Francois, Elma (1897–1944)

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Francois, Elma (1897–1944)

Political activist in the Caribbean, founder of the National Unemployed Movement and Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association in the 1930s, and first woman charged for sedition in the history of Trinidad and Tobago, who was acquitted after her own defense. Born Elma Constance Francois on October 14, 1897, in Overland, on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent; died on April 17, 1944, from complications of the thyroid, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; daughter of Stanley and Estina (Silby) Francois (agricultural laborers); received only primary level schooling, but self-educated and well-read; lifetime companion James Barrette; children: one son, Conrad James.

Migrated from St. Vincent to republic of Trinidad and Tobago, where she worked as a domestic servant (1919); became a member of the Trinidad Workingmen's Association (1920s); with others, founded the National Unemployed Movement (NUM, 1934); participated in NUM "hunger marches" to draw attention to unemployment and destitution (1934); with others, founded the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association (NWCSA, 1935); with the NWCSA, led the local agitation against Mussolini's Italian invasion of Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia (1935–36); with the NWCSA, led the labor disturbances in the north of Trinidad and was charged for sedition (1937); tried for sedition and acquitted after her spirited self-defense (1938); with other members of the NWCSA, was involved in founding the Federated Workers Trade Union, the Public Works and Public Service Workers Trade Union, and the Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union (1937–40); campaigned against local support for and participation in World War II (1939); one of three women out of 25 island citizens named National Heroes of Trinidad and Tobago (September 25, 1985).

Along with the suppression of the events of the radical and labor-oriented political struggle that took place in the West Indies republic of Trinidad and Tobago before the 1950s, there has also been the obliteration from memory of the stories of hundreds of women who took part in the struggles resulting in benefits for the people of these islands that are now taken for granted. Of these women, Elma Francois is one whose life was dedicated to the social movement through her work in organizations like the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association (NWCSA).

The land of her birth was St. Vincent, a tiny Caribbean island grouping, presently referred to as St. Vincent and the Grenadines. There, from an early age, Francois joined her mother Estina Silby Francois in the fields to pick sea island cotton on the Arnos Vale and Cane Garden estates, near the capital of Kingston. The family had moved to the city in 1902, after losing their home and belongings during the eruption of the Soufrière volcano. According to Jim Barrette, her longtime comrade and companion, Francois would sit and talk to him for hours about the conditions for agricultural laborers in her homeland and the few opportunities, especially for poor women, to earn a living. Before leaving St. Vincent, she became involved in the St. Vincent Representative Government Association, a group that sought to introduce elected representation into the local legislature.

Francois was 22 in 1919 when she migrated to Trinidad, leaving her only son, Conrad James, with her mother. In the republic's capital at Port-of-Spain, she found work as a domestic servant in the home of a wealthy white upper-class family and sent weekly packages back to St. Vincent containing money, clothing or other items bought with her meager earnings. She also joined the Trinidad Workingmen's Association (TWA) then led by Captain Arthur A. Cipriani, a Trinidadian of Corsican origin, although she was critical of the leader's accommodationist style; Cipriani resisted worker confrontation, seeking instead to represent the workers before the colonial authorities and the employers of laborers. For Francois, political activity meant working among the people. Reading often by candlelight, she gathered the information she would use for "rap sessions" with working-class men and women in the city squares and streets. On occasion, she also spoke on platforms of the TWA, but she was known to challenge Cipriani publicly on topical issues.

In the early 1930s, Francois was strongly influenced by Jim Headley, a Trinidad seafarer who had been involved in the National Maritime Union and Young Communist League of the United States, as well as by publications emanating from the local chapter of the Comintern's International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, led by another Trinidadian, George Padmore. In early 1934, Francois joined Headley, Barrette, and others, in forming the National Unemployed Movement (NUM), which coordinated a series of hunger marches, and a register of the unemployed, to bring attention to the plight of the increasing numbers of the destitute in the country during this period of severe economic depression.

At the end of 1934, NUM was converted into the NWCSA, as the membership sought to expand its activities beyond the issue of unemployment. Another woman, Christina King , was among those helping to found the new organization, and their combined presence may have contributed to the importance women would have in the association for some time to come.

