1937, Oilfield Riots

Excerpt taken from Newsday Online Publication Thursday June 19 2008 “Butler’s labour Legacy”, viewed on Wednesday April 4th 2013 (view full publication)

Butler’s Labour Legacy

In 1937 the oil industry in Trinidad and Tobago was in its infancy. Oil had been commercially produced since 1908 and during the first World War oil from TT was integral to the British war effort. During that turbulent period, standing ide by side with Butler was a young lawyer named Adrian Cola Rienzi, formerly known as Krishna Deonarine from Palmyra in San Fernando. From an early age, Rienzi showed a lively interest in the welfare of the working class. At that time, there were poverty and squalor on all sides except employers, especially oilfield employers, who seemed to be striking it rich, but appeared to have nothing but contempt for the labouring class.

Butler’s agitation became more and more militant, and in May 1937, because of the alleged contents of a speech he had made to workers at Fyzabad, he was arrested and charged with inciting to riot and with sedition. He was summoned for June 14 but failed to appear, and a few days later, June 19, 1937, police tried to arrest him while he was making a speech to workers at Fyzabad, his followers resisted his arrest, and bloody riots broke out.

A police inspector was fatally shot, and a corporal was burned to death. What followed those riots known as the Butler Riots, or Oilfeild Riots, was widespread social unrest, especially in the oil areas. Butler, who was sought
frantically by the police, went into hiding after the turmoil but gave himself up on September 9, 1937. His trial lasted from November 25 to December 16 of that year. He was freed of the charge of sedition but was jailed for two years with hard labour on the charge of inciting to riot.

Butler served his sentence, but when World War II broke out in September 1939, he was re-arrested and detained as a security risk under the Defence Regulations. He spent six years in detention on Caledonia Island, not being released until the war was over in 1945. Still enjoying extraordinary popular support and public sympathy
at the time of his release, Butler went into active politics.

Toward the end of 1946, there was a flare-up of industrial unrest in the country, and this unrest was attributed to Butler. The unrest reached crisis proportions when on January 22, 1947, followers of Butler who had crowded into Port-of-Spain, stormed the Red House. Port-of-Spain dock workers as well as public service workers were on strike, while in the oilfields the situation was critical, with rioting on the streets of Fyzabad and Point Fortin. The Carnival, which was scheduled to take place on February 17 and 18, barely escaped being banned. Butler continued his industrial agitation and did not turn away from the political fray.

He formed the Butler party and at the general elections of 1950, he fought in the oil belt and duly won the seat to represent St Patrick West in the Legislative Council. His party won six seats, against two each by the other three parties, and there were six Independents. He retained his seat at the following general elections in 1956 but suffered a crushing electoral defeat in the general elections of 1961, fighting for the seat of La Brea. By that time the aura he gained by his agitation for the workers in 1937 had worn off.

However, when TT gained independence in 1962, Butler’s contribution as a labour leader, and his reputation as a fighter for the masses took on special significance. He was regarded as a hero of the people, and in fact, he was seen as the man who struck the first damaging blow against colonialism, thus giving courage to the fighters for independence. (view full publication)

The Significance of 1937

The factual information regarding the 1937 riots describes in vivid detail events which marked a significant step on the road to self governance and independence. What Butler was able to achieve through the uprisings he incited was that he incorporated the masses in the struggle for independence in a way that leaders before him was unable to do. In 1937, the British government would be reminded of the strength of the masses when they unite with a single-minded approach towards effecting change. Supporting this claim is the fact that following these riots and similar ones in other territories, a 1939 commission headed by Lord Moyne (The Moyne Commission) was launched in an attempt to investigate the causes of the riots and suggest recommendations to ensure that events could be eradicated.

1937 could be viewed as the fuel which sparked active resistance and protest for the next decade in Trinidad and Tobago. During the period of 1938 to 148 the labouring masses continued heavy protest although not always in a violent form. But what Butler had done in 1937 had an extreme impact on Trade Unions and Labour parties that would follow.

Although his political career was somewhat short of successful, his contributions as a fighter for equality, franchise, and worker rights represented some of the founding principles upon which the constitution of independent Trinidad and Tobago was to be built.

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