An Ethiopian Tent: Garveyism and the Roots of Caribbean Labor Radicalism

By Ewing, Adam | The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online), October 2017 | Go to article overview

An Ethiopian Tent: Garveyism and the Roots of Caribbean Labor Radicalism


Ewing, Adam, The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)


At the break of dawn on June 19, 1937, smoke billowed from the wells of the Apex Company at Fyzabad, in the heart of Trinidad's southern oilfields. It was a signal to workers to stay home: The strike, which had been threatened since the beginning of the month, had begun. Worker defiance quickly engulfed the western half of the island, first spreading through the oilfields, then heading north to the sugar plantations and the towns, reaching Port of Spain, the capital, on June 22. Police and volunteer forces, overwhelmed by the extent of the resistance, opened fire time and again on the crowds, killing at least twelve, and wounding dozens. Only the arrival of two British warships, on June 22 and 23, allowed authorities to regain control. 1 Out of the carnage came the reluctant acknowledgement of the need for trade unions-until then, sharply circumscribed-and the institutionalization of the labor movement in Trinidad.2 During a fleeting moment of sympathy for the workers, the Acting Colonial Secretary, Howard H. Nankivell, pledged "a new era in the history of Trinidad," an end to the "conditions of economic slavery" and the institution of fair wages and decent conditions of employment.3

The labor rebellion in Trinidad comprised an episode in a series of dramatic strikes and riots that shook the British West Indies in the second half of the 1930s, forever altering the landscape of the region and laying the foundation for the labor and decolonization struggles of the subsequent decades. The confrontations-pitting majority populations of poor, disenfranchised workers of color against the islands' powerful white oligarchies-were a product of the severe economic hardships set in motion by the Great Depression: collapsing sugar prices, spiking unemployment, reduced wages, escalating poverty. These class-based grievances were woven into longstanding racial tensions, which were ignited by the aggression of Italian fascists in Ethiopia, beginning in late 1934. Typical of interwar labor radicalism in the greater Caribbean, black workers viewed their struggle for economic justice through a prism of racial solidarity; labor, to borrow the felicitous phrase of the leader of the Trinidad demonstrations, Tubal Uriah"Buzz" Butler," mobilized under an "Ethiopian tent."4 It was a blend of labor politics and racial consciousness born from an earlier, galvanizing period of radicalism following the end of the First World War. It was a politics that owed both its articulation, and its persistence, to Garveyism.

Despite the tremendous importance of Garveyism in shaping the politics of the greater Caribbean, the study of Caribbean Garveyism remains an "emerging field." 5 Recently, this has meant a minor proliferation of studies that examine the influence of Garveyism and the Universal Negro Improvement Association in a particular place, or at a particular moment in time. The results have been illuminating.

Ronald Harpelle, focusing on Garveyist contacts with West Indian migrants employed by the United Fruit Company (UFC) in Costa Rica, has demonstrated the extent to which the demands of UNIA fundraising aligned with UFC business interests, particularly after 1921. Marc McLeod and Frank Guridy have fruitfully explored the intersection of UNIA race consciousness with ethnic diversity, and with the competing discourse of "raceless nationality," in Cuba. Carla Burnett has established the deep relationship between Garveyist organizing and labor radicalism in the Panama Canal Zone in 1919 and 1920; while, conversely, Anne Macpherson has convincingly demonstrated the extent to which Garveyism evolved into a politics of conservative reform in British Honduras (now Belize). Like much of the recent work on American Garveyism, these studies have successfully and helpfully illustrated the extent to which the movement was shaped by local forces, molded by participants to suit their diverse and often contradictory sets of needs.6

What remains missing from recent work is a more comprehensive regional dialogue, a sustained discussion about the trajectory of Caribbean Garveyism against which to test the fissures of local variety. …

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