"THE Chair recognizes the delegate from Barbados." Those words echoing through the large recreational building at the Marine Base in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands of the United States, during the Second Session of the West Indian Conference (February 21 to March 13, 1946) were of deep significance to "colonial peoples" everywhere. The Chairman, by accident of the English alphabet, was the writer, the United States Co-chairman of the Caribbean Commission. The delegate from Barbados, the second oldest colony in the British Empire, was an elected member of the Legislature. On behalf of France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States, the Chairman had recognized for the first time in history the right of 15 overseas territories in the Caribbean area, gathered in an international conference, to speak for themselves.[i] That four Powers should be united in a common program on what are usually referred to as colonial matters is a new idea; and that the essence of the program is the encouragement of responsibility by the overseas peoples in "matters of common interest and especially of social and economic significance to Caribbean countries" is no less heartening.

Before discussing the Caribbean Commission and the West Indian Conference, it will be well to review briefly the situation out of which the Commission and this Conference grew.

Commencing in 1935 in St. Kitts in the Leeward Islands, a series of riots and disturbances accompanied by bloodshed spread throughout the non-self-governing territories of the Caribbean. These disturbances reached their peak in 1937 and 1938. They spread to Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica and British Guiana. Before the riots were ended some 40 to 50 persons had been killed and 479 injured in British territories. Political disturbances about the same time in Puerto Rico resulted in 26 deaths and scores of serious injuries. Both Great Britain and the United States sent commissions, committees and individuals to investigate. The most notable contribution to an analysis of the background of the trouble was made by the West India Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Lord Moyne, which completed its report just before the beginning of World War II. The Moyne report,[ii] suppressed for five years because of the fear that German propagandists might exploit it, has recently been made public and its findings show clearly why the Caribbean colonial region has been seething with social discontent for generations. Although the findings apply officially to British territories only, the facts revealed are significant for many portions of French, Netherlands and American territories.

The Moyne Commission found almost universal unemployment, which was and is due largely to the seasonal character of the Caribbean's leading industry, sugar production. The 1943 Jamaica census confirmed this conclusion when it revealed that 31 percent of that island's workers were totally unemployed. The Moyne report stated that women workers in Barbados, for example, normally received about 20 cents a day when they worked and men received about 30 cents; that even the best cane cutters in Jamaica did not average more than 80 cents a day; and that wages in the eastern British islands were much below the Jamaica standards.

The Commission declared that the people had suffered so long from insecurity, malnutrition and low incomes that their industrial morale had been lowered to a dangerous point. It found that an "admitted reluctance" to work for more than three or four days a week had become "a long-established social tradition." It reported an appalling inefficiency in agriculture, with unsystematic husbandry and low productivity, and found that the erosion of the soil had gone so far that it was "perhaps the greatest danger to West Indian agriculture." It found also, among non-agricultural workers as well as farm laborers, a "lack of a tradition of craftsmanship and pride in good work" which it considered disturbing.

The standard of housing was described as "deplorably low" and the overcrowding acute. "Privacy of any kind is impossible," the Commission said, "when a family of ten or twelve have to sleep in one small room, some on the floor, some under the bed, some in it, and all in a stifling and foul atmosphere." Infant mortality in many British possessions was two to three times the infant mortality rate in England. The proportion of illegitimacy was stated to be "seldom less than 60 percent and often is in the neighborhood of 70 percent of the population." Over the whole life of the Caribbean area, there hung the shadow of overpopulation which "has contributed more than any other single influence to the formidable increase of intermittant employment in the towns and of unemployment in the country and has thus gone far to nullify the effects of wage advances in improving the standard of living." The indictment of education in the West Indies was almost as severe.

The Moyne Commission ventured into the fields of political criticism and attacked the limited franchise in the British Caribbean colonies. At the time that the Commission made its investigation, not a single British or Netherlands colony had universal suffrage in the election of any assembly, although French and United States Caribbean territories had possessed this right for many years.

