It was 83 years ago on that fateful Monday, July 26, 1937 when black Barbadians living under colonial British rule began their first of four days of rioting in the People’s Uprising.
Tension gripped the country as Barbadians watched the colonial government deport Clement Payne back to neighbouring Trinidad that day; the white leadership felt he was one of a handful of men who advocated for poor, disenfranchised Bajans.
On the news that Payne was being shipped away from Bridgetown, black Barbadians, gathered in massive crowds saw their emotions shift from disbelief to rage as pent-up frustrations boiled over.
Like many colonies in the West Indies, 1937 Barbados was greatly divided by race as whites and their descendants held nearly all economic and political power. Native black Barbadians, who made up the bulk of the flourishing agricultural sector, had very little to show in education and social welfare. Many laboured for hours and lived in squalor.
Leading up to his infamous deportation, Payne was seen as a man of the people and encouraged Bajans to form trade unions, while pushing for sweeping labour reform.
The white elites, seeing Payne as a socio-political lightning rod, moved to silence him by way of exile—they were right, and the tactic backfired disastrously.
Bajans, oppressed for decades, responded with violence throughout the capital Bridgetown; shop windows were smashed, cars and street lights toppled.
The 1937 rebellion then spread rapidly outside Bridgetown to the island’s rural districts.
In the rural areas, village shops were targeted while others spared; provision fields and the stockpiling of food and other goods were raided; and telephone lines were severed to hinder communications.
In the four days of riots that gripped Barbados, 14 people died and 47 others seriously wounded as the British colonialists moved with brutal force to end the rebellion.
According to the Barbados Museum & Historical Society, it took the combined effort of the Royal Barbados Police Force, the Barbados Volunteer Force, as well as marines and sailors from HMS Apollo, to quell the uprising.
The unrest served to highlight inequalities of wealth and opportunity in Barbados, and the British government, reeling from World War II, failed miserably to find a solution to the problem.
Contrastingly, the rebellion spurred the development of indigenous party politics, bringing Barbados closer to self-governance and independence.
Clement Payne would never live to see the scope of the change he birthed in his adopted island home but was later declared a national hero.