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Remembering Trinidad and Tobago’s Black Power Revolution

On this day in 1970, activists took to the streets of Trinidad and Tobago to protest the colonial systems and racist hierarchies that had survived independence – a brief moment where Black Power had the potential to topple a government.

Black Power leader Geddes Granger (later Makandal Daaga) addresses a crowd during a demonstration early in March 1970. (Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images)

On 26 February 1970, scores of Trinidadians, mostly trade unionists and students, took to the streets across the country, and slogans of ‘Power to the People’ reverberated through the crowds. Fists were outstretched in a gesture which had become the worldwide symbol of a radical phenomenon sweeping the globe: ‘Black Power!’ was the protestors’ cry.

What began as a set of non-violent demonstrations would take on a more militant character after police began a violent crackdown on the activists and a state of emergency was imposed. This reaction would catalyse one of the most prominent displays of Black Power in Caribbean history: the Black Power Revolution.

The immediate context surrounding the 26 February demonstrations highlights the international nature of the Black Power movement. Protests were organised in solidarity with Caribbean students (among them ten Trinidadians) who had been arrested after a sit-in protest against racial discrimination at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Canada the year prior. A group of students from the University of the West Indies (UWI) led by Makandal Daaga (then Geddes Granger) and Kafra Kambom (then Dave Darbeau) organised the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) and successfully mobilised thousands of African and Indian students to protest against the visit of the Canadian Governor-General, Roland Michener.

These events eventually sparked the Black Power Revolution—but its seeds were sown by a longstanding dissatisfaction with the limits of independence in a neocolonial world.

Massa Day Done?

Known for his groundbreaking dissertation Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams was a prime mover in leading Trinidad and Tobago to independence. On the 22 March 1961, Williams delivered a barnstorming public lecture at Woodford Square entitled ‘Massa Day Done’. In his words:

‘What was Massa, Day, the Massa Day that is done? Who is Massa? Massa was more often than not an absentee European planter exploiting West Indian resources, both human and economic.’

‘Massa Day Done’—or independence—would mean dignity for Trinidadians, an end to racism and an improvement in living standards. No longer would Black people face discrimination in their places of work, being restricted to ‘menial’ roles or offered meagre pay. But by the year 1969, these material improvements had failed to materialise, and the darker-skinned population still found themselves excluded from the commanding heights of the economy.

Outwardly, it would appear that having a Black Prime Minister with a Black support base would represent Black Power at its strongest. In reality, the economic and social structures of white power remained intact. In a process for which Kwame Nkrumah first coined the term ‘neocolonialism’, Trinidad and Tobago had achieved nominal independence, but its natural resources remained under the control of foreign corporations such as Texaco and Tesoro—companies that would come under armed attack during the militant period. In response to the demands of activists for greater control of their economy, Prime Minister Williams used a nationwide broadcast on 23 March 1970 to list the achievements of his government in fostering what he referred to as ‘Black economic power’:

‘We have consciously sought to promote Black economic power. We have in five years created 1523 Black small farmers over the country; we have encouraged small businesses in manufacturing and tourism… We have brought free secondary education within the reach of thousands of disadvantaged families who could not dream of it in 1956… Our Public Service, at all levels, is staffed by nationals mainly Black… We have created no fewer than 68,200 new jobs between 1956 and 1969.’

This answer was unsatisfactory to Black Power activists, who had observed that the institutional racism in Trinidadian society had not disappeared under a Black Prime Minister. It was under these contradictory circumstances that Eric Williams came to be at odds with a generation that had grown up idolising him.

The February Revolution

Immediately following the 26 February demonstrations, the arrest of nine of its leaders (Daaga and Kabom among them) sparked an outpouring of support from across the country. With the authorities unable to quell the unrest, the captive NJAC leaders were released on 4 March. This, still, was not enough to stop the demonstrations. What began as a group of a few hundred became crowds of thousands, and again ‘Black Power’ was the refrain.

Throughout March, the NJAC organised marches and meetings across Trinidad and Tobago, mobilising the population and garnering support from trade unions. The Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) publicly endorsed Black Power on 6 April, and on 20 April, thousands of sugar workers led a march on Port of Spain.

To quell the demonstrations, Prime Minister Williams issued a state of emergency on 21 April; soon after the Sedition Bill was passed, outlawing texts such as Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ along with the works of Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara. Williams further cracked down on the Black Power demonstrations by introducing the Public Order Act, which greatly impinged upon civil liberties to reduce the popularity of protest marches.

