Letters & Opinion

Legacies, Links and Lessons Live Long!

Earl Bousquet
Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

All international events leave lasting legacies and the 1886 Haymarket Strike in Chicago that saw deaths of striking workers, is one of the biggest and longest-lasting ones.

On May 1, 1886 between 350,000 and 500,00 American workers participated in a general strike to put pressure on the federal government to commit to an 8-hour work day, which culminated in the Haymarket protest that saw several workers killed.

Earlier, in October 1884, a convention held by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions had unanimously set May 1, 1886, as the date by which they wanted an eight-hour working day to be made law.

As the chosen date approached, the American unions prepared for a general strike in support of the eight-hour day and on Saturday, May 1, thousands of workers who went on strike and attended rallies that were held throughout the United States sang from the anthem, Eight Hours.

The chorus of the song reflected the ideology of what was also called ‘The Great Upheaval’: “Eight Hours for work. Eight hours for rest. Eight hours for what we will.”

Following the death of some workers during the protest, May 1st was thereafter declared — and is still being observed today as — International Workers Day (also called May Day and Labour Day in different countries) also as a national holiday in many.

The US workers who died for the 8-hour day did not live to see it, but their deaths inspired those left behind to push even harder for the victory that followed, now being enjoyed across CARICOM.

Similarly, the 1938 uprisings across the British West Indies led to the establishment of the trade unions and political parties that are today playing great parts to institutionalize workers’ rights and fight for pay to be in line with cost of living.

Likewise, there’s an intrinsic link between 1938 and the long legacy of British slavery across the British colonies called ‘Labour in the West Indies’ written by W. Arthur Lewis in 1939.

The young West Indian scholar left the London university circuit at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1938 to visit all the British colonies, to study and document the social and economic conditions that led to the region-wide strikes by stevedores and estate workers.

Lewis applied his economic theories to the findings and produced his first book, in which he called on Britain to take blame for the conditions that led to the strikes and take radical remedial action to compensate the workers for centuries of neglect and exploitation.

Arthur Lewis also advocated a large-scale development model for the colonies to be financed by the British, much akin to the later Marshall plan for reconstruction of the UK after the Second World War.

His assessment of all the economic and financial factors involved and the historical context in which it was being presented saw the document adopted in 2020 by CARICOM (81 years later) through its Prime Ministerial Subcommittee on Reparations (PMSC), as the Blueprint for any regional economic plan for reparations as being sought by CARICOM since 2013.

The book (available on Amazon) is an amazing timeless template that can be applied in any Caribbean country and is flexible enough for adoption by other Commonwealth member-states that were British colonies.

The historical continuity between events saw the French Revolution in 1789 result in ripple revolutions across the French West Indies, including Saint Lucia and Haiti that sent the strongest messages to Europe that slavery was beginning to end.

A little-known fact is that in 1795, a small group of freedom fighters in Saint Lucia, inspired by the France 1789 Revolution, defeated the British occupiers at the battle of Rabot in Soufriere, then proceeded to outlaw slavery.

Abolition of Slavery in Saint Lucia by a bunch of so-called ‘Neg Mawon’ (‘Escaped Negroes’) who were actually Freedom Fighters, was an embarrassment to the British, but also a danger signal to the French planter and merchant class that had opposed the liberation of French slaves after 1789.

The British and French, which had been warring over Saint Lucia for its strategic location between French-controlled Martinique and British-owned St. Vincent, found common cause in putting-down the Saint Lucia revolution, ending the abolition of slavery and re-establishing European control.

It took 10,000 British and 7,000 French troops a long time, to, after a combined attack on Saint Lucia from Martinique, overcome the freedom fighters and eventually end the ban on slavery – to send a clear message to the other slaves planning revolutions in the British and French Caribbean that they will not be allowed to succeed, no matter how long it takes.

The Saint Lucia revolution was put down in 1796, but eight years later came the Haitian Revolution (started since 1791) and establishment of the world’s first Black Republic in 1804 proved there was no turning back and that Slavery wouldn’t last forever.

The Saint Lucia revolutionaries’ slavery ban lasted only one year (1795-1796); and in 1825 French warships sailed into Haiti to demand 150 million French gold francs for reparations for loss of French planters’ property and slaves.

That was the first European demand for Reparations for Slavery Losses that preceded the UK’s Abolition in 1834 and equal payment of major reparations (40% of GDP at the time) to British planters and slave traders.

Workers of the world are today fully enjoying the 8-hour day week, with weekends off or paid extra, while slavery has been legally abolished worldwide, thanks to the early abolitions in Saint Lucia and Haiti.

But only half that story has been told and books and movie/TV documentaries are starting to be produced featuring the big Saint Lucia story: as the first British colony to have experienced a revolution by formerly enslaved freedom fighters – and who abolished slavery, albeit for one year.

Indeed, history is always loaded with links, legacies and lessons that last long!

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