Historical commentary on the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Unia) in British Guiana

This week’s column is an abridged version of a historical commentary by historians Juanita De Barros and Nigel Westmaas, on the activities of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in British Guiana. The original essay, along with a collection of archival documents, can be found in The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers: The Caribbean Diaspora 1910–1920, edited by Professor Robert Hill and scheduled to be published by Duke University Press later this year.

The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) emerged in British Guiana during a period of considerable political and social stress, when diverse social groups were expressing increasing dissatisfaction with the social, economic, and political status quo. These oppositional activities challenged the position of the colonial elites and provide part of the explanation for the latter’s hostility to the UNIA.

Crowd greets Marcus Garvey on his arrival at the home of Dr S IT Wills at Lot 190 Charlotte street in Georgetown (October 1937)

The founding statement of the UNIA in British Guiana, as reported in the Daily Chronicle, is not only an item of considerable value  as a public record of the organisation itself, but speaks volumes about the place of the UNIA in space and time. The report was brief and to the point: “A meeting was held on Thursday night last at the Scottish Flower Lodge, Carmichael street, for the inauguration of a branch of an American Society known as “The Universal Negro improvement Association and African Communities League of Georgetown. There was a fair attendance of clerks, mechanics and porters….” The caption of the report read simply, “Position of the Negro in the colony.” More than likely the “position” alluded to here comprised both racial and political discrimination, as well as the economic and social immiseration of the working people. Considering the working class composition of its formative group, it is not surprising that the UNIA’s ties to labour would be solid and thereby attract the interest of the colony’s authorities and police special branch.

The first UNIA group was established at the time when the colony was in the throes of a social and economic crisis. The UNIA inserted itself at a critical juncture in the country’s history. Governmental censorship and repression was the order of the day and the labour movement had just been formally established. Another dimension involved the return of black soldiers from the trenches of World War I. As in Trinidad and elsewhere in the anglophone Caribbean, their individual and collective experience in Europe had instilled in many a new and intense race awareness. It was a period of convergence with several processes merging into one distinctive point in time.

At its maximum strength the UNIA was said to have attained a network of seven branches scattered geographically across the country, with an average membership of two hundred countrywide. This was numerically a small number of branches compared to the approximately thirty in neighbouring Trinidad. Even so, the Garvey movement did make an impact on British Guiana. In the main it performed roles consistent with its counterparts elsewhere in the hemisphere. The branches invoked a civic personality that witnessed them cooperating with churches like the Jordanites, celebrating and defending the state of Ethiopia when the Italians invaded in 1935, providing dinners for the poor (interestingly inviting the poor of all races), as well as offering continued support for organized labour.  That labour serves as backdrop suggests a keen relationship between Garvey’s UNIA and the trade union movement particularly with Hubert Critchlow’s British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU). The alliance they established at moments would form part of the UNIA and labour heritage in the colony and would extend into the 1930s. So close was the relationship 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 (sic) Negroes Improvement Association were in attendance.“

High levels of unemployment, especially in the capital city of Georgetown, and decline in the colony’s sugar industry meant that poverty was rife among the non-white masses. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, indentured sugar estate workers, artisans and urban dock workers protested – at times violently – their poor working (and living) conditions. During the course of repeated strikes and labour unrest, urban workers in particular gradually articulated a coherent set of demands: higher wages; regular work; and shorter working hours.  In 1905 and in the 1910s, they organized strikes and crafted petitions in repeated attempts to realize these goals. The increased cost of living due to World War I encouraged all classes of workers (labourers and non-labourers alike, as petitions by police and doctors show) to call for higher wages. One result was a series of strikes by dock workers in 1917, 1919, and 1924, and the establishment of the British Guiana Labour Union in 1919.

