By the time of the Great Depression, which was particularly devastating for the plantation/mineral economies of the British Caribbean, the British government had established a tradition of appointing special committees or commissions to investigate the causes of crises that periodically occurred in different parts of the British Empire. Such crises were generally economic or political, and depending on the perceived gravity of the situation, the investigating team would carry the special seal of British authority by being designated a Royal Commission.
Such was the situation in the British Caribbean in the 1930s, which led to the appointment in late 1938 of a tenmember Royal Commission of Enquiry chaired by Lord Moyne. Moyne was the former Walter Guinness, who had had a distinguished record as a British member of Parliament from 1907 to 1931 and subsequently served as chairman of a number of committees or commissions appointed by the British government. The other members of the Royal Commission were each chosen for his or her expertise, deemed relevant to the commission's investigation, in such fields as tropical disease, social work, trade union activity, colonial administration, economics, tropical agriculture, banking, and politics.
At the time of the commission's appointment, the British Caribbean from Belize to Barbados was being overtaken by a wave of labor unrest, beginning as " hunger marches" of the unemployed in the early 1930s and then developing in the later 1930s into strikes on plantations and mineral zones, accompanied by some violence and fatalities. The most threatening of these strikes were those that developed in the oilfields of Trinidad in June 1937 and spread quickly to sugar and cocoa plantations. In the same year, the normally tranquil Barbados experienced labor unrest on its sugar plantations, and the following year the strike movement spread to Jamaica. Such labor unrest was not confined to the British Caribbean colonies in the 1930s but engulfed American-administered Puerto Rico as well as politically independent Mexico and Venezuela. This was clear evidence that the root causes of the unrest were systemic, that is, a product of the crisis in the global capitalist system. This system was even more severe on the colonial and neocolonial economies of the Caribbean, which remained dependent on a very narrow base of raw material exports to meet the requirements of growing populations for the basic necessities of life, not to mention an improved standard of living.
The commission was given the broad mandate to "investigate social and economic conditions in Barbados, British Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica, the Leeward Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Windward Islands, and matters connected therewith, and to make recommendations" (Cmd 6607, p. xiii). It was understood that the commission's mandate included the consideration of constitutional problems insofar as they might be relevant to social and economic problems.
Moyne Commission's Recommendations
Appointed by royal warrant on August 5, 1938, the commission arrived on November 1, 1938, in the Caribbean, where it spent approximately five months, with some members even visiting Puerto Rico and the French islands, presumably with a view to comparing general conditions there with those in the British Caribbean.
By the time the commission's report was submitted on December 21, 1939, the European phase of World War II had broken out. The British government decided to re lease only a summary of the commission's recommendations during the war, the full report being officially withheld until July 1945. Among the recommendations was the establishment of an imperial financial grant, known as the West Indian Welfare Fund, amounting to one million pounds sterling per annum over a twenty-year period to assist in development and social welfare programs. This was a relatively paltry sum for the whole of the British West Indies. Nevertheless, the publication of this recommendation was intended to have propaganda value by convincing the British Caribbean peoples that even though it was engaged in war, the British government was taking its responsibility as trustee for its Caribbean colonies seriously and it expected His Majesty's Caribbean subjects to remain loyal to Great Britain in its hour of need. Even so, popular Caribbean opinion was not impressed. Most trenchant perhaps was the comment of the Trinidad labor leader and lawyer Adrian Cola Rienzi, who pointedly observed that Great Britain was spending six million pounds sterling per day on war but "could only afford one million pounds sterling a year for twenty years to remedy the disgraceful and shocking conditions which exist in the colonies and for which she, as Trustee, must be held accountable" (Singh, 1994, p. 190).
The full report of the commission, when it was eventually released in 1945, was quite comprehensive, covering almost every aspect of the economic, social, and political conditions in the British Caribbean. Yet, as the report itself confessed, most of these conditions had been known and deplored for many years, being the subject of numerous inquiries, both local and imperial. Nor did the report go much beyond what previous reports had recommended, except in the proposal for the West Indian Welfare Fund, to be administered by a new brace of colonial officials. The commission, like its predecessors, saw little economic prospect for most of the islands except as plantation colonies, with a greater degree of peasant agriculture and, where possible, some agroprocessing industries. Politically, it was prepared to concede constitutional reform but not political independence for the islands either as individual units or collectively as a federation. Indeed, it argued that "the claim for independence is irreconcilable with that control which, though not necessarily in its present form, must continue to be exercised, in the interests of the home taxpayer, over the finances of the colonies receiving substantial financial assistance from funds provided by Parliament" (Cmd 6607, p. 374). The commission was, therefore, not prepared to dispense with executive control by colonial governors over local legislative councils. Even though it was receptive to the popular Caribbean demand for a widening of the elective franchise, it looked forward to co-opting leading elected members of reformed legislative councils into the governor's executive council and select committees. In short, political change would be more in form than in substance.
It is hardly any wonder that once the recommendations became known, political and labor leaders in the British Caribbean became more convinced than ever that only political independence would enable their countries to achieve significant economic and social change.
Bolland, O. Nigel. On the March: Labour Rebellions in the British Caribbean, 1934–1939. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 1975.
Cartwright, Timothy J. Royal Commissions and Departmental Committees in Britain. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1975.
Cmd 6607: West Indian Royal Commission (Moyne) Report. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1945.
Johnson, Howard. "The Political Uses of Commissions of Enquiry: The Foster and Moyne Commissions." In The Trinidad Labour Riots of 1937: Perspectives 50 Years Later, edited by Roy Thomas. St. Augustine, Trinidad: Extra-Mural Studies Unit, University of the West Indies, 1985.
Singh, Kelvin. Race and Class Struggles in a Colonial State: Trinidad 1917–1945. Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press; Mona, Jamaica: The Press–University of the West Indies, 1994.
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