home

poetry

notes

comments

bulletins

calypso

dictionary

links

about us

     

SALUTING LABOUR HEROES

Caldwell Taylor

Dedicated to the memory of a great friend and brother, Godwin "Joe Cocker" Horsford, 1953-2008.


We'll never let our leader fall,
For we love him the best of all,
We don't want to fight to show our might,
But when we start , we'll fight,fight,fight,
In peace or war, you'll hear us sing,
God save our leader, God save us all,
At the ending of the strike, the flag unfurled
We'll never let our leader fall!


(Anthem of the Gairy Union [GMMWU].
The song is an adaptation of "We'll Never Let the Old Flag Fall", a World War 1 marching song about the Union Jack.)


Today is a good day to remember, discover, re-discover and dip our knees- in well-deserved tributes -to the men and women
whose pioneering labours have won us those rights and freedoms that we all now seem to take for granted.


Some of these men and women are justly regarded as heroes and exemplars, so we hang their beatific likenesses in hallowed halls, public plazas and squares:  their names are given to airports and highways, and in a few cases, to imaginative works of public art and monumental architecture.

And then there are labour heroes who are yet very little known. These "unknowns" are alive only in the grateful bosoms of the eye-witnesses to their extraordinary courage.  This writer includes Grenadians Mclean Pope, Kakademo Grant,Charles Grant, Gascoigne Blaize, James Braithwaite, Sydney de Bourg, and Ethellyn in the first rank of the forgotten or little appreciated pioneers of the labour movement.


Pioneers Sydney de Bourg and James Braithwaite made their respective stands during Trinidad's trailblazing dockworkers' strike of November 15 to December 3,1919. For his pains, Sydney was 'shipped' back to Grenada; Jimmy (a Kyack) got
three months in jail for calling "an unlawful strike".

Mother Ethellyn was one of the key militants in the Butler strikes of the Thirties; indeed, it was Ethellyn who head-butted "enemies"-including the police-outta the "Chief Servant's" way;  Ethellyn's curses and shouts punctuate the sound-track of the June 19, 1937 events at Fyzabad.

Beyond the famous and the famously unknown labour activists, there exists- to my mind-another category of labour heroes. These are the pen-pushing partisans who translated shouted oaths and petitions into an imperishable form-writing.

RAC Boissiere,member of the early 1930s Beacon group and a father of our West Indian literary tradition- is a hero in this latter category.  Boissiere, who moved to Australia in 1948, died there just three months ago; he was 100 years old.

Ralph Anthony Charles Boissiere was, in his own words, a product of "one of the best known French-Creole families in Trinidad". Ralph's mother, Maude Harper, was English; his father Armand was a leading barrister in Trinidad.  The Boissiere clan owned cocoa estates and their stately mansions were landmarks that boasted their economic wealth and their social substance.  Former Trinidad and Tobago prime minister Eric Williams (1911-1981) was a Boissiere on his mother's side.
But Eliza, Eric's mother, was a poor Boissiere who married Henry Williams, a dark-skinned postal worker of Grenadian parentage.


REBEL RALPH

Young Ralph Boissiere attended Port of Spain's Queens Royal College, then an elite secondary school for the sons of the rich . QRC was known for its classical curriculum and its iron discipline- factors that could breed rebellion in the hearts of young men.

And Ralph rebelled. He abandoned the church and grew his hair long-to make himself into the antithesis of his father and his class, as well as give visual expression to the tremors that agitated his sensitive heart.

Ralph would eventually leave home to work as a yeast salesman to bakeries across Trinidad.   Thinking of de Boisierre the yeast salesman conjures up for this writer potent words from the Spanish essayist and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who wrote:

"My aim is to agitate and disturb. I'm not selling bread; I am selling yeast."


Yeast salesman de Boissiere sought out kindred spirits in the streets and in the barrack yards of Port of Spain. He found CLR "Nello" James, Albert "Bertie" Gomes, Sonny Carpenter and Alfred Mendes.


Together these young rebels discussed world literature, the Russian Revolution, Garveyism, the Harlem Renaissance, and the various anti-colonial uprisings of their day. They went on to found the Beacon journal, which ran from March 1931 to November 1933. Albert Gomes (1911-1978)- the son of a Portuguese shop-keeper-was the Beacon's editor and sole
financial backer; the journal folded when Gomes's father staunched the flow of cash.  Gomes would go on to co-found the Caribbean Labour Congress (CLC) in 1945.


The idea of the CLC was conceived at the 1926 British Guiana and West Indies Labour Conference, convened by the immortal Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow (1884-1958) in British Guiana. At its inaugural meeting in Barbados in 1945, the CLC
elected T.A. Marryshow as president (titular),  Grantley Adams and Hubert Critchlow as vice presidents, Vivian Henry as secretary, and Richard Hart as assistant secretary.The organization committed itself to West Indian federation, dominion status (self-governing within the Empire) and socialism.


But the CLC did not last as long as the proverbial sno-cone in hell. As a matter of fact, the organisation came apart in 1948 in the wake of CLC vice president Grantley Adams's "act of perfidy":   Adams went to Paris to attend the Third Session of
the United Nations General Assembly as a member of  the British delegation, and his job was to respond to Soviet/ communist attacks on British colonialism. The Paris 'affair' drove a wedge between Adams and the CLC Left- led by Richard Hart.   The organisation did not actually fold in 1948, it hobbled along until it was officially put to rest in 1953.

Ultimately, the CLC failed for the same reason that other self-described "Left" movements in the Caribbean, including the New Jewel- have failed: the lack of theoretical/ ideological imagination, and the failure to brew a homemade philosophy of history.


