Book review from Black Flag #216 1999.
Richard Hart, Caribbean labour movement activist and historian, has produced a useful short history of the region. The book encompasses the English-speaking region and examines the development of the slave trade and the role of labour rebellions in the fight for political independence.
Hart roots his study in an unflinching examination of the barbarism of the colonial exploitation there.
"The European states that colonised the Caribbean region were acquisitive and aggressive. They inflicted great suffering on the aboriginal Amerindian people, in several islands to the point of extinction. They were also often at war with each other with the result that. until the first decade of the 19th century, there were frequent changes of possession. To the few Amerindians on the Caribbean islands who survived this incessant fighting over the lands stolen from them must have appeared to be a case of thieves falling out!"
The extent to which the French revolutionary government's 1791 declaration that all free men in the empire, whatever colour, were equal, inspired uprisings in Saint Dominique and Grenada is briefly examined, with British loathing of republican France manifested in bloody interventions throughout the Caribbean, Hart details the extent to which plantation slave labour produced sufficient wealth to transform ports like Liverpool and Bristol into major cities. and. quoting the slave trader John Newton, establishes the brutal nature of the techniques of exploitation involved:
"By rigorously straining their strength to the utmost, with little relaxation, hard fare, and hard usage, to wear them out before they became useless and unable to do service, and then to buy new ones, to fill up their places..."
Hart's exploration of the forms of resistance slaves adopted to fight against their exploitation is both moving and inspirational, the brutality of slavery being met head on by the dignity of those who refused to abandon their right to freedom:
”resistance was offered in many ways. Minor resistance included inducement of abortions by some women to ensure that they did not bear children enslaved from birth... individual escapes were attempted... Higher forms of resistance took the form of mass escapes, rebellion. or conspiracy to rebel, and guerrilla warfare."
Slave uprisings were, inevitably. brutally suppressed, with mass executions of rebel leaders often resorted to as a public deterrent. As Hart states.
"The numerous conspiracies and rebellions that took place, all ended in defeat. But (they) were nevertheless significant in that they kept the torch of liberty burning in the hearts of oppressed men and women and demonstrated their determination to be free. Had so many not fought for their freedom, the voices of those who condemned the slave trade would have been heard to less effect."
Hart's work on the development of an organised labour movement across the Caribbean is particularly detailed, focusing on the battles to sustain working class organisation which culminated in a wave of unrest across the Caribbean in the 1930s. In 1937, oil field workers, sugar workers and wharf workers took part in a wave of strikes which revealed both the extent of popular frustration, and the lack of direction of the spontaneous organisations thrown up, with the rebellions being capped partly by moves to channel militancy in the direction of the building of a reformist trade union movement. The formation of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union in Jamaica in 1938 betrays a similar tale: the sub-ordination of independent working class interests to a cross-class nationalism, reducing organised labour to the footsoldiers of the national independence movement -enfranchisement and self-determination extending only as far as the freedom from direct rule, not freedom from exploitation.
In 1937, faced with labour rebellion across the Trinidadian oil fields, the Acting Colonial Secretary, Howard Nankivell, was forced to concede.
”In the past we have had to salve our consciences with humbug and we have had to satisfy labour with platitudes. Those days have gone by... An industry has no right to pay dividends at all until it pays a fair wage to labour and gives the labourer decent conditions,"
Sadly, despite their profound history of militancy in pursuit of self organisation and independence, the right even to a "fair wage,.. and decent conditions" continues to be denied to most working people across the Caribbean. Richard Hart's detailed and inspiring book can at least play some part in re-establishing within the Caribbean labour movement the spirit of rebellions like Morant Bay to set against the reformism with which it is at present beset.