Outstanding history of Caribbean labour A Review by Norman Faria
Guyana Chronicle
February 9, 2003

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“Who built the seven Towers of Thebes?

The books are filled with the names of kings

Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?

In the evening when the Chinese Wall was finished

Where did the masons go?”
THE German playwright/poet Bertolt Brecht, in his poem above deplores the emphasis on “big-ups” in popular histories in Western countries about the working man's contributions to building these societies.

With regards to the circum English-speaking Caribbean region, Professor O. Nigel Bolland of Colgate University in the U.S., in his recently published ‘The Politics of Labour in the British Caribbean’ has done a really fine and excellent job in correctly chronicling a suprisingly still prevalent view about true nation builders. As he writes, it isn't only political party and trade union leaders who deserve all the accolades.

Like Brecht, Dr. Bolland doesn't however fall into the self-defeating syndicalist/anarchist trap as some early European labour tendencies did. That approach held that all leadership is inherently elitist, leading workers' interests into a dead end. He recognises there is a need for a disciplined structured leadership. It must be equipped with an understanding of socio-economic and political workings of society so as to devise appropriate tactics and strategies.

How do non-working class allies such as middle class elements fit in? The importance of this “superb and consummate study” as colleague Dr. Franklin Knight of John Hopkins University aptly describes it in the book's Foreword, lies in how Dr. Bolland links the struggles of working people, through their democratic political culture and organisations, with what he terms the “relevant national” context. This context includes the commandeering of the workers' movement in some instances by opportunists among whom Dr. Bolland cites Jamaica's Alexander Bustamante and Grenada's Sir Eric Gairy.

But in a remarkably detailed and convincing manner, he also examines regional and global influences and pressures including the impact of the Second World War and ‘Cold War’ on Caribbean trade union and national politics during the 1940s and 1950s.

In his opening chapter “The social and cultural legacies of colonialism and slavery”, Dr. Bolland, a sociologist, reminds us that the various forms of oppression during those periods resulted in and shaped the dynamics of the struggle for freedom at all levels such as for better living conditions and adult suffrage.

There are other necessary chapters with such titles as ‘Racial consciousness and class formation’, ‘The Labour Rebellions 1934-39’ and ‘Authoritarianism in the institutionalisation of the labour Movement’.

‘The Labour Rebellions’, focuses on countries such as Bahamas and Belize, making for a refreshing change from the Jamaica-Trinidad-Barbados emphasis so frequently found in histories of this significant period.

Guyana is also there. In these days of distressing reports about racial divisions in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago between the African and Indo parts of the populations, there are several references to labour strikes involving unity of the races. Quoting Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, Dr. Bolland dismisses the opportunist theory that Afro-Guyanese, for example, still bear ill will against Indian comrades (and by implication the segmentation into racially based political parties) because of alleged lack of unity in the early days. Dr.Bolland, regrettably, has to however conclude: “The early trade unions of Guyana, instead of overcoming the ethnic division of the colonial society, reflected and ultimately reinforced them, to the long-term detriment of society”.

In a somewhat misleading (The PNC's neo-fascist rule was more than authoritarianism) sub-heading ‘Democracy against authoritarianism in Guyana’, Dr. Bolland gives a fairly accurate overview of the roots of present difficulties in Guyana. “Between 1962 and 1964, the (then government of the) United States through its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supported (Forbes) Burnham's efforts to destabilise the PPP government by fomenting strikes, riots and demonstrations.”

Tellingly, he continued: “The efforts of the PAC and PPP to overcome ethnic tensions in Guyana and to create a united class-based nationalist movement between 1946 and 1956 were reversed in the next decade. Although the potential for racial polarisation had existed ever since the indentured Indians were brought in to compete with the ex-slaves of African descent, this potential was realised only after the split in the PPP in 1955. For the next quarter century, as the PNC manipulated and rigged the electoral system to remain in power, racial politics predominated in Guyana. The 1996 election was the last fair and free election until 1992...”

Also in these days of regional insularity, where some Caribbean island administrations are trying to stop the inevitable free movement of peoples, there are some really wonderful references by Dr. Bolland to how people from different countries went to others to assist their comrades in the just struggles. Barbadian A. A. Thorne registered the British Guiana Workers League in 1931 for example while another Guyanese, Hubert Critchlow was the son of a Barbadian dock worker. In Trinidad, Brutus Ironman (what a name!) from Guyana and Bruce McConney from Barbados were among the leaders of the Trinidad Workingman's Association deported by colonial authorities.

This book, whose sterling scholarship could have been enhanced with photographs, is published by the Jamaican firm of Ian Randle Publishers. It is available in both paper and hard back and sourceable in at least the Barbadian library system. Despite shortcomings, it is essential reading for those wishing to add to their knowledge of the real builders of Caribbean countries and why their early struggles didn't lead to the shaping of even better societies.

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