Trinidad’s Riot Cycle
Historically, Trinidad has endured five major riots, one every 20 to 34 years. The average time span between these riots is 27.25 years. All of these riots were preceded by some form of oppression, injustice, inequality or hardship. All of them thus far have left indelible marks and changes in our society. The last riot was in the form of an attempted coup by Muslim insurrectionists in 1990. Trinidad and Tobago is the only nation in the Western Hemisphere to have endured such an attack from this religion.
That was 26 years ago, with reports of hundreds of ISIS trained combatants returning to Trinidad and with more layoffs due to the recession, is Trinidad on the brink of another riot?
Trinidad’s First Riot: 1881: The Canboulay Riots
Trinidad’s Carnival dates back to the 18th century. It was made popular by the French Catholic planters. They staged elaborate masquerade balls at Christmas and as a “farewell to the flesh” before the Catholic Lenten season, with each social group mimicking the other in their masking and entertainment. After the emancipation of slaves in the 1830s, it became a symbol of freedom and defiance, At that time it was called Canboulay, which was the predecessor to what is know as Carnival today. Canboulays were processions that commemorated the harvesting of burnt cane fields during slavery..
The British government attempted to ban Canboulay in 1881, and this resulted in open riots between Afro-Creole revelers and police, a turn of events that, not surprisingly, caused deep resentment within Trinidadian society toward the government’s use of power. Further to this, attempts to control the celebration of Hosay by the East Indian population resulted in the Hosay Riots of 1884.
Trinidad’s Second Riot : 1903: Water Riots
Towards the end of the 19th century, Trinidad became notorious for its enormous waste of water. Much of the waste was caused by the well-to-do section of the Port-of-Spain population, mainly the large houses around the Queen’s Park Savannah. One example cited in a report of 1893 was a house where 8,000 gallons were consumed daily. Every well-to-do person constructed not an ordinary Roman bath, but large plunge baths containing as much as 1,000 or 2,000 gallons each – which were filled every day by letting the tap run all night. By the turn of the century there were 1,380 baths in Port-of-Spain exceeding 100 gallons in capacity. The 8,000 people who used them were estimated to consume no less than 1 ½ million gallons daily, an average of 187 gallons per head.
An engineer was called upon to reform the system in the 1890s and recommended the development of more sources of water supply by building reservoirs and introducing water meters. In 1896, all of Port-of-Spain was up in arms at the ordinance authorizing meters to be put upon large plunge baths and providing for increased rates. The Port-of-Spain municipality took the lead in this agitation and the Crown Colony Government (controlled by Britain) backed down.
In 1899 the Governor, Sir Hubert Jerningham, didn’t help matters by abolishing the Borough of Port-of-Spain and its council, deemed to be petty and inefficient in the management of its affairs. Henceforth, the affairs of the burgesses were to be managed by central government. In 1902, an ordinance was introduced again – and again public meetings were held against the government and the meter system. The bill was withdrawn but this time people were prosecuted for wasting water.
On 5 March 1903, yet another water ordinance was published. The second reading was scheduled for 16 March but because of disorderly behaviour of spectators in the council chamber on that day, the Executive Council was adjourned to 23 March. As soon as the bill appeared on 5 March, violent articles were written against it. This led to aggressive speeches being made by members of a Ratepayers Association at a public meeting at the Racestand on the Savannah (or Public Park), on 14 March. The Ratepayers Association was led by the disenfranchised Mayor of Port-of-Spain, John Cox Newbold, who led ratepayers in the belief that water was a right of existence and not a scarce commodity to be bought and sold.
On 23 March, the Governor, Sir Cornelius Alfred Moloney, added more fuel to the flames by insisting on admission by ticket only into the council chamber at the Red House, the seat of colonial government, to hear the debate. It was this notice – that tickets would be required by the public for admission – that acted as a spark for the water riots.
The Red House was pelted with stones by a large crowd of people (or those members of the Ratepayers Association gathering in Brunswick Square) and eventually gutted by fire. The police were called out, two Royal Navy ships, The Pallas and The Rocket landed troops, in addition to the 250 men of the Lancashire Fusiliers already deployed at barracks in Port-of-Spain. The ominous Riot Act was read to the crowd, and then the policemen were given the order to fire on the protestors. At which time police opened fire on the crowd, killing sixteen people, and injuring forty-two others.
The Red House was completely repaired by 1907, it’s most notable addition being the imposing rotunda or dome which is its most recognizable feature today. However, it was not until 1914 that the local council and municipal ordinance of Port-of-Spain were reinstated. But the Commission did recommend that water management affairs fall under the rule of local rather than central government.
Trinidad’s Third Riot: 1937: Labour Riots
These riots were In response to poor working conditions and inadequate pay. This action led to the birth of the trade union movement. These riots occurred throughout the United Kingdom’s Caribbean colonies. They began as the Great Depression wore on and ceased on the eve of World War II. The unrest served to highlight inequalities of wealth, led the British government to attempt a solution to the problem, and in some cases spurred the development of indigenous party politics that would lead to self-government and independence in the postwar period.
