Enmore, as we know, has carved out an honoured place in the annals of the sugar industry. It gave us the Enmore Martyrs whose courageous struggles constitute an inspiring chapter of Guyana’s history and at that time gave impetus to our people’s fight for freedom. That memorable event took place sixty-five (65) years ago. A new generation of workers now work in the fields and factory of Enmore estate, but the memory of the Martyrs has not faded. Their heroism and sacrifice continue to earn the respect of workers across the industry and indeed, our nation.
For us in the GAWU, one of the Unions in the sugar industry, celebrating the Enmore Martyrs is of special significance. As our nation observes the 65th Anniversary of the martyrdom of Cdes Rambarran, Lall called Pooran, Lallabajie Kissoon, Surujballi called Dookie and Harry who were all martyred on that fateful day on June 16, 1948 by the colonial police defending the sugar plantocracy, let us briefly recall that period and the workers’ struggles that engulfed Enmore and the plantations along the East Coast.
By 1948, dissatisfaction in the sugar plantations were deep-seated and widespread. Pay levels and working conditions, especially in the cane fields of the plantations, were atrocious. So too were the living conditions of the workers. The colonial planters seemingly appeared unconcerned and the cries for improvement received hardly any attention or meaningful sympathy. In the world of workers this set of circumstances is usually volatile and they tend to prompt workers into taking strong actions as we see even in our day. This general dissatisfaction of the workers arising from their miserable working and living conditions were aggravated when cane cutters were required to undertake additional work without adequate compensation. The cutters were required to abandon the old system of ‘cut and drop’ and adopt the new ‘cut and load’ system. Under the new system the cane cutters were now expected to cut canes and load same into the punts thus replacing the customary practice of placing the cane on the dam bed for others to load into punts. This was clearly intensifying the exploitation of the workers without the promise of increase in wages. The workers then sought recourse to strike action which proved contagious as it quickly spread to several estates along the East Coast of Demerara.
The strike itself began on 22nd April, 1948 and spread to many East Coast sugar plantations including Non Pariel, Lusignan, Mon Repos, La Bonne Intention (LBI), Vryheid Lust and Ogle. As the weeks progressed, the strike gained momentum. The workers remained steadfast in their struggle. Support came from the public, the Guiana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU), the forerunner of GAWU, and leaders of the Political Affairs Committee (PAC), which was formed in 1946. On 16th June, 1948 the strike reached a high point. The workers decided on that day to advance their protest actions through a march to the Estate’s factory compound. There, they were confronted by the colonial police and they held back and decided to retreat. The police nevertheless opened fire. Some workers were shot in their backs. A number of workers were injured and five attained martyrdom.
Did the Enmore Martyrs die in vain? I venture to say an emphatic no. Undoubtedly, their contribution to the overall advancement of working class struggles in Guyana is immeasurable. I daresay the incident surrounding the Enmore Martyrs had a lasting effect on the lives of numerous people including Dr Cheddi Jagan who, in his lifetime became the Honorary President of GAWU. As he subsequently would say, the Enmore workers’ struggle, at the political level, fortified his commitment to carry on the struggle against colonialism and for freedom. Two years after Enmore, Dr Jagan was to transform the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) to the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) in 1950. Thus, a reinvigorated struggle for freedom from British colonial rule, domination and oppression was inspired.
Cde Ashton Chase, O.E., in his seminal work a History of Trade Unionism in Guyana 1900 to 1961 acknowledges that“In Dr Jagan, the workers found an outstanding champion of their rights… On many occasions, single handedly, but nevertheless most heroically and inspiringly he fought for the workers’ right.”
The fallen Enmore heroes certainly impacted the many economic, social and political struggles that followed in our country for social and economic justice and all-round betterment. The struggles of 1948 importantly exposed the callous colonial state and the anti-workers nature of the plantocracy. It forced the Colonial Office to promptly appoint a Commission of Inquiry known as the Venn Commission to enquire into wage levels, working conditions at the plantation and other relevant matters. The Commission made a number of recommendations among which were:- the supply of potable water at convenient points on estates; the clearance of ranges or logies and the re-housing of occupants; the establishment of community centres, crèches and sports grounds with suitable facilities; the appointment of Welfare Offices to each Estate, among other things.
In the final analysis the 1948 struggle left a legacy of militancy and activism for workers to follow. Following Enmore, 1948, the sugar industry has seen numerous struggles and many episodes that showed workers fighting spirit in defence of their interests. It is in those struggles, sometimes bitter, like the fight for GAWU’s recognition, that betterment and improvement in working and living conditions have been won.
Notwithstanding, several spectacular gains in the industry, we in the industry, still have reasons to fight on. While a more worker-friendly environment exists today and which we appreciate, the industry as well as those who depend on it still have difficulties to overcome.
