By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” March 10, 2023)
“I don’t know that my speeches create disaffection; I know that my speeches create a fire in the people’s minds to change conditions which now exist.” — Vincentian Elma Francois, national heroine of Trinidad and Tobago.
Last Wednesday, women across the world marked International Women’s Day. Next Tuesday, Vincentians will commemorate National Heroes Day. If PM Gonsalves sticks to his word, after March 14, a few more Vincentians may join paramount chief Joseph Chatoyer as heroes. We hope Elma Francois will take her rightful place among our pantheon of heroes.
This week, we highlight the struggles of three women in the fight for women’s rights and national development. These women are Elma Francois, Nelly Ebou, and Bertha Mutt.
Elma Francois is a Vincentian woman recognised and celebrated as a national heroine in Trinidad and Tobago. Sadly, because of the policy of neglect which post-independent governments adopted toward consciousness-raising and history, only a few of us know about her exploits and contribution to national development.
Elma Constance Francois was born north of the Dry River in Overland, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, on Oct. 14, 1897. She never went to secondary school. From age 14, she worked alongside her mother, picking cotton. The early 20th Century was a period of war and struggle and economic depression, high unemployment and poverty. Those conditions greatly impacted Ms Francois, and she committed to struggling for the betterment of her people since life was hard for labourers.
In that part of our country, many women worked in the cotton fields or at the Mt Bentick Sugar Factory, while others were domestic workers. Ms Francois took it as a bounding duty and tried to organise the labourers of Mt Bentick Sugar Factory where she worked. She was dismissed and labelled an agitator.
Seeking “greener pastures”, Ms Francois migrated to Trinidad, where she worked as a domestic. She had a passion for reading and self-education and soon began educating the people on labour and political matters.
When asked where she had acquired such knowledge, she said, “You must read, and you must read not stupidness.”
While in Trinidad, Ms Francois played a central role in the organising and formation of the National Unemployed Movement. This movement of the people was later called the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Organisation (NWCSA).
With Ms Francois leading, the NWCSA organised many “hunger marches”. In 1937, Trinidadians erupted in righteous indignation, rebelling against the social and economic conditions of the working people, much like we did here in the 1935 uprising. Port of Spain witnessed many strike actions. Demonstrations and “strike fever” spread throughout the whole country, and for her role, Elma Francois was arrested and charged with sedition.
Significantly, Ms Francois defended herself and was acquitted. When the prosecutor asked why she persisted in making speeches which were causing disaffection among His Majesty’s subjects, she replied, “I don’t know that my speeches create disaffection; I know that my speeches create a fire in the minds of the people to change conditions which now exist.”
Elma Francois died in 1944 at the tender age of 47 years. Forty-three years after Elma Francois’ death, the government of Trinidad and Tobago declared her a national heroine for “her role in drawing attention to human dignity and effecting radical change towards eradicating mass unemployment and hunger”. The official citation said Ms Francois demonstrated political will, the audacity to speak up in public, and the tenacity to educate herself and use that education for a cause.
As Nelcia Robinson, another titan in the effort for national advancement, said of Elma Francois, “The spirit of resistance was the driving force that led this warrior woman to serve in such a selfless and outstanding manner. Her visionary and pioneering leadership, extraordinary achievement, and the attainment of the highest excellence have redounded to the honour of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.”
In this period, when International Women’s Day is followed closely by National Heroes Day, it will be a fitting tribute to the example of Elma Francois and the contribution of ordinary working people in national development that she is declared a national heroine of her homeland.
We know very little of Nelly Ebou except that she was an enslaved African woman who worked on a plantation in Mayreau. She lived under the whip of the enslaver, experiencing extreme physical and sexual exploitation.
And then she said enough was enough. She, and other enslaved women, decided they would execute the slave owner on the plantation. They ambushed him as he rode by on his horse and took off his head.
They were soon captured. Nelly Ebou, recognised as the architect of the plot, was immediately hung. Eleven other enslaved women were brought to the mainland, tried and sentenced to death. They, too, were hanged.
Bertha Mutt is another unsung hero of our people. During the 1935 uprising, Bertha Mutt is credited with being among the first to join the protest that shocked the nation to its very foundation. Ms Mutt, a market vendor, reportedly left her stall and, along with Ermine Potener, Hermina Oliver, and Beryl Ollivierre, stormed the courthouse where the legislators were meeting.
They were angry because of the poor economic conditions, high unemployment, poverty and lack of opportunities for working people. They because incensed when the legislators decided to tax kerosene and matches, among other anti-people measures.
These warrior women were joined by Samuel “Sherriff” Lewis, a leader of the 1935 rebellion and hundreds of men armed with sledgehammers, cutlasses, knives, stones, sticks and iron. They smashed courthouse windows, overturned vehicles and freed prisoners in a proud demonstration of people’s power.
The 1935 uprising led to the further democratisation of SVG, the emergence of trade unions, the right to vote in 1951, political parties and national independence in 1979. Ordinary working people paid with their lives, thus confirming CLR James’ idea that “every cook can govern”.
The contribution of Bertha Mutt, Sheriff Lewis and many others who suffered because of their brave decision to speak truth to power is not sufficiently recognised. Our people have a proud history of resistance. Unless the young and coming generations are taught this history, they may go on as lost souls in a stifling atmosphere of hopelessness and helplessness.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former senator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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