By 1948, most sugar workers in Guyana were giving support to the Guyana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU). On 22 April 1948, cane cutters, backed by the union, went on strike demanding the abolishment of the existing "cut and load" system in the fields. This reaping system which forced cane cutters had to load the sugar punts with the cane they cut, was not popular among cane cutters. It was introduced in 1945, and from time to time workers had gone on strike to demand that it should be changed. As part of the demands of the 1948 strike, the cane cutters called for the replacement of "cut and load" with a "cut and drop" system by which the cane cutters should cut the cane, but other workers would load the cut cane into the punts for shipment to the factory.
In addition to this particular issue, the workers demanded higher wages and improved living conditions on the sugar estates. However, the real aim of the strike was to demand recognition of the GIWU as the bargaining union for the field and factory workers on all the sugar estates in the country.
The strike obtained political support from the Political Affairs Committee (PAC), and the workers were addressed at numerous public meetings by Dr. Cheddi Jagan, Janet Jagan and leaders of the GIWU. The PAC bulletins were widely distributed at these meetings. Dr. Jagan himself was personally involved in the organization of the strike, and helped to raise funds across the country to it. Janet Jagan was also in the forefront in operating soup kitchens for the striking workers and their families on the sugar estates.
As the strike continued, the recognized union, the MPCA, urged the workers to return to work saying that they demand for higher pay would be taken up with the Sugar Producers Association (SPA). But the workers, who had no confidence in the MPCA, refused to heed this call and stated that in any discussions with the SPA they wanted only the GIWU to represent them. However, the SPA was adamant that negotiations would be conducted only with the MPCA, the recognized union.
With sugar production seriously affected by the ongoing strike, the sugar estates hired scab labour and enticed some workers to return to work. In retaliation, strikers went to the fields and chased them away, and in some cases physically attacked them.
On 14 June the SPA and the MPCA met to discuss the issues, but no satisfactory agreement was reached. In any case, the workers were not prepared to accept any agreement that the MPCA was negotiating, since they felt very strongly that the union was betraying their interests. On the following day, some strikers attacked overseers and some strike-breakers at Nonpariel, and in the evening there were reports of vandalism, including the cutting of telephone lines between Georgetown and Enmore.
Early on the morning of June 16 a crowd of about 400 workers gathered outside the factory at Enmore for a protest and picketing exercise. The management of Enmore Estate was expecting this protest action, and the evening before had requested assistance from the Police. Lance Corporal James and six policemen, each armed with a rifle and six rounds of ammunition, were earlier sent from Georgetown early on the morning of June 16 and they reported to the management of Enmore estate at 4.00 a.m. Two hours later, they and took up positions in the factory compound which was protected by a fence 15 feet high with rows of barbed wire running along the outward struts at the top.
By 10.00 a.m. the crowd had grown to between 500 and 600 persons and was led by one of the workers carrying a red flag. They attempted to enter the factory compound through the gates and through two trench gaps at the rear by which punts entered the factory. But they were prevented from doing so because the locked gates and the punt gaps were protected by policemen. A section of the crowd then hurled bricks and sticks at the policemen, and several persons managed to enter the compound on the rear of the factory. The policemen tried to push back the crowd, but after this effort failed, they opened fire and five workers were killed and fourteen others were injured.
Lallabagee Kissoon, 30 years old, was shot in the back; 19-year-old Pooran was shot in the leg and pelvis; Rambarran died from bullet wounds in his leg; Dookhie died in hospital later that day; and Harry died the following day from severe spinal injuries. These men, through the years, became known as the Enmore Martyrs.
On June 17, the funeral of the slain men saw a massive crowd of people marching behind their coffins from Enmore to La Repentir Cemetery in Georgetown, a distance of more than 16 miles. This procession of thousands was led by Dr. Cheddi Jagan and PAC and GIWU leaders. The tragedy and the ultimate sacrifice of these sugar workers greatly influenced Dr. Jagan political philosophy and outlook. On the grave side of the Enmore Martyrs surrounded by thousands of mourners, he made a silent pledge that he would dedicate his entire life to the cause of the struggle of the Guyanese people against bondage and exploitation.
To investigate the shooting, the Governor, Sir Charles Wooley, appointed a commission of enquiry headed by Frederick Boland, a Supreme Court judge. The two other members of the commission were S. L. Van Batenburg Stafford and R. S. Persaud. Evidence was collected from 64 persons and a report was presented in August 1948. Dr. Jagan, Janet Jagan and Dr. Lachmansingh refused to testify before the commission because they felt it was a waste of time owing to the fact that the commission chairman and members were openly showing a bias towards the Police and the management of Enmore Estate.
In their testimony to the Commission, policemen involved in the shooting claimed that they were forced to shoot to protect the factory from destruction or damage and to protect the lives of workers who were on the premises.
The report, as widely expected, justified the shooting. But it criticised the Police for not applying measures, such as the use to tear gas, to keep the crowd away from the factory compound. The members of the commission also felt that the shooting period went beyond what was reasonable when they stated: "We are, therefore, of the opinion that the evidence has established that after the first few shots, there was firing which went beyond the requirements of the situation, with the result that Pooran notably and some others received shots when in actual flight."
Thanks to www.guyana.org for this feature.