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  Tubal Uriah Butler

 

The harsh conditions of the 1930s produced a new kind of radical politi­cal leadership in the West Indies. This was the 'demagogue', the agitator of genuinely working class origins, black, often with little formal education, who inspired tremendous loyalty from his working class followers. Such a leader was Tubal Uriah 'Buzz' Butler.  

In 1936 and 1937, Butler was up and down the oil belt, rallying people to his banner. He was a magnificent, earthly, impassioned orator. His ability to arouse the masses was second to none. A charismatic leader of genuine working class background, he was far more intimately linked to the masses than Cipriani; he spoke in their own idiom, he articulated bread and butter issues in passionate language. Butler also had a very strong religious and Messianic streak. He believed that God had appointed him to lead the peo­ple out of the wilderness of oppression and he often used religious metaphors in his speeches. This is an example of his style: "After years and years of weeping and groanings, untold mis­eries and complainings, prayers and petitions, the toiling masses of this colony prayed to the God of Justice and Fair Play, Freedom and Liberty, the God of their ancient and incomparably glorious African forefathers, to send them a leader. He came in the name of the Spiritual Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Great King Jesus, in a new political organisation known as the British Empire Workers and Citizens Home Rule Party of Trinidad where he took evidence of the sufferings of his peo­ple: Let us hope that God in his mercy will not desert his suffering black children”.

Butler told his listeners that unemployment and low wages were the work of the evil white men who con­trolled the colony, above all the oil magnates. But he only settled on strike action after all alternatives had failed ­appeals to the governor (he begged him on his knees to intervene with the oil companies) and to the employers. Only when Butler became convinced that British fair play was not extended to loyal citizens of the Empire did he yield to demands for an oil workers strike. Even then the plan was for a peaceful sit-down strike to paralyse the oil fields. It was the blunders and insensitivity of the police and employ­ers which transformed a peaceful strike (June 19, 1937) into a violent outburst in which 14 people were killed and 59 injured.  

The strike and riots had underlying economic, racial and political causes. But the immediate cause was Butler's agitation in the oil belt. His historical role was to crystallise and articulate grievances of the workers and to pro­vide an outlet for their aggression. He was tremendously popular with the workers and the clumsy attempt to arrest him only sharpened the crisis. Butler was the catalyst for the 1937 riots which ushered in modern Trinidad. This is historical responsibility.  

Butler was tried and convicted for sedition and sentenced to two years imprisonment. He was released early in 1939, but interned again on the outbreak of the Second World War. He was released in 1940. Butler then tried to regain leadership of the working class movement and especially of the OWTU, formed in 1937 by Rienzi. He though that the OWTU leadership was denying him the power and glory which was rightly his, and in 1941, he engineered a strike to discredit the Union. As a result he was again detained (1941-45); the colonial gov­ernment felt he was endangering the British war effort by jeopardizing vital supplies of oil. His long years in jail added to his popularity - he was a mar­tyr in the workers' cause - but his absence from the scene during the cru­cial years after 1937 meant that leader­ship inevitably passed to others. He was released at the war's end in 1945. Butler was offered a responsible position with the OWTU but he was only interested in leadership. He called a general strike again in 1946 and his followers stormed the Red House.  

He was expelled from the OWTU for what was regarded as anti-union activities. He formed a loose organisa­tion known as the Butler Party, which won 3 seats in the 1946 election, the first held on universal suffrage. But Butler himself was defeated in Port-of-Spain by Albert Gomes; probably it was unwise to have left the oil belt, his stronghold, for the city. After 1946, Butler tried to forge an Afro-Indian front and in the 1950 elections his party won 6 seats, 4 of them held by Indians. But although the Butler Party was the single group in the Legislative Council, by a piece of constitutional engineering he was denied a single seat in the Executive Council (later to be the Cabinet). The British official and the moderate politicians like Gomes wanted to deny Butler the legitimacy which office would have given him; he was felt to be too uneducated, too lack­ing in administrative skills, to take office. Butlerism became a spent force. The alliance between him and Indian politicians fell apart. Butler was in Britain for much of the period 1950 - ­1956, and his movement was decisive­ly defeated in the 1956 election. A new Messiah had arisen and Butler's old fashioned oratory was eclipsed by Eric Williams.  

Butler was a charismatic leader, a superb orator, and a magnetic personal­ity. His role in 1937 was one of great historical significance for Trinidad. He was not a great constructive political leader, but his actions helped to bring the working class onto the centre stage of national life.

Source :

"Caribbean Emanicipators" - A Publication of the GBU Public Relations Division, Office of the Prime Minister, Trinidad and Tobago, (1976).

 
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