Today’s blog post was written by Lynette Sampson, MPhil History Student at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine.
The June 19, Labour Day holiday in Trinidad and Tobago, commemorates the Labour Riot in Fyzabad, Trinidad of 1937. However, more than half a century earlier in neighbouring Tobago, the workers of Roxborough asserted the strength of the working class as discontent with working conditions ignited the Belmanna Riots of 1876, which left the island forever changed.
In the immediate post-Emancipation era, a group of formerly enslaved Africans from Barbados came to Tobago, settled and worked on the Roxborough Estate. However, they found themselves in a situation where just as in Barbados, so too in Tobago, despite emancipation, the socio-economic system and working conditions prior to emancipation, remained firmly entrenched.
The tensions simmering under the surface at the Roxborough estate spilled forth on May 1, as fires were set, destroying the cane fields. On May 3, Corporal James Henry Belmanna and a party of six armed policemen sent to arrest the suspected arsonists, were able to make four arrests before a large angry crowd tried to prevent any further arrests. The crowd armed with stick stones and cutlasses, clashed with the policemen and in an attempt to quell the fracas, Corporal Belmanna fired into the crowd. Mary Jane Thomas, a Barbadian worker, was shot and killed.
Instead of quelling the mob, this incensed them further and a riot ensued. The angry protesters followed the policemen to the Roxborough courthouse and surrounded it demanding that Belmanna be delivered to them. Bridget Brereton in her publication, “Post-Emancipation Protest in the Caribbean: The ‘Belmanna Riots’ in Tobago, 1876”, re-counts the dramatic standoff:
“They stoned the Court House, battered down its windows and (perhaps) tried to set fire to it while the police party was still inside. The magistrate, having read the riot act, agreed to release the four arrested men in an effort to pacify the mob, but this failed to disperse them, and the Court House remained under siege for several hours. Eventually the magistrate felt he had no choice but to sacrifice Belmanna in order to save the lives of the others in the building. Belmanna himself agreed to leave the Court House for Scarborough under escort as a prisoner on a potential murder charge. But outside, the mob fell on him, and brutally beat him – the women allegedly being “most prominent”- and left him for dead. Belmanna died of his injuries on May 5 . . .”
As rioting continued, the Roxborough Courthouse was destroyed; cane fields and estate buildings were burnt. The British authorities, overwhelmed by the chaos, summoned a British warship and soldiers to subdue the protesters. In the end, 16 persons were convicted for the murder of Corporal Belmanna and another 30 were imprisoned for rioting.
After the hearings, Lieutenant Governor Harley summed up his thinking on the nature of the riot in his report in the Tobago Blue Book for 1876: “A general demand for increased wages was made the plea for rioting . . . but the subsequent events disclosed that a latent feeling of discontent had existed in the district for some time, and there was sufficient evidence to show that there was a plot to effect a rising and get rid of the whites and seize the estates”.
The Blue Book for 1876
Craig-James, Susan. The changing Society of Tobago, 1838-1938 A Fractured Whole. London: New Beacon Books Limited. 2008. Print
The Tobago Gazette – Friday May 12th 1876
The Belmanna Riot – A Proclamation by Gov. R.W. Harley 1876
Trinidad and Tobago Chronicle, Friday May 12, 1876
Williams, E. The History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, 1962. Print.