By Tota Mangar
TODAY, June 16, 2021 marks the 73rd Anniversary of the “Enmore Martyrs “. It was on the 16th of June, 1948 that five sugar workers namely Rambarran, Lall called ‘Pooran’, Lallabagie Kissoon, Surujballi called ‘Dookie’ and Harry, lost their lives while on strike at Plantation Enmore, East Coast Demerara. They were brutally and senselessly gunned down by Colonial Police.
These heroic sugar workers who died have come through the years to be known as the “Enmore Martyrs”. This is indeed a fitting tribute to the highest price they could have paid, that is, sacrificing their precious lives in their determined struggle to win respect from the very powerful sugar bosses of the day and at the same time in their just efforts to obtain improved working conditions and social justice in general.
The sugar plantation historically has been viewed as a symbol of oppression, degradation and exploitation by expatriate capital. From the very beginning it was a European creation specifically designed to further the ends of colonial exploitation. As an economic institution, its prime historic need was for a reservoir of “cheap, malleable and immobile labour “, forged in the circumstance, its genesis was antagonistic based on the system of slavery and much later, indentureship.
In Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean, sugarcane cultivation and sugar production were perceived by the coloniser as the “supreme colonial economic effort”. It was not surprising therefore that the plantation, in its pursuit of maximum production and productivity, was preoccupied with arbitrary, crude and brutal tendencies.
During the despicable system of slavery, the enslaved labour force perceived sugar as the “symbol of all their accumulated woes” and the plantation as the main focus of colonial domination and oppression. As a result they resisted when they could and accommodated when they had to.
Oppression and exploitation persisted during the period of indentureship and immigrants eventually debunked the myth of being a “docile labour force”. They resisted and openly defied the system as in the case of sugar strikes and protests that erupted in the colony in 1869, 1872, 1876, 1879, 1888, 1894, 1896, 1899, 1903, 1905, 1913, 1914, 1924 and 1939. In every instance the response of the plantation oligarchy and the colonial police was stark, brutal and uncaring.
The Enmore Strike of 1948 originated from the general dissatisfaction of labourers with their deplorable conditions of work and living. Wages were far from satisfactory. In fact they were considered extremely low. At the same time the cost of living index had moved from 95 to 247 between 1939 and 1948 largely as a consequence of World War Two. What it meant was that the workers’ circumstances were deteriorating with each passing year. Further, in spite of repeated demands to improve the existing wage rate, the Sugar Producers Association (SPA) remained intractable.
At Enmore the old system of ‘ cut and drop’ had given way to a far more arduous task of ‘ cut and load ‘ the punts. This system made the work of cane-cutters more demanding and at the same time caused punt-loaders to be redundant. Indeed, ‘cut and load” proved to be extremely strenuous and hazardous, especially during the rainy season. In addition, there was the faulty weighing of cane which the workers felt was deliberate. This practice resulted in loss of pay, workers’ dissatisfaction and deteriorating industrial relations.
Moreover, potable water was not available, transportation facilities were practically non-existent, dismissals without just cause were rife and housing and sanitary conditions were most appalling. The barrack-type logies were in a ‘state of advanced decay, dilapidation and general disrepair’. A 1937 commission report had recommended their replacement with four-block dwellings and structures of a more private nature, but the response of the employer class was both slow and inconsistent.
Professional medical care on the plantation left much to be desired and illnesses associated with mosquitoes and water-borne diseases were prevalent. Of added significance was the workers’ disenchantment with the recognised union of the day, the Manpower Citizens Association (MPCA).
This union was led by Mr. Ayube Mohamed Edun, who saw the need to have a separate union in the sugar industry. The MPCA was accorded recognition by the powerful Sugar Producers Association following recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry into the 1939 strike at Plantation Leonora, West Coast Demerara. It appeared that in the years following recognition, the MPCA lost much of its militancy as it made very little progress against the SPA. Workers, for their part, felt they were being betrayed by the union which was evidently not doing enough for them.
Against such a background, the Guiana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU), the forerunner of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), was formed in April, 1948. At its helm were dynamic leaders, Joseph Prayal Lachmansingh , Amos A. Rangela and Jane Phillips Gay, and it was this union which gave workers a ray of hope.
The SPA stood firmly with its MPCA recognition pact and this further infuriated the disaffected workers and made the union more unpopular and being seen as more of a’ company union’. Workers saw the 1948 strike as a means of forcing the SPA into recognising GIWU as their bargaining agent instead of the grossly ineffective MPCA.
