SOME EVENTS OF 1947-1949
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During the 1940s Caribbean unity began to be discussed with some seriousness. In September 1947, representatives of the Government of British Guiana joined others from the British Caribbean at a conference in Montego Bay, Jamaica, to examine the proposal of a West Indian federation. After intense discussions, the conference established a committee to look at various proposals and to present a report by June 1949. The report that was subsequently issued expressed strong support for a federation with independent dominion status in which each member country would have internal self-government.
Meanwhile, the Government was expanding its relations internationally, and was establishing friendly relations with a number of countries. As a result, by 1949, the United States, China, Netherlands, Portugal, Haiti, Panama, Venezuela, France Belgium and Sweden had already set up consulates in Georgetown.
Throughout Guyana, the social conditions were deplorable. The Ten Year Planning Report of 1948 showed that 25 percent of all school children suffered from nutritional deficiencies. The infant mortality rate was as high as 86 per 1000, as compared with 32 per 1000 in the United Kingdom.
Housing conditions were extremely poor. Slums were widespread in Georgetown which, at the end of the 1940s, accounted for 20 percent of the country's population. On the sugar estates, where 18 percent of the people lived, most of the residents were housed in barrack ranges, many of which dated back to the days of slavery. In addition, the level of sanitation in both the urban and rural areas was sub-standard, and contaminated water flooded housing areas for many days after periods of heavy rainfall.
Education was also undergoing a crisis. In 1947, Guyana had a literacy rate of 30 percent, and to combat this problem, the Government instituted a literacy campaign with the assistance of volunteer organisations in various parts of the country.
Primary and secondary education was almost totally controlled by the Christian Church which itself was a staunch supporter of the existing colonial Government. Primary education was free, but almost every school was understaffed, overcrowded and under-equipped. Further, thousands of children of school age were not accounted for in schools. The Ten Year Planning Report revealed that about 13,000 children between the ages of six and fourteen years were not registered in schools. This problem was emphasised by the Venn Commission of Inquiry in the sugar industry in 1949 which pointed to severe overcrowding in existing primary schools, the prevalence of child labour, and of the obvious need for more schools to be constructed in various communities.
The sugar industry continued to dominate the economic and social life of the country. The Venn Commission reported that the then 21 sugar estates covered an area of 155,000 acres of which 25,000 acres were covered by buildings, foreshore, bush, water, and swamp. Another 20,000 acres was being fallowed at any one time, 18,000 acres were under rice, ground provisions, coconuts, and other crops, and 30,000 acres were used for grazing. At any one time the area under cane was no more than 60,000 acres and the yield was about 180,000 tons of sugar.
After the elections in November 1947, the legislators (who began to receive monthly payments from January 1948) were of the general view that improvements in the constitution were necessary. Eventually, in 1949 Governor Woolley announced that an independent commission would be appointed by the British Government to examine the constitution and to make recommendations for reform.
But it was apparent that Governor Woolley himself had no intention of promoting democracy. He attempted to reverse the results of the November 1947 elections by nominating defeated candidates to serve in the Executive and Legislative Councils, and even to the chair of advisory committees. Among the defeated candidates the Governor appointed to the Legislative and Executive Councils were Frederick Seaforth, the head of the Booker Group of Companies, and the attorney Lionel Luckhoo, a staunch supporter of British colonialism.
The country also had its share of political scandal and racial politics during the period. In January 1948, Eustace Williams, a supporter of a defeated candidate, Mrs. Frances Stafford, filed an election petition against Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow accusing him of illegal practices in the 1947 elections. Critchlow had defeated Frances Stafford, who was of European ethnicity. Williams claimed that Critchlow, during the campaign, repeated false statements slandering the character of Mrs. Stafford. One of Critchlow's campaign managers, R. B. O. Hart, had claimed openly that Mrs. Stafford kicked an African child and had been convicted and fined five dollars by a magistrate for this offence. However, this incident never occurred, but Critchlow, during the campaign, frequently used this misinformation in his campaign against Mrs. Stafford. The petitioner argued that Mrs. Stafford was a victim of racial politics, since many Afro-Guyanese who might have supported her decided not to do so because they genuinely believed what Critchlow told them.
The election petition was upheld and Critchlow's election was declared null and void. In the subsequent by-election for the vacant seat, John Carter defeated Mrs. Stafford.
