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ON THE OTHER HAND: 1937 and all that

Peter Laurie

ON THE OTHER HAND: 1937 and all that

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Is 1937 relevant today?
First, we must agree on what to call the events of July 26, 1937.
We can hardly continue calling them “the riots”. Have we no pride? We might as well call them “the disturbances”, as the English, with their passion for understatement, did.
I suggest we officially call it what it was: our national revolution, because 1937 completely changed Barbados.  
Let’s recall the context.
Politically, because of property and income qualifications, only ten per cent of adult males could vote.
Economically, wages for most were as low as they had been a hundred years earlier and working conditions were atrocious.
There was no social welfare: no old age pensions, no unemployment insurance, no holidays with pay, nothing. Health, housing and education for most were deplorable.
And permeating the whole society was a white racism which, though not legally sanctioned, found practical expression in discrimination in employment, investment, housing, education and social life.
However, there was a growing political consciousness due to a confluence of events: the growing interest in socialist ideas; the black consciousness of the Marcus Garvey movement; the return of veterans from the First World War; the return of workers from Panama and Cuba; and the growing political articulation of the grievances of working people by black intellectuals in Barbados, foremost of whom was Charles Duncan O’Neal and journalist Clennell Wickham. After his election to the House in 1934, Grantley Adams also became a powerful voice for progressives.
The year 1937 began in Barbados with extensive labour unrest. Into this simmering cauldron of discontent Clement Payne of the Trinidad labour movement arrived in March, and the rest is now history.
Between the evening of July 26, when Payne was deported, and July 30, after a British warship had arrived and a state of emergency declared, people all across Barbados had risen up to express their disgust and anger and to insist on their human dignity, fundamental rights and freedoms for all. When it was all over, 14 people were killed, dozens wounded and hundreds imprisoned.
But the real revolution of 1937, impacting all Barbadians, was yet to come.
It propelled the rise of the labour movement and a proliferation of legislation from the 1940s onwards, conferring long demanded political, economic and social rights on the masses of Barbadians, culminating in Independence under the leadership of Errol Barrow in 1966. Make no mistake.
Those rights were won only as a result of unremitting political and economic struggle. But they were won peacefully, proving that a Parliament that was once the instrument of the planters and merchants could be converted into an institution serving the welfare of all.
In addition to this commitment to peaceful parliamentary change, 1937 also led to two other critical institutions.
The evolution of a political system featuring two well organized mass-based parties (the Barbados Labour Party since 1938 and the Democratic Labour Party since 1955) has been a cornerstone of our political stability.
Equally important was the creation and growth of the Barbados Workers’ Union under the leadership of Hugh Springer and Frank Walcott. This union has probably contributed more to Barbados’ social stability and progress than any other national institution.
Finally, 1937 forced the evolution of the business community from a small reactionary exclusionary planter-merchant clique into a diversified and progressive private sector.
Indeed, put those three together and we have three key things going for us: a relatively high standard of living, extraordinary social trust and a uniquely Barbadian institution for social dialogue and reconciliation: our Social Partnership.
But world-shattering technological and economic change now requires a paradigm shift. Government must totally re-evaluate its role; business become more innovative and competitive; and trade unions take a broader and more forward-looking view of defending the rights of workers (the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union today is a sad example of what unionism should not be). And we must raise national management skills to international standards.
Let’s tackle the new revolution with the same determination of 1937.
• Peter Laurie is a retired diplomat and commentator on social issues.