DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
ON JUNE 22, 1937, between 2.30 and 3 pm, amidst deadly street battles across the country between workers and colonial authorities, confrontation erupted in Rio Claro.
Professor Brinsley Samaroo, in his book Adrian Cola Reinzi: The life and times of an Indo-Caribbean progressive, describes it this way:
“Here about 300 oil and agricultural workers were joined by colleagues from TLL’s [Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd] Guayaguayare field where workers had to live in carat sheds with earthen floors while the manager, Colonel Beaumont lived in his seaside villa at Beaumont Estate in Mayaro.
“As the crowd marched from the railway station towards the town centre, they were stopped at the Scale House by the Warden, Errol Knowles who had, in anticipation, requisitioned twenty armed policemen from San Fernando who now joined his six men normally stationed at the Rio Claro police station.
“When the crowd refused to disband and started throwing stones, Knowles ordered the shooting in which Darling Trim, Ralph Chase, Ishmael (Khan) and Errol Hodge were immediately shot. One other person died later from wounds. Twenty persons were injured, and more than a dozen arrested. Among these arrested was a woman, Josephine Charles, who was later jailed for a year, alongside her male colleagues” (2022, 59-60), not only for participating in these revolts, but for violating colonial, gendered expectations of femininity and respectability.
Like other Indian and African women, including Phoolbassie and Elma Francois, she may have gathered stones in her skirt to stone police, tried to beat them with sticks or hoes, and used obscene language to fuel workers’ show of power. These tactics were used in addition to downing tools, blocking buildings and roadways, challenging orders, and refusing to work.
Such roles highlight the intersections of labour and gender in working women’s lives, for they experienced subjugation as workers, but also as women whose bodies, fertility, sexuality, childbearing and child-rearing all deeply intersected their experience of inequity and violence, and their anti-colonial resistance.
While we are more familiar with unrest in Fyzabad, San Fernando, Point Fortin and Port of Spain, and with the June 19, 1937, fiery death of Constable Charles King, less is known about the protests of June 22 in places such as Tunapuna, Arouca and Rio Claro.
Marking our labour history as we did this week (and fire bun the Queen’s Jubilee) means recognising how many sites across our landscape, and around our homes, are sacred symbols of struggle to improve conditions for working classes.
Many feel disconnected from such history, but it is a record of the moments when African and Indian workers understood that they were mutually downpressed by low wages, poor conditions, high cost of living, unjust administration, and consolidation of power among colonial elites.
Today, as tens of thousands are reeling from insufficient income, insecure and contract work, non-unionised employment, unemployment without alternatives in a stagnant economy, lack of access to maternity leave, and increasing costs of meeting our daily needs, remembering our connection to each other as workers can keep us allied when political leaders from across the spectrum are doing their best to maintain a racial divide.
In this context, the Rio Claro Heritage and Preservation Committee is seeking support for a plaque, “Dedicated to the Workers of Rio Claro and all who fight for Justice, Freedom, Unity, and Equality.”
Part of the wording says, “This plaque stands as a tribute to those dead, injured, and arrested comrades and others who were part of this historic protest. It’s also an act of memory and an expression of a grateful Community and Nation to those who paid the steepest price, the loss of life, in the pursuit of equality, justice, and a better Trinidad and Tobago. May we always remember them all, as patriots and examples of struggle and sacrifice – especially those who paid the ultimate price.”
Our inherited symbols of history are colonial. This plaque marks colonised people’s resistance to power. It is a decolonial symbol, like the Emancipation Support Committee’s Yoruba Village Monument and like the Hindu Women Organisation’s statue of indentured worker Ajee Soogree Jattan.
These highlight how ancestral culture and spirituality fortified survival and defiance. Indeed, Spiritual Baptists, who were demonised by colonial authorities, were also part of the Rio Claro resistance, they too understanding that oppression intersects labour, religion, sex and race.
On June 22 (today) at 6 pm, there’s a Zoom event that discusses all this. Login at 894 1652 0651. The password is 483 684. For more information, contact Ako Mutota at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Diary of a mothering worker