Adrian Cola Rienzi in Defense of Workers
By Michael Anthony
September 6, 2000
If it is true to say that in assessing the independence of Trinidad and Tobago, the contribution of Uriah Butler is enormous, then it will also be true to say that without the intervention of Rienzi, the role which Butler played would have been null and void.
Little is known of the background of Rienzi, but he comes to our attention in San Fernando, during the early 1920s, when as the youth, Krishna Deonarine, he showed a lively interest in the welfare of the working class. This was the period, when, following the First World War, the Great Depression commenced, and there was poverty and squalor on all sides.
Except on the side of the employing class – especially the oilfield employers, who seemed to be striking it rich, but who appeared to have nothing but contempt for the labouring class.
Krishna took account of the widespread misery and he decided to throw in his lot with any force organised to combat it.
Feeling as strongly as he did about the plight of the working class, it was not surprising that Krishna identified with a 14th century Italian patriot who organised and fought great battles on behalf of workers.
One of the acts of this patriot, which may have fascinated Deonarine, took place in May 1947, when the patriot incited the workers to rise against the rule of the nobles. The nobles were driven out and the patriot made efforts to unite the various Italian states, during which period he was made “Tribune of the People”.
What was the name of this patriot? Cola de Rienzi. Coming under the influence of such a hero, Krishna took on the name “Adrian Cola Rienzi”.
However, this Rienzi wanted neither power, nor did he seek to be made “Tribune of the People”. But he certainly had the passion to make Trinidad a much better place for the working people.
When, a few years later, Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani came on the scene and took up the fight for the labouring classes, Krishna Deonarine rushed to his side, forming the Trinidad Citizens’ League.
On the other side of Cipriani was another young radical, Uriah Butler, who formed the British Empire Workers and Citizens Home Rule Party.
The Trinidad Citizens’ League, which was immediately branded by the authorities as Communist, mainly appealed to the workers in the sugar belt, while the party of Uriah Butler spoke particularly to the workers in the area of the oil belt, such as Fyzabad, Point Fortin and Siparia.
With Cipriani taking charge of the workers in the north, the aspirations of all workers were being attended to.
In 1936 Rienzi, tired of what was called Cipriani’s “back-pedaling”, left Cipriani, and he saw his friend Butler do the same.
When Butler’s agitation in the oil belt in June 1937 resulted in oilfield riots and a police bid to apprehend Uriah Butler, Rienzi at once closed ranks with Butler and tried to protect him.
One of the important areas of Rienzi’s training was that he became a brilliant lawyer and at the time undertook to be Butler’s legal adviser.
When Butler was on the run following the riots, Rienzi shielded him and officially intervened between the “fugitive from justice” and the government.
To keep away from the police and from the charge of sedition and inciting to riot Butler had to go into hiding. The only way he could have kept in touch with his workers, and at the same time with a governor sympathetic to Butler’s cause, was through Rienzi. For Butler was asking the governor for a safe conduct and peace talks, meantime fearing to show himself in case he fell into the clutches of a vengeful police force.
And awaiting Butler’s capture was a hostile Legislative Council who did not even want to hear the words “safe conduct”.
It took a lot of courage and loyalty on the part of Rienzi to maintain contact with Butler until months later when Butler bravely decided he would give himself up.
In the face of Rienzi’s insistence that Butler should be given a safe conduct, Governor Sir Murchinson Fletcher, influenced by the hostility of his government, had to refuse. Fletcher declared that in the country’s interest it was crucial for the oilfield strike to end and until the strike was called off, there could be no talks with Butler.
On the one hand, Rienzi pointed out to the government that Butler had a legitimate right to appeal to his fellow oil workers to stop work in support of their demands yet on the other hand, he was objective enough to press Butler to call off the strike.
Butler wrote to Rienzi at this time: “Dear Mr. Rienzi, I deeply regret to inform you that as a result of a referendum I find myself in the perhaps unhappy position of not being able to call off the strike As a mediator between myself and the Government I respectfully beg that you communicate this information to His Excellency the Governor through the strike committee.
Thanking you for your efforts to make peace.”
Rienzi not only informed Fletcher of this, but in his anxiety for peace between Butler and the Government, he went to see Governor Murchinson Fletcher. On July 9, 1937, Fletcher told the Legislative Council: “I saw Rienzi on the morning of the 28th June and I informed him there could be no question of a safe conduct for Butler.”
The truth was that Fletcher, who was at the time being bitterly criticized for being “pro-Butler”, had to put on an appearance of toughness.
However, this was the interlude when Rienzi had Butler’s fate in his hands. The whole police force was scouring the length and breadth of Trinidad for Uriah Butler, but Rienzi, who was in constant touch with Butler, stood firm, when he could have easily given in and “sold” Butler to the authorities.
And this is particularly interesting because the oil workers had come to depend on Rienzi for advice and leadership in Butler’s absence, a clear invitation for Rienzi to usurp Butler’s position.
Another thing to consider is that when police and troops swooped on Fyzabad in the early hours of Sunday, July 2, 1937, they caused chaos and confusion amongst the strikers, severely hurting their confidence, and causing disarray.
Rienzi rallied these workers together, called for courage, and persuaded them to organise themselves for the common good. He urged them to meet together to consider the goals ahead of them for the sake of the working class.
The workers did get together. The meeting took place on July 27, 1937, and what emerged from it was the formation of the Oilfield Workers Trade Union. Rienzi was asked by these workers to be their President-General.
Rienzi also became president of the Trade Union Council, and although he was the lawyer, maintaining a strict and irreproachable legal posture, he intensified his personal opposition against all attempts to exploit the predicament of the oilfield workers.
After Butler surrendered to the authorities in September 1937, and was brought to trial, Rienzi defended him in the courts, and his performance was so brilliant that although Butler was found guilty and sentenced to two years hard labour, the trial judge praised Rienzi for what he called a distinguished contribution.
The oilfield workers so admired Rienzi for the part he played during the Butler troubles that they clamoured for him to campaign for a seat to represent them in the Legislative Council when General Elections came in January 1938. Rienzi contested the seat for San Fernando as a candidate of the Trade Union Council and was swept to victory. In the Legislative Council he was to meet his old rival, Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani.
In a speech to the Legislative Council on June 16, 1939, Rienzi could not help remembering the day of the Butler riots, June 19, 1937, and he addressed the Governor, who was then Sir Hubert Young.
He said: “June 19, Sir, is a day which, in the minds of the workers, marks a landmark in the history of the working class movement.” He went on to suggest that it should be made an annual public holiday in place of Empire Day, which was celebrated on May 24 every year.
Captain Cipriani, stung, retorted: “We don’t want a day for the making of false heroes.”
Yet neither Butler, nor Cipriani, nor the man to whom tribute is being paid, was a false hero.
Adrian Cola Rienzi remained long enough in the Legislative Council to see the new enlightened times he hoped for. He saw the end of the Crown Colony System and the coming in of Adult Franchise. It is clear that these new political times might not have come when they did had Rienzi, an authentic “Tribune of the People”, not befriended and protected the man of that moment.
Rienzi, apart from having been a Member of the Legislative Council, was Mayor of San Fernando from 1939 to 1942.
He served the government in several high legal positions, his last post being that of Assistant Solicitor-General in 1964. After his retirement, he lived in the shadows until his death on July 21, 1972.