The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) salutes the 15 sugar workers who met their death 103 years ago on March 13, 1913 at Rose Hall Estate and who have today become known as the Rose Hall Martyrs.
The horrific incident is one of the ugliest reminders of British colonialism and yet another manifestation of the brutal conditions our forefathers had to contend with.
Removed from this landmark event by over 100 years, we nevertheless get a grasp of what was at the root of the riot and killing from the work of researcher and author Basdeo Mangru.
The turn of the 20th Century saw a spike of work stoppages and strikes on the estates as workers grew more active in resisting their oppressive conditions or in attempts by managers to deprive them of things they were already receiving which, in those times, seriously impacted their lives.
The problems and issues on the estates were accumulating and resistance, as a consequence, was increasing. Mangru wrote that ten years before the Rose Hall incident another major incident took place at Friends Estate where several workers were killed. The issue was demand for a wage increase.
At Rose Hall in 1913, we learn of what triggered the workers protests: the reneging by Manager James Smith of a promise of four days of additional holidays to workers due to their positive and encouraging work performance. This retreat, it seems, came at a time when discontent was rife. It ignited an obviously combustible situation, which quickly escalated.
One action led to counter-action eventually leading to the shooting of the workers by the State’s police: Fifteen persons lost their lives, including a woman, Gobindei and a Police Corporal.
Significantly too, researcher Mangru wrote that this riot was raised in the Legislature of India by the Indian nationalists who used this horrifying act to strengthen the call to end the indentureship system.
The GAWU established much later after this barbaric event, recognised the struggles and sacrifices of generations of sugar workers whose contribution have brought about many changes in workers living and working conditions.
At this time, we of GAWU specifically give recognition and pay tribute to those who fell at Plantation Rose Hall. They left a legacy which runs through the veins of the contemporary workforce of the sugar industry. This anniversary furthermore affords us the platform to remember with fondness and pride those who also courageously fought and heroically fell in the struggles in other plantations in other parts of the country.
These fallen workers remind us that sugar’s history is enriched by the struggles, sacrifices and the sweat and blood of the working class. That spirit has been kept alive over decades and survives to this day in the industry.
We accuse colonialism and the plantocracy system it sustained for these brutal deaths. In this event, we see that the owners’ class will stop at no crime to protect their property and profit. But the workers’ sacrifices were not in vain.
In the time that has elapsed since this historic event at Rose Hall Estate, the workers in the industry and the industry itself have advanced in several ways. It is therefore regrettable that attempts are constantly being made to rollback hard-won gains in the industry.
Increasingly, sugar workers find themselves engaged in actions to defend their rights and interests against our homegrown bureaucrats and their hirelings.
Our times, in many ways, differ from the era in which the Rose Hall Martyrs lived. Conditions are not the same and the demands we make are different yet continue to revolve around the fight for decent and rising wages and better working conditions.
Indeed, such is the struggles before the workers in Guyana and the world over. And, while demanding, on one hand, these class struggles hold out the promise of further achievements, and significant social changes in the future.
Many years have gone by since that fateful period when the workers from Rose Hall were killed. 103 years later we pay respects to their memory. They dared to challenge the existing socio-economic order for a better day. But improvement is a constant feature of our existence and in our day, a new generation continues to raise its voice and make fresh demands for all-round improvements.
In our fight of today, we also remember past battles and those like the Rose Hall Martyrs who have been the victims of colonial plunder and exploitation.
History’s lessons should not be forgotten lest workers lower their vigilance and succumb to disunity to their detriment. Workers’ struggles have not come to a close. Indeed, their struggles continue but in a different context and in different circumstances than what faced the Rose Hall Martyrs.