X) Post World War I changes in the Social, Political, and Economic Conditions of Trinidad
Demands for constitutional reform, agitation and labor unrest in the struggle to create viable workers' organizations, the growth of racial consciousness among African Trinidadians, and the emergence of East Indian Trinidadian political and social organizations characterize the significant transformations of the inter-war years. At the same time artistic, literary, and intellectual figures asserting the validity of local cultural forms and reflecting a growing self-confidence on the part of the expanding black middle classes emerged and added a cultural argument to the growing demands for internal self-government.
After the First World War the nature of political organization and the militancy of political protest dramatically altered. The war entailed severe economic hardships for African Creoles and East Indians due to tremendous inflation especially in prices for basic foodstuffs. Workers began to demand wage increases to offset the higher cost of living and more often than not their requests were denied only to be followed by some form of unrest. In February of 1915 cane farmers staged enormous demonstrations in Prices Town, Chaguanas, and other areas in the cane belt demanding higher prices (Campbell 1988:19). In 1917 oil, dock, and asphalt workers struck and the leaders were arrested for violating wartime restrictions on industrial action after troops quelled the protests (Brereton 1981:157).
The most significant social changes resulted from the return of Trinidadians who had served in the British army during the war. The military treated the West Indians with disdain, scorn, and derision. Insulted by lower rates of pay, barred from serving as officers, restricted to menial support details, humiliated, degraded, segregated, and forced to endure inferior facilities and services, the soldiers in the West Indian Regiment became painfully aware of their subordinate status in the Empire. Through their exposure to new ideas and socialist agitation, the disillusioned veterans were inspired to new levels of industrial agitation, organization, and political activity (Brereton 1981:157).
In 1919-20 urban industrial workers agitated and demonstrated for improved working conditions and higher rates of pay. Demobilized servicemen invigorated the dormant labor organizations and radicalized the Trinidad Workingmen's Association (TWA) in 1918. The TWA, composed mostly of dockworkers, became the most prominent and powerful labor organization in Trinidad and emerged as the most effective instrument for expressing the grievances of Trinidadian workers and initiating collective action (Brereton 1981:160). The TWA agitated for higher wages in 1919 and despite its small membership enlisted other organizations in its call for a nationwide strike. Strikes were undertaken by dockworkers, railworkers, city council employees, and Electric and Telephone workers in early 1919 and in November of that year the dockworkers, orchestrated a well-planned and organized collective action (Brereton 1981:162). Unrest spread throughout the colony as other workers including East Indian sugar workers walked off of their jobs. By mid December 1919 Trinidad was in the throes of a general strike.
Repression soon followed as elites concerned about race feeling and the socialist rhetoric of TWA demanded action from the colonial government to restore order and stability. The major newspapers the Guardian, the Argos and the Port of Spain Gazette feared the rise of Bolshevism in Trinidad (Campbell 1988:20). The strikes continued into early 1920 and the government decided to repress with all of its forces. Local government and businessmen called for British troops and organized the Colonial Vigilantes. After British troops arrived, the government arrested 99 people and convicted and imprisoned 82 including leaders of TWA while deporting four others (Brereton 1981:163). Arrests and deportations became commonplace and the passage of the Strikes and Lockout Ordinance of 1920 withheld the legal recognition of trade unions.
The 1919 disturbances were a watershed in the formation of the political and industrial environment in Trinidad. Industrial grievances were linked to radical political demands for representative government as organized labor demonstrated its ability to paralyze the colony. The popularity and membership of TWA increased and it claimed 6000 members by March 1920. Cooperation around labor issues brought urban African creoles and rural East Indians closer together.