But these repressive measures had an inverse effect, and did little to stop the organic intellectual revolution that was taking place, facilitated by local publications. The organ of the OWTU, The Vanguard, as one example, published quotations from Che Guevara, C. L. R.  James’ Party Politics in the West Indies, and short extracts from Walter Rodney’s Groundings With My Brothers from January through to June of 1970.

Events escalated further when NJAC member Basil Davis was shot and killed by a police officer on 6 April 1970. A reported thirty thousand mourners attended the funeral of Davis, who had become a martyr for the cause of Black Power. The fallout from these events prompted the resignation of member of parliament A. N. R. Robinson on 13 April, in a damaging defeat to Williams and a symbolic victory for the NJAC and supporters of Black Power. The subsequent banning of Trinidadian-born Black Power icon Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) from visiting served to incense supporters, adding fuel to the fire.

Perhaps most dangerously, the growing Black Power movement threatened to unite African and Indian Trinidadians, as NJAC and the Society for the Propagation of Indian Culture (SPIC) planned to organise a march in late April. A sweeping arrest of the main leaders of Black Power was thought to extinguish the movement, but it gave rise to a much more radical and militant force. Adding to the unrest, a small group of soldiers staged a mutiny on 21 April 1970 which took four days to contain.

So popular was Black Power in Trinidad and Tobago that Williams took it upon himself to declare ‘if this is Black Power then I am for Black Power.’ Attempts to co-opt the movement once its leaders had been arrested and protests quelled were seen as a cynical ploy by a growing group of disaffected revolutionaries, who would soon decide to take matters into their own hands.

The National Union of Freedom Fighters

Dissatisfied with the slow progress being made by NJAC, the National Union of Freedom Fighters (NUFF) resolved to pick up the mantle of Black Power and wage struggle through guerrilla warfare. Inspired by the tactics of Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela, NUFF members carried out a brief but ferocious insurgency against Eric Williams’ government.

NUFF executed attacks on banks, police stations, and telephone transformers, but the small group of Marxist revolutionaries were unable to ferment a full-scale armed revolution. Young NUFF members would attack from the hills of the northern range, entering pitched gun battles with the police between 1971 and 1973. The heavily wooded terrain of Trinidad was likened by Fidel Castro himself to the Sierra Maestra that provided shelter for Cuban guerrillas during their insurgency against Batista’s fascist government.

Slowly, NUFF members were hunted and killed by police and security services, with the insurgency reaching its twilight after an attack on a base camp in Caura. A mere two weeks before her eighteenth birthday, NUFF soldier Beverley Jones was shot and killed in a shootout with police, and her sister Jennifer was captured and arrested on 13 September 1973.

The murder of Beverley Jones sparked an international response. C. L. R. James sent a telegram to his former pupil, Prime Minister Williams, which stated that ‘West Indians and Americans in Washington deeply deplore the violent death of Beverley Jones and demand immediate release of Jennifer Jones.’ In Britain, members of the British Black Panthers, led by Altheia Jones-LeCointe—who was also the elder sister of Jennifer and Beverley—protested outside the Trinidad and Tobago High Commission in London.

But after Caura, it was only a matter of time until the remaining NUFF guerrillas were hunted, captured, or killed by the police. With rewards offered for information on their whereabouts, they had few allies, and by 1974, eighteen NUFF members and three police officers had been killed.

An Incomplete Revolution

It’s difficult to understate the significance of the February Revolution. With sections of the military in mutiny, thousands of protestors clashing with police and resignations rocking parliament, there was a brief moment where Black Power had the potential to topple a government.

But support for Black Power petered out throughout the 1970s as the state successfully cracked down on protests and arrested key figures. The righteous enthusiasm with which NJAC members began was unable to be sustained, and it was not long until the spontaneous movement fizzled out due to a lack of overarching leadership and public support.

In 1993, the state took over the oil sector, in what could potentially be deemed a victory and a step towards an economy run for the benefit of the people. The victory was hollow, however, as the state struggled to manage the industry and the Petroleum Company of Trinidad and Tobago was shuttered in 2018. Today, multinationals still retain their grip on the land of Trinidad and Tobago, and the devastation wrought by neocolonialism has only grown in the time since independence. The Black Power Revolution—while shortlived—placed a glaring spotlight on these issues, and proved that a radical approach to fighting them is still needed today.