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NJAC rededication: Gene Miles, Errol Pilgrim and Makandal Daaga come to the fore

“[…] Gene Miles’ evidence before Karl De La Bastide-led commission of enquiry exposed corruption in very high places. The one-man commissioner, Karl De La Bastide, recommended that all evidence recorded at the enquiry ‘should be, without delay, transmitted to the Public Service Commission’ to enable enforcing of ‘Disciplinary Laws of the Civil Service of Trinidad and Tobago against Factory Inspector, Mr Kenneth Tam’.

“The report never reached the Public Service Commission and was only tabled in Parliament a year later. While Kenneth Tam was allowed to continue in his position, Gene Miles was crucified and destroyed without mercy.

“Within six years she was dead, a victim of her own honesty and desire to see justice done…”

The following is a continuation of the ‘Birth of a Mass People’s Movement’ in a NJAC series on their contribution to Trinidad and Tobago society, after the ‘Black Power Revolution’ of 1970:

Photo: Public servant Gene Miles takes the stand in a 1967 commission of enquiry into the corrupt granting of gas station licenses.

The 1960s in Trinidad & Tobago could easily be described as a period of widespread awakening. The workers’ struggles of the early sixties, coupled with international movements for equality and justice inspired the growth of many groups and individuals joining the efforts at organising and lifting people’s awareness.

This amalgam for progressive change included the UWI students led by such persons as Makandal Daaga (then Geddes Granger), Khafra Kambon (then Dave Darbeau) and Aiyegoro Ome (then David Murray).

There were also George Weekes and OWTU, TIWU and Clive Nunez, Lloyd Best and Tapia, Michael Als and Young Power, Winston Suite and the Universal Movement for the Reconstruction of Black Identity (UMROBI) and Pine-Toppers—all affecting national thought and action.

Early organisers in Tobago included the Macfarlane family (Tony ‘Jaja’, Hugo, Jeffrey and Pat), Dupont Ewing, Opoku Ware, Allan Richards, Bayliss Fredericks and Ethelbert Wilson. Across the nation, there was a growing vibrancy and a determination to fight for equal rights in every sense of the word.

Industrial action was rampant as workers fought for justice. With the passage of the Industrial Stabilisation Act (ISA, 19 March 1965) and its amendment in 1967, the government had clearly taken the side of the corporations against the workers. Through this piece of legislation, the government sought to move the negotiations between corporation and union from the work sites to the board rooms.

Photo: Iconic Trinidad and Tobago labour leader Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler.

This meant two things: (1) ISA introduced time consuming bureaucratic procedures which severely curtailed the right of the workers to strike; (2) by moving the union’s negotiating team to the board rooms and away from the rank and file it: (a) it removed the spirit of worker agitation out of the negotiation process, and (b) made it easier for the corporations to make private deals with the union leaders while the workers got thrown under the bus.

Section 5(1) of the ISA also gave provision for the establishment of an industrial court. The Industrial Court was opened on 20 March 1965 to enforce the provisions of the ISA.

As the 60s progressed, there were several significant events which added to public dissatisfaction and discontent. These included the infamous ‘gas station racket’ which was exposed by a conscientious public servant Gene Miles.

Gene Miles’ evidence before Karl De La Bastide-led commission of enquiry exposed corruption in very high places. The one-man commissioner, Karl De La Bastide, recommended that all evidence recorded at the enquiry ‘should be, without delay, transmitted to the Public Service Commission’ to enable enforcing of ‘Disciplinary Laws of the Civil Service of Trinidad and Tobago against Factory Inspector, Mr Kenneth Tam’.

The report never reached the Public Service Commission and was only tabled in Parliament a year later. While Kenneth Tam was allowed to continue in his position, Gene Miles was crucified and destroyed without mercy. Within six years she was dead, a victim of her own honesty and desire to see justice done.

Photo: Actress Cecelia Salazar played the role of Gene Miles in Tony Hall’s Miss Miles – the Woman of the World play in 2011.
(via MEP)

In May 1966, Tubal Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler, labour leader and national nero, was sentenced to two years in prison for squatting. Butler, we must remember, fought the British for workers’ rights and better working and living conditions. His Home Rule party was one of the pillars on our road to Independence and he endured great sacrifice and persecution, including five years being locked away in British detention on Nelson Island, for the welfare of our people.

The outburst of anger from the public was so intense, however, that he was released after only three humiliating days in prison.

More and more the population was forced to take action against very harsh measures. A 1969 Express exposé inflamed the people’s anger yet again. In July 1969 a US couple, Dr Leonard Hanna and his wife, were guests at the Hilton. The package for which they had paid the Hilton included use of the lawn tennis courts at the Trinidad Country Club (TCC).

