. But notwithstanding all the signs of dissatisfaction and the building of the rebellious spirit, the local colonial authorities remained unmoved, persuaded by their own sense of self-righteousness.
But this column is not meant to be a chronicling of the events. Historians such as Brinsley Samaroo, Bridget Brereton, Bukka Rennie, Ron Ramdin and others have done the research work and extensively analysed the events. What is intended in this and a second column of next week is to give a sense of the accomplishment (75 years after) of what was started by the workers in Fyzabad, in central Trinidad, in Port-of-Spain, led by the likes of Jim Barrat, Elma Francois (read Rhoda Reddock on the involvement of women in the struggle), Christina King and several others.
It was a struggle to affirm self-worth in reaction to dehumanisation and it triggered reactions throughout the West Indies. One of the notable achievements was how Indian and Afri-can workers saw their problems in common terms. And how Adrian Cola Rienzi (Krishna Deonarine) formulated and led—ably assisted by Blades (general secretary)—the oilfields and sugar unions. It was a consciousness by workers, well captured decades after by Black Stalin: “Sufferers doh care about race…”
• To be continued
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