Thy Kingdom Come
July 5, 2022
Families must be witnesses
July 5, 2022

The role of the Labour Movement in nation building

By Dr Sharon Syriac

Brown girl in the ring
Tra la la la la
There’s a brown girl in the ring Tra la la la la la
‘Brown Girl in the Ring’ Children’s game song, recorded by Boney M, 1978.

Once upon a time, when Caribbean children of every creed and race held hands and sang our ring game songs, we expressed unity. However, the recent spate of name-calling hurled by the brown girls in the political ring had the opposite effect.

Yet such behaviour is symptomatic of the divide-and-rule strategy initiated by the white colonial government, to avoid the unification of the masses.

Professor Brinsley Samaroo argued this on Monday, June 20 when he addressed the Holy Faith Sisters and their Nation Building team on, ‘The Role of the Labour Movement in Nation Building’.

He began by providing a historical explanation for the source of our racial tensions, outlined historical moments when we succeeded in moving beyond this and offered recommendations to reduce inter-ethnic conflict.


Divide and Rule

The origins of our ethnic divisions were not initiated by Dr Eric Williams nor by the Honourable Rudranath Capildeo. Instead, Professor Samaroo argued that European colonisers, always fearful of the unifying power of the people who numerically outnumbered them, deliberately sought cracks in colonial societies and then cultivated a divide-and-rule strategy, to divide people along these fissures, so they could control them. This strategy worked best when people could be divided along racial or religious lines.

Globally, European colonisers divided people – in India, Nigeria, Guyana, and Trinidad. In India, the British pitted Hindus against Muslims, resulting in the greatest mass movement of humanity in the 1947 Partition.

In Nigeria, they set Hausa against Yoruba peoples and Igbos against Ibibios, culminating in the Biafra civil war and the loss of millions of lives.

In Guyana and Trinidad, colonisers fed inter-ethnic antagonism and nourished fear, with suspicion. This created a festering sore that oozes into our national psyche and perpetuates through our politics.


Unite and Build

British colonisers recognised in pre-independent Trinidad, its enormous potential for wealth in oil, asphalt and sugar and kept the races apart, so they could control both the labour and source of this wealth.

However, people were able to unite and move beyond the divide-and-rule politics of race at least thrice – during the 1937 labour protests, the 1970 Black Power Revolution and the 1986 general elections when the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), succeeded in mobilising multi-racial support.

These colonisers reaped enormous profits by exploiting both Indian and African workers under an unjust, unfair system. Thus, the fight for workers’ rights began in the 1920s with Arthur Andrew Cipriani who formed the country’s first labour union, the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association (TWA) and fought for several basic rights for workers. This fight included the right to be paid a basic minimum wage.

Locked in battle against an oppressive British empire, the struggle for just wages continued into the turbulent thirties. In 1937, labour unrest escalated because workers continued to live under poor conditions, received low wages and faced a high cost of living.

That year, under the charismatic working-class leader, Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler of the British Empire Workers and Citizens Home Rule Party (BEWCHP) and the meticulously organised lawyer-activist, Adrian Cola Rienzi (Krishna Deonarine), the first president-general of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) and founder of the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers Trade Union (ATSGWTU), both men joined forces. They played important and complementary roles in developing trade unions and leading the first effort at Afro-Indian unity.

Butler and Rienzi highlighted the common class interest of Africans and Indians, rather than their racial differences and Professor Samaroo explores this in his book, Adrian Cola Rienzi: The Life and Times of an Indo-Caribbean Progressive.

Back then, workers in both the oil and sugar industries suffered tremendously, precursors to Black Stalin’s lyrical prophecy:

Sufferers doh care ’bout colour, sufferers doh care ’bout race

Sufferers doh care who migrate from where, or who living in who place

Sufferers doh care who from country, sufferers doh care who from town,

Sufferers only want to hear, where dey next food coming from (Sufferers, Black Stalin, 1999)

Both Butler and Rienzi demonstrated that the ethnic divide can be bridged to serve the common good. In fact, when labour riots broke out and Butler and seven others were arrested and charged for the murder of police Corporal Charlie King, Butler retained Rienzi as his attorney.

Then, when the Butler Defence Committee (BDC) was formed to defend Butler, hundreds of African and Indian workers paid their ten, twelve and fifty cents into the fund. Rienzi even sourced further funds from New York for Butler’s defence.

Unity sparked victory. All were tried and freed. Yet when the white colonists reasserted economic control, they continued to water the ethnic divide.



How can we achieve a more harmonious society, reducing the inter-ethnic conflict that threatens our unity? Through a concerted national effort of re-education, re-socialisation, and constitutional reform. We cannot rely solely on the government to initiate change. However, non-governmental organisations – church groups, rotary clubs and other service agencies must act as pressure groups to affect change.

Today, there is an urgency to repair the damage done by ethnic conflict. History shows that unity deferred, means violence deployed – even verbal violence.

As we observe our leaders in the political ring, pause. Let’s understand the historical source and purpose of the ethnic divide, when tension was cultivated, and suspicion nurtured. Re-examine your own biases. Question the stereotypes presented. Yet remember too, the examples of racial unity that sparkled in our history.



Over the next month, show us your motion.

Tra la la la la

Let’s rebuild national unity. Tra la la la la la

Post a picture of yourself on Instagram or Facebook with someone outside your ethnicity and hashtag #nationbuildingchallengeaccepted.