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