Such frank and helpful criticism of Caribbean social conditions was not confined to British territories. The United States made inquiries into conditions in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands of the United States. Both Senate and House Committees probed into the administration of Puerto Rican affairs and presented to the American people pictures of suffering and despair. Puerto Rico had been hard hit in 1932 and 1933 by the same depression which engulfed the United States, and the same single-crop economy which created unemployment in the British territories left the masses of Puerto Rico hungry for almost a half of each year. The Chavez Committee in its preliminary report of 1943 found that the average income for a Puerto Rican family with 5.6 dependents was $350 a year and that 35 percent of the families earned less than $200 annually. Wages were higher in Puerto Rico than in the British islands, but the average annual income was still low because of the appalling unemployment and overpopulation. In August 1942 the official estimate of unemployment was 250,000 in a potential working force of about 600,000, and in 1941 some estimates of unemployment had run as high as 46 percent. The Chavez Committee pointed out gloomily that Puerto Rico with its population of about 2,000,000 was, next to Java, perhaps the most crowded place in the world; that there was about one-half an acre of arable land per capita and no prospect of successful migration; and that a continued high birth rate coupled with the reduction in the death rate through sanitation and modern medicine had made a population of 3,000,000 by 1960 a probability.

In the territories of the Caribbean the problem of race relationship is basic. It does not always appear acutely on the surface because outward relations are usually courteous; but it is always present. Outside of Puerto Rico, more than 90 percent of the people in the territories are non-white. So the Caribbean race problem is not how to adjust a colored minority to a white majority, but how to eliminate the underlying racial antagonisms between an overwhelming colored majority and a small, economically dominant white minority.


The final word of the Moyne Commission's report had scarcely been written when Europe was plunged into the Second World War. By the summer of 1940 the European situation was so grave that the fate of all British, French and Netherlands territories in the Caribbean was in doubt. Representatives at the meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of American Republics held at Havana in July 1940 drew up a plan for provisional administration of Europe's Caribbean possessions by American Republics in the event that Hitler should conquer the home governments.

In March of 1941 the United States obtained 99-year leases for constructing bases in six British Caribbean colonies, and thus the interest of the United States in the improvement of social and economic conditions in the area broadened. Tens of thousands of Americans, both military and civilians, were to live in close proximity with the people of the British colonies. Our bases could not be completely isolated from the life of the community. Practical considerations, including those of humanity, impelled us to take a sympathetic interest in the problems of the British colonies. In November 1941, with the consent of the British Government, President Roosevelt sent a Commission, with the writer as chairman, to make a general survey of the social and economic problems of the British West Indies. Particular emphasis was to be placed upon the relations between the personnel of the bases and the population in general.

The President's Commission was given every facility for study by the colonial governors and the colonial governments. Contacts were not limited to government officials. This survey group was given an opportunity to meet with business men, labor leaders, planters, church officials, educators, social workers and individuals with no particular group affiliation. Copies of its report were made available to the British Government. The British in turn gave a copy of the then secret Moyne report to the United States. Among the important conclusions of the President's Commission was that many of the problems in the area were of common concern to both the American and the British Governments, and that a joint commission should be created to advise the two governments as to ways and means of meeting these problems. The report was submitted to President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Hull in January 1942 and on March 9 of the same year the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission was created. The joint communiqué setting up the Commission said in part:

For the purpose of encouraging and strengthening social and economic cooperation between the United States of America and its possessions and bases in the area known geographically and politically as the Caribbean and the United Kingdom and the British colonies in the same area and to avoid unnecessary duplication of research in these fields, a commission to be known as the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission has been jointly created by the two governments. . . . Members of the Commission will concern themselves primarily with matters pertaining to labor, agriculture, housing, health, education, social welfare, finance, economics and related subjects in the territories under the British and United States flags within this territory and on these matters will advise their respective governments. . . . The Commission in its studies and in the formulation of its recommendations will necessarily bear in mind the desirability of close coöperation in social and economic matters between all regions in and adjacent to the Caribbean.

The Anglo-American Caribbean Commission, now called the Caribbean Commission, could not have arrived at a more opportune moment. It went into action immediately. Merchant ships were zigzagging through the submarine-infested Caribbean while hungry families waited for food. When the ships arrived they sometimes brought -- empty beer and rum bottles! Hit-and-miss purchasing and the uncoordinated shipping of supplies combined with the Nazi submarine campaign to bring the isolated island populations close to starvation.

