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Lessons from the April 21, 1970 SOE

Published: 
Friday, April 20, 2018

It is very gratifying to learn that there will be at least two observances of the State of Emergency, April 21, 1970, when Dr Eric Williams’ government stopped the march of Africans and Indians from Central Trinidad to Port-of-Spain.

On Saturday, Josanne Lennard has organised An Evening of Reflections on the 48th Anniversary of the 1970 February Revolution at the OWTU Building, Henry Street. On the same day NJAC will host A People’s Rally. In Commemoration of the 48th Anniversary of April 21, 1970, at SWWTU Hall, Wrightson Road.

There are lessons to be learnt because as we recognise the leading role that NJAC played in 1970 it is evident that anyone who is concerned with the development of the country should be free to recall and analyse April 21, 1970.

Everyone should be given the opportunity to place the declaration of the State of Emergency 1970 in the context of our history with particular reference to the hurdles that had to be overcome in the search for African-Indian unity.

A look into our history reveals that after Emancipation, Africans in T&T, like others throughout the Caribbean, continued to react against their economic situation and the attacks on their culture. A significant event was the 1881 Camboulay Riots in Trinidad.

Where Indian immigrants were concerned, Anthony De Verteuil, in The Years of Revolt 1881-1884, wrote, “…the accounts of recurrent unrest against British rule in India …the news of mutinies on ships carrying Indian labourers from India, Indian unrest in Guyana and Surinam, encouraged the Indians in Trinidad to insubordination ...”

There was solidarity between African and Indians on occasions like Hosay. Kelvin Singh, (Bloodstained Tombs: The Muharram Massacre 1884), noted that “Negro (sic) involvement in the celebrations” had been observed from the 1850s.

The infamous policeman Captain Baker, nemesis of Africans, led a brutal charge during the October 30, 1884 Jahaji massacre which prevented Indians and Africans from entering San Fernando. The San Fernando Gazette had warned the authorities to take action against a militant population. A writer stated that had the crowd moved into the southern city, it would have been the end of British colonialism in Trinidad.

During the 1930s Depression there were joint industrial upheavals organised by Indian immigrant leaders as well as Tubal Uriah Buzz Butler and the Negro Welfare Cultural & Social Association, led by Elma Francois and Jim Barrette. The state’s suppression was ruthless.

The 1970 SOE was not the first time Dr Eric Williams opposed African-Indian unity. In Inward Hunger he trumpeted: “My outstanding responsibility in Parliament in the second five year period was the Industrial Stabilisation Act. This was introduced on March 18, 1965, in a situation when he (the minister) had to declare a State of Emergency in the sugar areas. The subversive elements in the society …were at work: the background was an open attempt to link the trade unions in oil and sugar”.

Constant examination of African and Indian relations was a key element during the 1970 demonstrations. African and Indians Unite was written on a banner which was carried on marches throughout T&T particularly on the march to Caroni on March 12, 1970, when thousands of Africans went to Central.

Now that the 48th anniversary of the 1970 SOE is about to be observed we should consider what the late Dr Kenneth Parmasad said, “The 1970 movement had developed a fair amount of support among sugar workers in Central Trinidad. … When on April 21 a State of Emergency was unleashed against the people—a fairly large contingent of Indian sugar workers were already mobilised to begin a march into Port-of

Spain. The state obviously saw the dreadful implications of this scenario and moved quickly to squash it”.

Let us hope that both observances, NJAC’s and Josanne Lennard’s, are successful and enlightening.

Aiyegoro Ome

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