BOISSIERE'S CROWN JEWEL

As a member of the Beacon group Boissiere  documented the workers' struggles, especially those taking place in the oilfields of south Trinidad, where a of number of racist South Africans, including H.C.W. Johnson, General Manager of Leaseholds Ltd., ruled with iron fists.

Boissiere would go on to write five novels, the most celebrated of these being Crown Jewel, a naturalistic portrait of the so-called "Butler Riots" of 1937, which pitted a dark-skinned underclass against its white and off-white rulers.  In Crown Jewel, Boissiere gives us a glimpse into the collective pyschology of the rulers of the colour-coded Trinidadian society of the 1930s:


"In the mind of Trinidad "Society" our people are graded somewhat as follows: first the whites, then the Portuguese, Chinese and Indians:  then sundry nationalities , newcomers who have not yet gained an important place in the island's
economic life, such as the Syrians, Lebanese, East Europeans, Greeks: and last of all the Negroes. Yet the blacks form the bulk of the population. They and the Indians are the principal beasts of burden-the Negroes on the oilfields and the cocoa estates, the Indians in the sugar belt".


Crown Jewel brings us face to face with a people that is trying to find its own voice, and also make its own way out of the consequences of slavery indentureship, and colonialism.


Here we meet Boisson (A.A. Cipriani, 1875-1945), the white champion of the "barefoot masses", whose reformism is being challenged by a militant black named Ben Le Maitre (Butler, 1897-1977).


We meet a brutal policeman named "Duke", who would eventually be burned alive by irate workers; Duke is of course the notorious Carl "Charlie" King.

We meet union activists , Cassie Walcott, for example.   Cassie, "a living torch" (p.440) seems in some ways a stand in for the indomitable Elma Francois (1897-1944).


Elma was of course the heroine of the Negro Welfare Association and just like Cassie, her literary counterpart, she radicalized and inspirited the men and women around her. Elma (Cassie) reminds one of "Miss Marie", calypsonian Growling Tiger's lady
friend. It was Miss Marie who shamed the reluctant bard into joining a union, and subsequently, a strike, for better wages. Tiger laments in this 1939 song, "Miss Marie's Advice":


Ah mean to say,
Your advice was fine, Miss Marie
But Ah change me mind
Thank you very much
Your advice was fine , Miss Marie
But Ah change me mind
Is you that say
That four dollars ah week for me pay
Cyah support no woman
Ah join the strikers
And what happen finally
They give me three months in custody



Notwitstanding Tiger's sexist mischiefs, the song is another piece of evidence attesting to the crucial role women played in forging unionism in Trinidad, and by extrapolation, the wider Caribbean. In Grenada, for example, the rise of Gairy's Grenada Manual and Mental Workers Union was made possible only on account of the heroic activism of women like Geraldine Calliste and the gravelly-voiced Androlina.

Written in late 1930s, Crown Jewel was not published until 1952,four years after de Boissiere arrived in Australia where he worked on the assembly line of a General Motors plant making Holden cars. The historian is reminded of another Caribbean great-Bob Marley- who, 14 years later, did a short stint- "working on a forklift/ in the night shift" at a Chrysler auto plant in Wilmington, Delaware.

Crown Jewel was subsequently published in Poland, The German Democratic Republic, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, China, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. In the West, the book and its author were known only among a spattering of hardy bibliophiles.

In 1982, CJ was resurrected for Western audiences, when it was reissued by the Allison and Busby. Salman Rusdie
reviewed it, calling it a depiction of the history -making Caribbean that was unknown to novelist V.S. Naipaul.  It was Rushie literary jab at the Trinidadian-born novelist who wrote:

"History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies".


Darryl Pinckney also reviewed CJ for the NY Times Book Review in May 1982. But even so, de Boisierre remained an obscure name in Caribbean letters.


That obscurity receded quite a bit in 2007, when the University of Trinidad and Tobago- at its November 17, 2007 graduating exercises, conferred on de Boissiere an honouary doctor of letters degree. In his citation of Boissiere for the honoury doctorate Professor Kenneth Ramchand, associate provost of UTT's Academy of the Arts, Letters, Culture, and Public Affairs, said:


"Mr Boissiere has lived in Australia for nearly sixty years , but the content ,  theme and tone of his work from Crown
Jewel to Rum and Coca- Cola, to Homeless in Paradise and the Call of the Rainbow have always been West Indian. The Trinidad Quartet establishes de Boissiere as the most important writer for understanding and feeling the making of modern Trinidad".


The 2007 U of TT honorary doctorate 'repatriated' de Boissiere just in the nick of time: the writer died on February 16, 2008.


AND THE MORAL OF THE STORY IS


If there is a moral to this story it is this: The minders of Labour's pantheon must make room for all of the heroes of the labour movement. Room for Adams, Bird, Butler, Bradshaw, Braithwaite,Bustamente and Garvey; for Cipriani, Cola Reinzi, Critchlow, Gairy; for Hart, Janet and Cheddi; for Marryshow, Clement Payne and "Selassie" Lewis;for E.T. Joshua,Elma Francois, for Bertha Mutt ;for the brave Kowsilla; for Ethellyn, for the Mt Horne militants - Po cho Romain, Pingee Romain,Hamilton Paterson, Mevrille "No More" Charles, and others; and for Ralph de Boissiere.


April 30, 2008.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

             

BigDrumNation.org
988 Bruce Avenue, Windsor, Ontario, Canada N9A 4X7
(519)253-9389 *Fax (519)253-0235