Honouring Indo-Guyanese Martyrs in NYC

Honouring Indo-Guyanese Martyrs in NYC

Photo : Wreath Laying Ceremony for Enmore Martyrs

Sixty-nine years ago (1948) on 16th June, Guyanese sugar workers peacefully protesting (for better working conditions, fair wages, and recognition of a trade union of their choice) at Plantation Enmore Estate were shot by colonial police. Workers were protesting the cut and load system from the original cut and drop of cane – one set of workers cut and another set load the cane onto punts (barges) that were then taken to the factory. The workers also demanded trade union recognition, a basic workers’ right in democratic countries including the UK and US. Five workers were killed and many injured on that fateful day. It came to be known as the Enmore Martyrs or Enmore Massacre.

The victims were: Lallabagie Kissoon and Surujballi called Dookie from Enmore; Rambarran, Harry and Lall called Pooran from neighbouring Enterprise/Non Pareil. These names must be venerated for their courage and their struggle commemorated. And it was for this reason that the fallen workers were honoured by the Y50 Independence Anniversary Committee (initiated by myself and others) in May 2016 when an award medal was minted and named after them and given to a select deserving few who fought in the war of liberation for Guyana’s independence.

The shooting of sugar workers at Enmore is a most significant event in Indo-Guyanese history. That is why a group of us in New York has decided to commemorate it in Richmond Hill on June 25 at Liberty Palace on 130th St and Liberty Ave. at 4 PM. At the event, the names of the martyrs will be glorified. The GUYANA SOLIDARITY MOVEMENT and other organizers are showing their deep admiration and appreciation for the courage of the protesting workers standing up to the oppressive forces.

The workers lost their lives for simply seeking better working conditions. The Richmond Hill event is free and opened to the public and will include patriotic songs and a skit. There will also be an update on the current state of the sugar industry and political conditions in Guyana. Refreshments will be served.

The 1948 protest (accompanying the workers’ strike) had to do with the workers’ demand from management to associate with a labour union of their choice and for improved working conditions. At the time, the workers, most of them descendants of INDIAN indentured immigrants, were on strike. A major workers’ demand was an end to what was known as the “cut and load” system returning to cut and drop system. This would allow for a somewhat efficient system of division of labour -- cane-cutters cut and organize the cane into bundles and another set of workers load the cane onto the punts (barges) that would then be towed to the factory.

The sugar workers also wanted the right to choose union representation to negotiate with management; this is a basic right of all countries and companies throughout the world, especially in the US and UK. The Man Power Citizens’ Association (MPCA) was representing the workers who were dissatisfied with its representation of workers’ issues; the workers considered MPCA as “a company union” meaning it sided with the company rather than the workers on collective bargaining. The workers wanted to be represented by the Guyana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU), known today as the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU). GIWU was co-founded by Dr Cheddi Jagan and Joseph P. Lachmansingh in 1946. Jagan was on the Executive of the Man Power Citizens’ Association (MPCA) since 1943 right after his return to then British Guiana from the US where he studied dentistry.

The year 1946 was also historic in Guyana for another related reason -- it was when the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) was co-founded by Jagan, his wife Janet Jagan, Ashton Chase and Jocelyn Hubbard. This was a precursor to the formation of the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP), the first mass based party in the Caribbean. PAC’s struggle was intimately linked to trade unionism, labour union recognition, internal self-government, and the right to adult universal suffrage (one-man-one-vote). The fundamental principle of the right of workers to choose their union in an industry was never legally applied until 1976. This was when GAWU was recognized by the PNC dictatorship as sole bargaining agent for workers that were previously represented by the MPCA. The sugar workers voted to accept GAWU as their union; Jagan was President of GAWU, which came to be affiliated with PPP.

In 1948, sugar workers were schooled in trade unionism by Jagan and others. The workers were prepared to challenge the estate owners with a strike to achieve their demands. The strike would last several weeks even when the managers resorted to violence. When the estate owners, with support from the colonial government, called in the police, the workers did not capitulate or back down. They remained steadfast to their cause.

The protest turned violent. And the colonial police opened deadly fire on that faithful day June 16, 1948 killing five and injuring dozens of others. This massacre led to the rallying of workers (from all industries) and citizens (from all strata of the society) to protest the British action and a loud demand for an inquiry. When the five were buried at Le Repentir, there was a procession of thousands that walked from Enmore to the cemetery. The protest did lead to a formal commission of inquiry.

There was a demand for a monument to be built in honour of those who were brutally cut down during the protest. Such a monument was eventually built at Enmore and unveiled on June 16, 1977, 29 years after the tragedy.

As we mark the 100th anniversary since the end of indentured labour on the sugar estate, we must recognize and salute the pivotal role played by sugar workers (Enmore and elsewhere) in trade unionism and in the self-determination of the colony – self-rule and independence. Today, sugar workers are again facing the brunt of oppression from the State now represented in the form of the PNC and AFC. We should support them in their resistance against the oppressive state.