The Commission took the lead in organizing a coördinated program for keeping the area supplied with food and other necessities. It helped to establish a system of bulk purchasing. It organized a schooner pool. When the spread of venereal disease in Trinidad threatened our armed forces, the Commission united with the local government and with several American agencies in establishing a Caribbean Medical Center which developed effective methods of control. It established a Caribbean Research Council of experts in agriculture, nutrition and health to search for, coördinate and distribute vital information about the area. It sponsored uniform area-wide conferences on forestry, land tenure and quarantine in which some of the independent republics of the Caribbean participated.

The organization of the Commission was further implemented along democratic lines by a joint communiqué issued on January 5, 1944, by the two Governments, which said:

It remained, however, to broaden the base for the approach to Caribbean problems to include consultation with local representatives -- not necessarily officials -- of the territories and colonies concerned. The value of such counsel is recognized and provision has now been made for its expression through a regular system of West Indian conferences which by agreement between the United States Government and His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom is to be inaugurated under the auspices of the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission, to discuss matters of common interest and especially of social and economic significance to the Caribbean countries. . . . The conference will be a standing body; it will have a continuing existence and a central secretariat.

The first session of the West Indian Conference was held in Barbados in March 1944. It considered in detail proposals for raising the nutritional level of the region by local food production and the expansion of fisheries; the reabsorption of soldiers and war workers into civilian life; the planning of public works for the improvement of agriculture; education and housing; public health and quarantine; industrial development; and the extension of regional research. With few exceptions, these proposals were approved by the two metropolitan governments which were at that time members of the Commission, and by the local governments. Out of these recommendations came a statement by the United States and Great Britain of basic economic policy for the region. This was the first time that two metropolitan governments had jointly formulated economic policy for their overseas territories based on the recommendations of representatives of the territories.

In 1945 the United States and Great Britain increased their representation on the Commission from three to four, with the new Commissioners to be chosen from the area. France and the Netherlands accepted invitations to become full members of the Commission later that year, and the Caribbean Commission became a truly regional body representing both the peoples of the area and the four metropolitan Powers concerned. Three of the Commissioners, representing the United States, Great Britain and France, are colored.

The wider cooperative endeavor was demonstrated most effectively at the Second Session of the West Indian Conference in February and March 1946. There, for three weeks, 29 delegates from British, French, Netherlands and United States territories in the area met with representatives of the metropolitan Powers to discuss their own economic and social problems. The four metropolitan Powers were represented by the sponsoring organization, the Caribbean Commission. Canada, which has substantial trade interests in the Caribbean, sent an observer. Most of the 15 local territories were each represented by one elected delegate from a local assembly and one delegate appointed by a territorial government. Altogether, almost 6,000,000 people of the Caribbean territories sent their representatives to this Conference.

The discussions and the work of the delegates were not controlled by the metropolitan Powers; in fact, the representatives of these Powers took little part in the Conference's discussions. Of the 29 regular delegates, 23 were natives of the Caribbean area and 16 represented the elected legislatures or portions of local legislatures. Their recommendations for the future of the Caribbean showed imagination, understanding and a high degree of political maturity. They covered a wide range of subjects including the calling of a regional tourist conference and the consideration of a central tourist agency, the standardization of vital statistics, agricultural diversification, the development of efficient local manufacturing and handicrafts, and an area-wide policy of human, plant and animal quarantine. The Conference made strong recommendations on industrial development and proposed a special conference devoted to that subject and to trade and transportation.

On many issues there was healthful and uninhibited criticism, and behind every discussion there was an underlying conviction that the future of the Caribbean Commission and constituent territories must belong to the peoples of the Caribbean themselves. On the whole, this attitude of self-reliance was encouraged by the representatives of the four metropolitan governments. The Commission invited the delegates to show how the organization could best serve the area, and asked the representatives to suggest their own agenda for future sessions. One of the principal subjects suggested for discussion at the next conference was the formulation of a Bill of Human Rights and Human Obligations for all peoples of the area. The Conference recommended that the Commission begin a study of this subject in the interim. Meanwhile the delegates recognized the international significance of the Conference by recommending that their report be made available promptly by the four metropolitan Powers concerned to all appropriate international bodies.


