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Moyne Commission Essay

1968 words - 8 pages

The Report of the West India Royal Commission, popularly known as The Moyne Report, is perhaps one of the single most important documents in the history of the Commonwealth Caribbean. Following Emancipation in 1838, former slave owners sought to exact labour at the lowest of wages and former slaves struggled for land, better working conditions and better wages. In the 1930s, the social changes since Emancipation brought an increasing working class consciousness to the fore which erupted in a series of labour rebellions across the territories of the British Caribbean. Complaints of abhorrent social and economic conditions spurred the appointment by the British Government in August 1938 of the ...view middle of the document...

[14] Adding further strain to an already fragile society, those working internationally in the United States, Cuba, Panama and Costa Rica were repatriated.[14] Many of these workers brought with them ideas about labour organization, standards of living and a class consciousness that would in turn fuel the revolts and calls for reform in the 1930s.[15] These ideas had been growing steadily since the 1880s even if social welfare and the economy remained idle.[16]
Whatever employment existed in the West Indies at this time was intermittent and underpaid. Coupled with the horrendous working and living conditions the labour riots that began in 1934, starting with Belize lumber workers and spreading through almost every British colony in the region by 1939, marked the breaking point of the current colonial system in the region.[17] The inability of most households to meet the most basic of financial needs ensured that malnutrition and substandard living conditions created unbearable conditions.[18] Florence Nankivell, the wife of the former Trinidad Colonial Secretary, acknowledged that the dire living conditions were the result of extremely low wages and offered her journals, which detailed West Indian’s poor health, to the Commission as evidence.[19] According to Brinsly Samaroo, Florence’s husband Howard was removed from his governmental position in Trinidad due to his sympathies towards the workers whom both he and his wife believed had “just cause” to revolt.[20]
The relatively prompt arrival of the Moyne Commission to the British West Indies following the labour and civil unrest cannot be separated from the looming threat of war in Europe. Trinidad experienced one of the larger labour uprisings and was an important source of oil for the British Empire.[21] Not only was there fear that a disgruntled employee would sabotage the oilfields, but also that any further disruptions to the industry would hinder future war efforts.[22] The risk to British interest in oil resources sparked an immediate commission from the Trinidadian Colonial Government. The Forester Commission of 1937 reported on the conditions solely in Trinidad and the British Parliament in turn established a Royal Commission.[23]
At this time the governments of Germany and Italy were openly critical of Britain’s colonial history of subjection and exploitation.[24] British citizens, too, were often antagonistic towards their nation’s colonial policies.[25] The United States, although far less vocal, was critical of what it saw as a failed imperial model.[26] In this respect Howard Johnson emphasizes that the commission was a performance to showcase Britain’s “benevolent” attitude towards its colonial subjects.[26] This plan was misguided as the findings were so horrendous that the British government published only the recommendations in 1940 and withheld the bulk of the report until after the war in 1945.[27]

After revealing the “canary in the imperial coal mine”...

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