When the economic fortunes of the colony declined further in 1922, the BGLU and the UNIA held a “mass meeting at the Parade Ground to protest the cuts and the payment of higher rents.” This cooperation continued, for the Inspector General was quoted as saying after the Ruimveldt labour killings in 1924, “For the past five years Garvey’s disciples have been preaching in the colony… the germ of racial prejudice has undoubtedly taken root in the Negro and perhaps to a lesser degree the East Indian sections of the community.” The resulting unrest left twelve dead in its wake.

The UNIA’s activities in British Guiana are not well chronicled. John Williams, in a brief examination of Garveyism in Guyana, suggests that the “Garvey movement in Guyana began relatively late in comparison to other Caribbean territories.” In spite of this slow start and its comparatively small size, the British Guiana UNIA “did not escape the scrutiny and the strictures of the local colonial administration. Like other researchers on the Garvey movement in British Guiana, Williams places the movement’s high point in the 1920s at seven UNIA groups, and official statistics from the headquarters of the UNIA. Tony Martin, in another study of Garvey’s influence in British Guiana, states that the UNIA “did other things that UNIA branches did around the world. It held spectacular public parades, ran a school, acted as mutual benefit society, enrolled members in UNIA auxiliaries (Black Cross Nurses, African Legions, and others) and welcomed visiting high commissioners from the Harlem headquarters. By 1926 UNIA lodges in Georgetown had decreased from four to two, and colonial intelligence sources estimated UNIA membership in the capital at two hundred persons.

It was evident that the activities of the UNIA made the authorities wary of the organization. Small as its organizational roots were, they were “required to report on the activities of its members.” The official report of the Inspector General did more than address the UNIA’s alleged contribution to the unrest. It established a nexus between race and class. Moreover, while the irony of the words “racial prejudice” is noted, the Inspector General’s statement unwittingly raises an important demographic dimension. That is the fact that a large population of migrants from India also existed in British Guiana. Brought over after emancipation to act as a cushion for the expected loss of labour on the part of the ex-slaves, the East Indian population had overtaken the black population numerically by 1911.

One issue that does stand out starkly, however, is the battle over the Seditious Publications Bill of 1919 – directly introduced, from all accounts, to prohibit Garvey’s Negro World from circulating in the colony. British Guiana officers were worried about Garvey’s activity even before the first UNIA branch had been consecrated on Guyanese soil. In 1918 Governor Wilfred Collett was enquiring 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 Publications Bill. The Seditious Publications Bill was one of the most repressive pieces of legislation effected in the colony. The vigorous debate and opposition it stimulated coincided with the rise to public office of non-white middle class politicians and legislators who were slowly overcoming the structural, political and social hindrances and seeking political representation in the highest organs of the colony.

Marcus Garvey’s arrival in British Guiana in October 1937 was the symbolic moment in the existence and activity of the UNIA in the colony and an important and expectant moment for the citizens of Georgetown, the capital city.

In so far as Garvey’s stopover to meet with his supporters in British Guiana is concerned, two related issues stand out. In the first place the visit was apparently significant enough to warrant diplomatic contact to pave the way for a visit befitting a head of state.  The President General of the UNIA had attempted previously to visit the colony in 1921. But it is clear from a diplomatic note included in this volume that Garvey would have been detained had he set foot in the colony then. Sixteen years later, when he successfully landed in British Guiana, it was a changed situation. The Government house was part of the beat for Garvey’s hectic tour and Garvey himself appeared to go out of his way to placate the authorities on the intent of his visit.

It became quite evident that discipline was a priority when he addressed his supporters. This was probably on account of prior negotiations with the authorities through his hosts. Garvey even publicly chided a local UNIA official who attempted to relate a domestic (Guyana) complaint to Garvey during the convention he came to attend in Georgetown.

After Garvey’s visit it was not clear what  the UNIA’s fate was in the colony. It must have certainly been supported with a boost by the visitation, but it can be assumed that after Garvey’s death in 1940 the British Guiana UNIA quietly folded or redirected its resources and supporters to other black organisations.

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