The commemoration of the water riots of 23rd March 1903

On the 23rd of March 1903 there occurred a “Water Riot” around the Red House in Port-of-Spain.  More than 3,000 people had gathered in Brunswick Square (now Woodford Square or the People’s Parliament) at noontime, from whence about 1,000 converged upon the Red House where the Legislative Council was in session. 

Amidst considerable confusion, police mismanagement and official arrogance there was a violent confrontation in which the police were ordered to shoot on the demonstrators.  The result was that 16 people were killed and some 43 seriously wounded.  Some policemen shot the protestors, others bayoneted them.  Among the 14 dead there were at least five women, one of whom, Eliza Bunting was only 12.  Among the wounded there were at least 7 additional women and the Caribbean-wide composition of Port-of-Spain was reflected in the range of nationalities who were either killed or wounded.  There were Venezuelans, Barbadians, Montserratians and even an Irish sailor.  12 wounded policemen can also be added to the list of 43 civilians wounded.  The entire Red House was gutted and the only records saved were those in the Registrar General’s vault on the ground floor at the South Eastern corner of the building.  In addition to this grave loss of life and of limb, the 1903 estimate of property losses, bringing troops from Barbados, legal costs and expenses in the bringing of three commissioners from England and of re-building the Red House totalled ?106,947,000.  Two years later these costs has escalated very considerably.  The Red House alone cost ?227,928.15.  From April 1903 to January 1907 the legislature was removed to the Princes Building on the Southern side of Queens Park Savannah, returning to the re-built Red House for the first time on Monday 4th February 1907.

This was not the first time, nor indeed the last, that the parliament building was stormed by protestors.  On Monday 1st October 1849 there was an equally violent protest which, like that of 1903 soon spread to other areas of Trinidad and similarly, had to be met with tremendous State force.  On that day in 1849 the legislature was about to debate a bill whose intention was to have the head of all convicted debtors shaved, to dress them in a special uniform and to impose on them any job which the prison considered appropriate during their incarceration.  At about midday some 3,000 persons gathered in Brunswick Square from whence they crossed Abercromby Street and hurled stones, brickbats and other missiles into what was then called Government House.  The Port-of-Spain Gazette reported that: The police in exerting themselves to maintain order, have been stoned, cruelly beaten and overpowered so as to necessitate the calling out of the Military. What particularly angered the Gazette was the fact that among the crowd “were a large number of loose women (including the vilest and worst of their class”) as well as dissidents from Antigua, St. Kitts, Martinique and Guadeloupe.  Soon the October 1849 Riot spread from Port of Spain to El Dorado, Macoya and Dinsley Estates.  It then moved to Oropouche in the South where a group of protestors destroyed property belonging to an official who was particularly insensitive in evicting squatters from Crown lands there.  The widespread and serious nature of the 1849 disturbances necessitated the use of troops from the 2nd West India Regiment stationed here, the raising of 300 Special Constables and the requisitioning of troops from the sloop “Scorpion” which was in the harbour and from the Venezuelan steamer “Libertador” then being repaired on the docks.  Additionally the government offered a reward of $500 for anyone offering information about the incendiarists who had set fire to the sugar mills, and the estate owners topped up that reward by $250.

A woman and a boy lost their lives in 1849 and two other women were injured in the shooting by the police in Port of Spain.  Jean Michel Cazabon has immortalised this riot in two clearly detailed paintings published in the Illustrated London News to which he was a contributor.  One painting depicts the 1849 Riot at Government House; the other portrays the Trial of the Rioters in November 1849. As one looks at these fires which have done so much damage over the centuries to Port of Spain, you cannot but be struck at the importance of the month of March in our history.  Most of the major burnings have taken place in the month of March which is our driest month of the year.  And yet, neither the municipality nor the central government took heed of this fact, so they made no preparation for the fires of March.  On 24th March 1808, Mr. Shaw a pharmacist of No. 12 Frederick Street returned home filled with good spirit.  Late in the night he was summoned by nature to an outhouse at the back of his premises, whereto he went with a lighted flambeaux.  In a lax moment the flambeau dropped from his hand and within hours Port of Spain was in flames: 435 houses gutted, 4,500 people homeless!  There were serious fires in the city in March 1882, March 1885, March 1891, and then in March 1903 when the Red House was burnt down.  In our own lifetime we would recall March 1958 when Salvatori’s on Frederick Street went up in flames.  And have we not all been seeing the fires of March 2003? Fortunately, we are more prepared these days.

