I gave a talk at AVEC on Tuesday, in commemoration of Black History Month. I choose the Buckley’s episode as the theme of my presentation, and I was appalled by some of the things I said to these teenagers who included the students from the nearby Project Strong location.
I told them a story of the assault on white man Dobridge by a party of desperate black men who defied his gun and sent him scurrying back to his house. I told them about the gigantic Montserratan, White, who helped to lead the assault and was later taken before the magistrate to answer for the part which he had played.
“Big White” was found guilty by the white magistrate. Although he pleaded for leniency, declaring that he was “only big but he was coward,” He was sent to jail.
I recounted the story of the march of these desperate black people who trudged from estate to estate around the countryside inviting the black villagers who worked on the estates to “fall in.”
I told them that they, as the descendants of these brave pioneers had a reason to be proud that the 1935 uprising in St. Kitts was the mother of all uprisings in the Caribbean up to Jamaica and down to Guyana.
As I spoke to these teenagers about the conditions under which their greater-grand parents lived, I became appalled at the things I said.
These were modern teenagers, dressed in long pants and well ironed skirts, they were well groomed, with a variety of hair styles. Some of them had cell phones which they were asked to turn off. They wore shoes.
They were at an institution where they were learning skills that would enable them to earn a decent living. They seemed to have all the reasons to be happy. Their lives were so far removed from when I was a boy and when my mother and father were children.
The conditions that I tried to recall, appalled me. I told them that their ancestors lived in ghauts like snails and hogs. When there was an abundance of rain the rushing waters from the mountains used to take their animals and their trash houses, to the sea.
They lived in trash houses, made from the cane stalks which the estates also fed to their cattle. The floors were dirt, the furniture was make-shift. Everthing was in one, the bed -room and the living room. Eating was outside, sitting on a stone. Bathing was in the open. Defecating was in the nearby canefield.
No, this was not a primitive age of basic living. This kind of living was reserved especially for black people. The white and brown people lived in conspicuous luxury. Their houses were huge, with upstairs and downstairs, kitchens and closets. They had cooks, butlers, maids, washer women, gardeners. Some of them had chauffeurs to drive their vehicles and run their errands.
Their black entourage wore uniforms to distinguish them by the kind of work they did.
What appalled me even as I spoke was that this situations lasted all through slavery right down to the 1930s. Any reasonable person would expect that when the Africans were set free from the plantations in 1938, they would begin to build a free society in which they could develop as a proud and happy race of black people in the Caribbean.
But this was not to be the case, for the black people were too important as an underclass to allow to rise out of the slums and ghautsides to which the whites and browns had very carefully relegated them.
As an underclass, the black people of St. Kitts were useful as cheap labour in the White-owned faltering sugar industry. Without them who would wash the white people’s dirty clothes, and bathe their babies, who would run their errands and tend their gardens? Who would entertain their guests?
So slavery and exploitation of the black people of St. Kitts remained virtually intact until the Buckley’s affair in 1935.
In 1935 the poor could take no more. They couldn’t afford to buy shoes to wear. The houses in which they lived in a yard full of houses leaked at the slightest rain. They were victims of slum lords, most of whom were brown skinned half breeds.
They were surrounded by enemies who plotted their pain and suffering and tried to keep them down, where they could exploit them the better. They were robbed of the little wages which they earned in the canefields. Imagine earning twenty-five cents or less per week, and the heartless manager still had the heart to rob five cents out of that!
And the greedy slum lord, when a woman could not pay the rent, would appear at her door steps on Sunday morning to harass her. Some times all she had was a couple of pennies to buy milk for her fatherless child. The heartless landlord would insist and she would have to starve her child to fatten the slum lord.
The brown-skinned slum lord, the illegitimate offspring of some white man and an obliging black woman, was one of the black people’s enemies who had emerged in the process following emancipation. Some of them were rich and had replaced the white aristocracy. They hated and scorned the black people even more than the white people and favoured the poor of hair tincture over those who were really black.
Ironically, relef was to come from that same colored race, when Thomas Manchester broke ranks with his class and not only threw in his lot with the poor suffering black people but offered his life as a sacrifice to their cause.
This historic gesture changed the course of history. Manchester and a few of his colored friends gave political muscle and a social face to the struggling movement of the masses.
The force of Sebastian, Nathan and Manchester pulled the workers of 1935 out of their depression and gave them the courage to comfort Dobridge and the white and brown plantocracy.
And it was the power of the masses, which inspired Manchester and Sebastian to offer sensible masses-oriented solutions to the Moyne Commission.
The Moyne Commission did not have any trouble understanding that at the root of the problem of poverty was the sugar industry. Virtually all of their recommendations were leveled at this sinful industry which caused so much grief to our country.
That was in 1938, 70 years ago. I am appalled that after all these years the ghost of the sugar industry still haunts us.