In the period up to mid-1948, Dr. Jagan allied himself with the six Labour Party legislators. Like them, he firmly opposed the Governor's nominations of defeated candidates to the Executive Council and also to municipal and village councils. The TUC and the East Indian Association also opposed these nominations, as did the PAC which championed this position throughout the country.
But Dr. Jagan broke away from the alliance with the Labour Party members after they refused to give support to demands for adult suffrage. In June 1948, he moved a motion for the introduction of adult suffrage in local government elections. A member of the Labour Party seconded this motion, but when the vote was taken, only Dr. Jagan supported it. In another instance, Dr. Jagan introduced a motion to allow electors to recall a legislator who was not giving honest representation. The motion was seconded by Daniel Debedin, but when the vote was taken, only Dr. Jagan voted for it; Debedin voted against it!
These unprincipled positions taken by some legislators were common. Even though some of them were elected as part of a political party, they showed little loyalty to their party once they took their seats in the Legislative Council. Frequently, they voted against each other and even opposed some the programmes they championed during the election campaign.
Despite these setbacks, Dr. Jagan waged a strong battle in the Legislative Council on behalf of the workers and the disenfranchised people of the country. He raised issues relating to employment, housing, drainage and irrigation, wages, education and health, among others, after meeting with the people in various parts of the country to listen to their problems.
Dr. Jagan was also especially concerned over the aftermath of the Enmore shootings. On 29 April 1949 he enquired in the Legislative Council whether or not the Government would take action against those who were responsible for the shootings the year before. To this, the Colonial Secretary replied that the Government had no intention of doing so. On the first anniversary of the Enmore shooting, a massive rally organised by the PAC was held in Georgetown, and Dr. Jagan was one of the main speakers.
During this period, industrial relations were somewhat unsettled. In April 1947 bauxite workers at Mackenzie and Ituni went on strike for 64 days. Among their grievances were racial discrimination and segregation practised by the European and Canadian management staff of the Demerara Bauxite Company. The workers, represented by the MPCA, also demanded increased wages and the right to have union meetings. When the strike finally ended in June, the Government appointed a committee headed by C. W. Burrowes to enquire into its causes and to make recommendations. As part of the settlement, the workers were granted a small wage increase, in addition to the right to hold union meetings. Nevertheless, staff segregation continued in the following years, and accusations of racial discrimination continued to be made by the bauxite workers against the management staff.
In Georgetown, there were some strikes, but the most significant work stoppage occurred at the Transport and Harbours Department (T&HD) in late February 1948. This action seriously disrupted streamer and railway services along the coastland area of the country. The four-day strike by railway and steamer workers and sailors protested acts of victimisation against workers by the general manager of the T&HD, Colonel Robert Teare, an Englishman. Teare behaved like a tyrant, showed no respect for the workers' trade union, and imposed harsh discipline on the employees. He also dismissed a number of workers, including Boysie Ramkarran, a railway worker, who was to later become a leading member of the PAC.
A commission appointed by Governor Woolley investigated the causes of the strike, but while it did little to admonish Teare, it recommended that the dismissed workers must be reinstated. Teare, shortly after, departed for Bermuda where he was offered a job to manage that island's railway service.
The effects of the Cold War were felt very early in Guyana. The first Guyanese to feel the effects were Dr. and Mrs. Jagan while they were on a holiday visit to St. Vincent in December 1948. Dr. Jagan's passport was seized by the immigration authorities, while Mrs. Jagan was declared a prohibited immigrant. However, she was allowed to stay provided that she did not address any public meetings. This act was bitterly condemned throughout the Caribbean, particularly by the Caribbean Labour Congress led by Grantley Adams and Richard Hart. From the responses to queries about the action by the St. Vincent authorities, the Colonial Secretary of the British Guiana Government gave an indication that the latter urged the former to carry out such an action. No doubt this behaviour by the St. Vincent Government came about because of the strong anti-colonial and socialist stance of both Dr. and Mrs. Jagan.
But this act of victimisation only helped to increase the local and international stature of the Jagans and other persons associated with them. The Sawmill and Forest Workers' Union, which represented workers in the sawmills, stone quarries and forest grants, made Dr. Jagan its president in 1949. Meanwhile, Forbes Burnham, who returned from England later in the year, became president of the British Guiana Labour Union.