The commemoration of Labour Day each year prompts us to recall the achievements of the nation’s labour leaders. The first was “the Captain”—AA Cipriani (1876-1945). His statue, erected in 1959, stands at the heart of Independence Square, and our labour college is named for him.
We can learn more about Cipriani from a new book, titled Victory at Damieh, by Arthur L McShine. It consists of two parts. The first is an essay about the military action at Damieh in Palestine (now in Israel) in September 1918, towards the end of World War 1 (1914-1918). Soldiers of the British West Indies Regiment—Cipriani was a captain in the Regiment—performed bravely in this battle against the Turks.
McShine intends to make a contribution to the centenary commemorations of the outbreak of World War 1 this year. But for me, the most valuable part of his book is the reproduction, in part two, of many of Cipriani’s speeches.
As we would expect, many of them deal with the labour movement and the struggle to make trade unions and their activities legal in T&T, as they had long been in Britain. One speech records Cipriani’s opposition to the Trade Union Ordinance of 1932. This made unions legal if they registered with the government, but didn’t give them the essential right of peaceful picketing while on strike.
On the advice of the British Trades Union Council, Cipriani refused to register his Trinidad Workingmen’s Association under this law, and later renamed it the Trinidad Labour Party, meaning it was to function as a political party rather than as a union.
In many speeches, the Captain attacked unemployment, especially during the Great Depression years after 1929. Speaking in the Legislative Council in 1932—he was the elected member for Port of Spain from 1925 until his death in 1945—he said “unemployment in this colony is growing and assuming such proportions as is likely to prove prejudicial to the peace and well-being of the colony. It does not affect the labouring classes alone, but it has crept today into other avenues of employment, and we find not only hundreds of thousands of labouring men out of employment, but also skilled labourers, artisans, and clerks”.
Like many labour leaders after him, Cipriani was also a major political figure, who campaigned for elected members in the legislature, and, when a few were granted in 1925, for full self-government. He was a strong advocate for West Indian federation, and wanted a federated West Indies to be given “dominion status”, meaning self-government within the British Commonwealth like Australia or Canada.
Many of the speeches in McShine’s book reflect Butler’s consistent struggle for self-government and for federation. “We claim a place in the sun as a unit of the Commonwealth of Nations”, he said; “we have to come to the crossroads where the word ‘Empire’ has grown to be hateful and must go…”
This was pretty radical stuff for the early 1930s. “No Federation without Self-Government”, he declared, “and no Self-Government without Adult Suffrage [every adult can vote], and on that we stand or fall”. His often-repeated mantra was “Agitate, Educate, Confederate”.
Cipriani proudly called himself a socialist. In several of these speeches, he called for a redistribution of wealth in T&T, and he often attacked the “capitalists”, especially in the oil and sugar industries, who exploited their labour force.
He pulled no punches: “Laws are made by him [the capitalist], and those laws say that when the barefooted man steals a loaf of bread to fill his belly he is a thief and he goes to jail, but when my friend the capitalist steals 10,000 pounds he is a great man and walks out of jail!”