The Contribution of the Enmore Martyrs to the advancement of the Working Class Struggle in Guyana
This month of June marks the 72nd Anniversary of the “Enmore Martyrs”. It was on the 16th of June 1948, that five sugar worker,s namely Rambarran, Lall called Pooran, Lallabagie Kissoon, Surujballi called Dookie and Harry were brutally gunned down while on strike at Plantation Enmore, East Coast Demerara. Those heroic sugar workers who died have come through the years to be known as the “Enmore Martyrs”.
These workers were the main focus of a lecture presented by Head of the Resource Mobilisation and Planning unit of the University of Guyana, Tota Mangar, at the first ever Cheddi Jagan Working Class Forum that was hosted at the Red House, last Tuesday. That lecture is presented here in its entirety.
The sugar plantation, historically, has been perceived as a symbol of oppression, degradation and exploitation of workers by expatriate capital. From the very beginning, it was a European creation specifically designed to further the ends of colonial exploitation. As an economic institution, its prime historic need was for a reservoir of cheap, malleable and immobile labour; forged in the circumstances, its genesis was antagonistic, based on the system of slavery and much later indentureship. In Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean, sugar cane cultivation and sugar manufacture was perceived by the colonizer as the “supreme colonial economic effort”. It was not surprising therefore that the plantation, in its pursuance of maximum production and productivity, was pre-occupied with arbitrary, crude and brutal and demanding tendencies.Mr. Tota Mangar presents at the first ever Cheddi Jagan Working Class Forum hosted at the Red House last Tuesday
During slavery, the enslaved labour force perceived sugar as the “symbol of all their accumulated woes and the plantation as the focus of colonial domination and oppression”. As a result, they resisted when they could and they accommodated when they had to.
Oppression and exploitation persisted during the period of indentureship and immigrants eventually debunked the myth of being a “docile labour force”. They resisted and openly defied the system as in the case of sugar strikes and protests in 1869, 1872,1876,1879,1888,1894,1896,1899,1903,1905,1913,1914,1924 and 1939. In every case, the response of the plantation oligarchy and the colonial police was stark, brutal and uncaring.
The Enmore strike of 1848 originated in the general dissatisfaction of labourers with their miserable conditions of work and living. Wages were far from satisfactory. In fact they were considered very low. At the same time, the cost of living index had moved from 95 to 247 between the period 1939-1948, largely as a consequence of World War II. What it meant was that the workers circumstances were deteriorating with each passing year. Further, in spite of repeated demands to improve the existing wage rate, the Sugar Producers Association (SPA) remained intractable.
At Enmore, the old system of “cut and drop” had given way to a more arduous task of “cut and load” the punts. This system made the work of cane cutters more demanding and at the same time caused punt loaders to be redundant. Indeed, “cut and load proved to be an extremely strenuous and hazardous operation, especially during the rainy season. In addition, there was the faulty weighing of canes which the workers felt was deliberate. This practice resulted in loss of pay, workers dissatisfaction and poor industrial relations.
Moreover, potable water was not available, transportation facilities were practically non-existent, dismissals without just cause were rife, and houses and sanitary conditions were most appalling. The barrack-type logies were in a “state of advanced decay, dilapidation and general disrepair”. A 1937 commission report had recommended their replacement with four-block dwellings and structures of a more private nature, but the responses of the employer class was both slow and inconsistent.
Professional medical care on the plantation left much to be desired and illnesses associated with mosquitoes and water borne diseases were prevalent. Of added significance was the workers disenchantment with the recognized union of the day, the Manpower Citizens Association (MPCA). This union was funded through the instrumentality of the “Father of Trade Unionism in Guyana”, Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, who saw the need for a separate union in the sugar industry, along with the initiative of Mr. Ayube M.Edun and others. The MPCA was accorded recognition by the powerful Sugar Producers Association, following recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry into the 1939 strike at Plantation Leonora, West Coast Demerara.
