Upheaval in Scarborough: The strike of 1919

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

On the morning of December 6, 1919, the authorities in Tobago were caught unawares when the capital was overtaken by striking workers who were protesting against the low wages that were paid on the island.

The daily wage was 28 cents, while saltfish sold at 18 cents per pound and rice at ix cents. Life was difficult for the workers because, especially as a result of World War I, the price of goods had escalated and wages remained stagnated at levels of the previous century.

The strike action began with cartmen, carpenters and labourers who were employed in the Public Works Department who struck for better wages, but it quickly turned into a riot as the strikers who were joined by other workers, took possession of the town, which they held up to 10am.

The alarmed officials sought to persuade the disgruntled workers to leave the town and return to their homes to no avail. With the support of growing numbers, the resisters armed themselves with bottles, sticks and stones and gathered in the uptown business area, where they forced businesses to close.

They then moved to the commercial buildings, where they forced the workers to leave and the owners/managers to close their doors. They then turned on government buildings – the courthouse, telephone exchange and wireless building.

Officials were now in panic mode, because these were the main administrative buildings on the island and the means of communication with central government, so it was important that they should be protected from the wrath of the strikers.

The island’s chief administrators, the Warden and the Chief of Police, tried to take control of the situation by attempting to negotiate with the angry workers. They were struck by missiles thrown by the protesters and received blows all the way from the commercial area to the police station and back around to the marketplace. The crisis had developed beyond the ability of the battered, bewildered officials to manage.

The crisis deepened as the strike action spread to estate labourers on several estates across the island. The Chief of Police confessed that he did not possess the resources to deal effectively with the situation and asked for reinforcements to deal with what he described as “serious disturbances.” Particularly worrisome was the situation at Friendship Estate, which had escalated to such an extent that the estate needed to be put under the control of a patrol of marines to maintain order.

In order to restore order on the island, the panic-stricken officials hastily appointed special constables from among plantation owners, government officials, members of the clergy and a group of World War I veteran volunteers to augment the limited police force.

The policemen who were deployed to the scene in Scarborough were armed because the situation warranted firm handling and, according to the authorities, were forced to fire into the crowd to save their own lives.

In the process, Nathaniel Williams a 25-year-old porter of Mt Marie, was killed; Henry Niblett, Samuel Emmanuel, Sylvester Chevalier, Cyril Gordon, May Mc Kenzie and 17-year-old Albertha Critchlow were injured; and 23 people were arrested.

The warden did not believe that the matter was settled, for he sensed that the workers remained disgruntled. In order to prevent a further upsurge, he requested that the 20 reinforcements remain in Tobago for an additional period to guard the courthouse, wireless and telephone buildings, which he felt had to be protected after the departure of the marines. They remained in Tobago until December 19.

During a “post-mortem,” all the officials agreed that the cause of the outburst was economic. While the Chief of Police stated that the question of wages was largely responsible, he suggested that an outside stimulus was also at work. He insisted that “agitators” from Trinidad had stirred up the population. Mention was made of three suspicious individuals who had arrived on the island on the boat.

Governor Chancellor, who discounted the claim of a Trinidad influence because of a lack of supporting evidence, stated that there was no evidence to support the claim that a Trinidad influence stimulated the upheaval. He indicated that a check of the passenger list of the Belize sought unsuccessfully to establish a link with the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association.

However, he did refer to the prevailing state of unrest among the working class of the island, which he suggested was enough for developments in Trinidad, a reference to the activities of the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association, to influence the population and bring discontent to a head.

The fear of negative influences being transmitted from Trinidad continued to influence policy. The authorities immediately implemented security measures to prevent the flow of destructive ideas and activities from Trinidad. All ships leaving the island were required to be checked before leaving and were not allowed to sail after dark.

The response of employers was a clear admission that the riot was caused by the prevailing economic conditions and in particular the low wages on the island. The Public Works Department announced that all its employees including those involved in task work, would receive a bonus of 25 cents, from January 1, 1920. This represented an increase from the usual ten-cents bonus payment. Without prompting, the usually tight-fisted planting community on the island also immediately increased the wages of labourers from 36 to 50 cents per day.

It was a clear attempt to appease the workers in order to prevent further escalation of the crisis and allow the authorities to bring the situation under control. The measures were also representative of the continuation of ruling-class fear of the black labour force, which has been evident since Emancipation.

In addition, officials and employers in Tobago were gripped by another fear: that negative developments in Trinidad would be exported to Tobago, with disruptive consequences.

The measures implemented were palliative, and, as a result, there was no resolution to the underlying longstanding problems which caused the upheaval.


"Upheaval in Scarborough: The strike of 1919"

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