STRIKE AND MARTYRDOM
The strike itself began on April 22, 1948 at Plantation Enmore and it quickly spread to neighbouring East Coast plantations including Non Pariel, Mon Repos, Lusignan, La Bonne Intention, Vryheid’s Lust and Ogle. As the weeks progressed, the strike gained momentum as more and more workers joined in the struggle.
On that fateful day, June16, 1948, the striking workers, as usual, gathered outside the Enmore Estate Compound. With tension running high, some of them attempted to enter the compound and it was at that stage the police took unwarranted action. Without warning, they opened fire into the crowd. Some workers were even shot in their backs as they attempted to escape the onslaught.
All told, five sugar workers lost their lives and 14 others were severely injured. Those who perished were Rambarran, who sustained two bullets to his leg; Lall called ‘Pooran’, who was shot in his leg and received a gaping three-inch wound above his pelvis; Lallabagie Kissoon, who was shot in the back; Surujballi called ‘Dookie’ also shot in the back, and Harry, shot in the spine.
It is rather amazing that such harsh actions by colonial police could have persisted in the late 1940s. After all, the first half of the twentieth century in colonial Guyana had witnessed the emergence and rapid growth of trade unionism and labour organisation in general, the rise of political consciousness, economic diversification, a growing middle class, a declining influence of the plantocracy and other positive developments.
Those killed were taken from Enmore through a long procession along the East Coast of Demerara. The procession included thousands of sugar workers, and prominent labour union and political leaders. The bodies of the victims were eventually laid to rest at the Le Repentir Cemetery, and it was one of the largest funeral processions to have entered the capital city of Georgetown.
Their deaths and injuries led to the setting up of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the circumstances relating to this tragic and unfortunate incident. But like many Commissions of the past, this one was seemingly biased. Nevertheless, it felt that with more foresight on the part of the police and estate authorities, actual shooting could have been avoided. It was also the Commission’s considered opinion that excessive shooting had taken place and it was abundantly clear that some of the victims were shot when they were defenceless and on the run. This tragic episode could have been prevented had it not been for the contempt shown by the plantocracy to its own workers.
Did the Enmore Martyrs die in vain? I venture to say an emphatic no. Undoubtedly, their contribution to the overall advancement of the working class struggle in Guyana is immeasurable. I daresay that the incident surrounding the Enmore Martyrs had a pronounced and lasting effect on the lives of numerous people including leading personalities. Foremost among them is the Father of our nation and late President, Dr. Cheddi Jagan himself. On this issue he revealed in ‘The WEST on Trial’ that “At the graveside, the emotional outburst of the widows and relatives of the deceased were intensely distressing and I could not restrain my tears. There was to be no turning back. There and then I made a silent pledge. I would dedicate my entire life to the cause of the struggle of the Guianese people against bondage and oppression.”
In the ensuing years, this remarkable man did exactly that — he devoted his entire life to the cause of all Guyanese and the working class in particular. In the post 1948 years, he quickly established himself as the champion of the working class in the legislative council and was very critical of the planter oligarchy and other exploitative elements in society. His militancy and robust advocacy won him international recognition as a fearless anti-colonial fighter. His timely intervention on behalf of the working man, the unemployed and the dispossessed made him the leading political figure in the colony.
As to his radical outlook in the immediate post-1948 tragedy, he confessed: “I brought a new dimension to the politics of protest, continuity between the legislature and the street corner, the legislature was brought to the streets and the streets to the legislature.” Senior Counsel, Mr. Ashton Chase OE, in his seminal work, ‘History of Trade Unionism in Guyana’, acknowledged that, “In Dr. Jagan, the workers found an outstanding champion of their rights — on many occasions, single-handedly but nevertheless most heroically and inspiringly, he fought for the workers’ rights.”
Addressing a symposium at the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre in March, 2002 on the occasion of the passing of Dr. Jagan, internationally acclaimed scholar and Distinguished Professor, Clive Thomas, had this to say: “From the personal reflections I have no doubt whatsoever that Cheddi Jagan was an exceptional patriot, an exceptional trade unionist with a heart readily committed to the working class people and the working class interests”. Obviously, the inspiration, the fierce determination and zeal had to do with his pledge before the Enmore Martyrs in 1948.
The fallen Enmore heroes must have inspired and influenced their colleagues, trade unions and political leaders to intensify the struggle for social and economic justice and betterment in general.