The 1938 Labor Rebellion and the Birth of Modern Jamaica
Colin A. Palmer
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014
Paperback. xi+419p. ISBN 978-146961169-3. $32.00
Reviewed by Matthew J. Smith
University of the West Indies, Mona
Jamaica has always been a place of uncommon experience. Division and notable disparities in social and cultural life between the majority population and elite and middle classes have marked the country’s history since its origins as a British sugar colony in the seventeenth century. Divisions have created tensions. And these tensions have frequently erupted as the majority class, dissatisfied with the repressive nature of colonial dominance, organized themselves in an effort to combat injustice. At all times these events have exposed the inherent social inequalities in the country. In few instances they have led to significant change. In the twentieth century the 1938 labor rebellion, which was sparked among sugar workers against unfair treatment by their employers, widened and eventually put the island on the path to independence.
Colin Palmer’s Freedom’s Children is an impressively detailed and revealing study of that event and the crucial six years that followed. Palmer is an esteemed historian who has published many well-known studies of aspects of Caribbean, Latin America, and African-American History. More recently he has published two highly-regarded books on Prime Ministers Cheddi Jagan of Guyana (The Politics of Power : Cheddi Jagan and the Struggle for British Guiana’s Independence, 2010) and Eric Williams of Trinidad (Eric Williams and the Making of Modern Caribbean, 2008). Both these works are concerned with the struggles for independence against British colonialism in these Caribbean states. Freedom’s Children is, by Palmer’s admission, the final installment in this trilogy. But it is much more than that. Where the previous two books focused intently on the political figures that emerged out of the long battle for self-government, Freedom’s Children projects its stories of political ascendancy against a finely woven backdrop that brings the layered social dynamics of colonial Jamaica in the 1930s into sharper relief than most previous works. It is a commendable achievement that will now become the standard monograph on its subject.
The first three chapters of the book examine the circumstances that encouraged the labor strikes of 1938. The Jamaican strikes were part of a wave of protests, which broke out across the British Caribbean beginning with Trinidad and Barbados in 1937. Dependent largely on agriculture, the islands suffered from reduced demand from overseas markets during the depression years. This situation led to a significant rise in living expenses and drove down wages for laborers in the principal economies of sugar, fruit, and oil in the case of Trinidad.
The catalyst for the strike in Jamaica was a spontaneous dispute over wages at the Frome sugar Estate in Westmoreland parish but, as Palmer argues, a history of worker exploitation was a driving force: “One hundred years after slavery ended, almost all workers remained at the mercy of capital” . This link between the failed promises of emancipation in 1838 and the labor rebellion is his underlying thesis and is effectively made throughout the book.
The extremeness of the social divide in the colony in the late thirties increased its combustibility. Several parallel ideological streams, including Bedwardism, Garveyism and Rastafari, aroused the political consciousness of Jamaicans. What these movements shared was an emphasis that racial discrimination against black Jamaicans was the basis for the island’s political and social injustice. Local elites and the colonial establishment sought to defuse these claims through an insistence that social progress was merit-based. There were, they argued, Jamaicans of all colors in privileged posts. In the context of the labor strikes it is not difficult to see fear of a wider rising as a motivating factor for this position. Yet color prejudice was such a contentious issue in Jamaica, a source of the island’s bitter disunity, that it could not be easily altered by the political actions of the workers. Moreover, its intersections with class and social status made it even more difficult to ignore. Palmer makes this much clear in his discussion of the process by which worker grievances were handled in the wake of the rebellion.
The rebellion produced two major political leaders in Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley, both later given official national hero status for their roles in leading Jamaica to self-government. One of the books’ great strengths is how well Palmer tests the myths that have surrounded these two figures through a close study of their activities after 1938. Neither man emerges from this book unscathed. Their shortcomings are made plain in the narrative and the author provides ample evidence of how their privilege and earnest desire for improvement in the welfare of Jamaicans often collided in the heady days after the rebellion.