In 1935, the hunger marches continued despite the opposition of Cipriani, who was now the mayor of Port-of-Spain. In addition, the NWCSA highlighted international issues for the local populace, including the racist trial of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama. Most of their activities, however, involved what was known as the Anti-Abyssinian Agitation, against the recent Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Interest in the African war developed after copies of the Ethiopian Times edited by Sylvia Pankhurst , the British Socialist-feminist, reached the island. The NWCSA corresponded with Pankhurst and became knowledgeable on the Ethiopian issue, and during that year, anti-Italian feeling ran high, as many in the country, including middle-class groups joined in the activities. On Friday, May 29, 1935, Francois was the main speaker at a meeting at Woodford Square, the main political center in Port-of-Spain. She criticized the League of Nations, noting that Ethiopia had been a loyal observer of the covenant of the League, and denounced Italy's barbaric attacks in Ethiopia against an innocent and defenseless black people. During that period, even the Roman Catholic Church was affected by the censure, as many denounced the pope for blessing the Italian troops.

At a local level, NWCSA activities were often concentrated on improving the quality of life for the country's poor and unemployed. One issue taken up by the group was the price of condensed milk, a staple, at the time, in the working-class diet. In 1936, to press their case, a Condensed Milk Association was registered under the Trade Union Ordinance. The group gathered research on the cost of living, nutritional standards, hospital services, old age pensions, school meals, and health services, in preparation for a memorandum to be presented to the governor by a high-powered delegation. Discussions were also held with local trade unions and popular religious groups.

On November 8, 1936, Francois led the delegation that met with the governor on the issue of condensed milk-prices, the first time in the history of the country that a political delegation included a large proportion of women. According to one respondent, the initial reaction of one member of the governor's team was, "What is this I am seeing, West Indian women on a political delegation?"

The year 1937 saw the efforts of the NWCSA concentrated on workers' struggles and the formation of the early trade unions. In June of that year, the culmination of years of disaffection and labor protest resulted in riots and disturbances to the south and north of the country. The starting point was the village of Fyzabad, in South Trinidad, where a protest meeting on June 19th turned into a riot when an attempt was made to arrest the labor leader Uriah Butler. While much has been known and documented about Butler, little was known until recently about the related activities of Francois and her colleagues in the NWCSA.

According to her son Conrad, the events of June 19th took his mother by surprise. He recalls being awakened by her at about 3:00 am on the morning of the 20th and being told that she was leaving immediately for Fyzabad where there was rioting. His attempts to discourage her were useless. Francois spent the following day in Fyzabad investigating the situation and returned in the evening to Port-of-Spain. The very next day, June 21, on her instigation, the NWCSA went into action in North Trinidad. By June 28, Francois, Barrette and two other colleagues were arrested and held in jail for seven days.

In February 1938, Francois was brought to trial on charges of sedition, the first woman in the history of the country to be formally accused of insurrection. The jury, as was customary in those days, was all male, and drawn from classes that met with property qualifications. The witnesses against the defendant were police officers, and the case became the central focus of all the sedition trials that year growing out of the same event. Unlike the other defendants, and against the advice of the barrister, Francois undertook the greater part of her own defense, giving an extended speech after the first witness had been cross examined:

In keeping with the aims and objectives of our Association, we hold meetings. I keep in touch with local affairs, I follow the local politics as best I can. We particularly pay attention to the underdog.

The subject of my address was "World Imperialism and the Colonial Toilers".… In dealing with my subject, I dealt with world conditions linking them up to local conditions; I dealt with land reservations in the Kenya colony. I explained that a certain amount of land was reserved for the working-class and often they were deprived of it and they decided there to organize in order to get their wrongs righted with regard to the subject of land reservations, by a Royal Commission. They succeeded in getting a Royal Commission.

