Enmore Martyrs to be remembered
June 14, 2004
THIS year, June 16 marks the 56th anniversary of Enmore Martyrs Day. This occasion commemorates the ultimate sacrifice paid by five sugar workers: Lallabagee, 35; Pooran, 20; Rambarran, 30; Surujballi, 34; and Harry, 30, who were killed by colonial police on June 16, 1948 during a strike for more wages and against the ‘cut and load’ system introduced by the British.
The men became Guyanese heroes and Guyanese have since paid tribute annually to their sacrifice in representing sugar workers and the workforce generally.
The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) has an important role in the Martyrs Day commemoration. The union which was formerly known as the Guiana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU) was formed in 1947 to represent sugar workers. GIWU was the 49th union to be formed in the history of the country.
The late President of Guyana, Dr. Cheddi Jagan in his book, ‘The West on Trial’ relates to the struggles of the sugar workers during colonial times. He noted that “on sugar plantations, dilapidated barrack-type ranges similar to those built during the days of slavery were still the rule rather than the exception”.
Workers were paid meagre salaries and were forced to live under poor conditions with inadequate health and educational facilities.
Many such factors, coupled with the British rulers’ intention to introduce the “cut and load” system which would benefit only them, as it would ensure more production and profits without having to raise salaries, contributed to workers decision to take strike action. Nineteen workers formed the strike party and the five died when police opened fire on them.
The struggle continued in the years following and Dr. Jagan noted that the suffering of workers was emphasised the following year in a report by the Venn Commission of Inquiry. The commission’s mandate was to inspect and report on the sugar industry of British Guiana and they discovered that in quite a number of the workers living quarters, corrugated iron roofs were leaking and the fabric of the building was in a general state of decay.
“They had mud floors and consequently with the rain dripping from the roofs, these were made slippery and dangerous,” the report stated. The report further revealed that latrines were in a terrible state of disrepair. For such reasons, diseases such as malaria were rampant and the death rate was high.
After the fatal shooting in 1948, Dr. Jagan vowed to dedicate all his energies in leading the struggle of Guyanese workers against abuse and exploitation by the colonists.
Mrs. Janet Jagan, speaking at the Enmore Martyr’s Day rally following her husband’s death said the killing of the sugar workers by the colonial police ‘triggered the independence movement’ in ending exploitation in the country. The former president added, ‘it was an historic watershed’.
The Enmore Martyrs Memorial is located at Enmore on the East Coast of Demerara and each year, their relatives, friends, workers and government officials visit the site to lay wreaths in commemoration of the struggle and sacrifice of the five workers.
Also on June 16, relatives, friends and government officials lay wreaths at the graveside of the Martyrs at Le Repentir cemetery.