Historical moment: The unia and the 1937 Marcus Garvey visit to Guyana

Marcus Garvey’s visit to British Guiana in October 1937 is considered the high point of the existence and activity of his United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the colony. Indeed, on account of the regional and international popularity of the controversial black leader, his visit (a three month long tour of the region including Guiana) was an important and expectant moment for the citizens of Georgetown, many of whom turned out in large numbers to witness his arrival on the Bookers docks. The Daily Argosy reported that there was a “crowd of nearly a thousand along a distance of over two hundred yards on both sides of the streets.” Prior to 1937 there was at least one previous attempt by the President-General of the UNIA to visit the colony. This was in 1921 but it was clear from the diplomatic correspondence between British Governors in British Guiana and Jamaica, that he would have been detained had he set foot in the colony that year. In fact, the colonial authorities in British Guiana had been worried about Garvey’s activity even before the first UNIA group had been consecrated on Guyanese soil.



In 1918, Governor Sir Wilfred Collett was inquiring from a fellow Governor of the likely existence of “certain Negroes” who might have been active on behalf of the UNIA. This documented anxiety led directly to the promulgation of the much debated and controversial Seditious Publica-tions Bill of 1919. Ostensibly directed against the Negro World, the paper of another organization, the Negro Progress Convention, the nature of the Bill held wider implications. Publications like the Negro World were found by the authorities to be of a “grossly offensive character” and linked to labour and political machinations. The labour movement had just been formally established and the UNIA was an early ally, particularly with Hubert Critchlow’s British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU). When the economic fortunes of the colony declined seriously in 1922 the BGLU and the UNIA held a “mass meeting at the Parade Ground to protest the cuts and the payments of higher rents.” It was evident that the activities of the UNIA made the authorities wary of the organisation small as its organizational roots were and this was confirmed by the fact that the Special Branch was “required to report on the activities of its members.” The alliance they established at certain moments would form part of the UNIA and labour heritage in British Guiana that extended into the 1930s. So close was the relationship between the two organisations that union leaders made a point of inviting the UNIA to its main official functions. For example, on the third anniversary of the BGLU in 1922 it was noted that “Dr. Tobit (sic) and other representatives of the United Negroes Improvement Association were in attendance.”

The Jamaican born Garvey had achieved fame and notoriety in the USA, his main base of the UNIA’s global reach. From there he went on to build the largest pan-African organisation in history, with a membership of over four million at its height. It should be recalled that Garvey’s activity in the USA launched the career of the infamous J. Edgar Hoover, later FBI director, who even engaged the services of the first full time black spy in the Bureau’s history to gather intelligence on Garvey and his organization.



From its formal establishment in British Guiana in April 1919 to Garvey’s visit in 1937 the UNIA acted as a loyal conduit of the black leader’s philosophy in the colony. The founding statement of the organization as reported in the Daily Chronicle in April 20, 1919 is not only an item of considerable value as a public record of the UNIA in itself, it provided a glimpse of its local support base. The newspaper report, brief and to the point said, “A meeting was held on Thursday night last at the Scottish Flower Lodge

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