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Seventy-two years ago, starting on July 26th, a significant event took place in Barbados over the course of four days which helped shape the modern history of the island as we know it. The 1937 riots took place in Barbados. These social uprisings, which took place over the course of four days, left 14 people dead, 47 wounded, hundreds arrested and millions of dollars in damages. While these uprisings, compared to riots and revolutions that have played out in various parts of the world throughout history may have been negligible in terms of size and scale, they had a lasting impact on our island’s history. Many of the freedoms we enjoy in Barbados today – such as improvements in the standard of living, access to social and health services, the modern trade union movement and freedom of political association, can be traced back to those who sacrificed their lives during these riots. The sharply divided racial structure of Barbadian society in 1937 reinforced an imbalance whereby a small white elite held economic and political power, while the majority population – largely employed in the agricultural sector – suffered from poverty, lack of opportunity, unemployment and poor labour conditions. The economy was dominated by sugar, and land ownership policies made it virtually impossible to address these oppressive conditions.
Courageous men and women such as Clennel Wickham and Charles Duncan O’Neal began to speak out and agitate for change. Clement Payne (pictured above right), a Trinidadian of Barbadian parentage, represented the working people of Barbados and advocated labour reform and the formation of trade unions. Payne’s influence was so great among the masses that the Barbadian authorities deported him to Trinidad on July 26th, 1937. Crowds gathered at the news of his deportation and the anger and frustration that had built up erupted into the 1937 riots which lasted for four days. Other Caribbean islands also had similar uprisings during this colonial era.
I believe that remembering historical events such as these and the courageous people who played a role in them is an important way to move forward to a more harmonious future, and enables us not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
As soon as I am able to obtain the names of those fourteen who died in the riots, I will update this post to include that list.
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