Trinidad’s Fourth Riot: 1970: Black Power Revolution
Between 1968 and 1970 the Black Power movement gained strength in Trinidad and Tobago and was greatly influenced by the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the 1960s. The National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) was formed out of the Guild of Undergraduates at the St. Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies. Under the leadership of Geddes Granger (now Makandal Daaga), NJAC and the Black Power movement appeared as a serious challenge to Prime Minister Eric Williams’ authority.
This was coupled with a growing militancy by the Trade Union movement, led by George Weekes of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union, Clive Nunez of the Transport and Industrial Workers Union and Basdeo Panday, then a young trade union lawyer and activist. The Black Power Revolution began with a 1970 Carnival band named Pinetoppers whose presentation entitled The Truth about Africa included portrayals of “revolutionary heroes” including Fidel Castro, Stokely Carmichael and Tubal Uriah Butler.
This was followed by a series of marches and protests. Williams countered with a broadcast entitled am for Black Power. He introduced a 5% levy to fund unemployment reduction and later established the first locally-owned commercial bank. However, this intervention had little impact on the protests.
On April 6, 1970 a protester, Basil Davis, was killed by the police. This was followed on April 13 by the resignation of A.N.R. Robinson, Member of Parliament for Tobago East. The death of this protester led to the Movement to pick up momentum. On April 18 sugar workers went on strike, and there was talk of a general strike. In response to this, Williams proclaimed a State of Emergency on April 21 and arrested 15 Black Power leaders. Responding in turn, a portion of the Trinidad Defense Force, led by Raffique Shah and Rex Lassalle, mutinied and took hostages at the army barracks at Teteron. Through the action of the Coast Guard, including Officer Hugh Griffith and negotiations between the Government and the rebels, the mutiny was contained and the mutineers surrendered on April 25.
Williams made three additional speeches in which he sought to identify himself with the aims of the Black Power movement. He re-shuffled his Cabinet and removed three Ministers (including two white members) and three senators. He also introduced the Public Order Act which reduced civil liberties in an effort to control protest marches. After public opposition, led by A.N.R. Robinson and his newly created Action Committee of Democratic Citizens (which later became the Democratic Action Congress), the Bill was withdrawn. Attorney General Karl Hudson-Phillips offered to resign over the failure of the Bill, but Williams refused his resignation.
Trinidad’s Fifth Riot: 1990: Jamaat al Muslimeen Attempted Coup
In 1988, police raided the commune of Jamaat al Muslimeen (from Arabic جماعة المسلمين, “Group of Muslims”), a Muslim organization led by Yasin Abu Bakr, seizing weapons and ammunition and arresting 34 members. The members were charged with larceny, robbery, illegal possession of weapons, rape and murder. This event led members of Jamaat al Muslimeen to believe that the government was being oppressive and had illegally occupied their land. Before the coup, Abu Bakr was arrested several times on charges of contempt of court and illegal demonstrations.
According to an interview by former minister of communications Gerald Hadeed, two days before the coup attempt, prime minister Robinson was warned that there might be an attempt to overthrow his government on that day and he was asked to have the scheduled sitting postponed. Robinson declined, however, claiming that he had taken an oath of office and he would not deviate from it in front of a potential threat
On Friday 27 July 1990, 114 members of the Jamaat al Muslimeen attempted to stage a coup against the government of Trinidad & Tobago. Forty-two insurgents stormed the Red House, and took Robinson and most of his cabinet hostage, while seventy-two of their accomplices attacked the offices of Trinidad & Tobago Television (TTT), the only television station in the country at that time, and the Trinidad Broadcasting Company, then one of only two radio stations in the country 95.1FM The Best Mix and Radio Trinidad 730 AM. At 6:00 pm, Yasin Abu Bakr appeared on television and announced that the government had been overthrown and that he was negotiating with the army. He called for calm and said that there should be no looting.
Robinson was beaten and shot when he tried to order the army to attack the militants. The army and the police responded by sealing off the area around the Red House. Widespread looting and arson took place in Port of Spain and other parts of the East-West Corridor, but the remainder of the country was calm. American Airlines and British Airways cancelled all flights to the capital city. A state of emergency was declared by acting president Emmanuel Carter and martial law was imposed. Several cabinet members who had not been present in the Red House at the time of the attack set up office in the Trinidad Hilton. On the night of 27 July, the army took control of the TTT transmitter on Cumberland Hill, thus taking TTT off the air. After six days of negotiation, the Muslimeen surrendered on 1 August and were taken into custody. They were tried for treason, but the Court of Appeal upheld the amnesty offered to secure their surrender, and they were released. The Privy Council later invalidated the amnesty, but the Muslimeen members were not re-arrested.
Generally, Trinidadians are a fun-loving, peaceful set of individuals. However, we also have a very turbulent past that must not be forgotten. Given the present recession and the potential threat again from Islamic extremists, the government would be well advised to proceed with caution and due diligence. Also the cries of displaced workers should not simply fall on deaf ears. In the long run, it may be found that it would have been more cost effective to put effective mechanisms in place to assist those facing extreme financial hardships, than to allow a situation to bring about unrest.