The 1937 Marcus Garvey visit to British Guiana By Nigel Westmaas
Stabroek News
February 22, 2001

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Marcus Garvey's visit to British Guiana in October 1937 is considered the high point of the existence and activity of his United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the colony. Indeed, on account of the regional and international popularity of the controversial black leader, his visit was an important and expectant moment for the citizens of Georgetown, many of whom turned out in large numbers to witness his arrival on the Bookers docks.

Prior to 1937 there was at least one previous attempt by the President-General of the UNIA to visit the colony. This was in 1921, but it was clear from the diplomatic correspondence between British Governors in British Guiana and Jamaica, that he would have been detained had he then set foot in the colony. In fact, the colonial authorities in British Guiana had been worried about Garvey's activity even before the first UNIA group had been consecrated on Guyanese soil. In 1918 Governor Wilfred Collett was inquiring from a fellow Governor of the likely existence of "certain Negroes" who might have been active on behalf of the UNIA. This documented anxiety led directly to the promulgation of the much-debated and controversial Seditious Publications Bill of 1919. Ostensibly directed against the Negro World, the Bill's nature held wider implications. Prior to the circulation of the Negro World in the colony, there were other publications that had posed a headache for the authorities. Indeed, no less an imperial overlord than Winston Churchill, then colonial Under-Secretary, entered the picture, issuing instructions as early as 1910 that a strict watch was to be kept to ascertain "whether the paper was being introduced for circulation among Indian students or others." The newspaper in question was the Free Hindustan. This along with a set of allegedly militant Indian publications, including the newspapers Ghadar and Bande Mataram, were later "intercepted, read and destroyed" by the Postmaster-General. These publications, like the Negro World at a later stage, were found by the authorities to be of a "grossly offensive character."

The labour movement had just been formally established and the UNIA was an early ally, particularly with Hubert Critchlow's British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU). The alliance they established at moments would form part of the UNIA and labour heritage in the colony and this extended into the 1930s. So close was the relationship between the two organisations that union leaders made a point of inviting the UNIA to its main official functions. For example, on the third anniversary of the BGLU in 1922 it was noted that "Dr. Tobit (sic) and other representatives of the United Negroes Improvement Association were in attendance." As in other territories in the Caribbean, the UNIA was blamed for contributing to labour unrest. When the economic fortunes of the colony declined seriously in 1922, the BGLU and the UNIA held a "mass meeting at the Parade Ground to protest the cuts and the payments of higher rents." It was evident that the activities of the UNIA made the authorities wary of the organisation, small as its organisational roots were, and this was confirmed by the fact that the Special Branch was "required to report on the activities of its members."

From its formal establishment in British Guiana in April 1919 to Garvey's visit in 1937, the UNIA acted as a loyal conduit of the black leader's philosophy in the colony.

The founding statement of the organisation, as reported in the Daily Chronicle on April 20, 1919 is an item of considerable value as a public record of the UNIA. It provided a glimpse of its local support base. The newspaper report, brief and to the point, said, "A meeting was held on Thursday night last at the Scottish Flower Lodge...for the inauguration of a branch of an American Society known as The Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League of George-town. There was a fair attendance of clerks, mechanics and porters."

This tidbit of information along with the other newspaper reports and oral history on the history of the UNIA in British Guiana suggests an association with a relatively modest organisational career. At its maximum strength it was said to have seven groups scattered geographically across the colony with an average membership of two hundred. While this was numerically small compared to approximately thirty UNIA cells in neighbouring Trinidad, the Garvey organisation in its collective effort did make an impression on social activities in British Guiana. Throughout the period of its existence it managed to immerse itself in a number of activities consistent with its counterparts elsewhere in the hemisphere. For instance, the UNIA cooperated with Churches like the Jordanites, continually provided dinners for the poor of all races, and celebrated and defended the state of Ethiopia when the Italians invaded in 1935.

This was achieved through practical initiatives, including fund-raising for the beleaguered republic. These in conjunction with its well-known and continual support for labour gave the British Guiana UNIA a consistent visibility over time. But it faced its share of repression too as it tried to insert itself in the political and community action in the colony. The UNIA flowered at a time of the rise to public office of non-white middle-class politicians and legislators. The efflorescence of non-white groups in the early 20th century drawn from labour and civic organisations was enjoined by the internationalist Garvey presence.

Three decades later of activity and despite a limited organisational presence, the local UNIA prepared to receive its famous President-General. In October 1937 when Garvey set foot on British Guiana for the first time there was, from all indications, a perceptible diplomatic change in the mood of the authorities towards the black leader. This was not only conspicuous by the fact of the visit itself but also significant because Government House itself was a part of the beat for his hectic two-day tour of duty. This would have been unprecedented and unthinkable in the early 1920s. It appeared that on the eve of the visit Garvey's lieutenants had done some pre-visit diplomatic footwork and this was quite evident in the newspaper reports on the protocol of the stay.

Discipline in the ranks of the local UNIA appeared to be one of the prerequisites and this was reflected in the programme of activities.

After arrival at the Bookers wharf Garvey proceeded by car amidst large and enthusiastic crowds to the Lot 190 Charlotte street home of his host, Dr. S.I.T Wills. At his Town Hall reception later in the day Garvey was greeted by the Ethiopian National Anthem. He also paid a courtesy call on the Governor and then proceeded to the main event - his address to followers at the Fraternity Hall on Robb Street. Garvey's presence at the UNIA meeting was decisively the biggest event in the organisation's decades of work.

At the event itself some of the behind-the-scenes controversy of his visit made the newspapers. Garvey publicly chided a local UNIA official who attempted to relate a domestic complaint about police harassment in his presence. The newspaper also suggested that there was some rivalry over the car Garvey used from the Bookers Wharf. The report stated that Garvey "was first made to enter a car provided by the UNIA but later quit that for the car supplied by the Control Committee and with his secretary and Dr. S.I. T Wills drove away." The spat between rival individuals in the planning committee later became evident at the convention when one individual attempted to raise his grievances with the planning committee. The Daily Argosy provided a verbatim account of Garvey's verbal filibuster against the individual, T.A Wright, the President of a local division of a UNIA chapter. Wright was repeatedly requested to "shut up" and take his seat. It was not clear what Wright was trying to do, but his remarks were not aimed at Garvey but his [Wright's] apparent rivals in the local UNIA.

Garvey, however, was not willing to have internal bickering thwart his mission and was quite curt with the official. Garvey got angry when silence proved difficult for the persistent Wright and, at one point exclaiming, "Look here, if you don't stop that and let me talk to my people I shall go away immediately. I don't want to hear all of that nonsense." When Garvey was finally allowed to speak, he censured Wright: "I have not come here to break law and order and therefore I want you to understand that I am not responsible for ignorant people who make trouble everywhere they go". This was a clear reference to Wright's continued interruptions.

The spat between Wright and Garvey would later make it into the letter columns of the Argosy. One writer John Holder, described Garvey's behaviour during the conference as 'ignorant' remarking that Garvey had "proved himself a failure in the eyes of the intelligent people of this country."

During the address at the convention Garvey had regretted the confrontation, stating, "I am sorry that I had spoken in the way I had on this first visit to British Guiana, but I have been provoked to do so. I hope that in future you will conduct your affairs with all the decorum and decency that is necessary...". The newspaper also reported that Garvey made a lengthy reference to the Italian-Ethiopia conflict and offered to train a local at the African School of Philosophy in Toronto to take charge of the UNIA's work in British Guiana. To loud applause he ended his speech declaring that he would "take away the kindliest thoughts of British Guiana." Garvey left the shores of the colony the next day. He died in London in 1940.