In looking at the causes of the Water Riot of March 1903 the British government sought to focus primarily on the agitation against the Water Bill which proposed to raise water rates and to introduce meters to regulate the wastage that was taking place in Port of Spain.  Whilst there is no doubt that attributable to “the white Creole population” which he claimed was an “unsound one with its French and Spanish blood”.  Port of Spain, he continued had “become a receptacle for coloured men from all parts of the West Indies”.  Such persons, in his view, could hardly be trusted with power in their own governance.

This political denial was itself continuously accompanied by a refusal of the official class to recognise the efforts on the part of the majority races-Africans and Indians-to observe or celebrate cultural activities brought to the New World from their places of ancestry.  It required a riot in Port of Spain in 1881 to force the authorities to lift a ban on Carnival, in 1884 no less than 10 Hosea celebrants were killed and 83 wounded in San Fernando when the Indian population sought to create their own cultural space.  In 1888 Edgar Maresse-Smith, a coloured lawyer, petitioned the Governor to officially recognise the 50th anniversary of Emancipation but this too was refused.  However, Smith refused to accept this as a setback and organised a public celebration for the Jubilee.  Not surprisingly Maresse-Smith became a leader of the Ratepayers Association and one of the most fiery speakers in the events which led to Mournful Monday.  The British governors never saw the conflict as a clash of cultures.  In 1849 they could see no further than loose women, Antiguans and others from the small islands.  In 1903 the three Commissioners sent from England saw in these crowds of dissatisfied people no more than “the malignant portion” of protestors, people who were “ignorant and excitable”.  In 1903 Director of Public Works, Walsh Wrig-htson, argued vehemently that people in tropical countries did not have the mental capacity to govern themselves.

It is against this background of serious political and cultural deprivation that the 1903 Water Riots have to be seen.  The majority of people who demonstrated or were killed or wounded were not ratepayers who owned taps or had the large 60-gallon baths which were targetted by Walsh Wrightson, the Director of Public Works.  They were folk like James Mings, 38 years old, of Montserrat, a labourer who died of a gunshot in the abdomen, perforation of intestines and laceration of liver.  There was Millicent Haddaway 40, a cook who died of a penetrating wound as well as a gunshot wound to the chest.  There was Stamford Lord, aged 14, a schoolboy and Eliza Bunting, aged 12, occupation not stated, penetration wound of abdomen.  Such people, in 1849 as in 1903 acutely felt the deprivation of their class and of their race.  They could clearly see the opulent life of the wealthy and compare it with their own.  One of their first acts on Mournful Monday was allowing the Governor’s groom to free the horses of his carriage after which they dragged the said carriage to the sea and dumped it there.  When their coloured hero Alcazar walked out of the Red House in protest against the government’s insistence that only ticket holders could enter the Chamber and its refusal to accept an adjournment of the House, the crowds outside saw this as a symbol of their own humiliation.  In the hot, noonday sun of mid-March, tempers flared beyond breaking point and the confrontation became vicious.  What made it all the more deadly was the character of the Inspector-General of Police, Lieut. Colonel Herbert Brake, whose previous experience was in Central and West Africa where he had played a major role in suppressing African resistance.  Wounded in those wars, then decorated, he came to Trinidad in September 1902.  In March 1903 he was ready to deal with another black group.  Instead of deploying his policemen in full public view so that they could have been a deterrent to rioting, he hid them in the Red House and ordered them out when he felt that the time had come to shoot.  As he gave the order to shoot, he recalled, “I shouted to the police to follow up the mob…to keep them on the run…don’t let them stop again”.  And when he saw the policemen chasing the retreating crowd with rifles and fixed bayonets, he left them and returned to the Red House!  This explains the horrible injuries to the dead and to the wounded.  To complete the picture the Governor obtained assistance from the “Pallas” and the “Rocket” anchored in the harbour and three days later 200 British soldiers from Barbados.

