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The 1970 Black Power Upsurge in the Caribbean: A Commemoration

March 26, 2020

Fifty years ago, in February-April 1970, the spark of Black student militancy in Montreal set off a mass popular upsurge in Trinidad and Tobago. It was the coming of age of the Black Power Movement in the Caribbean.

A few week later, I set out for Trinidad along with Tony Thomas, a U.S.-based socialist and a historian of African-American music, to gather first-hand reports of the movement and its impact. Our reports were reprinted in a Canadian-based socialist newspaper, Labor Challenge, from which the following texts were taken. They also appeared in a long out-of-print pamphlet, Black Power in the Caribbean (Pathfinder, 1971).

To commemorate this historic event, the three reports by Tony Thomas and myself appear here. They are introduced by the retrospective account that I published last year of the 1969 Black student upsurge in Montreal that gave rise to the 1970 Trinidad movement.–JR

Black Power in the Caribbean: Contents

  1. The Rise of Black Power in Canada: The 1969 Student Protest Against Campus Racism,” by John Riddell (first published, January 27, 2019).
  2. The 1970 Mass Upsurge in Trinidad,” by Tony Thomas.
  3. Canadian Imperialism in the West Indies,” by John Riddell.
  4. Lessons of the 1970 Upsurge: A Discussion among Caribbean Activists,” by John Riddell

The 1970 Mass Upsurge in Trinidad, by Tony Thomas

Over the past ten years, a new consciousness has arisen throughout the world. We see it in the struggles that rocked the U. S. in May 1970; in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; in the struggle now going on in Palestine. People around the world are waking up to the need to fight the rotting imperialist system in order to control their lives.

For Black people around the world, this has taken the form of a movement for Black power. Blacks everywhere have demanded control of their communities. They have protested cultural genocide and identified with their African heritage. They have called for unity in the struggle againstwhite imperialist aggression. The rise of the Black power movement in the U. S. has heightened Black consciousness all over the world.

This is especially true in Trinidad and other parts of the West Indies. In addition to contending with exploitation by imperialism, the brothers there also have to face a policy of anti-Black discrimination. There are privileges not only for the minority of whites, but also for Syrians, Orientals, and mulattos at the expense of Blacks and East Indians (mostly of Pakistani and Indian origin).

Skilled and clerical jobs, especially in foreign firms, are reserved for these lighter-skinned groups, while the unskilled jobs and unemployment in the cities are reserved for Blacks, and the back-breaking poverty of the cane fields is reserved for East Indians–all of this in a supposedly Black nation.

The problems of Trinidad are no different from those of other capitalist nations of the Third World. Although Trinidad has achieved formal national independence, this has changed only the form of exploitation by the white imperialists. The “independent” government of Eric Williams is nothing more than a Black mask for the white face of imperialism. Throughout the West Indies American, Canadian, and British interests own the islands and call the shots.

‘Tate & Lyle Get Out’. The British-based company ran major sugar estates in Trinidad..

In Trinidad, the main industries are oil and sugar, controlled by imperialist firms. These companies control 75% to 85% of all imports and exports. The foreign-owned sector of the economy has doubled since Trinidad gained independence from Britain in 1962. Canadian firms control 60% of the banking, leaving the rest to British and American interests. Out of the $500 million U.S. investment, the annual profit is nearly $100 million, a rate of 20%.

The 1970 crisis in Trinidad was aggravated by the fact that the economic situation, once better than that of the other islands, had rapidly deteriorated. In Trinidad a skilled worker makes 75 cents an hour, the average worker makes 50 cents, and the unskilled worker gets 25 cents. These are people who are lucky enough to have jobs. Twenty per cent of the population is unemployed, and another 20% works fewer than 30 hours a week.

Unemployment and underemployment rates for Black youth between the ages of 17 and 25 are double those of the general population. For these youth, the relationship between the neo- colonial regime and the devastation of the economy is clear. They have seen the so-called independent, so-called Black government operate as a tool of imperialism, leading them to dub its spokesmen “Afro-Saxons” for their aping of the British. In this context, the demand for Black power leads directly to a confrontation with the imperialists and their front-men in Trinidad.

The executive committee of the Oilfields Workers Trade Union (OWTU) stated at the height of the struggle on April 18: “In few other societies have race and class been so conspicuously identical….  The call for Black power is the call for proletarian power. The real substance of Black power ‘is … people’s control of the commanding heights of the economy…. It is the invading socialist society that is on the march under the ideological slogan of Black power.”

Tony Thomas

The Black power movement in Trinidad has taken shape over the past two years. Its first major action was in solidarity with brother Walter Rodney, banned from the staff of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica in October 1968 for his militant views. Then came the defense of West Indian brothers in Montreal who participated in the February 1969 struggle at Sir George Williams University. Of all the students who took part, only the West Indian students, most of them from Trinidad, were· subjected to court charges. In response, students prevented Canadian Governor General Michener from speaking on the campus of the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. They linked Canadian racist and imperialist policies in Trinidad with the victimization of the Sir George Williams students.

It was out of these struggles that the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), a loose coalition of groups, individuals, and trade unions, was formed to coordinate the Black power movement. The events of February 1970 were to fuse its original core of student radicals with the urban unemployed, sections of the workers’ movement, and the East Indian population.

On February 26, 1970, several hundred students led by NJAC held a march in downtown Port of Spain, in solidarity with the Sir George Williams students then coming to trial. The rally following the march was attacked by the police. This prompted the brothers to occupy the offices of the Royal Bank of Canada and the Roman Catholic cathedral, two symbols of white power in Port of Spain. The leaders of the action were arrested. That evening, 8,000 to 10,000 people rallied in Woodford Square; and from then on the movement remained massive.

