The Enmore incident of 1948 revisited
By Tota C. Mangar
June 12, 2003
This month of June 2003 commemorates the 55th Anniversary of the Enmore incident of 1948. It was on the 16th of June 1948 that five sugar workers - Rambarran, Lall called Pooran, Lallabajie Kissoon, Surijballi called Dookie and Harry lost their lives while on strike at Plantation Enmore on the East Coast Demerara. They were callously gunned down by colonial police.
These heroic labourers who died have through the years come to be known as the Enmore Martyrs and the day itself is referred to as the Enmore Martyrs Day. Martyrdom is certainly a fitting tribute as they sacrificed their precious lives in their determined struggle to win respect from the powerful sugar bosses of the day and at the same time in the pursuance of their just efforts to obtain improved working conditions and socio-economic benefits in general.
The plantation has always been a symbol of oppression of workers by expatriate capital. From the very inception the plantation was a European creation specifically designed to further the ends of colonial exploitation. As an economic institution its prime historic need was for a reservoir of ‘cheap, malleable and immobile labour.’ In the circumstances its genesis was antagonistic based on the despicable system of slavery and much later, Indentureship.
In Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean sugar cultivation and manufacture were perceived by the coloniser as the ‘supreme colonial economic effort.’ It was not surprising therefore that the plantation in its pursuance of maximum production and productivity was evidently pre-occupied with arbitrary, crude, brutal and demoralising tendencies.
During the slavery period slaves quite rightly perceived sugar and the plantation as the “symbol of all their accumulated woes.” The plantation was the locus of colonial domination and oppression. As a result the unfortunate slaves revolted when they could and accommodated when they had to.
Oppression and exploitation persisted during the period of Indentureship which was dominated by East Indian immigrants in terms of both numerical strength and in the duration of the system (1838-1917). It was not surprising that East Indian labourers proved to be far from being a docile labour force. They resisted the harshness of the labour laws and the labour system in general. There were notable strikes and protests occurring in 1869, 1872, 1873, 1879, 1888, 1894, 1896, 1899, 1903, 1905, 1912, 1913 and 1914. Even in the post-Indentureship period strikes and protests continued as for example in 1924 and in 1939. In every instance the response of the powerful plantation oligarchy and colonial police was stark, brutal and uncaring.
The Enmore strike of 1948 originated in the general dissatisfaction of the labourers with their miserable conditions of work and living. Wages were extremely low. At the same time the cost of living index had moved from 95 to 247 between 1939 and 1948 but the basic wage had remained fixed except for a limited number of production and wartime bonuses. It was further argued that the cost of living index was totally unrelated to the prices which workers were actually paying for basic consumer items. In reality workers’ circumstances were deteriorating with each passing year. Further, in spite of repeated demands to improve the existing wage rate the Sugar Producers Association (SPA) remained intractable.
Moreover, for cane-cutters the system of ‘cut and drop’ had given way to ‘cut and load’. Under the latter the cane-cutter both cut and loaded the canes in punts. This system made the work of cane-cutters more demanding and at the same time caused punt-loaders to be redundant. Indeed, the ‘cut and load’ system proved to be an extremely strenuous and hazardous operation, especially during rainy seasons and there were cases where labourers were seriously injured.
There was also the faulty weighing of canes which the workers felt was deliberate to deprive them of some of their earnings. The practice resulted in workers’ dissatisfaction and poor industrial relations.
In addition, potable water was non-existent, transportation facilities were not available, dismissals without just cause were rife and housing and sanitary conditions were most appalling. The barrack-type logies were ‘in a state of advanced decay, dilapidation and general disrepair.” Professional medical care on the plantation left much to be desired and illnesses associated with mosquito and water-borne diseases were prevalent. Of added significance was the workers’ growing disenchantment with the recognized union of the day-the Man Power Citizens Association (MPCA). This union was founded through the instrumentality of Ayube M. Edun. It was accorded recognition by the Sugar Producers Association (SPA) following the Commission of Inquiry into the 1939 strike at Plantation Leonora, West Coast Demerara.
