Monday, April 22, 2024

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Night of Terror


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THE first shot came sometime in the middle of the night – BANG! I can’t recall the exact hour, because when you are six-and-half-years old, time is not of the essence.

A scream now. A BANG again. A pitiful wail. War? No, not war. Riots.

1937 riots in Barbados – the most easterly Gem of the Caribbean Sea.

Here I am, curled up on a mattress on the floor, with my fingers in my ears, almost wetting myself with fear. There are about eight or ten of us children, all together in this upstairs bedroom at Marine Villa, Paynes Bay, St James. (Marine Villa is now The Coach House Inn).

There is one fancy-looking iron double bedstead in the room, upon which lie three or four sleeping children.

The others, like me, are lying on mattresses on the floor. Every now and then, an adult pops into the room, makes sure that everything is okay – kids all asleep (except for yours truly, wide awake, but pretending to be asleep) – and pops back out again.

A lot of talking is going on downstairs, where the parents are gathered; the dads armed to the teeth with revolvers and shotguns, the mums busy in the kitchen making cups of tea and coffee for everyone. Some of the men are making an unholy racket – boozing up, I guess.

Shots and screams

Following the shots and screams and wails, one of the dads called out, “The police got him!” and Mrs Carter, who was a dear, gentle soul, cried, “Oh, dear, did they have to kill him?” and one of the men answered, “Mrs C, he was heading up the front steps.

The police from Holetown came and chased him up through Lovers Lane, (that name was later changed to Greenidge Drive – remind me to give you that laughable story sometime) and shot him,” was the reply. Mrs Carter whimpered.

The riots had started earlier that day. My sister and I were at school at the Alexandra School that morning, and all we knew was the Branny Cozier had been ordered to bring round the school bus – old E-62 – in one big hurry to take the children home, because there was mass confusion in Bridgetown and lots of men had “gone mad” and were looting, stoning and burning businesses and shops.

It was scary, to say the least, because when the bus reached the bottom of the Alexandra School gap, a man jumped on the running board and yelled at Branny: “Riots in town! Riots all over!”

To our complete surprise, Branny snatched up a mean looking revolver, which probably had its home in a little recess somewhere under the steering wheel, and brandished it at the man. “Get off my bus,” he snarled. It was rather an unusual thing for Branny Cozier to do. One did not associate old Branny with lethal weapons — he was more used to the ordeal of sauntering from front to back of the bus, counting his “chickens” before clambering up into the driver’s seat and setting forth upon his journey from Speightstown to Bridgetown. 

When my sister and I reached home at Rose Villa, in Paynes Bay, our father and the butler, Lionel Hinkson, were waiting for us at the end of the driveway. My father was sporting his revolver in his hand, with the barrel pointing towards the ground. This was serious business! 

Heading for cover 

My mother was in the house, wringing her hands and sucking her teeth. She was plainly agitated. 

My dad said: “Quickly, children grab your pyjamas and toiletries. We’re going over to Marine Villa, where everyone is congregating.” He meant the occupants of about five other houses in the immediate area. 

Marine Villa was a two-storey house with four bedrooms, in which we ourselves had lived, before Rose Villa. 

The 1937 Riots turned out to be a notable event in the history of Barbados, and indeed a marked turning point – of sorts.

I shall not attempt to relate the history of the riots, because there are those far more qualified than I to do so. Suffice it to say that from remarks made by many Whites, a Mr Clement Payne was an “upstart” who had been running around Bridgetown, drawing large crowds to listen to his “diatribe” about trade unionism. Again, according to the Whites (even when you’re a child you can’t help overhearing comments!), “the fools” (that meant the black, underpaid, unemployed, and persons in various degrees of hardship) were listening to the Trinidadian upstart.

Scared for dear friend

I shall leave the rest up to the historians, and get on with my own personal reflections. The reason why I was lying on the mattress trembling all over and crying my eyeballs out, was because I was scared for Meg. Meg was our cook (her real name was Dolly Ellis), but “Meg” was my personal nickname for her). She meant everything to me, and I loved her dearly. She gave me all the love and affection that mu parents appeared unable to do. Oh, very caring they were – saw that my sister and I had good clothes on our backs, were well fed, had lots of toys and books, and attended the school that was run by my mother’s two sisters. Affe3ction? Forget it.

My sister was their pet – not without good reason. She was quiet, obedient and lady-like. I was the opposite – a rebel; a tomboy; a horror. Cut her backside with a tamarind rod, was my father’s remedy! It didn’t work).

So here I am – lying on this mattress worrying about Meg. After all, she was black, and from all the talk I kept hearing, the Blacks were in for a rough ride. The black police had orders — from a white commissioner — to shoot, on sight, all rioters. In my child’s mind, that meant Meg. Oh, God, no, don’t let them shoot Meg, were my thoughts and prayers. What would I do without her?

The little idiot lying beside me punched me in the ribs and said, “Stop sniveling, I can’t sleep”, and in return, I punched him in his mouth and said, “Shut up, or I’ll pummel you to sleep”.

When it was all over; and the family trouped back to Rose Villa, I couldn’t wait to see Meg, and as she walked up the driveway early the next morning, to start her long day’s work, I jumped into her arms and hugged her; I was so happy to see her alive.

In summation, I would like to say that I am quite unable to understand why the white people in Barbados have great difficulty in discussing these matters and admitting the truth. Surely no one can

blame this present generation for what happened so many years ago, so why the secrecy? I am sure that there are many white people in my age group who have vivid memories of the 1937 riots. Release the skeletons from the cupboards, and free up your minds!

Margaret Knight, the mother of former Prime Minister David Thompson, recounts the 1937 Riots. It was first published on July 27, 2001. 



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