What concrete reforms have been made? The British Government had been profoundly disturbed by the tragic situation revealed by the Moyne Commission. Largely as a result of that report, Parliament in 1940 passed a Colonial Development and Welfare Act with an original appropriation of £5,000,000 from the United Kingdom Treasury for the colonial empire. The Act was renewed in 1945 and Parliament increased the appropriation to £120,000,000 for the ten-year period ending in 1956. Of this amount £15,500,000 was allocated to the British West Indies to be administered by the Comptroller for Development and Welfare, who is also British Co-chairman of the Caribbean Commission. A condition was attached to the grant that any West Indian colony receiving aid under the Act must provide reasonable standards for the establishment of trade unions and the protection of fair working conditions. Only one Caribbean colony has failed to meet this minimum test.

There has been substantial extension of political democracy in the region. In Britain's largest Caribbean colony, Jamaica, a new constitution was offered and accepted in 1943, and as a result the first election ever held in the British West Indies under universal suffrage took place there in 1944. In response to vocal and sometimes bitter demands from the colored masses, property qualifications have been eliminated or lowered in Trinidad, British Guiana and Barbados.

The advances in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have been considerable. Probably no non-self-governing territories in all history have received so much constructive assistance per capita from a metropolitan Power as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands since 1933. The assistance has not been limited to money. Today Puerto Rico has social and welfare legislation which is in advance of all other dependent territories in the Caribbean. Under a continuing federal program many millions have been contributed for vocational education, health and agricultural extension.

The people of Puerto Rico have had universal suffrage since 1917 and the Virgin Islands since 1936 in the election of local legislatures. President Truman has declared his determination to let the people of Puerto Rico choose their own political status and to provide increasing self-government to the Virgin Islands. In May 1946 William H. Hastie was confirmed by the U. S. Senate as Governor of the Virgin Islands of the United States, the first Negro ever appointed governor of a United States territory. Monetary help to Puerto Rico since 1933 has run into hundreds of millions of dollars. The labor status of the workers has been elevated by the application of two continental federal labor laws, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act. Similarly, progressive local social legislation has been adopted by the Puerto Rican Legislature under the leadership of Senator Luis Muñoz-Marín and Governor Rexford G. Tugwell. The standards of most of the island's workers have been raised by the encouragement of collective bargaining. Important new industries have been established with the aid of insular funds for the purpose of creating new wealth and diversifying the island's economy.

In the Netherlands territories, the oil-refining islands of Curaçao and Aruba have attained the highest standard of living in the colonial Caribbean by virtue of high wages and steady year-round employment based upon crucial wartime demand for refinery products. Surinam's bauxite helped to relieve the distress of unemployment in that colony. In December 1943, Queen Wilhelmina announced that in the new postwar government of the Netherlands, Surinam and Curaçao would be made equal partners in a new, four-part Netherlands Commonwealth.

A newly announced policy adopted by the French National Assembly in March 1946 would give political status to French West Indian territories as organic parts of metropolitan France. The French people of these territories had already possessed the right to elect their own municipal and General Councils by universal suffrage and to send voting members to the French Parliament. In the words of France's new member of the Caribbean Commission, Mme. Eugénie Eboué of Guadeloupe, "The people of the West Indies and Guiana have full French citizenship; they have the same pride in their culture and their development as that which American Negroes feel in being American."


Political reform, financial aid and a progressive atmosphere are essential tools for the task of vitalizing the society and economy of the Caribbean territories; but they have not and cannot of themselves raise living standards adequately. It will take much more than improved political techniques to keep pace with the population increase. Overpopulation under the present economy of the Caribbean is the basic problem. Birth control is not a remedy in the foreseeable future. Mass migration is at present impracticable for many reasons, not the least important being that many West Indians do not want to leave their homeland. Some redistribution of population within the area is a possibility and will be studied by the Caribbean Commission.

Standards of living acceptable to the peoples of the Caribbean or to world conscience cannot be achieved through agricultural development alone. The major crop, sugar, does not give year-round employment and the very existence of sugar-growing is dependent in the Caribbean territories on subventions in the form of tariff preferentials and direct subsidy. Mineral deposits of importance exist in only a few territories.

