Musings on the seeds of social consciousness Editorial
Guyana Chronicle
April 29, 2002

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IN HIS response to the warm homage paid him by colleagues and friends, outgoing Director of the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO), Sir George Alleyne, reflected briefly on the turbulent era of the 1930s Caribbean and the effect that period had on his early consciousness.

“I suppose,” he said to the gathering at Le Meridien Pegasus on Friday, April 19, “in that environment and in those times were sown the seeds of my social conscience.”

Sir George’s comment is indeed worthy of reflection. Those individuals with a nodding acquaintance with the tenor of the times would recall reading of the uncertainties and the social upheavals that swept through several countries, then colonies of Great Britain, in the years preceding the Second World War.

The economies of those colonial territories were collectively suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and resulted in industrial unrest in the United States.

Gordon K. Lewis notes in his book, The Growth of the Modern West Indies: “The demand, thus, was the revolt of the West Indian peasant and worker against a society in which, despite formal emancipation, they were still regarded mainly as supplies of cheap labour to sugar kings and oil barons in search of quick fortunes: slavery had been abolished, but the economic foundations of slavery, especially in the general picture of land ownership, had remained basically untouched.

“New social classes, it is true, had emerged to ameliorate the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, yet the social pattern of slavery - the vast masses labouring in poverty on the property of the minority -- remained stamped on West Indian life.

“On the industrial side, the power of the local business class was strengthened by the virtual absence of effective trade unions, and the general inadequacy of industrial law. Up to 1938, indeed, the economy hardly knew the meaning of the phrase ‘industrial legislation’, and wage agreements, workmen’s compensation, health insurance, restrictions of child labour, factory inspection, old age pensions, and collective bargaining were matters practically unknown to the colonial statute books.

The Moyne Commissioners only timidly hazarded the guess that powerful vested interests had stood in the way of these matters; but they were at least emphatic in their assertion that they had met no evidence that any active steps had been taken by West Indian governments to encourage the formation of trade unions either inside or outside the Civil Service.”

Dr Cheddi Jagan, Guyana’s late President, gives one of the best accounts of the events and socioeconomic conditions that detonated into flashpoints of conflict in several territories.

Dr Jagan writes in The West On Trial, “Social discontent had erupted in widespread strikes and disturbances in Trinidad in 1934; in St Kitts in 1935; in British Guiana in 1935 and 1936; in Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica in 1939 and 1939.

In many cases sugarcane fields had been set on fire. In Trinidad, fires had lit up the oil belt. In Jamaica eight people had been killed, 171 wounded and more than 700 arrested. In British Guiana, at Leonora, Police had opened fire on demonstrating workers in 1939, resulting in four killed and four wounded.”

Dr Jagan argues that because of this explosive atmospheres, the British government had appointed in August 5, 1938, a Royal Commission, headed by Lord Moyne “to investigate social and economic conditions in Barbados, British Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica, the Leeward Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, the Windward Islands; and matters connected therewith and to make recommendations”.

He continues: “When it (the Moyne Report) was finally published in 1945, it exposed the abominable conditions under which people were living. It pinpointed deficiencies in the educational system, the problems of unemployment and juvenile delinquency, and the high rate of infant mortality. It highlighted the plight of the workers on sugar estates and of farmers on their small holdings. And it posed the new problem of a rapidly increasing population.

‘The crux of the West Indian problem’, the Commissioners stated, ‘is a demand for better living conditions … among the expanding population’.”

We are indeed thankful that the social ferment of those years kindled in Sir George Alleyne a flaming desire for doing his utmost to ensure that all the people of the Caribbean should one day enjoy an existence that is enhanced by access to improved nutritional standards, health care delivery and a sound basic education; that the poorest people of the region benefit from such basic social infrastructure as potable water and preventative medical treatment.

When these basic indices are in place, all development planners agree, then a great proportion of the regional population would be able to develop their talents and intellects to the highest capacity.