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In Memory of the Enmore Martyrs

By Mel Carpen
Guyana Journal, June 2008

JUST AFTER SUNRISE on the morning of June 16, 1948, sixty years ago, five sugar workers were brutally shot to death at Enmore Estate in Guyana as they were demonstrating for better working conditions, fair wages, and for the recognition of a Trade Union of their choice.

The five workers who died became known as the Enmore Martyrs. They were Lallabaggie and Dookie from Enmore, and Rambarran, Harry and Pooran from Enterprise/Non Pariel. One worker was shot in the back as he tried to flee from the scene. There were also fourteen other workers who were seriously injured.

It was not the first time in Guyana's history that sugar workers were killed whilst demonstrating for better working conditions. The first incident occurred in 1872 at Devonshire Castle where five workers were gunned down by Colonial Police. In 1896 the Police shot five workers and seriously injured several others at Non Pariel. In 1903 eight workers were killed and seven injured at Friends, and in 1913 at Rose Hall fifteen were killed and thirteen wounded. These shootings all occurred on individual estates where workers resorted to strikes and demonstrations in order to force the Sugar Estate owners to improve the working conditions. These incidents were not part of an industry-wide action as was the case of the 1939 shootings at Leonora and the 1948 shootings at Enmore.

In 1939 sugar workers at several estates went on strike as a last resort in order to influence the sugar estates to improve their working conditions; however, the strike and demonstrations were suppressed when police brutally shot five workers and injuring several others.

After the 1939 death of the sugar workers, a collective bargaining agreement was put into place recognizing the Manpower Citizens Association (MPCA) as the representative union for the field workers and the Guyana Labour Union (GLU) as the representative union of the factory workers.

Workers were dissatisfied with the representation they were getting from the MPCA. On many occasions the Union sided with the Sugar Producers Association (SPA) in industrial disputes instead of fighting for the cause of the workers. Eventually, a new Union was formed to represent the workers in their efforts to secure better working conditions.

This new Union, the Guyana Industrial Workers Union, (GIWU) was more vigorous and militant in representing the workers' wishes and campaigned to win the support of the workers as their union representative. The SPA recognized the MPCA and did not want to meet with the GIWU.

In 1948 the SPA introduced a system of "cut and load" as opposed to the original system of "cut and drop". In the "cut and drop" system one gang of workers cut the cane whilst another gang loaded the cane into the punts for the factories. In the "cut and load" system the same gang that cut the cane had to also load the cane into punts for the factories. This new system which was introduced without consultation with the workers involved greater physical effort and was very strenuous, especially for older workers. This system would also facilitate a significant decrease of the work force needed for harvesting.

The sugar workers represented by the MPCA agreed to try the new system if wages were fairly increased; however, the SPA would not agree to a fair rate of pay to compensate for the additional work; so the workers had no alternative but to go on strike.

The MPCA advised the workers to return to work whilst the GIWU encouraged them to continue the fight for the right to receive fair wages. The workers saw the GIWU as the only Union that was interested in fighting for their welfare; so they started to swing their support en mass towards the GIWU. At this critical time the workers intensified their efforts to secure the recognition of the GIWU as their representative union.

The strike spread to most of the estates and climaxed at a huge demonstration at Enmore on the morning of June 16, 1948, where colonial police opened fire, thus killing five workers and injuring fourteen others. The Enmore Martyrs became forever etched in Guyana's history.

Two years before the Enmore Martyrs incident, the political landscape of Guyana had started to change with the formation of the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) headed by Dr. Cheddi Jagan, the son and grandson of indentured sugar workers. Dr. Jagan and his wife, Janet, had just returned from the USA and had initiated a gigantic effort to improve the social, economic and political conditions of the working people.

Dr. Jagan joined the MPCA but was disgusted at the corruption and hypocrisy that he saw within that union. He was instrumental, with Dr.J.P. Latchmansingh and others, in forming the GIWU to secure better working conditions for the sugar workers and, also with his wife and political partner Janet, Joycelyn Hubbard and Ashton Chase, formed the PAC to fight for political reforms. At the time of the strike in 1948 Dr. Jagan was the elected representative for the East Demerara District #6, having been elected to the Legislative Assembly as an Independent in 1947. Dr. Jagan and Mrs. Jagan were involved in the strike. They knew the workers who were slain. At the funeral a massive crowd was present and the procession was prevented from marching through Georgetown.

The martyrdom of the workers at Enmore influenced Dr. Cheddi Jagan into making that solemn pledge that he would not rest until his people were free from colonial bondage.

The PAC was the forerunner of the People's Progressive Party (PPP) which became the vanguard of Guyana's struggle for independence, and the GIWU became the Guyana Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU) which is today the recognized union of the sugar workers in Guyana.

The martyrdom of the workers at Enmore and other estates must never be forgotten.

Mel Carpen is President of the Association of Concerned Guyanese, New Jersey

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