|SALUTING LABOUR HEROES
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
Today is a good day to remember, discover, re-discover
and dip our knees- in well-deserved tributes -to the men
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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