Precursors of Independence

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

Education produced two groups in the British West Indies. The first identified closely with the British system--especially with the Fabian Society of radical thinkers within the newly formed British Labour Party--and sought political reforms through conventional parliamentary channels. The most ardent representatives of this group were individuals in the local legislatures such as Sandy Cox and J.A.G. Smith in Jamaica, T. Albert Marryshow in Grenada, and Andrew A. Cipriani in Trinidad. Although they did not depend on the masses for political support (because the masses did not yet have the vote), they knew how to draw the masses into political action. They joined the municipal and parish councils in urging a reduction in the privileges of the old planter classes and more local representation in local affairs. They also advocated legal recognition of the fledgling trade union movement in the Caribbean.

The second group, inspired by the idea of a spiritual return to Africa, was more populist and more independent than the first group. From this group came individuals such as John J. Thomas (an articulate socio-linguist), Claude MacKay, H.S. Williams (founder of the Pan-African Association in London in 1897), George Padmore (the gray eminence of Ghanaian leader, Kwame Nkrumah), Richard B. Moore, W.A. Domingo, and Marcus Mosiah Garvey, founder of the United Negro Improvement Association in Jamaica (1914) and Harlem (1916). Thomas, Williams, and Padmore came from Trinidad; MacKay, Garvey, and Domingo, from Jamaica; and Moore, from Barbados.

In addition to these organizers, there were a number of individuals from all the colonies who had served abroad in World War I in the West India Regiments of the British Army. Some of these individuals were of African birth, and after the war were given land and pensions in several West Indian territories, where they formed the nucleus of an early pan-Caribbean movement. Their war experiences left them critical of the British government and British society, and they tended to agitate for political reforms to bring self-government to the Caribbean colonies.

The political agitation of these groups laid the groundwork for the generation of politicians who later dismantled colonialism in the British Caribbean: Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante in Jamaica; Robert Bradshaw in St. Kitts; Vere Bird, Sr., in Antigua; Eric Matthew Gairy in Grenada; Grantley Adams in Barbados; and Uriah Butler, Albert Gomes, and Eric Williams in Trinidad.

The political agitation that periodically enveloped the British Caribbean had roots in its dismal economic situation. The colonial government had placed its faith in sugar and large plantations, but sugar was not doing well economically. Increased productivity in Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad could not mask the difficulties of price and marketing. Unemployment was rife. Wages on sugar estates were one-quarter to one-half of those paid on Cuban sugar estates during the same period. Many of the smaller islands had abandoned sugar production altogether. Not surprisingly, large numbers of West Indians emigrated for economic reasons to Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, and the United States. When economic opportunities abroad ended with the Great Depression, the discontent of the returning migrants and frustrated laborers erupted into violence throughout the region from 1935 to 1937.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress