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War and the labour movement
On August 6, 1914, conflicts in Europe came to a head when Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Edward VII of England declared war on each other. The colonial government in Trinidad and Tobago immediately plunged into the war effort—Trinidad being strategically vital due to its oil resources. Training began at the St James Barracks and Queen’s Park Savannah for volunteers to head to the front.
The enlistment paid homage to the racist ideologies of the time. Black volunteers were trained separately from whites. The whites formed the Merchants and Planters Corps, comprising mainly young men from the “better” families of Trinidad. White teenagers were given officers’ commissions to lead battalions of senior men of colour. One man who championed the cause of the blacks was Captain Arthur A Cipriani, a white man and the friend of the “barefoot man.”
Cipriani himself barely made it into the Corps because of his age. The whites were trained at the Princes Building (site of Napa today) and the blacks at St James Barracks. When the first contingent was ready to leave in 1915, crowds lined the streets to see them off.
Throughout 1915 and 1916, Cipriani recruited vigorously for the contingents. Finally, on November 11, 1918, peace was declared. In all, 61 men of the Public (black) Contingents died, along with 22 from the Merchant and Planters Corps. On May 26, 1919, the SS Ajax arrived from Europe. Barges were brought alongside, and 450 men of the Public Contingents were herded aboard like cattle and sent ashore.
On South Quay, the men were paraded in front of Port-of-Spain’s mayor, Frederick Scott. They then had to make a sweaty two-mile march up to the Queen’s Park Savannah. All along the way, family, friends and well-wishers gave them an emotional welcome. At the Savannah, they were addressed coldly by Governor Sir John Chancellor and formally disbanded.
The white contingents returned a short time later, and were feted with champagne at the Queen’s Park Hotel and Governor’s House as heroes. They were given fine jobs and treated with respect. The black contingents were released without retraining and many found it difficult to earn their bread in an economy facing the collapse of cocoa, and sugar prices.
Cipriani revived a dormant labour organisation, the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association, which had been founded in 1897, in a half-hearted attempt to merge the interests of the coloured middle-class with that of the labouring ranks. He led strikes by dockworkers (where many of the black veterans found work as labourers), thus sparking the beginning of the labour movement. His zeal for justice never flagged, even when he was elected several times as the mayor of Port-of-Spain and into the Legislative Council.
All in all, the homecoming of the veterans was fraught with shame. Even though a public memorial was erected in honour of those who had fallen, it did little to compensate for the neglect of the men who fought for the Empire.
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