Paradoxically, the one great natural resource of the Caribbean is its vast reserve of manpower. Substantial economic progress will be achieved only when it is recognized that the increasing population of the Caribbean is a potential asset instead of an insurmountable liability. When the West Indian was a slave the lowliest bookkeeper accounted for him on the asset side of the ledger. Now that he is a free man, he is too frequently entered on the books as an economic liability.

At the very outset the Commission saw the need for substantially increasing and diversifying the industries and agriculture of the area. It has continuously given encouragement to the creation of new industries, particularly the processing of locally produced raw materials. The tendency of metropolitan governments in the past to regard the Caribbean exclusively as a source of raw materials to be processed abroad and re-shipped to the area is being discouraged. The Commission takes the position that any decrease in specific exports to the area due to local production will be more than offset by a general increase of imports as income and standards of living are increased. The old theory that Caribbean labor cannot produce in competition with labor of the temperate zones is being exploded. Upward of 50,000 West Indian laborers have been brought to the United States annually during the war to work in both agriculture and industry. Their productivity has been encouraging. The United States Department of Labor reported to the Caribbean Commission that "It is interesting to note that the West Indian workers learned mass production techniques quickly although reports indicate that they required a longer training period than domestic workers."

It is expected that the Caribbean Commission will shortly make a survey of the industrial potentials of the region, not only with the objective of having the area supply more of its own requirements through interterritorial trade but of increasing the flow of export products to other markets. The study will include ways and means of training local labor to perform now unfamiliar tasks. Studies will be made of the enervating effect of tropical climate on workers and the means of overcoming this handicap through construction of air-conditioned plants. A modern textile enterprise of considerable size has been operating in Cuba for a number of years where up-to-date techniques such as air conditioning, workers' education, and improved housing have been successful in raising the productivity of tropical labor.

The proximity of all the Caribbean territories to large oil fields indicates that the availability of cheap power should aid the industrialization of the area. The sponsorship of the Commission in the fields of health and nutrition education has as one of its objectives the increasing efficiency of Caribbean labor.

The possibilities of a major improvement in employment opportunities are not confined to the development of factory and handicraft industries. There is a large field of opportunity in creating a demand for services. This is particularly true in the field of tourist development. The Commission has already published a detailed survey of a coördinated regional approach to tourism, which has been favorably received. It is proposed to hold a joint conference of the territorial governments, the metropolitan governments and private enterprise in New York in October 1946 with the object of setting up a regional tourist organization and developing the almost unlimited field of Caribbean travel.

Against a background of general reform which is now under way in the territories of the region, the expanded Caribbean Commission enters its fifth year. It is no longer an experiment but a functioning unit of international organization. The Caribbean Commission with its two auxiliary bodies, the Caribbean Research Council and the West Indian Conference, provides a regional coördinating, expediting and advisory service that the individual territories and metropolitan governments alone cannot offer. For the first time in respect to non-self-governing territories there exists an international regional body devoted to economic and social action that crosses political boundaries.

President Truman in a special message to the West Indian Conference said that it was the policy of the United States to encourage the effective application of Chapter XI of the Charter of the United Nations in the Caribbean area. Referring specifically to the Caribbean Commission, he pledged the support of the Government of the United States to the Commission "to the end that the problems of the region may be approached as a whole and not piecemeal." Quoting from the Charter, the President emphasized that "the interests of the inhabitants are to be regarded as paramount." Those are the two major objectives; the four-Powers unity that the Caribbean Commission typifies is the method by which they can be achieved.

[i] The 15 territories are: United Kingdom -- Bahamas, Barbados, British Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica, Leeward Islands, Trinidad, Windward Islands; United States -- Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands of the United States; France -- French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique; the Netherlands -- Curaçao, Surinam.

[ii]West India Royal Commission Report, Cmd. 6607. London, 1945.

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  • CHARLES W. TAUSSIG, Adviser to the Secretary of State on Caribbean Affairs; U. S. Cochairman of the Caribbean Commission, and Chairman of the Second Session of the West Indies Conference
  • More By Charles W. Taussig