Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Beyond the Great Depression: Business Practices and the Barbados Revolt of 1937

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Beyond the Great Depression: Business Practices and the Barbados Revolt of 1937

Article excerpt

In July 1937, the working people of Barbados launched a revolt in which they attacked the police and merchants stores in the island's port-town, Bridgetown. In the rural areas, they extended this attack to shops and plantations, forcing the governor to call on the combined efforts of the police, the Volunteer Force and the British troops to restore order. Fourteen people were killed and over forty-seven wounded in the suppression exercise. Shortly after, the British Governor, Sir Mark Young, announced the establishment of a three-man local commission, chaired by Sir George Deane, to investigate the causes of the revolt. That commission, later referred to as the Deane Commission, held thirty-one meetings, examined 135 witnesses and reported that the revolt was caused by the "large accumulation of explosive matter in the island to which the deportation of the Payne only served as detonator".1 The Commission concluded that the real cause was "economic". It cited the issue of overpopulation as the "root cause" of the problem, noting that with a population of 189,350 in August 1937 the country had an excess of 20,000 persons which forced many to move from the rural to the urban areas. The report also noted that the closure of migration outlets to Panama, Cuba, the United States of America (USA) and Britain did increase the level of hardship among the population.2

This view was echoed by the Barbadian historian F.A. Hoyos, in his 1974 publication, who reduced the causes of the revolt to poor social and economic conditions, characterized by poverty and hunger. Hoyos trumpeted the role of external stimuli when he noted that emigration outlets in the USA were closed to West Indians and "the economic depression caused reductions in wages, increases in taxation and widespread unemployment."3

In 1987, another Barbadian historian, Robert Morris, produced a paper on the causes of the revolt. It posited the view that the Great Depression of the 1920s and the 1930s increased the cost of imported food and reduced the demand for Barbadian sugar exports, thus forcing the sugar planters to reduce wages paid to agricultural workers. For him, the depression also impacted the size of remittances from the USA, Cuba and the Canal Zone, triggering a decline in the number of registered articles received between 1928 and 1937.4 Morris asserts, therefore, that the depression occurred against a background of increasing "structural fragilities in the economic and social life of the plantation economies of the British Caribbean, and can be seen as a significant causal factor of the disturbances which erupted in the region after 1934".5

The Barbados upheaval of July/August 1937 occurred in a period when other British colonies were experiencing labour revolts. O. Nigel Bolland reminds us that the revolts started in 1934 in Belize when Antonio Soberanis led a labour struggle there. Unrest also occurred in St Kitts in October 1934 as sugar workers launched a strike for higher wages. This was followed by a revolt in St Vincent in October 1935 over wages and the imposition of customs duties. The "riot fever" then spread to Trinidad in June 1937, followed by Jamaica in 1938.6 Throughout the Caribbean, therefore, workers rose up in revolt, demanding higher wages, better working conditions and an improvement in their povertystricken condition.

The contribution of external forces such as the Great Depression seems plausible on the surface because of the correlation between such economic forces, material hardship and revolt. However, this position neglects the deeper systemic issues which were responsible for the cre- ation of hardship in the first place. Those issues relate specifically to the unfair business practices of the plantation managers and commission and retail merchants which exacerbated the economic situation when the depression struck. Indeed, the Deane Commission, even though it identified the root cause as overpopulation, spent much of its time hearing evidence concerning price-fixing and low wages, and chastised the business community for its policies. …

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