On June 20, 1937, the Trinidad Guardian's lead story was: "Oilfields strikers clash with police"–and for the next month or so that story came to dominate the news.By June 23 a British warship, HMS Ajax, had arrived, but "strike fever" had spread to Port-of-Spain and throughout the colony, and there was a shortage of petrol, as it was then known. People had been injured in clashes in Rio Claro, and deputy leader of the Trinidad Labour Party Timothy Roodal was appealing to the strikers to keep the peace. The governor was given emergency powers.The disturbances deepened, and in early July armed British troops raided Fyzabad at dawn in search of strike leader Tubal Uriah Buzz Butler.Looking back three-quarters of a century later, that's the kind of news a modern reader expects to find. But there are many surprises in those cluttered black-and-white broadsheet pages.
The unrest in the oilfields didn't take up the whole front page the day after the strike action began–in fact, it almost wasn't the lead story at all.It competes for space with another big story, headlined: "Torpedoes fired at German warship: Hitler flies from country retreat." Already, stormclouds were gathering over Europe, though it would be another two years before World War II broke out.Lower down the page, another headline reads: "Sub-Inspector shot dead." Though nowadays only Cpl Charlie King's death is remembered, Sub-Insp William Bradburn was shot dead, and a Cpl Price was in critical condition. Charlie King's fiery death was brusquely reported in a story that was sketchy because phone lines between Oropouche and Fyzabad were said to be out.
Other events had continued as scheduled the previous day, however: the Turf Club had a successful race day. There were reports on plans to drain the Nariva Swamp and turn it into farmland. The port of Port-of-Spain was to acquire a $45,000 crane.
Until the simmering discontent in the oilfields erupted on June 19, Trinidad seemed more peaceful than much of the world. In May, the paper had reported that the Hindenburg airship had gone up in flames, killing dozens of people; what strikes a 21st-century reader is the swastikas painted on its sides. Not only in Europe but in the east there were signs of the global conflagration to come, as the Trinidad Guardian told its readers: "Japan serves last ultimatum on China: 'Withdraw troops or face war.'"Britain had a temporary respite and cause for celebration, however, as the scandal involving Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson was finally resolved. The coronation of his successor was celebrated in the Trinidad Guardian with the headline "An Empire Crowns its King," and details of what Captain Cipriani, then deputy mayor of Port-of-Spain, had worn for the occasion. The paper's front page also tracked the progress of intrepid aviatrix Amelia Earhart as she attempted to circumnavigate the globe.
Meanwhile, ordinary life in T&T went on. Page One of the Trinidad Guardian might still report on the outcome of a football match between Queen's Royal College and St Mary's, or Davis Cup tennis. Each week the paper ran a page of Chinese news and one of Indian news, compiled by "the Yogi," including trends in Indian politics and "items of local interest to Indians."Ads urged readers to "make a jolly party" to see the latest Gary Cooper movie at the Deluxe Cinema, which had just opened its doors for the first time. Delicacies that included tinned roast beef and gravy were offered as modern conveniences. In the classified pages, readers would find, among others, houses in Barataria for sale for $1,200, repayable at the rate of $8 a month. The new 1937 Willys car was launched–a six-seater, which boasted not only safety glass, but the latest synchro-mesh transmission.All these stories–quaint, tragic, epoch-making–that made up the mosaic of life in Trinidad in 1937 will be republished tomorrow in our special publication to mark Labour Day. Like our hugely popular Independence special publication, this 32-page broadsheet keepsake includes stories and photos from the Trinidad Guardian of the day, replicated in their original format. It's free with your T&T Guardian tomorrow.