When the Hannas went to the TCC, however, they were denied access because they were black. An ensuing Errol Pilgrim article on the incident entitled ‘Colour Bar at the Country Club’, appeared on the front page of the Express on no more significant a day than Emancipation Day, 1st August 1969.

Photo: File footage of the Trinidad Country Club (TCC) in Maraval.

The article ignited a firestorm across the nation. The government was forced to set up a Commission of Enquiry into racism at the TCC. However, nothing worth mentioning came out of this enquiry.

In the midst of all this, the prime minister went over to Tobago to open the spanking new Mount Irvine Bay Hotel and Golf Course in September 1969—an institution with a similar racist policy of not serving blacks.

Some powerful personalities threatened to get Mr Pilgrim fired from the Express and to make it impossible for him to find another job in Trinidad. On the contrary, however, Mr Pilgrim enjoyed continued success in his career at the Express and received the full support from the people.

The Express, however, got a financial backlash from the business community. For a year the young newspaper (then only six to seven years in business) was starved of advertising revenue.

The Express lost about one million dollars (close to $120 million dollars in today’s money). Only massive public support kept the paper afloat, as Express sales skyrocketed.

Photo: Calypsonians give their take on the Country Club Scandal during the “Sing De Chorus” show.
(Copyright Maria Nunes/Lloyd Best Institute)

At the same time, NJAC had been very busy with activities across the country and bringing justice to different communities. NJAC intervened for some poor workers in Moruga faced with 20th century slave conditions.

NJAC also assisted some Indian farmers in Montserrat Hills in Central Trinidad, whose lands were being seized by Tate & Lyle—the former British owners of T&T’s sugar industry. The farmers had organised demonstrations at Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams’ office at White Hall and the Tate & Lyle office on Chacon Street, which led to them keeping their lands.

NJAC also acted successfully on behalf of families in Five Rivers whose homes were threatened by a syndicate which obtained rights to the properties on the death of the owner. NJAC worked with Chan Maharaj and his National Freedom Organisation and won a victory for the families. Chan Maharaj later played a prominent role in the 1970 Movement and was one of the political detainees.

NJAC was also active in a number of labour issues with workers from various parts of T&T including the bus strike.

By 1970, the population was ready to take a stand for their rights and to achieve a better future. In addition, the organisation with the capacity to lead such a cause had emerged in NJAC, with a very methodical, nurturing and charismatic leader in Makandal Daaga.

Photo: NJAC leader Makandal Daaga (centre) holds a press conference in 1970.
(Courtesy Embau Moheni/NJAC)

When NJAC led some two to three hundred demonstrators into the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on 26 February 1970, therefore, great things were already being expected from this young organisation.

The government believed that NJAC’s entry into the Cathedral, a place of worship, created the opportunity to stop them once and for all. They immediately launched a campaign of lies and propaganda in a futile effort to turn public opinion against the demonstrators.

Lies were spread that the demonstrators painted statues black, urinated on the altar and desecrated a place of worship with their vile conduct. Ten of the leaders were arrested the next morning, 27 February, at 5am and bail was denied.

The masses, however, were not fooled by the propaganda and gave such popular support that bail had to be granted. The arrested leaders were released on bail by sundown.

The charged leaders, including Makandal Daaga (then Geddes Granger), Khafra Kambon (then Dave Darbeau), Carl Blackwood (UWI Guild President), Errol Balfour, Earl Lewis of the MOKO Group, Delano DeCoteau and Kelshall Bodie, were set to appear in court on Friday 6 March, so NJAC organised a mass demonstration for Thursday 5 March, which drew over 15,000 supporters in Port-of Spain.

Photo: Makandal Daaga and Carl Blackwood are arrested by policemen during the 1970 revolution.

It was a huge show of strength and of NJAC’s organisational capacity. The headline in the Friday newspaper was ‘Black Power Stuns the City’.

It was indeed the birth of the mass people’s movement, which, for 55 days would shake the very foundations of the society and begin the dismantling of its old colonial institutions.

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  1. NJAC’s self back slapping and sly pro-UNC and anti-PNM historical narration, will forever be eroded by their facilitation of Indian anti-african racism as part of the UNCPP 2010-2015 and since then, by dishonestly tweaked history that side-steps and altogether erases indian community’s anti-african racism via their religious, social/political movements and organizations in the past and present.

    Warning: NJAC postures as a grassroots organization that is voice of african trinidadians, but IT IS NOT!
    NJAC is an arm of the UNC and a “TOOL” of indian politics, directed at the african population!
    Integrity Lacking!