The 80th Anniversary of the Buckley Riots

Orita Bailey

Buckley's Estate as it is today

Buckley’s Estate as it is today

The Buckley Riots occurred on the 28th of January 1935 in the island of St. Kitts on the Buckley sugar estate. There doesn’t appear to be any planned celebration to mark this historic event.

“The Buckley’s Riot” is considered by many historians to be the spark that ignited the ‘labour’ movement throughout the Caribbean. Records which have been accessed from the National Archives from the period – the Caribbean was still a colony of the British Empire and subject to all that entailed; reveal what was basically a mis-understanding in a labour dispute escalated.

In December 1934 the Wade estate paid its workers a Christmas bonus of 8d (d=pence; 12d = 1 shilling) per ton of cane cut, other estates paid 3d and others paid nothing. In December 1934 there was the burning of sugar cane fields. On January 20th workers from most estates attend a meeting of Universal Benevolent Association called by its Secretary, Joseph Nathan. He advised them that there would be no price increase for the 1935 crop and since the planters wouldn’t be paying an increase the workers should accept the 1934 price. This didn’t go down well with the workers and the meeting broke up unresolved.

In his dispatch to the Secretary of state for the Colonies, the Governor of the Leeward Islands – who happened to be in St. Kitts at the time wrote… “ the secretary of the St. Kitts -Nevis Universal Benevolent Association Ltd, wrote to a newspaper (The Union Messenger) that the labourers ought to receive a 12.5% increase in wages”. Word soon spread that was actually the case, so when the labourers heard that the planters were saying there would be no increase, they were understandably very upset.

Another contributing factor to the ‘riots’ according to Mr R St Johnston, the Governor, was that Basseterre was the marshalling point for labourers from other islands for the labour schooners bound for Santo Domingo and other Spanish sugar territories. This he believed provided another element to the already volatile situation in St, Kitts at the time.

28 Jan 1935: The strike officially begins at Buckley’s Estate, after the plantation owner Mr Dobridge received a demand from cane cutters for a wage of 1 shilling per ton. This he refused and demanded that the protesters leave his property.

The protest was not without its drama by any means, the protesters marched from Buckley’s Estate just outside Basseterre, to Estridge estate in the east and to West Farm estate in the west. The main confrontation occurred at Buckley’s estate, where according to accounts the protesters numbered between 300 and 400 striking cane cutters and other estate workers. The authorities fearing serious trouble summoned help from the Antigua and from the fleet Bermuda, the police and defence force also responded and tried to keep order. When it was obvious that force was going to be needed, the Governor made the decision to arm them. At the height of the riot 3 men were killed and 8 wounded.

This act of defiance was the first in the Caribbean where the rights of workers were defended by workers; it heralded the movement towards self determination.

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