The Leonora Incident of 1939
History This Week
By Tota C. Mangar
February 15, 2007
Canecutters (Taken from Basdeo Mangru's Indians in Guyana)
This month of February, 2007, marks the sixty-eight (68th) anniversary of the Leonora Protest or Strike and Riot of 1939. At that point in time (1939) Plantation Leonora on the West Coast Demerara was one of twenty-seven (27) functioning sugar estates in the then colonial British Guiana.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, ownership of Plantation Leonora was in the hands of Mc Inroy, Sandbach and Company. Following the dissolution of that conglomerate in 1854, Plantation Leonora was transferred to Sandbach, Tinne and Company, the London and Liverpool-based parent company of Sandbach Parker. Subsequently in 1891 all of Sandbach plantation holdings in the colony came under direct control of the Demerara Company Limited, a limited liability Company.
In addition to Plantation Leonora the Demerara Company by the year 1939 also owned and controlled Plantations Diamond, Farm, Providence, Ruimveldt and Cornelia Ida. Of the remaining twenty-one sugar plantations in the country at the time fifteen were under the control of Booker Brothers, Mc Connell and Company Limited while three each were in the hands of Curtis Campbell and S. Davson respectively.
The strike and riot of 1939 at Plantation Leonora emerged against the background of the Great Depression of the 1930s which was particularly due to the impact of World War 1. By the 1920s and 1930s workers' wages were depressingly low in the face of an alarmingly high cost of living, there was acute poverty, the unemployment rate was high and diseases and malnutrition were rife. It was not surprising therefore that the Caribbean area, including colonial Guyana, was swept by a wave of labour unrest, including strikes and disturbances throughout the 1930s.
This period of upheaval against social and economic oppression had also witnessed the emergence of several trade unions in the Caribbean and more particularly in Guyana. The British Guiana Labour Union, our oldest trade union, had by this time emerged under the dynamism and influence of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow and it had begun to make an impact on the working class. Moreover, it influenced the formation of other trade unions in the country at this crucial period of our history.
In the sugar belt of colonial Guyana, the Man Power Citizens' Association (MPCA) was formed under the leadership of Ayube Edun, a goldsmith and publisher of The Guiana Review newspaper, and Mr C.R. Jacob, a successful merchant and member of the existing Legislative Council. The MPCA was officially registered on November 5, 1937, and it concentrated its energies on organizing primarily among workers in the sugar industry. At the same time, the British Guiana Workers League also solicited members within the industry with emphasis on factory and clerical workers.
By 1939, labourers at Plantation Leonora were already known for their militancy. For example, Leonora workers were among the first East Indian labourers to resist the indentured system when they rioted as early as August, 1869 against an arbitrary reduction in wage rates. This resistance came about at the height of the indentureship system. Furthermore, in 1909 Leonora workers had demonstrated over a wage dispute and as recent as 1938, many of them had downed tools over the level of pay for loading punts. It was against this background of workers' struggle in the sugar industry that the strike and subsequent riot at Plantation Leonora in February, 1939 has to be considered.
Indeed, the protest in February, 1939 at Leonora has variously been labelled by interested groups and scholars to connote the view in which it was held: as a strike, a riot, a disturbance or even an uprising. Regardless of whatever description is involved one fact is inescapable, that is the protest or unrest possessed almost all the elements one would normally associate with a struggle between the forces of capital and labour, hence, a conflict between two contending classes in society.
Leonora sugar workers, like workers in other sectors of the economy, were prepared to vent their feelings against the acute social and economic hardships they were experiencing. Commenting on the Leonora crisis, The Daily Argosy in February 1939, acknowledged "the general complaint is that earnings are inadequate and not commensurate with the work done."
The first sign of discontent at Plantation Leonora was evidenced on Monday, February 13, 1939, when 10 estate firemen staged a half-day strike, protesting the rather lengthy working day of eleven and-a-half hours and requested an extra hour's pay for work done. The firemen were employees retained to stoke the wood-burning furnaces.
Their grievance was lodged with Mr Prentice, the overseer, who promised to refer the matter to Mr Leonard Lywood, the then Estate Administrative Manager. Lywood subsequently deferred taking a decision on the matter in order to consult with the Manager of the neighbouring Uitvlugt estate. Referring to the issue, the Administrative Manager himself admitted "that was the first indication we had that trouble was brewing."
A representative group of concerned firemen met Mr Lywood and repeated their demands the following morning, Thursday February 14. They then resumed work following a promise by the manager to review the issue. Nonetheless, it would seem that the protest action by the firemen led other groups on the estate to seek redress for either outstanding or current issues. For example, the same morning, about 80 to 90 members of Shovel Gang No. 2 refused an offer of eight and nine cents per bed for work on a field at Groenveldt, some distance from their homes.
A small delegation of these field workers met manager Lywood and demanded 12 cents per bed instead of the original offer. Lywood promised to inspect the field the following day, but he withheld the prospect of upping the pay rate, claiming that he considered eight and nine cents per bed a sufficiently good price. This merely served to infuriate the shovel gang who then conveyed their displeasure to the District Superintendent of Police, Mr Webber. Eventually, a meeting was arranged between Lywood, the District Commissioner of Labour, Mr Gray, and a workers' delegation. But the intervening discussion did very little to resolve the issue. Lywood stuck to the original price offer and Gray openly acknowledged his ineffectiveness at the negotiations.
The workers, for their part, restated their dissatisfaction and requested that the MPCA boss, Mr Ayube Edun, be involved in future discussions. This latter request found favour with the Commissioner of Labour but not with the Administrative Manager of Leonora Estate. Perhaps, it is worthwhile to point out that the MPCA as a Union was still not yet officially recognized by the Sugar Producers Association (SPA) as the bargaining agent for sugar workers. Such a situation undoubtedly contributed to the rather unrelenting attitude of the Estate management.
With a stalemate in talks in relation to the pay rate controversy at Plantation Leonora in February 1939 the labourers took a bold decision to travel to the city of Georgetown to air their grievances before the then visiting West Indian Royal Commission in an apparent belief that the Commissioners would be sympathetic to their cause. According to historian Dwarka Nath "they were no doubt influenced by some of the strong remarks made by Sir Walter Citrine against some employers in the course of evidence given before the Commission."
Clearly, an explosive situation was brewing at Plantation Leonora. In my next article I shall continue to focus on the Leonora Incident of 1939.