Palmer does not showcase Bustamante and Manley alone. He emphasizes the roles played by many other key actors including popular union leader and Garveyite St William Grant, who recruited the light-skinned Bustamante as leader of the workers. Bustamante—a charismatic political speaker with a blurry past and no union position—profited from the elevation. Quite rapidly he became the spokesperson of the workers and the center of attention. He overshadowed all other labor leaders including Grant. He would compete with his cousin, the erudite lawyer Manley who entered Jamaican politics as advocate and later political visionary. Manley had the foresight and respect of colonial officials. But it was Bustamante who had the phenomenal appeal of the majority classes.
Two chapters devoted to Bustamante explore his rise. Perhaps more than any other previous profile of the labor leader in these years, Palmer details the extent to which his irascible personality determined his loyalties. His celebrated clashes with colleagues, colonial administrators, and Manley were costly. After an extended internment (September 1940-February 1942) for allegedly seditious remarks, Bustamante reentered active politics a changed man. He was increasingly more authoritarian in his management of the unions. He eventually created his own Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), which, as the name implied, was under his strict control. He was also suspicious of Manley who had become more prominent during Bustamante’s detention. These sorts of conflicts split the movement, which according to Palmer, ultimately suffered from “this colossal failure of leadership” .
Palmer’s study draws extensively on little-used colonial office records held at the National Archives, UK. This material is supplemented by frequent references to local newspaper reports and material from the Jamaican archives. The evidence presented exposes several small surprises that correct the national history of the period. We learn, for example, that even with his strong defense of labor causes, Bustamante initially maintained a "fealty to the empire and the colonial regime" . We also learn new insights on the investigations of the Moyne Commission that arrived from London in Jamaica in the fall of 1938 to study the social and political conditions in the island and recommend ameliorations. More interesting details come from private correspondences between Governor Arthur Richards—who is presented in full focus in the book—Manley, and the Colonial Office. These exchanges confirm the depth of Richards’ imperial distrust of Jamaicans and its political elites. In one particularly acerbic comment Richards noted, “I think it must be harder to talk sense in Jamaica than in any other country in the world” .
Though an influence on colonial opinions, Richards was unable to prevent political change. The first gains of the struggle that emerged from the labor rebellion came with constitutional reforms. The most far-reaching outcome of this was the granting of universal adult suffrage in 1944. This was a major step toward self-government. Constitutional change was the beginning of the dismantling of crown colony rule, introduced in 1866 in the wake of the Morant Bay Rebellion. But if it promised a new political moment it also opened up the space for deeper rifts among the main players on the political landscape.
Freedom's Children's intriguing final chapter is a careful analysis of Jamaica’s first general election in 1944. Manley’s People National Party (PNP)—to which Bustamante was ephemerally attached—was launched in 1938 and competed with the conservative Jamaica Democratic Party (JDP) and Bustamante’s Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) formed in 1943. The election, bitter, vindictive, and “sprinkled with violence” , climaxed with an overwhelming victory for Bustamante’s party. Eighteen years later Bustamante would be reelected and become the first Prime Minister of independent Jamaica and lionized as the father of the nation.
Palmer’s account ends with Bustamante’s first victory and one does wish it went further. Given the volatility of Jamaican politics in the years following independence, when the two parties resorted to a brutally violent contest for state power, it would have been useful if the author drew more comparisons between the earlier history and the present. The conditions in post-independence Jamaica are only briefly covered in the closing paragraphs. There is also much to be said about the way United States imperialism in the Caribbean intersected with local Jamaican politics in this period, a subject covered in Jason C. Parker, Brother’s Keeper : The United States, Race, and Empire in the British Caribbean, 1937-1962 (2008), Gerald Horne, Cold War in a Hot Zone : The United States Confronts Labor and Independence Struggles in the British West Indies (2007) and Cary Fraser, Ambivalent Anticolonialism : The United States and the Genesis of West Indian Independence (1994). Although this theme is not chief among Palmer’s concerns, it would have been interesting to learn what he makes of the role of the United States in Jamaican affairs in light of his new evidence.
These are minor quibbles. Palmer gives us a strongly researched and passionately argued book that goes a long way in revising common notions about Jamaica’s modern political history and the people who made it. Its clear and vivid prose makes it accessible to a wide readership. Scholars of colonial politics and the Caribbean will find many rewards in this rich work.
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