GEORGETOWN, GUYANA — The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) pays homage, yet again, to the fifteen sugar workers who met their death 105 years ago on March 13, 1913 at Rose Hall Estate and who today are being referred to as the Rose Hall Martyrs.
The workers were Motey Khan, Bholay, Sohan, Hulas, Badri, Jugai, Sadula, Sarjoo, Lalji, Durga, Gafur, Roopan, Juggoo, Nibur and Gobindei, the lone female.
“The horrific incident is one of the ugliest reminders of British colonialism and another manifestation of the brutal conditions our forefathers had to contend with in colonial times,” a press statement fro GAWU says.
The statement continues: “Removed from this landmark event by over 100 years, we nevertheless get a grasp of what was at the root of the riot and killing from the work of researcher and author Basdeo Mangru.
“At Rose Hall in 1913, we learn that what triggered off the workers’ protests was the reneging by Manager James Smith of a promise of four days of additional holidays to workers due to their positive and encouraging work performance. This retreat, it seems, came at a time when discontent was rife. It ignited an obviously combustible situation, which quickly deteriorated.
“One action led to a counter-action and eventually the workers clearly just and justified struggles led to the shooting by the State’s police. In that shooting, fifteen (15) persons lost their lives, including a woman, Gobindei and a Police Corporal.
“Significantly too, researcher Mangru wrote that this riot was raised in the Legislature of India by some Indian nationalists who used this horrifying act to strengthen the call to end the indentureship system.”
GAWU says that alhough it was established much later after “this barbaric event”, it recognized the struggles and sacrifices of generations of sugar workers whose contribution have brought about many changes in workers’ living and working conditions.
“At this time, we of GAWU specifically give recognition and pay tribute to those who fell at Plantation Rose Hall. They left a legacy which runs through the veins of the contemporary workforce of the sugar industry. This anniversary furthermore affords us the platform to remember those who also courageously fought and heroically fell in the struggles in other plantations in other parts of the country,” the union’s statement reads.
It continues: “These fallen workers remind us that sugar’s history is enriched by the struggles, sacrifices and the sweat and blood of the working class. That spirit has been kept alive in subsequent generations of workers and over decades and survives to this day in the industry.
“Colonialism and the plantocracy system must bear full responsibility for these brutal deaths. In this event, we see that the owners’ class will stop at no crime to protect their property and profit. And, it is such past brutal experiences at the hands of private owners that presently strengthen our opposition to the call for privatisation in our day.
“In the time that has elapsed since this historic event at Rose Hall Estate, the workers in the industry and the industry itself have advanced in several ways. It is, therefore, regrettable that attempts are constantly being made to reverse the hard won gains of workers in the industry. Increasingly, sugar workers find themselves engaged in actions to defend their rights and interests against our homegrown bureaucrats and their hirelings.
“Rose Hall Estate occupies a special place in the nation’s sugar industry. It is at this location that the then Prime Minister Forbes Burnham exclaimed that the industry would be owned and operated by the people of Guyana. The estate is also the only estate which has been bestowed with a national award in recognition of its contribution in terms of production, efficiency and most of all to the enterprising people of the area. It is, therefore, disheartening for us to register that this year’s observance is overshadowed, to a large extent, by the absence of a functioning Rose Hall Estate. The lives of thousands of ordinary, hard-working Guyanese have been affected by an unconscionable act.
“Our times, in many ways, differ from the era in which the Rose Hall Martyrs lived. Conditions are not the same and the demands, we make, are different yet continue to revolve around the fight for decent and rising wages, better working conditions and safeguarding livelihoods. Indeed, such are the struggles before the workers in Guyana and the world over. And, while demanding on one hand, these class struggles hold out the promise of further achievements and significant social changes in the future.
“Many years have gone by since that fateful period when the workers from Rose Hall were killed. One hundred and five years later we pay respect to their memory. They dared to challenge the existing socio-economic order for a better day. But improvement is a constant feature of our existence and in our day, a new generation continues to raise its voice and make fresh demands for all-round improvements.
“In our fight of today, we also remember past battles and those like the Rose Hall Martyrs who had been the victims of colonial plunder and exploitation and fatal violence.
“GAWU feels that history’s lessons should not be forgotten lest workers lower their vigilance and succumb to disunity to their detriment. Workers struggles have not come to a close. Indeed, their struggles continue but in a different context and in different circumstances than what faced the Rose Hall Martyrs.
Long live the memory of the courageous Rose Hall Martyrs!”