It appeared that following recognition, the MPCA lost much of its militancy as it made very little progress against the SPA. Workers, for their part, felt they were being betrayed by the union which was evidently not doing enough for them.
Against such a background, the Guyana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU), the forerunner of the Guyana Agriculture and General Workers Union (GAWU), was formed in April 1948. At its helm were dynamic leaders Dr. Joseph Prayal Lachmansingh, Amos A. Rangela, Jane Phillips-Gay and others, and it was this new union which gave workers a ray of hope.
The SPA stood with its recognition pact with the MPCA and this further incensed the disaffected workers and made the union more unpopular and being seen as a “company union”.
Workers saw the 1948 strike at Enmore as a means of forcing the SPA into recognising GIWU as the bargaining agent instead of the grossly ineffective MPCA.
The strike itself began on the 22nd of April, 1948, at Plantation Enmore and it quickly spread to the neighbouring East Coast Sugar plantations, including Non Pariel, Lusignan,Mon Repos, La Bonne Intention (LBI), Vryheid’s Lust and Ogle. As the weeks progressed, the strike gained momentum, and more and more workers joined in the struggle.
On that fateful day, June 16, 1948 the striking workers, as usual, gathered outside the Enmore Estate compound. With tensions running high, some of them attempted to enter the compound. And it was at that stage that the police took unwarranted action. Without warning, they opened fire into the crowd. Some labourers were even shot in their backs as they attempted to escape the onslaught.
All told, five sugar workers lost their lives and fourteen others were seriously injured. Those who perished were as follows: Rambarran, who sustained two bullet wounds in his leg; Lall, called Pooran, shot in his leg and a gaping three inch wound above his pelvis; Lallabage Kissoon, shot in the back; Surujballi, called Dookie, also shot in the back; and Harry, shot in the spine.
It is rather amazing that such harsh actions by colonial police could have persisted in the late 1940s. After all the first half of the twentieth century in colonial Guyana had witnessed the emergence and rapid growth of trade unionism and labour organisation in general, the rise of political consciousness, a growing middle class, economic diversification, a declining influence of the plantocracy and other positive developments.
Those killed were taken from Enmore through a large funeral procession along the East Coast of Demerara. The procession included thousands of sugar workers and prominent labour union and political leaders. The bodies of the victims were eventually laid to rest at the Le Repentir cemetery and it was one of the largest funeral processions to have entered the capital city of Georgetown.
COMMISSION OF INQUIRY
The deaths led to the setting up of a commission of inquiry to investigate the circumstances relating to this tragic and unfortunate incident. But like many commissions of the past, this one was seemingly biased. Nonetheless, it felt that with more foresight on the part of the police and estate authorities, actual shooting could have been avoided. It was also the commission’s considered opinion that excessive shooting had taken place and it was abundantly clear that some of the victims had been shot when they were defenceless and on the run. This tragic episode could have been prevented had it not been for the contempt shown by the plantocracy towards its own workers.
Did the Enmore Martyrs die in vain? I venture to say an emphatic no. Undoubtedly, their contribution to the overall advancement of the Working class struggle in Guyana is immeasurable.
I daresay the incident surrounding the Enmore Martyrs had a lasting effect on the lives of numerous people, including leading personalities. Foremost is the Father of our nation and late President, Dr. Cheddi Jagan himself. On this issue, he revealed in THE WEST ON TRIAL “At the graveside the emotional outburst of the widows and relatives of the deceased were intensely distressing and I could not restrain my tears. There was to be no turning back. There and then I made a silent pledge. I would dedicate my entire life to the cause of the struggle of the Guianese people against bondage and oppression”.
In the ensuing years, this remarkable man did exactly that – he devoted his entire life to the cause of all Guyanese and the working class in particular. He quickly established himself as the champion of the working class in the legislative council and was very critical of the planter oligarchy and other exploitative elements in society. His militancy and robust advocacy won him international recognition as a fearless anti colonial fighter. His timely interventions on behalf of the working man, the unemployed and the disposed made him the leading political figure in the colony. As to his radical outlook in the immediate past1948 tragedy, he confessed “It brought a new dimension to the politics of protest, continuity between the legislature and the street corner, the legislature was brought to the streets and the streets to the legislature.”