Post-Riot Changes

In the aftermath of the Riot, a number of things happened.  In the first instance, a three-man commission was despatched from London to investigate the causes of the Riot and to make recommendations to prevent such a recurrence.  These commissioners spent most of May in the colony and they reported in July 1903.  Among their findings were the facts that there the police force was “inefficient and wholly untrustworthy”; that there had been unnecessary and excessive firing by the policemen.  Indeed, they wrote “two, if not three persons were brutally bayoneted and killed by the police without and justification whatever”.  The colonial government, the report stated, had made no attempt “to keep in touch with the more reasonable and intelligent members of the public”.  Instead its policy had been one of “stolid if not unsympathetic isolation which has ended in a kind of cleavage existing between rulers and ruled which we think many years will be needed to correct”.  Although two of the commissioners saw no connection between the agitation against the Water Bill and Political reform, a third, Sir Evan James was very clear in his perception that the political issues were inextricably tied up with the water agitation.  He therefore recommended the restoration of the Port of Spain Borough Council with a partly nominated and a partly elected element.  Secretary of State Chamberlain accepted this recommendation and directed that steps be taken to effect such restoration.  A fully elected Port of Spain City Council was the result.  This happened in 1914.  Another significant change was the government’s decision to appoint persons of African and Indian descent into the legislature so as to make it more representative of the majority of the population.  In 1904 Cyrus Prudhomme David a distinguished black Port of Spain lawyer was appointed and in 1912 George Fitzpatrick an East Indian lawyer from San Fernando was added.  This paved the way for the appointment of persons like Emmanuel M’Zumbo Lazare and Rev. C. D. Lalla during the twenties.  Such persons placed themselves in the forefront of the movement for elective government which was introduced in 1925 when people were allowed to vote for seven representatives.  In 1946 universal adult franchise was achieved in a widely extended legislature.

In the aftermath of the Water Riot there was the efflorescence of political pressure groups and the considerable expansion of political activity outside of Port of Spain.  Immediately after Mournful Monday troops had to be despatched to San Fernando and Princes Town where protests had begun.  The government reported that there had occurred a considerable increase in the sale of arms and the colony was put on highest alert.  As the government tried to lay charges against five of the leaders of the Ratepayers’ Association it warned the Colonial Office that no one was prepared to give evidence against such popular leaders and that local juries would be reluctant to convict them.  Pressed to charge, the State charged three leaders Henry Hall, Maresse-Smith and Lazare.  In December 1903 all three were tried but were acquitted on all counts after the jury had deliberated for all of 15 minutes!
Crown Colony government under which the Caribbean colonies were controlled had a specific way of operation devised after centuries of trial.  This was called the “carrot and stick policy” whereby concessions were followed by repression.  We have seen some of the concessions given after 1903 such as the appointment of representatives from the majority ethnic groups and the move towards the restoration of elective municipal government in Port of Spain.  However in early 1904 the government sought to teach Trinidad and Tobago a salutary lesson for the events of 1903.  Ordinance No.4 of 1904 imposed additional house rates in Port of Spain which rates were now to be used for the re-building of the Red House.  Once again, as in the pre1898 period, the capital city had to pay for a facility which was to be used for the service of the whole colony!  This punitive tax, in its turn, opened a long season of discontent.  Old pressure groups were revived and new bodies were formed.  The Trinidad Working men’s Association originally formed in 1897 was now once more in full activity under the leadership of Alfred Richards and Howard Bishop.  It was with the support of this group that Captain Cipriani rose to political eminence.  There was the Trinidad Reform League and the Trinidad Democratic League and a number of radical periodical papers all seeking to educate and politicise the population, all continuously pointing to the essentially repressive, non-participatory nature of Crown Colony government.  There was a lull during the First World War (1914-1918) but with the restoration of peace all the furies were again released, leading directly into the next season of discontent, namely, the colony-wide and Caribbean-wide revolt of 1935 to 1937.

We are therefore commemorating today a watershed event in our struggle for independence.  Mournful Monday, 23rd March 1903 culminated the first hundred years of our long struggle for independence.  That struggle saw death and destruction in the Riot on this very site in October 1849, Carnival rioting in 1881, the martyrdom of Hosea revellers in 1884 and the unnecessary death and injury to so many on Mournful Monday.


"The commemoration of the water riots of 23rd March 1903"

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