We owe much to the heroes of 1938

We owe much to the heroes of 1938

Lance Neita

Sunday, May 06, 2018

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The Government has announced special commemorative projects to mark the 80th anniversary of the 1938 workers' uprising which led to the foundation for Jamaica's labour movement. Plans will culminate with special Labour Day 'ramp projects' through which 130 schools across Jamaica will be outfitted with ramps for the physically challenged. A similar approach will be taken with health centres, and the projects, while commencing on Labour Day, will run beyond Workers' Week.

This is a most commendable idea and should have the support of all parties.

For many years, commencing with former Prime Minister Michael Manley's famous call to labour on Labour Day in 1972, Jamaica has celebrated the anniversary date in perhaps the most unique form in the world. Manley promoted Labour Day as a showcase for the importance of labour to the development of Jamaica and a day of voluntary community participation to work on beneficial projects. Since then, Labour Day has been not only a public holiday but also a day of mass community involvement around the country.

Over the years, however, the 'labour' excitement has died down and as I travel across the island on the holiday I notice a waning display of Labour Day voluntary projects, a broom sweeping the sidewalk here, a yard being raked, a basic school facelift by a few community persons, and a few highly publicised corporate projects searching more for the media headlines than realising the actual usefulness of the project.

Not so with Noranda Bauxite last year when company employees joined with the community to paint the entire post office building in Discovery Bay, and even putting back the 'T' in the lettering which for many years had read “Discovery Bay Pos Office”.

This year Noranda will be at Discovery Bay Basic School, among other schools, and will continue to spread the message of voluntary service among its employees into the company's operating area districts.

The celebration in Jamaica has a most fascinating history. Up to 1960, May 24 was observed annually in Jamaica as Empire Day, the birthday of Queen Victoria. Instituted in the United Kingdom in 1904, Empire Day extended throughout the countries of the British Empire and the British Commonwealth.

As youngsters, in those days we felt a strange sort of pride in being a part of the empire. Our generation was far removed from slavery and, as little innocents, we sang the “Britons never never, never shall be slaves”, with vigour, as we too were made to feel quite British — not quite understanding that we were the descendants of those same slaves.

Schoolchildren were required to attend school on the morning of the holiday to participate in flag-raising ceremonies (the raising of the Union Jack, of course) and in the singing of Rule Britannia and the same “never shall be slaves” song I just told you about. This was followed by the British National Anthem, God Save the King, and other British patriotic songs. We then lined up for a three-pence bun and an aerated water provided by the British Council, while our elders congratulated each other on a 'jolly good show' and agreed that all had went well, and the little chaps will be back next year for another round of rousing 'homeland' singing. All quite strange, really, but true.

By the 1950s, however, the British Empire had started to decline, and Britain's relationship with countries that formed the empire, such as Jamaica, had also changed, as we began to celebrate our own identity. In 1958 Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day, in agreement with the new post-colonial relationship between the nations of the former empire. In Jamaica, by then, May 24 was already being celebrated informally as Labour Day in commemoration of the labour upheavals which took place between May 23 and June 6, 1938.

In 1960 the then premier, the late Norman Washington Manley, presented a Bill in Parliament which finally abolished Empire Day. On June 15 a law to amend the Holiday (Public General) Act received unanimous support in the Legislative Council. May 23 was now to be known as National Labour Day and officially marked the anniversary of the first wave of working-class strikes which took place in 1938.

The focus of Labour Day had now shifted from the tradition of gratitude to colonial masters to political independence and the importance of trade unions. For 10 years Labour Day was mainly celebrated in the Corporate Area by the trade unions, in collaboration with their political parties, in the form of public rally meetings and marches. From our haven in the country we listened to the radio for news of the marches — led on one side by the colourful Sir Alexander Bustamante, and up another road by the more sedate Norman Washington Manley. The excitement we were waiting for came each year at the end of the marches when the two sides would exchange words, throw bottles, and mix it up at Parade Gardens or at the top of Duke Street.

I mentioned earlier that Jamaica's Labour Day holiday has colourful historic roots in the protests and struggles of the labouring classes which came to the fore in 1938. It reached a peak when Alexander Bustamante and St Wlliam Wellington Grant, addressing a crowd of several thousand from the foot of Queen Victoria's statue (now the Bustamante Statue) on May 23, 1938, were ordered by the police to disperse and send the crowd packing.

“Busta” had climbed the statue to better address the crowd, but as he descended, in the words of Lady Bustamante, “A squad of policemen, led by Inspector Orrett, marched on the crowd. Orrett pulled his revolver and gave the command, 'Click your heels and aim.' “

In that epic moment Bustamante bared his chest and declared, “If you are going to shoot, shoot me, and leave these defenceless, hungry people alone.”

According to Lady Bustamante in her autobiography, “ The inspector was speechless. The policemen lowered their arms, and I stood there almost frozen to the spot, wondering if the end had come... I wanted to move away, but the crowd stood firm with the discipline Bustamante had so often preached. Before Orrett could say another word Busta called upon the people to sing the national anthem and as God Save the King rang out from the mass of discordant voices, the police were forced to stand at attention and could advance no farther. Bustamante then moved away with the large crowd following him.”

May 23, 1938 is considered a turning point in the history of the march towards the empowerment of labour, human rights, and economic betterment for a vast majority of a population riddled with poverty and degradation. The present generation, seized with Labour Day plans for the north coast, Caymanas Park, the beaches, and dancehalls, has little or no idea of the events and circumstances that have spawned their Labour Day fun activities.

Individuals like St William Grant, Bustamante, Norman Manley, J A G Smith, A G Coombs, and Ken Hill are often seen photographed in comfortable wear for their images recorded for history portrait pictures. But in those seething, tumultuous times of the 1930s, they criss-crossed the country, traversed the most barren terrain; walked the hot streets of Kingston; endured sleepless nights; addressed, led and cajoled thousands and thousands of the suffering, angry, unemployed and barefoot poor; stood up to the bayonet-waving police and soldiers; faced down the Establishment, and in some instances were thrown into jail without bail. It took great courage for those men to take on the establishment and to turn the social strata upside down.

George Eaton, in his signature book on Bustamante, describes the riots “that shook Jamaica and the West Indies in 1938 as… representing a profound revulsion against the thralldom of poverty and despair”.

Norman Manley summed up the grim situation: “The vast majority of our people were political zeros; with no voice, no rights, and no share in the affairs of the country. Born to obey its laws and to suffer its hardships, and for the rest, to pass silently and unnoticed to their graves.”

To suffer in silence — that seemed to have been the destiny earmarked for many of our forefathers. Until 1938 arrived. And it was not only a male-led revolution. The women played their part. Edna Manley and Agnes Bernard organised a soup kitchen to feed workers during the five hectic days of the great waterfront strike of May 1938. Lady Bustamante, nee Gladys Longbridge, was at Bustamante's side through every inch of his journey.

She was there the at the moment of high drama downtown when Inspector Orrett took aim. “Get down behind Queen Victoria's statue, Miss Longbridge, and don't move a muscle”, her chief ordered as he faced the charging troops.

Workers' Week and Labour Day mean much more than a painted sidewalk, a renovated school, or a repaired standpipe. The commemorative events planned for 2018 will focus on the genuine heroic struggles and exciting events of 1938. And so should it be.

Lance Neita is a public relations writer and consultant. Send comments to the Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com.

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