Thank you to David of CaribDirect.com for hosting me on this virtual book tour celebration for Sonnets in Waking Moments and congratulations on CaribDirect’s achievement of winning the BEEFTA 2013 Award for Best Community Website.
In this post I look at life in the Caribbean during the Great Depression. I look forward to interacting with your audience and welcome their comments or questions.
It is said that History is life’s greatest teacher; and the past has many lessons that are still relevant for us today. Cycles of boom and bust have often characterized modern society, structured as they are, to depend heavily on the financial markets. Bad business practices and greed, which, if left unchecked, can spell disaster for national and international economies. Some of these overtones were present, in the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the most disastrous Stock Market failure in the United States. This precipitated the Great Depression of the 1930s, the severe downturn in the economy, and created chaos for global markets and most Western industrialized countries.
The years leading up to the end of the roaring twenties, was a period characterized by wealth and extravagance in America and neighboring Canada. The Caribbean region enjoyed some of the spillover, as industries, small and large prospered. American currency entered the Caribbean region through trade and commerce, but more importantly migrant workers and immigrant nationals sent money back home, enabling islanders to enjoy a higher standard of living. At the turn of the 20th century, Caribbean nations enjoyed an economic high. During the First World War of 1914, sugar prices had soared, which enabled the completion of roads and construction projects.
The Caribbean was not spared the negative effects of the sharp economic decline. Undoubtedly, some islands fared better than others; however everyone was impacted in some way. The region had long relied on the support of their parent nations. Britain and most of Europe, were weathering the effects of the scaling down themselves, and imports from the Caribbean were severely reduced. Island workers now out of jobs, found it difficult to provide for their families. At this time, there was no system of support or compensation. Who could they take their troubles to?
Before the Great Depression reared its ugly head, working class unrest in some of the larger islands was already causing friction in the region. Richard Hart, sums up the working relations, “the principal causes of working class unrest and dissatisfaction were the same throughout the region: low wages, high unemployment and under-employment, arrogant racist attitudes of the colonial administrators and employers in their relations with black workers, and lack of adequate representation” (Hart 2002). Coupled with the effects of the Depression, labor unrest found its expression in numerous riots. The labor uprisings of the 1930s swept like wild-fire throughout much of the region.
Women played definitive roles at every level of the active protests. They were involved in the planning and executions of the uprisings, and were engaged with groups such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Founded by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s, the group’s primary objective was in representing the interests of people descended from African heritage. Hart also points out that unrest began in the early part of the decade, for example, “Early labor unrest occurred in Trinidad, during 1933 and 1934 respectively” (Hart 2002). The independent nations of Haiti, Cuba and The Dominican Republic were hardest hit, as they were forced to borrow money to stay afloat. Islands such as Dominica, Grenada, Antigua, The Bahamas, and The Cayman Islands among a few others were spared open rebellions. Their land size to worker ratio meant that their workers were fewer in number.
On the national scene the economic slump lead to political upheavals, as governments fought to retain status and power. Islanders often revolted because of corrupt governments and the worsening economic situation. The islands with colonial ties seemed to fare better than the ones which had previously enjoyed independent status, as they could still rely on some sort of aid, from their parent nations.
Domestically, it was difficult for people to feed and clothe their families. The ruling class and people in prominent positions still retained their wealth, and enjoyed some level of prosperity, throughout the duration of the slump. However for the working class, it was a different story, as many suffered from endemic poverty. Violet Eudine Barriteau writes, “this level of economic deprivation had its roots in the inequities of slavery and the institutionalization of economic, political and economic injustice for the vast majority of men and women in the post emancipation period” (Edited by Linden 40).
The British Government sought to address the problems in the region, and consequently set up the Moyne Commission, headed by Lord Moyne. Its members visited all the British Caribbean territories between November 1938 and February 1939. The commission observed and assessed conditions across all strata of Caribbean society, including agriculture, hospitals and asylums for the mentally ill, to prisons, schools, and orphanages. The investigation was a serious undertaking, and it brought about reforms that were instituted in 1945, the year marking the end of the Second World War.
Many lessons can be learned from the effects of the Great Depression. Sometimes we tend to disassociate ourselves from the past. Trying to keep history, where we think it belongs, but time has shown that we sometimes repeat, what we forget.
The people, who experienced the Great Depression first hand, gained new found appreciation and compassion for others. Their suffering had knit them together; they came to realize that they were stronger as a community. Many people had to rely on others to give them food. Subsistence gardens were one characteristic of the era, as plots of land were converted into vegetable gardens. People learnt how to stretch their dollar; mothers and grannies were fond of hording cash to be used for future purposes. Old world values concerning family, frugality, and tradition were espoused above all else.
As I researched the Great Depression era in preparation for my novel Sonnets in Waking Moments, I was amazed at what people experienced, and through it all, the human spirit prevailed. Many of the nuggets I gained, as I reviewed the period are portrayed through the lives of Sonnets’ characters. For example, Anna Agnelli, one of the heroines, is a figure of strength and endurance.
Anna handled life’s sometimes harsh realities with much dignity and grace. She reminded me of so many other women of Caribbean origin, who had to make a go of it, under challenging circumstances. Frank, another primary character is fearless, and full of contradictions. Life has been tough on him, but he has never given up, redeeming himself towards the end of the novel.
One of the overarching themes of the novel, ‘is we are more alike than different’, as life upheavals has a way of reducing us to our humanness. The lessons of the past are practical. Will we harness their wisdom or are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes?
Hart, Richard. Labour Rebellions of the 1930s in the British Caribbean Region Colonies. London: Socialist History Society, 2002. Print.
Lewis, Linden. The Culture of Gender and Sexuality in the Caribbean. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2003. Print. (p40)
St., John J. Sonnets in Waking Moments. Xlibris Corporation, 2013. Print.
This article is presented as part of a virtual book tour celebrating my book Sonnets in Waking Moments. Join the celebration by following me on the tour to fifteen (15) blogs in honour of Sonnets. Access the virtual book tour schedule and a link to the book on Amazon, below. Thank you and enjoy!
Joszann St. John writes across many genres and has published multiple titles. Her newest novel, Sonnets in Waking Moments is a women’s fiction story about life during The Great Depression.
Visit her blog and check out the full schedule for the virtual book tour celebrating this historical fiction love story. Follow the heroine Anna Agnelli, an Italian immigrant to Canada during the 1900’s and her daughter Viola. Other major characters include Ralph, Frank, Jimmy, Louise and Mark Ackerly.
A new and unique voice, Joszann is dedicated to inspiring and empowering others through her extensive body of work. She credits faith as the major influence in overcoming some of her previous challenges. Joszann is from the island of Dominica and resides in the United States. She is the mother of two beautiful children whom she considers wonderful motivators in her life. This tour is facilitated by Savvy Corporate Planners.