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Butler - a leader born to fight

From the battlefields to the oilfields...


By Michael Anthony

The year 1921 had hardly dawned when a man destined to "shake up" the country and inspire so much change that it could never be the same again, limped off the steamer onto St Vincent wharf, Port of Spain.

The word "limp" here is correct, for he had only two years before arrived at his home in Grenada from the fighting front, where he seems to have sustained a wound.

After arriving in Grenada in 1919 his thoughts began turning towards Trinidad. Not only because he had a brother who worked in the Trinidad oilfields, but because Grenada had become so much tougher to live in since the war.

He was particularly anxious to come to Trinidad because the captain of the West India Regiment, with whom he had apparently been close during the war, had returned home to Trinidad, and was opening up another front for a different kind of battle. Not with guns.

The man who had limped into Port of Spain in 1921 was Uriah Butler, and whether or not he had actually sustained a wound on the fighting front, there was no doubt at all that the social and economic conditions and the disdain he had to put up with, had inflicted a serious wound upon him. For had he not just returned from the First World War, where he had risked his life for king and country?

Butler rejoined his old leader, Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani, who to him was the man to come to the rescue and make a difference. Cipriani, as was said, was opening up another front.

He and Butler and most of the returned soldiers shared the same point of view: if like heroes, they could have gone to the war to risk their lives for king and country, then they must return to a land fit for heroes to live in.

But the authorities did not feel that way. Things were hard but the worst was that the people at the top completely ignored everyone including the returned soldiers. Not only was poverty and squalor all around, but the masses in these colonies seemed to be regarded as of no importance.

Butler became one of Cipriani's chief lieutenants, but he lived in Fyzabad, and worked as a rigman in the oil company there, Apex (Trinidad) Oilfields.

And Apex was where, to his way of thinking, the injustice was most blatant.

Because the oil company was making a lot of money, judging from their own admission, but their workers were earning what he called starvation wages, and in "slave" conditions, while the overlords strutted with arrogance.

Seeing all this face to face Butler at length became weary of Cipriani just crying out about the unjust times. He wanted action, and started to criticize Cipriani for what he called "back-peddling and somersaulting" playing up to British interests.

Butler felt so strongly that he began agitating in the cause of the oil workers. He assumed the representation of these workers and took the hard line that if the oil company would not bend it would have to break.

The managing director of Apex in that period was Colonel HCB Hickling, who was also the spokesman for oil in the government, and Butler declared open war on Hickling for more pay and better conditions.

He appealed to the government directly, through the governor and the colonial secretary, and he had the unusual satisfaction to find that both the governor, Sir Murchison Fletcher and the colonial secretary, Howard Nankivell, were on his side.

In 1936, Butler turned his back completely on Cipriani and began holding regular meetings with the oilfield workers. Dissatisfaction was rife in the oil belt and he decided that something had to be done.

Following a decision of the group at one of these meetings he sent a letter to "inform you that a new political organization is formed in the colony of Trinidad and Tobago. The name of the new party is the British Empire Citizens and Home Rule Party…"

He sent the acting governor the party's manifesto, and asked him to give the matter his most serious consideration.

The name of the party shows clearly that Butler saw as the culprits, the foreigners who were running Trinidad affairs. He felt certain that to put an end to the misery, Trinidadians had to take their own destiny in hand - fight for home rule.

At the same time he felt that to defeat the powerful overlords he still had to pretend to be loyal, and the words "British Empire" in his party's name was nothing but an attempt to soft-soap the authorities.

This quality could be seen all through his agitation at Fyzabad. For example, Butler, in a speech to oil workers on May 9, 1937, in which he criticized the Lake Asphalt Co for ejecting workers from the great and mighty manager of the Trinidad Lake Asphalt Company, Clyde Vandenburgh, "has up to now remained firm in his refusal to pay for the houses and gardens of these people despite their demands for justice."

"Yes, but he is now up against Butler, the black, brave, and bold Briton". And he went on to say that his watchword was: not the rich or poor man; not the white or black man; but freedom and justice though the heavens fall!

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