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Raffique Shah


Readying a nation for battle

By Raffique Shah

APRIL 21, 1970 proved to be one of the most extraordinary days in the history of this country. It was not as if the close-to-calamitous events that would shake the foundations of the new democratic state were wholly unexpected. Following almost two months of daily meetings and mass demonstrations staged by disparate groups that came together under the banner of the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams had advised the Governor General Sir Solomon Hochoy to declare a State of Emergency.

DURING the course of the night of April 20, as the nation slept a fitful sleep, not knowing what the 'morrow would bring, the police arrested a number of NJAC leaders-Dave Dabreau (now Khafra Kambon), George Weekes and Winston Leonard.

But the most dramatic development was a full-scale mutiny at Teteron Barracks, headquarters of the Regiment. This occurred shortly after the soldiers were summoned to the parade square and briefed about the emergency and the role they were expected to play in "restoring peace".

Earlier, Nelson Island, that historic piece of rock off the Chaguaramas peninsula that housed a prison of sort, had been prepared for receiving prisoners, not for the first time in its history. The island had served as the reception point for tens of thousands of Indian immigrants between 1845 and 1917.

It was there that the father of the local labour movement, Tubal Uriah Butler, had been held prisoner for the duration of the Second World War, having been deemed a security risk to the then British colony. Now, eight years after the Union Jack was lowered for the last time from the flagpole outside the Red House, more than 50 of the most patriotic citizens of independent Trinidad and Tobago were destined to be detained there at the will of the Government. None of them had been charged with any serious crime (some minor charges of sedition were laid some time after they were imprisoned).

That morning, almost simultaneously, several events that bore that trade mark of real people's power, were taking shape.

It was a Tuesday that started off with light rain that dissipated as soon as the sun cleared the Northern Range.

Sugar workers, who had been wooed by NJAC under its banner "Indians and Africans, Unite!" had responded to the organisation's call to march into Port of Spain.

Unaware that a State of Emergency had been declared, scores of sugar workers had gathered outside the Ste Madeleine factory, preparing to begin the long trek to Port of Spain, to join the "brothers" there. But the police were also there in large numbers, ready to disperse the march. The determined workers must have been surprised to see no Winston Leonard, no George Weekes, no Geddes Granger (now Makandal Daaga).

Daaga, who had gone into hiding after the first few detainees had been picked up, had actually gone to Ste Madeleine in Weekes' car. But when he saw the huge police presence, he wisely decided to disappear. (He was arrested three days later in Couva, and detained for the duration of the emergency).

It was the sugar workers' action, though, that spoke volumes about the courage of a people who are hardly credited with courage, or "belly", as Trinidadians would say. Defying police batons and orders to disperse, these workers, who were in open rebellion against their own trade union leader, Bhadase Sagan Maraj, made several attempts to proceed with their march, and each time it was broken up by the police.

They regrouped here and there, hoping to reach Couva to link up with their brothers from the Brechin Castle factory, but got only as far as San Fernando before they were finally beaten into submission.

Prior to NJAC's bold bid to embrace them, the Black Power demonstrations comprised mainly of Afro-Trinidadians and Tobagonians. It started out with university students and soon spread to include a number of groups that could be loosely described as being "leftist".

In short time, thousands of unemployed young people would join, as well as many public and private sector employees. But it still remained an Afro-dominated movement. Half of the country's population was excluded, and the leaders of NJAC (as well as those in the PNM) knew they would be impotent until they included the Indians, who were in the main the sugar workers.

There are still few records to go by, especially as those who were close to the centre of political power have chosen to go to their graves with what they saw as being state secrets. I have been told by more than a few well-placed persons, though, that Williams had asked Bhadase to ensure that this critical link between Indians and Africans did not become a reality.

I know that days before NJAC's famous march to Caroni, Bhadase had gone down to the Brechin Castle factory, accompanied, as was the norm, by dozens of his goons, some of them armed with illegal firearms, to attempt to intimidate the sugar workers into not joining the Black Power movement.

I know, too, that when the workers were summoned to a meeting on the factory's compound (Tate and Lyle, then owners of the industry, were very accommodating towards Bhadase), they listened as Bhadase, in his coarse and crude voice, berated them, warning them "not to join the niggers".

The workers had been accustomed to Bhadase's thug tactics, and remained wary for a while, as he spoke and his thugs looked on menacingly. But then one voice rang out from the crowd (I was told it was my father's, although he never confirmed that): "Mr Maraj, is a long time you taking advantage of we. Well you see today, you go have to kill we to stop we from doing what we have to do!"

With that, several other workers found their courage, and they advanced on Bhadase and his gang.

The trade union leader fled the factory, his thugs in tow. I was also told by reliable sources that when he reached his Champs Fleurs home, he telephoned Williams. His message to the Prime Minister: "I can no longer control the sugar workers."

Williams saw the danger of such a move, some kind of unity between grassroots Indians and Africans. The politics of the country before that was neatly divided between the Afro-led and supported PNM, and Indian-led and supported PDP (later to reincarnate as the DLP).

The history of these two ethnic groups, from as far back as when Indian indentured immigrants were first brought here, was always one of division. The British colonial government ensured that the Indians stayed on the sugar cane fields and had little contact with the newly-freed African slaves. The wedge between the two races was further driven when the authorities deemed the Muslims and Hindus as pagans, something that scared the ex-slaves, many of whom had embraced Christianity.

Shortly after Williams came to power in 1956, and with leaders on both sides of the racial divide recognising that the division served their narrow interests, there was almost a tacit agreement on "turfs". So it was that Bhadase controlled sugar, and Williams controlled Laventille. A neat arrangement between two leaders that had served them well-until 1970.

But if the attempt of the sugar workers to march on Port of Spain that historic morning of April 21, 1970, was the smoke, the fire was yet to come.

Indeed, even as the police broke up the march of the sugar workers, the sparks that would later turn into an inferno had begun on the streets of Port of Spain and in Teteron Barracks.


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Copyright © 2000-2003 Raffique Shah