When the Dominican sugar industry was nearing its zenith in the late 1800s, plantation owners began to employ migrant labourers from a number of islands in the British Antilles to meet the increased work demand. These black English-speakers – many of whom prefer to be called “The English” – were termed Cocolos, a bastardization of Tortola, one of the islands from which the workers arrived. While many of them returned home to their respective islands each year with their harvest season earnings, growing numbers began to settle permanently in camps around San Pedro de Macorís.
The Cocolos lived in squalid bateyes, shantytowns that were vermin infested and tended to lack running water. Disease – malaria, cholera and leprosy mainly – was widespread, and residents often starved during the off-season. They were also the victims of widespread racism, which led many to embrace the pan-Africanism of Marcus Garvey, a Jamaica-born activist who moved to New York’s Harlem to spread his message of black empowerment. Thousands joined his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which encouraged community self-reliance and provided disability benefits for those injured in the mills, and donated a portion of their salaries to the Black Star Line, a black-owned and -operated fleet meant to repatriate New World blacks to West Africa one day. In August 1921 the Garveyites organized a strike to protest against the inhuman conditions of the bateyes, but the unrest was broken up by US Marines who occupied the Dominican Republic, and the local leaders of the UNIA were deported.
The community infrastructure begun by UNIA soon evolved into self-improvement organizations that pooled resources to better the conditions in the bateyes, establish and enforce codes of conduct and provide medical care. During nonworking seasons, members formed cricket teams that evolved into the sugar-mill baseball squads, which eventually produced some of the world’s finest players. Labour unrest continued as well – in 1946 the Cocolos staged the only successful strike of the Trujillo era – which made sugar companies turn westward to Haiti for cheap migrant labour.