I dealt with Nigeria. I dealt with the natives there protesting against increased taxations. I further told them that only by organized unity can we gain better conditions. I discussed Germany and Russia also. I pointed out the effective method the workers of England used by organizing and what they gained. I spoke about Negro and East Indian workers who sleep under the Town Hall in the Square through poverty. I wanted their conditions to be bettered.

When asked by the Court to define "World Imperialism and Colonialism," Francois described the relationship between the ruling classes of the world and the exploited workers of the colonies. When asked what the German workers had to do with her, she replied that "they meant something to her as a worker." On the third day of the trial, after the judge's summation, the jury returned the unanimous verdict of not guilty, and Francois was released. Her colleagues were not so fortunate: all depended on the barrister, and all were found guilty.

In the following period, just prior to World War II, the Caribbean economic situation declined even further. With the formation of early trade unions in the aftermath of the 1937 labor disturbances, Francois and the NWCSA were extremely busy, coordinating the Committee of Industrial Organisation (CIO) in the north, a forerunner to the national trade union council which was to be formed a few years later.

I don't know that my speeches create disaffection, I know that my speeches create a fire in the minds of the people so as to change the conditions which now exist.

—Elma Francois

As a British colony, Trinidad and Tobago was actively involved in World War II. In return for four old destroyers, four large areas of the island country had been leased by the British to the United States for military bases, and after an initial ambivalence about Britain's role in the war, the trade unions were mobilized by the colonial authorities to support the war effort. Indeed, as in World War I, a number of local men sought enlistment in the British army, and a number of trade unions agreed to put their labor disputes on hold for the duration of the war. Francois and other NWCSA members publicly disagreed with this position. In their analysis, the Western allies had initially seen the rise of Adolf Hitler as a counter to Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union. It was only when Hitler turned his military might against them that they sought to defend themselves and draw on the colonials—whom they discriminated against racially—to die with them in their war. The NWCSA therefore called for working people to withdraw their support for the war and not to enlist, but the position they had taken was extremely unpopular and served to isolate the group even from their radical allies in the labor movement, who supported the British war effort.

Then Francois received a personal shock that may have contributed to her early and untimely death: her only son, Conrad, had joined the British army and was leaving for the front. Conrad was frankly attracted by warfare. He recalled the "sweets available during the early war years whose wrappings carried slogans such as 'I like war'" and noted that he even "wore war slogans on his shirt." On April 16, 1944, as Conrad was about to leave for the front, Francois went to a farewell dance at the Princes Building Port-of-Spain to say goodbye. Though not a dancer, she danced with her son at his request; it was the last time he was to see her alive. The following day, Elma Francois died of complications of the thyroid. When the news reached Conrad at his military barracks, he managed to get permission to attend the funeral, before setting sail for the war in Europe and North Africa.

As with other members of the NWCSA, Francois received a "socialist" funeral. The body was dressed in a red shroud and association members all wore their full uniform of red blouses or shirts, flannel trousers or skirts and red felt or panama hats. Among those watching the procession was her old political adversary, Captain Cipriani. Friends of Francois remained convinced that her death was the result of grief at the decision of her only son, going against everything for which she stood. Stress is known to have a negative affect on diseases of the thyroid.


Calder-Marshall, Arthur. Glory Dead. London: Michael Joseph, 1939.

Henderson, Thelma. "The Role of Women in Politics in Trinidad and Tobago" for the Caribbean Studies Project, 1973. The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine.

Interviews with Jim Barrette, Christina King, Conrad James and others.

Reddock, Rhoda. Elma Francois, The NWCSA, and the Workers Struggle for Change in the Caribbean. London: New Beacon Books, 1988.

Rennie, Bukka. The History of the Working-Class in the 20th Century (1919–1956): The Trinidad and Tobago Experience. Tunapuna: New Beginning, 1973.

suggested reading:

Ramdin, Ron. From Chattel Slave to Wage-Earner. London: Martin Brian and O'Keefe, 1982.

Rhoda E. Reddock , Senior Lecturer and Head of the Centre for Gender and Development Studies at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad and Tobago, and author of Women, Labour and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago: A History (Zed Books, London, 1994)

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Francois, Elma (1897–1944)

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