Edgar Challenger in the FDR presidential library

Edgar Oscar Challenger

Edgar Oscar Challenger

My husband’s ancestors from St Kitts include his 3rd great-grandparents originally from Madeira, Francisco Ricardo de Meneses Cabral and Libania Joaquina Vieira da Silva. Their daughter Eliza was his 2nd great-grandmother, while another daughter Ascenia Augusta was the grandmother of Edgar Oscar Challenger (1905-2000), a labor leader and historian of St Kitts.

A document tucked away in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt presidential library archives provides a snap shot of St Kitts and the British West Indies at the beginning of World War II, with particularly interesting details on Edgar Challenger as a local leader.

St Kitts and Nevis was colonized by the British in the early 17th century, and continued as a colony until its independence in 1983. In 1940, President Roosevelt commissioned a study of social and economic conditions in the West Indies, in light of the war that had already started in Europe. One purpose of the study was to look into the effect of war on Great Britain’s Caribbean possessions, and various issues that the US could potentially become involved in:

  • future US military base locations in the Caribbean
  • threats to regional stability that could result from protests and revolts against British rule
  • the possibility that if Great Britain was defeated, the US might occupy their colonies
  • whether the current transportation and communication systems were sufficient for the coming years

The man FDR appointed to lead the commission was Charles Taussig. A long time friend and advisor to the president, Taussig had experience with the sugar industry in the West Indies through his family business, the American Molasses Company. The study involved visiting a large number of Caribbean islands, including St Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad, Barbados, Antigua, Grenada, St Vincent, Anguilla, and Montserrat. About 150 people were interviewed in the course of the commission’s work. They met with people with a wide range of expertise: colonial governors and legislators, military and police officials, business and labor leaders, sugar estate owners, teachers, small farmers, and laborers. They observed a wide variety of economic systems in these islands, from peasant farmer economies in some of the smaller islands, to the prominent oil-based industry in Trinidad, to the sugar cane “plantocracy” in St Kitts. The causes and effects of labor unrest in the mid-1930s was also examined.

In St Kitts, Taussig’s group interviewed three labor representatives: Joseph France, secretary of the Trade Union, J. M. Sebastian, a local labor leader, and Edgar Challenger, who was head of the Trade Union at that time. These Kittitians reported that the labor situation was tense on the sugar estates. The planters were supposed to distribute one third of their profits to their laborers, but often didn’t. Also, the majority of workers lived on sugar estate land, and if the planter was dissatisfied for any reason with their work, they could be turned out of their houses. The commission concluded that they were “not impressed with the ability” of the colonial labor officer on St Kitts.

The commission also reported on local movements and leaders that they termed “subversive”, as they advocated independence from Great Britain. Although they found these local advocates loyal to Britain’s war effort, the Americans also felt that the West Indian leaders had developed “a well-discussed and studied policy” for their future hopes of self-rule. Among these men were Norman Manley of Jamaica, Adrian Rienzi and Ralph Mentor of Trinidad, Randolph James of Antigua, and Edgar Challenger and James Nathan of St Kitts. In addition to details on the political views of the local leaders, personalities were also noted. Norman Manley was described as “a quiet, gentle man of striking personality and charm”, but the Jamaican governor also stated that Manley had “expressed his willingness at the proper time to incite bloodshed for the ultimate and greater good of mankind”. The commission viewed Ralph Mentor as “sullen, suspicious and sarcastic, but obviously a man of power and mentality”, while they thought Rienzi an “eloquent man of culture and intellect”.

The Commissioner of Police in nearby Antigua stated that Kittitian James Nathan was “so radical and so hopelessly communistic and uncontrollable that Sebastian and Challenger have disowned him”. The commission saw him as “a definite trouble-maker”.

Taussig’s report seems to reserve some of the highest praise for Edgar Challenger, along with warnings as to his potential power and influence. It was noted that he attended City College of New York, and Columbia University.  They stated that he “ranks with the best intellects in the West Indian labor movement”. The commission concluded

“Our impression of him was a man of the highest intellectual attainments, quiet and profound, definitely motivated by Communist doctrine, a man who, in a major revolutionary movement, would be extremely dangerous. Like all the genuine intellects among the negroes his conversation and rhetoric indicates a high degree of education and culture.”

An ongoing issue with a pamphlet written by Challenger was described. The pamphlet charged that the current food supply for laborers often fell short of slave provisions guaranteed in a Kittitian law passed in  1798. This accusation caused colonial authorities to go back to ancient eighteenth century law books to verify his claims. They contemplated arresting Edgar for circulating inflammatory material and defaming the character of planters. The commission warned that such an action could result in a “serious disturbance”.

Taussig’s report concludes with a number of observations and recommendations on how the US should proceed with the British West Indies, taking into account military, political, economic, social, and racial conditions they felt existed in 1940. They even discussed the possibility of enemy espionage in the area, and how “illegal inter-island communication”, travel, or smuggling via small boats could be accomplished.  Edgar Challenger had something to say about this aspect of war-time life in a colonial territory:

“Challenger in St Kitts emphasized that it was difficult to maintain communication between his group in St Kitts and friendly groups in other countries because of the censorship. However, from the way he made this remark there was an implication that they had ways of avoiding or evading the censor”.

 

 

Sources

  1. Archives at the FDR presidential library and museum, Hyde Park NY
  2. St Kitts and Nevis: history, The Commonwealth Secretariat 2017
  3. The Living New Deal, Charles Taussig (1896-1948), UC Berkley Department of Geography
  4. A History of Organized Labor in the English-speaking West Indies, Robert Alexander and Eldon Parker, 2004
  5. Bitter Rehearsal: British and American Planning for a Post-war West Indies, Charlie Whitman, 2002
  6. Papers of Charles Taussig 1928-1948, Franklin Delano Roosevelt presidential library holdings
  7. Report of the United States Commission to Study Social and Economic Conditions in the British West Indies, Franklin Delano Roosevelt presidential library, 1941

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