Takeover of Teteron
...one shot was all it took
By Raffique Shah
WELL before the mutiny at Teteron Barracks, most of the young officers who had returned from training at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and had taken up junior command positions in the Regiment, became very disillusioned with the manner in which the army was run.
Lt Col Joffre Serrette had taken over command in 1964 when all the British officers who had been seconded to form the Regiment returned to England. Serrette's second-string officers, some of whom had had limited military experience in the Second World War, and many of whom had had no such experience or training, saw in the Regiment an easy road to the glory of wearing starch-stiff uniforms, with little or nothing to do to earn their salaries and perks.
The Sandhurst-trained and Mons-trained officers looked towards building a fighting-fit unit that would not only be able to provide a first line of defence for the country, but also serve as a tangible symbol of discipline to the rest of the nation.
These sharp differences in views were aggravated by other developments in the military. In 1968, Serrette had been arbitrarily relieved of his command by the Government (it was rumoured that he had fallen out with the then Minister of Home Affairs Gerard Montano), and replaced by the grovelling Stanley Johnson, who managed to earn promotion to "full" Colonel in short time.
Matters like wages and salaries (ordinary private soldiers received between $24 and $36 a week, while lieutenants earned $336 a month), shortage of manpower and deteriorating conditions at the various barracks and of the Regiment's fleet of vehicles, were not addressed by Johnson. Repeated efforts by the junior officers to highlight these ills brought no results.
On the eve of the revolt, close to 100 (out of about 600 men) soldiers were on sick leave, many of them deemed psychiatric cases. Internally, the army was in a mess.
The Black Power revolution that played out on the streets of Port of Spain found a responsive chord inside the army. Most soldiers, although they came from a PNM family background, also had connections with the young men and women who formed the core of the protesters.
By then, too, several of the young officers, but none moreso than Rex Lassalle and I, were heavily influenced by developments in the USA (where another Trinidadian, Stokely Carmichael, had filled the Black Power breach left by the assassinated Martin Luther King) and the Third World in general.
We considered ourselves "leftists" and "revolutionaries", although we weren't of the Marxist mould. Our heroes were Argentina-born, Cuban-internationalist Che Guevara, Martiniquan psychiatrist and writer Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X (whose autobiography was considered required reading at Teteron) and Guyanese professor Walter Rodney.
Against such strong undercurrents that flowed freely inside a military establishment that was seen as the first line of defence of the political directorate, it was easy to see how conspiracies against the high command the Government could develop.
And so they did.
I shall not go into details, even 30 years later, to name others.
But Rex and I were central to such discussions and certain decisions. There were talks about seizing control of the army should certain developments take place in the face of the Black Power uprising.
On the morning of April 21, faced with a firm decision by the Government to clamp down on the protests in a most savage manner, we were ourselves confronted with having to choose our side, in a manner of speaking.
Should we conform, obey the orders issued to us, and proceed to quell the revolution in a way only the military could-by brute force?
Or should we follow the dictates of our consciences, our political convictions, and refuse to be used against our Black Power "brothers"?
After less than 15 minutes' discussions in my room at the Officers' Mess, Rex and I decided. We would take control of the army and prevent it being used against our "brothers".
Since the decision was a hasty one (in spite of all the discussions that had taken place before), a plan of action was quickly developed: arrest the Commanding Officer (since Johnson was not in camp, that lot fell on poor Major Henry Christopher), take over the ammunition bunker, rally the men, and then... Quite frankly, we never got past that stage, and everything that followed the actual takeover was decided upon on an ad hoc basis.
Rex and I were just over 24 years old, and most of the soldiers who actively participated in the revolt were between the ages of 19 and 30.
Anyway, men were dispatched to mark the bunker for assault, and Rex and I proceeded to arrest the CO. Since he was not in office, we had to hasten to find Christopher, because time was running short. Soon, the convoys would leave for their various destinations.
Christopher was with the then Captain Julian Spencer outside the administrative building, and we decided that although the conditions were not perfect, and even though we had no intentions of killing anyone, we had to go through with it.
The attempted arrest was botched when a shocked Christopher grabbed my rifle by the muzzle and, in trying to take it away from me, pulled the muzzle closer to his chest. My finger was on the trigger, and realising the danger to his life, I forced it upwards.
One shot rang out.
It was the shot that took over Teteron Barracks.
Copyright © 2000-2003 Raffique Shah