Rose Hall: leaden argument vs slow death
Photo : Ravi Dev
On March 13, 1913, the manager of the Rose Hall, Canje sugar plantation, called in the Police to quell a work-related protest by sugar workers. The dispute centred over a promised holiday granted to workers then rescinded by a manager. Seven individuals protested and the manager attempted to expel them from the plantation. Later, warrants were issued for some other immigrants. The police, including the Inspector-General from Georgetown himself, arrived to execute the warrants and the crowds resisted. The Riot Act was read; the Police fired, and fourteen immigrants were killed. One policeman was also killed by their own bullets. It was the largest number of Immigrants ever killed in one protest.
This pattern of killing workers who protested their working conditions – at this time still under indentureship – had become a regular occurrence. Only the year before, the manager at Lusignan had himself shot and killed a shovel-man, who, with six others were protesting their day’s “task”. Killings had previously occurred at Devonshire Castle (1872, 5 killed, 7 wounded); Non Pariel (1896. 5 killed, 59 wounded) and Friends (1903, 6 killed, 7 wounded). The killings continued even after indentureship was ended: Ruimveldt (1924, 13 killed, 18 wounded); Leonora (1939, 4 killed, 4 injured) and Enmore (1948, 5 killed, 9 injured).
In an event held on site to commemorate the Rose Hall killings this year, Minister of Social Cohesion, Dr George Norton offered some remarks that demand explication: “Those lives were not lost in vain. These men and the lone woman were heroes, they are our martyrs, their struggles lend support to the fight against indentureship, which ended four years after… Not only must we be proud and recognise their contribution to the world we live here in Guyana today, but as Guyanese we must emulate the bravery of those fallen heroes.”
How can Dr Norton say, “those lives were not lost in vain”, when three months ago his government unilaterally closed the entire Rose Hall factory and fired 800 workers. With Rose Hall being the only source of employment in the entire Canje Creek settlements, and no alternative employment being created or facilitated by the government, the government has effectively sentenced those workers and their families to a slow and painful death. The “leaden” argument used during the colonial period was perhaps kinder, since those lives were snuffed out immediately. Here, we are already witnessing the induced frustration of seeing no viable future leading to marital and family discord; suicide; increased alcoholism and children pulled out of school.
In any other community, there would have been an explosion of protests over the inhuman act that will see these communities crumble and die. But perhaps the pattern of repression on the sugar plantations that actually increased after nationalisation - which was supposed to confer “ownership to the people of Guyana” - has dulled their spirits. As we saw, during indentureship, there were protests that rocked not only the industry but also the Guyanese colonial state.
These protests directly led to Guyana achieving the franchise after the visiting Moyne Royal Commission investigating sugar protests witnessed practically first hand, the 1939 killings at Leonora and made that recommendation implemented after WWII. The 1948 killings at Enmore led to the formation of the Peoples Progressive Party, which spearheaded the fight for independence. So how could Dr Norton say he was recognising “their contribution to the world we live here in Guyana today”?
The poignancy of the sugar workers’ predicament was highlighted by the PPP’s Regional Councillor Zamal Hussain who called on the government to act on a motion that was passed by the Regional Democratic Council of Region Six for transportation subsidies to be granted to children of sugar workers so they would be able to attend school.
But perhaps Dr Norton unwittingly gave some solid advice: “as Guyanese we must emulate the bravery of those fallen heroes.” That is, stand up to the government that has snatched bread from fellow Guyanese’ mouths.