It appears that in the ensuing years following recognition, the MPCA lost much of its militancy. It was even deemed a ‘company union’. Workers for their part, felt that they were being betrayed by the union, which was not doing enough for them.
A relatively new union, the Guiana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU) the forerunner of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) was formed. At its helm were dynamic leaders like Joseph Prayal Lachman-singh, Amos A. Rangela and Jane Phillips-Gay. It was this union which gave workers a ray of hope.
The SPA stood by its recognition pact with the MPCA and this further incensed the disaffected workers and made that union more unpopular. Workers saw the 1948 strike as a means of forcing the SPA into recognising the Guiana Industrial Workers Union as their bargaining agent instead of the grossly ineffective Man Power Citizens Association.
The strike itself began on the 22nd of April 1948 at Plantation Enmore and it quickly spread to all the neighbouring East Coast Demerara sugar plantations including Non Pariel, Lusignan, Mon Repos, La Bonne Intention, Vryheid’s Lust and Ogle. As the weeks progressed more and more workers joined the struggle and the strike gained momentum.
On that fateful day June 16, 1948, the striking workers as usual gathered outside the Enmore Estate Compound. With tension running high some of the striking workers attempted to enter the compound. And it was at that stage that the police took unwarranted action. Without warning they opened fire on the crowd. Some labourers were even shot in their backs as they tried to escape the onslaught.
Altogether five sugar workers lost their lives, a replay of the much earlier Devonshire Castle Strike of 1872. Fourteen others were seriously injured. Those who died were as follows: Rambarran who sustained two bullets wounds in his leg; Lall called Pooran shot through the leg and sustained a gaping three-inch wound above his pelvis; Lallabajie Kissoon shot in the back; Surijballi called Dookie also shot in the back and Harry, shot in the spine.
It is rather amazing that such harsh actions by colonial police could have persisted as late as the 1940’s. After all, the first half of the twentieth century had witnessed the emergence and rapid growth of trade unionism, the rise of political consciousness, a growing middle class, a declining influence of the plantocracy, a widening franchise economic diversification and other positive developments.
Those killed were taken from Enmore in a large funeral procession, which included thousands of sugar workers and prominent labour union and political leaders. This Enmore tragedy of 1948 had a lasting effect on the life of the late President, Dr. Cheddi Jagan. In his book West on Trial Dr. Cheddi Jagan revealed “At the graveside the emotional outbursts of the widows and relatives of the deceased were intensely distressing and I could not restrain my tears. There and then I made a silent pledge. I would dedicate my entire life to the cause of the struggle of the Guyanese people against bondage and oppression.”
In the ensuing years this extraordinarily gifted man did exactly that - he devoted the rest of his life to the cause of all Guyanese and the working class in particular.
The bodies of the victims were eventually laid to rest at the Le Repentir Cemetery. It was one of the largest funeral processions to have entered the capital city of Georgetown.
The deaths of the sugar workers led to the setting up of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the circumstances relating to this unfortunate incident. But like many Commissions before it, this one was seemingly biased. Nonetheless it felt that with more foresight on the part of the police and the estate authorities, actual shooting could have been avoided. It was also the Commission’s considered opinion that excessive shooting had taken place and it was abundantly clear that some of the victims were shot while they were defenceless and on the run.
This tragic episode could have been prevented had it not been for the contempt shown by the powerful and arrogant plantocracy towards their own workers. Did the Enmore Martyrs die in vain? Certainly not.
Their priceless sacrifice in the form of their lives, has in the long run led to numerous gains by sugar workers in particular, and workers outside the sugar industry in general. Many of the benefits which they relentlessly struggled for have since been achieved by Guyanese workers. The eventual recognition of GAWU has been a major achievement. Today the union is not only the largest single union in the country but it is one of the most militant.
Subsequent improvements were made in areas such as workers’ wages, housing, sanitary condition, transportation and conditions of work generally. The way for these achievements was paved by the intense and determined struggle and supreme sacrifice of the Enmore Martyrs and their colleagues. Indeed, their names will live on for decades to come.