The 1938 riots (Pt II): The urban masses follow

Published: Sunday | June 4, 2006

Arnold Bertram, Contributor

AS REPORTS of the Frome riots rocked Kingston, St. William Grant took to the streets of the capital. After addressing a mass meeting, he led a deputation to the offices of the Jamaica Standard, where he delivered a petition to the newspaper's editor, Mr. William Makin.

St. William Grant, a militant black nationalist while serving in New York, had served in Marcus Garvey's UNIA as an officer in the Africa Corps.

On returning to Jamaica he became president of the Ethiopian Alliance of the World and rapidly built up a reputation as a street corner orator.


That same night Bustamante, demonstrating the 'opportunism' that was to characterise his later political life, set out for Frome estate, arriving there before sunrise the following morning. There, he mourned with the bereaved and immediately established solidarity with labour, while getting first-hand accounts of all that had taken place.

What of Norman Manley? The day the rebellion broke in Kingston, he was in Frome holding a watching brief for Tate and Lyle as the enquiry into the Frome riots got underway.

Fortunately, the presiding judge on hearing of the drama unfolding in Kingston proposed an adjournment. It was a telegram from his wife Edna, however, which sent Manley hurrying back to the city and after a night's deep mediation committed his energy and talents to the workers cause.

To this day, there are those who contend that Alexander Bustamante and to a lesser extent Norman Manley are to be credited with the organisation of the rebellion. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Bustamante, for his part, had made known his views on strikes to the fledgling labour movement from as early as November 1937, "You, the workers, are seeking justice from your employers - however cruel they may be - you must never attempt to strike against them without bringing to their notice through the right channel that you are dissatisfied, and even when the capitalist may refuse to do anything it is your duty to persist in amicable ways to gain your ends before you may resort to strikes."

Manley's own testimony in the heat of the turmoil should be enough to clear his name. "It has been rumoured that I advised some of the activities of the past few days. It is sufficient to say that nobody knowing me could think that Jamaica's interest would be served by letting loose the irresponsible pandemonium of the past two days."

However, once the rebellion had started there is no doubt that Bustamante by his fearless leadership and Manley by his instinct for institution building guaranteed the successes which emerged from 1938. Notwithstanding, from all accounts it was the workers who started their rebellion and in the process raised both Bustamante and Manley to such positions of national prominence from which not even death has been able to remove them.


Back in Kingston, from the platform provided by St. William Grant, he spoke to the crowd as an eyewitness describing graphically how he saw "poor defenceless men and women writhe in agony and pain and die through murderous police action."

His biographer, George Eaton, undoubtedly captures the Bustamante of the period, of whom he writes. "On public platforms he displayed even greater flamboyance and melodrama, gesticulating, baring his encased dagger, and occasionally brandishing his revolver."

Undoubtedly, Bustamante took the full measure of the physical assets served well "tall commanding presence with a shock of hair, distinctive voice, rhetorical flair, and perhaps most important, the right colour."

In those hectic May days he was never seen without the coal black St. William Grant, whom he would soon relegate to second place and then to no place at all. Ironically, it was to Grant's house at 36 Rose Lane that Lucius Watson and the dock workers first turned to for leadership. Grant in turn, doubting his capacity, took them to see Bustamante whom he had already endorsed at one of his weekly Sunday night meetings at the park. On Monday, May 23, "all hell broke loose." The striking dock workers had got the urban workers as well as the unemployed to take over the streets. By mid morning it was a crowd estimated as being over 8,000 that gathered to hear Grant and Bustamante speak from Queen Victoria's statue on parade.

In the crowd was young Richard Hart, who was then 23 years of age and who would figure prominently in Jamaica's political development. He made the following entry in his diary. "Bustamante, Grant and others were holding a meeting from the statue. Bustamante told everyone to go home. On the statue there was a man who was offering to assist the strikers with food. I was informed that he was a shopkeeper. Bustamante then tried to get the people to sing 'God Save the King', but very few obliged and the meeting ended."

However, Bustamante was not the only leader of 1938 for whom the British National Anthem has a special significance. Take the case of W.A. Williams, the leader of the dock workers, whose address to his colleagues remains a masterpiece of defiance and worker solidarity. "We have suffered under this slavery system for many generations and now the rime has come to shake ourselves from captivity - now that we have seen that Jehovah has placed this great knowledge in our heads today, we are not going to let one another down." Williams next asked the workers to doff their hats and sing 'God Save the King'.

In the meantime, St. William Grant was learning the hard way the racist character of coercive authority in this outpost of British colonialism. Both he and Bustamante had been arrested on May 24 as they led the striking workers past the police headquarters. Bustamante's warning to the police, "Don't you dare touch me with your clubs," was enough to save him from injury. Not so with Grant, who was mercilessly clubbed to the ground. Later in the day, the court ordered a bed to be put in Bustamante's cell but none for Grant.

From Kingston the rebellion spread to the countryside and by the first week in June every parish reported strikes and arrests. The fiercest action was perhaps seen in Islington, St. Mary, where on June 3 a large crowd of strikers from surrounding estates were confronted by the police, their leader Edgar Daley who refused to surrender his stick to the police was bayoneted and then had his back broken. His angry colleagues rose to his defence and the police responded by opening fire and killing four.


By this time, both Manley and Bustamante had become the most important allies of the Crown in bringing the rebellion to an end and restoring law and order. While no one should seek to detract form their contribution it is high time that we heard more of the unsung heroes of 1938.

Hugh Buchanan and Stennett Kerr-Coombs who on May 14 started publication of the Jamaica Weekly, a newspaper exclusively devoted to the workers cause; W.A. Williams under whose leadership the dock workers became the urban vanguard of the rebellion; Edgar Daley of Islington and Robert Rumble from Mocha in Clarendon who so ably carried the banner of rebellion in their respective parishes; A.G.S. Coombs whose Jamaica Workers and Tradesmen Union prepared the cadres; Ken Hill who on May 26 made the all important suggestion to organise the trade union which became the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union, and who, along with O.T. Fairclough, persuaded Manley to accept leadership of the People's National Party (PNP). Finally, St. William Grant who with every justification claim to have shown the way.

Finally, we all owe an appreciation to Ken Post, an Englishman and former lecturer at the University of the West Indies, who authored the first major publication of 1938, Arise Ye Starvelings, which he dedicated to the martyred dead of the rebellion:

  • Caleb Barrett

  • H. Dixon

  • Felix McLeggan

  • Thaddeus Smith

  • Stanley Thomas

  • Adolphus Clarke

  • Archibald Franklyn

  • Kathleen Martin

  • Edith Smith

  • Sarah Thomas

  • 'An unknown woman'

    Ironically, Post was deported by the government of the day in 1981 as an undesirable alien and given 24 hours notice to leave the country.

    Arnold Bertram, historian and former parliamentarian, is current chairman of Research and Product Development Ltd. Email