GAWU’s President address to Rose Hall Martyrs Commemoration

The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) is pleased to extend greetings to all of you present here and feels honoured to be invited to participate in this activity that tells yet another story of the heroism and sacrifices linked to the sugar industry.

Today’s activity takes us back to one hundred and one (101) years ago. Rose Hall Plantation was in ferment; workers struggles for betterment and resistance to inhuman living conditions were an integral part of plantation life. On this occasion their struggle ended in carnage. We have come to learn that on this occasion fifteen (15) workers were killed, including a woman who was shot in her stomach, and of them forty-one (41) received serious injury. At the time it was perhaps the deadliest indenture-era suppression of unrest in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

What happened here over a century ago represents one of the several other class confrontations that erupted in our country during this period. The records reveal that in 1872, five workers were killed at Devonshire Castle; in 1879, five at Non-Pariel; in 1903, eight at Friends; in 1912, one at Friends and one at Lusignan. After indentureship, thirteen were killed at Ruimveldt in 1924 and four at Leonora in 1939.

At this time, we specifically give recognition and pay tribute to those who fell at Plantation Rose Hall. They left a legacy which runs through the veins of the contemporary workforce of the sugar industry. This occasion furthermore affords us the platform to remember with fondness and pride those who also courageously fought and heroically fell in the struggles in other plantations in other parts of the country.

These fallen workers remind us that sugar’s history is enriched by the struggles, sacrifices and the sweat and blood of the working class. That spirit continues throughout the years since that time and, pleasingly, I note, survives to this day in the industry.

But as we cast our minds backwards, we must not fail to recognize that the shooting down of workers seems the preferred method of suppression in the colonial context. This kind of relations between plantation owners and their workers typify a major feature of the system of colonialism. Expressed in another way, we can say that this was the inhuman relations between owners driven by the urge to make huge profits and workers whether as slaves, indentured labourers or wage earners whose brutal exploitation was the primary source of such profits.

We must take note of this and all aspects of colonial conditions and reactions of the past. The colonial structure globally has been largely dismantled today, but dangers still linger. In recent times, analysts have drawn attention to a resurgence of neo-colonialism especially in the former colonial territories and primarily in those countries with strategic resources.

The memory of those we honour today at Plantation Rose Hall and other locations has served to jerk us back to the reality that a new colonialism is stalking the developing world – already devouring the resources of several countries, and do so through unheard of violence and mind boggling exploitation of many utilizing the technological progress of today in the process.

One hundred (100) years ago, it was Plantation Rose Hall which wrote a glorious page of our history. Fifty (50) years ago, it was Leonora Estate where the heroine Kowsilla was crushed to death by a tractor while giving solidarity to striking workers. And the narrative of our rich and proud history goes on reaching a high point in Enmore, 1948 and which our nation celebrates at Enmore Martyrs.

Today, the industry that has witnessed such inspiring exploits of ordinary men and women is facing new challenges. Though formidable, the GAWU holds firmly to the view, these challenges are not impossible or daunting. It would require, however, a collective approach coming from the essential stakeholders. All must play their part.

Our times, in many ways, differ from those times which occasioned our presence here today. Conditions are not the same and the demands before us are different generally. However, we believe too, that the self-sacrificing sprit and ability to confront today’s challenges and to succeed are very much alive. Our collective efforts can very well bring about the achievements we want. From the Union’s perspective, we see the workers playing a more hand-on and focused role in the factories and the fields but optimum results can only be guaranteed if that workforce is a reasonably satisfied workforce. Unlike that section of the powerful that sees doom and gloom for the industry, the GAWU is optimistic about the future. It is too important of an industry to be allowed to go under. We can do it; we owe it to the memories of those, like these workers of Rose Hall Canje, to make the industry a viable one. Comrades, I urge let us face the challenges. We will go forward, I am sure.

Comrades, in the time that has elapsed since the historic and eventful times at Rose Hall Estate, the workers in the industry and the industry itself have advanced in several ways. Indeed, the workers of Guyana have scored notable achievements as is true also of the international working-class.

Over the last six (6) years, however, the ruling-classes of the world, much like the owners’ class that snuffed out the lives of those Rose Hall workers have unleashed new assaults on workers and other segments of the population. This is most glaring in several countries of Europe, North American and other regions.

In these times and in the face of such attacks we must be vigilant. It is in this context also, that we see the significance of the fallen workers we commemorate. Their enduring message we should not forget. The working class must be always vigilant, militant, organizationally strong and united and must raise the banner of solidarity always.

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