Today, six and a half decades after that historic struggle our country, undoubtedly, has advanced on many fronts, especially at the economic level. But threats of one or another kind hover over our heads. A major task then, before the working people, is to safeguard our achievements, scored through sacrifices, sweat and tears of many from the ranks of the working class.
Even as we seek to protect our gains, we are also saddled with the compelling task to ensure continuous development and progress of our country. These are quite formidable objectives given that we live in a crisis-ridden world and in a country where political disharmony, since 2012, is certainly affecting the welfare and lives of the Guyanese working people.
As a Union that has engaged in struggles, from Enmore to the present, we are fully aware of the costs and trials these battles for betterment entail. Thus, we are saddened when attempts are made to slash development projects and create conditions which would bring hardships, add to the burdens and contribute to raising the cost-of-living of the working people. Those who, for whatever reason, seek to take our country down this road are, in all certainty, taking our country down a backward-looking path.
The GAWU feels, in these times, we and the country must go forward not backward. The Enmore Martyrs struggled to improve their lot; let us all be true to that spirit; let us set our sights on a brighter future.
Comrades, let us remind ourselves that a mere eighteen (18) years after history give us the Enmore Martyrs and sixteen (16) years after the PPP came into being, Guyana attained independence. Centuries of colonial exploitation and oppression came to an end. Thus, one can reasonable conclude that while immediate economic interests were uppermost in the minds of the workers’ struggle in 1948, their militancy and heroism triggered a new phase of intense freedom struggles that brought the nightmare of colonialism to an end.
As we celebrate Enmore Martyrs, we should also be mindful of the decisive contribution the Guyanese working people, going back to the days of slavery, made to burst asunder the shackles of colonial bondage and for freedom. The 1948 struggle gave us a bird’s eye view of how cruel colonial rule was. The sugar plantations were foreign-owned but the work in the fields and factories were carried out by thousands of local labourers. The wealth created by this back-breaking toil largely went to the foreign owners, the plantocracy, who made up the colonial class then. And when the workers opposed more burdensome working conditions or asked for livable wages to ease life’s pressures, they were ignored generally, faced repression or given a hail of bullets instead, as in the case of Enmore. It is instructive to underline that the colonialists came not only for our resources but came also with their soldiers and gunboats to protect their interests. At Enmore, we see moreover how they utilized local forces that they trained and armed to suppress people’s legitimate demands for fair treatment and social justice.
Today, when neo-colonialism has resurfaced in the world, grabbing developing countries’ resources, sometimes taken by force or given on a platter by tamed leaders and weak governments, we need to pay greater attention to that dark colonial era, the experiences of which can make us better understand our troubled times and be alert to the heightened threats and dangers to which we are certainly not insulated against.
Comrades, while the nation embraces and gives recognition to the significance of the Enmore struggles as a landmark juncture in our history, we of the GAWU, cannot ignore the fact that the sugar industry were central to those struggles.
Generations of workers and their families suffered immensely to keep the wheels of that industry turning, thus making a major contribution to Guyana’s economy. This is one reason why we are disheartened by the difficulties the industry is currently passing through.
The industry’s history is said to mirror our nation’s history. Its development and progress over the last three and a half centuries is largely responsible for thousands of slaves and indentured labourers to be brought to our country and their descendants becoming its economic lifeline. Sugar played a pivotal role in building our economy and through the cruelty of slavery and indentureship and exploitation sugar assisted to enrich our colonial masters in Europe.
Today, forty-seven (47) years after independence the sugar industry continues to serve our country in a multi-faceted way. Therefore, we cannot allow the industry fail. Its impact will be nothing short of devastation. There is an urgent need to once more bring production to levels whereby, with the continuing almost favourable prices, the industry will once again perform profitably and offer significant benefits to those dependent on it. This is not a time for complacency in the industry. We are of the view that its difficulties are demanding but not overwhelming. Let us draw a lesson from the Enmore Martyrs and go forward boldly and unitedly.
Comrades, the Enmore Martyrs and the 1948 struggle, like so many heroic struggles previously and after have enriched and made us proud of our history. In the face of today’s many and varied challenges, we can draw inspiration from them and in our past to face up to those challenges uncompromisingly and with dignity. Like the sugar industry, our country too has arrived at a critical crossroads on the road to progress. The spirit for nation-building and greater progress is being overtaken, it seems, by self-interests and narrow political ambitions. We must take note of this but also take heart in the belief that the obstructionists to progress will have their schemes aborted.
The Enmore Martyrs, once more, showed that we can overcome adversities and win out if our demands and struggles are just. This is their abiding lesson to us.
Thus, in our times, we can point to the ongoing relevance of the Enmore Martyrs. This enduring message we should not forget. The working people must be always vigilant, militant, organizationally strong and united and must always raise the banner of solidarity.
Long Live the memory of the Enmore Martyrs!
Long Live Our Ongoing Struggles!
Fight on for further victories!