On Wednesday, March 4, the NJAC held a march in solidarity with the arrested students due to appear for trial the following day. As they proceeded through Port of Spain, the group of 200 students grew until an immense crowd of 10,000 Blacks, nearly one-tenth the population of the city, was assembled. After police attacks, several store windows were broken, and later several bombings occurred. When an East Indian store, Kirpilani’s, was burned down, right-wing East Indian and Black spokesmen attempted to link this to the mass movement. They claimed that the Black power movement was anti-East Indian.

The attempt to paint the Black power movement as anti-East Indian backfired, for the movement began to take steps to win over the East Indians. People of East Indian origin make up nearly 40% of the population of Trinidad. Over 45% is Black; Orientals, whites, Syrians, and mulattos make up the remainder.

The strategy of Trinidad’s rulers has been to divide and conquer. Both major parties live off this division: the People’s National Movement, a Black party with a few showcase East Indians, attempts to build a base by doing favors for Blacks as opposed to East Indians. The Democratic Labor Party, similarly, attempts to be an East Indian party with a few showcase Blacks. Both hold to the same capitalist program, and both opposed the Black power movement and any unity it achieved with the East Indians. Thus, one of the great strengths of the mass upsurge in Trinidad was the spirit of unity that began to develop between the Black and East Indian peoples.

On March 5, NJAC organized a march to San Juan, a Port of Spain suburb in which Kirpilani’s store was located, calling for solidarity with the East Indians. A march of 700 left Woodford Square, and 20,000 to 30,000 arrived in San Juan.

A mass Woodford Square rally on March 9 called for a mobilization on the following day to help the East Indian workers cut cane in the Caroni sugar estates. The minister of industry denounced the plan as a “plot of Cuban-paid Communist agitators.” Bhadese Maraj, a prominent right-wing Indian religious and political figure, attacked the march as an infringement of the cane workers’ right to “work in peace.” The owners of the sugar estates called off all work at 6 a.m. on the day of the march. At least 2,500 marchers covered the twenty-eight-mile route in ten hours; they were enthusiastically greeted by the East Indians, who gave them water and food.

On April 6, NJAC activist Basil Davis was murdered by a policeman. The NJAC demanded an immediate government investigation of the shooting. It held its own “people’s court,” which convicted a police corporal of the slaying. A mass public funeral was called for April 9, in which 35,000 people participated – one­fifth of the population of the Port of Spain region.

A strike wave broke out during the first few weeks of April that involved workers in communications, construction, customs, trans­ port, electricity, water and sewage, paper mills, the post office, and sugar. It was led by the OWTU and the Transport Workers Union, whose leaders, George Weekes and Clive Nunez, were also the leaders of the Black power movement. On Sunday, April 19, the sugar workers joined the strike, raising the specter of Indian­African unity. The next day, a thousand East Indian sugar workers marched with Geddes Granger, a leader of NJAC. The labor upsurge posed the question of social revolution more directly than the Black power movement alone.

A mass march uniting the labor movement, the Black power movement, and the East Indian sugar workers was planned for April 21. Williams himself subsequently admitted that it was this show of unity that forced him to lower the curtain on democratic rights in Trinidad. On April 20, a state of emergency was declared and a dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed. After curfew, anyone out was likely to be beaten, shot, robbed, raped, imprisoned, or all of these, by the police. The leaders of the radical movement and the trade unions were rounded up in predawn raids. This was followed by hundreds of arrests and beatings. All newspapers were censored and radical newspapers were banned.

On the morning of April 21, the day of the scheduled mass march, the majority of the officers and rank-and-file soldiers at the Teteron Bay army base refused to carry out the orders of the government. The army revolt had none of the feature of a military coup or conspiracy. The soldiers’ refusal to obey the emergency mobilization orders can only be seen as a “strike” against Williams’s unconstitutional measures and an attempt to preserve Trinidad’s democratic institutions. In addition, it was certainly focused in part on internal grievances (such as the restriction of soldiers from beaches for “white tourists only”) laid bare by Black power agitation in the army.

The fact that the professional army went on strike at this point in the struggle shows how broad-based the opposition to the government was. The army held the only the large-scale arsenal. The police, many of whom were still loyal to the old order, had only small arms and clubs. For two or three days, there was no effective power backing up the regime.

The objective conditions for a genuine social revolution, for the sweeping away of the capitalist regime, were now fully present. Not only were the vast majority mobilized against the government and the system, but Williams’s own repressive apparatus had failed him.

Yet he was quickly able to restore his control.

The rebel soldiers controlled the islands’ only major arsenal and army base. But a coast guard bombardment interfered with whatever plans they may have had of marching on Port of Spain until after Williams had succeeded in securing a large arms shipment from the U. S. and Venezuela. The movement, without a well-organized rank-and-file base and with its leadership under arrest, did not respond to the confrontation either through mass strikes or demonstrations. After a short popular outburst in Port of Spain, the police regained control. American and Venezuelan warships raced to Trinidad. The army rebels began negotiations and accepted a new commander from the government.

Government repression then deepened. With the emergency laws in full force, the books and documents of the OWTU were seized, and the government charged fifty-five soldiers with treason and nine of the Black power leaders with sedition. The mass upsurge was beaten back.

The chief problem of the Black power movement was the absence of a strong leadership organization based around a unified program and series of demands. The small size of the pre-February movement – itself only beginning to develop an ideology and strategy but faced with an almost instantaneously developing mass movement – made the consolidation of an organized movement difficult. The lack of an organized Black power movement with a secondary leadership able to carry on after the top leaders were arrested was also an important factor.

You can be sure that the brothers in Trinidad and elsewhere are absorbing these lessons of the struggle.

Source: Labor Challenge 1970. Another version of this text can be found at TheMilitant.Com.

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