Political and Social Changes in the 1900s
The 1905 Ruimveldt Riots rocked British Guiana. The severity of these outbursts reflected the workers' widespread dissatification with their standard of living. The uprising began in late November 1905 when the Georgetown stevedores went on strike, demanding higher wages. The strike grew confrontational, and other workers struck in sympathy, creating the country's first urban-rural worker alliance. On November 30, crowds of people took to the streets of Georgetown, and by December 1, 1905, now referred to as Black Friday, the situation had spun out of control. At the Plantation Ruimveldt, close to Georgetown, a large crowd of porters refused to disperse when ordered to do so by a police patrol and a detachment of artillery. The colonial authorities opened fire, and four workers were seriously injured.
Word of the shootings spread rapidly throughout Georgetown, and hostile crowds began roaming the city, taking over a number of buildings. By the end of the day, seven people were dead and seventeen badly injured. In a panic, the British administration called for help. Britain sent troops, who finally quelled the uprising. Although the stevedores' strike failed, the riots had planted the seeds of what would become an organized trade union movement.
Even though World War I was fought far beyond the borders of British Guiana, the war altered society. The Afro-Guyanese who joined the British military became the nucleus of an elite Afro- Guyanese community upon their return. World War I also led to the end of East Indian indentured service. British concerns over political stability in India and criticism by Indian nationalists that the program was a form of human bondage caused the British government to outlaw indentured labor in 1917.
In the closing years of World War I, the colony's first trade union was formed. The British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU) was established in 1917 under the leadership of H.N. Critchlow. Formed in the face of widespread business opposition, the BGLU at first mostly represented Afro-Guyanese dockworkers. Its membership stood around 13,000 by 1920, and it was granted legal status in 1921 under the Trades Union Ordinance. Although recognition of other unions would not come until 1939, the BGLU was an indication that the working class was becoming politically aware and more concerned with its rights.
After World War I, new economic interest groups began to clash with the Combined Court. The country's economy had come to depend less on sugar and more on rice and bauxite, and producers of these new commodities resented the sugar planters' continued domination of the Combined Court. Meanwhile, the planters were feeling the effects of lower sugar prices and wanted the Combined Court to provide the necessary funds for new drainage and irrigation programs.
To stop the bickering and resultant legislative paralysis, in 1928 the British Colonial Office announced a new constitution that would make British Guiana a crown colony under tight control of a governor appointed by the Colonial Office. The Combined Court and the Court of Policy were replaced by a Legislative Council with a majority of appointed members. To middle-class and working-class political activists, this new constitution represented a step backward and a victory for the planters. Influence over the governor, rather than the promotion of a particular public policy, became the most important issue in any political campaign.
The Great Depression of the 1930s brought economic hardship to all segments of society. All of the colony's major exports—sugar, rice and bauxite—were affected by low prices, and unemployment soared. As in the past, the working class found itself lacking a political voice during a time of worsening economic conditions. By the mid- 1930s, British Guiana and the whole British Caribbean were marked by labor unrest and violent demonstrations. In the aftermath of riots throughout the British West Indies, a royal commission under Lord Moyne was established to determine the reasons for the riots and to make recommendations.
In British Guiana, the Moyne Commission questioned a wide range of people, including trade unionists, Afro-Guyanese professionals, and representatives of the Indo-Guyanese community. The commission pointed out the deep division between the country's two largest ethnic groups, the Afro-Guyanese and the Indo-Guyanese. The largest group, the Indo-Guyanese, consisted primarily of rural rice producers or merchants; they had retained the country's traditional culture and did not participate in national politics.
The Afro-Guyanese were largely urban workers or bauxite miners; they had adopted European culture and dominated national politics. To increase representation of the majority of the population in British Guiana, the Moyne Commission called for increased democratization of government as well as economic and social reforms.
The Moyne Commission report in 1938 was a turning point in British Guiana. It urged extending the franchise to women and persons not owning land and encouraged the emerging trade union movement. Unfortunately, many of the Moyne Commission's recommendations were not immediately implemented because of the outbreak of the World War II.
With the fighting far away, the period of World War II in British Guiana was marked by continuing political reform and improvements to the national infrastructure. The reform-minded governor, Sir Gordon Lethem, reduced property qualifications for officeholding and voting, and made elective members a majority on the Legislative Council in 1943. Under the aegis of the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, a modern air base (now Timehri Airport) was constructed by United States troops. By the end of World War II, British Guiana's political system had been widened to encompass more elements of society, and the economy's foundations had been strengthened by increased demand for bauxite.
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