Senior counsel Mr. Ashton Chase, OE, in his seminal work HISTORY OF TRADE UNIONISM IN GUYANA acknowledges that “In Dr. Jagan, the workers found an outstanding champion of their rights … on many occasions, single handedly, but nevertheless most heroically and inspiringly, he fought for the workers rights.”
Addressing a symposium at this very centre in March 2002, on the occasion of the passing of Dr. Jagan, Internationally acclaimed scholar and distinguished professor Clive Thomas had this to say, “From these personal reflections I have no doubt whatsoever that Cheddi Jagan was an exceptional patriot, an exceptional trade unionist with a heart readily committed to the working class people and the working class interests”.
FALLEN ENMORE HEROES
Obviously the inspiration, the fiercer determination had to do with his final pledge before the Enmore Martyrs in 1848. The fallen Enmore heroes must have inspired and influenced their colleagues and other trade union and political leaders to intensify the struggle for social and economic justice and betterment in general. The Enmore Martyrs incident was certainly an embarrassment to the Local Legislature and the Colonial Office at the time. It forced the latter to promptly appoint a Commission of Inquiry (Venn Commission) to enquire and report on the organisation of the sugar industry in Guyana, with particular reference to means of production, wages and working conditions and other relevant matters and to make recommendations. This Commission spent two months in Guyana (December 1948-February 1949) visiting estates and taking evidence. In the long run, it made some tangible recommendations which have a direct bearing on some of the very grievances of the Enmore workers of 1848.
Among these were the: Prohibition of child labour under 14 years of age, the supply of potable water at convenient points on estates, the provision of planks of adequate width available at the site to facilitate the system of “cut and load”, the establishment of a single wage board or council for the entire sugar industry with workers representatives nominated by trade unions, the introduction of a contributionary pension scheme, the establishment of at least four state hospitals in localities conveniently accessible to estates and villages, the clearing of ranges on logies and the rehousing of occupants, government administration of schools on estates, the establishment of community centres and sports ground with suitable facilities, and the appointment of welfare officers to each estate.
While these were merely recommendations, they could be viewed as a major breakthrough in the face of an uncaring plantocracy, thanks to the priceless sacrifice of the Enmore martyrs.
In the final analysis, they left a legacy of militancy and activism for workers to follow. With the Guyana Industrial Workers Union giving away to GAWU, the struggle for betterment and a just society was to intensify. GAWU , the union of the workers choice, had to wage a prolonged and relentless battle for recognition. This was very evident during the turbulent period of the early 1960s and onwards. A 13-week strike in the industry in 1975 culminated in a long awaited poll between GAWU and MPCA. The end result was a resounding recognition victory for GAWU, with some 98 percent of the ballots. Certainly the Enmore martyrs had made their contribution towards the eventual accomplishment of recognition.
Today, GAWU is not only the largest single union in the country, but its scope of representation has widened to include workers in other sectors. It is also one of the most militant unions where working class struggle and effective representation are concerned.
The heroes and martyrs of Enmore will long be remembered for their sterling contribution to the advancement of the working class struggle in Guyana and a better tomorrow.
Many of the very things that they so relentlessly struggled for in 1948 have since been achieved by sugar workers in particular, and workers outside the sugar industry in general. For example, improvements were made in workers’ wages, and conditions of work, sanitary conditions, transportation, recreational facilities and in education and training. The way for these achievements was paved by the struggle and the sacrifice of the Enmore martyrs.
As we commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the Enmore Martyrs, let us take inspiration from their priceless sacrifice in the cause of the working class. The names Rambarran, Lall called Pooran, Lallabagie Kisson, Surujbali called Dookie and Harry are certain to live on for decades to come.
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