The extent to which crown colony politics impacted on the collective consciousness of Trinidad during the 19th century and way into the 20th century is still being played out today. The manner in which political parties arrange themselves in this multi-ethnic society and the ministerial system through which the country is governed are all the natural result of how we started off in the closing years of the 18th century, the 1790s.
In the years immediately after the British conquest, there was no question of granting an elected assembly to Trinidad. The empire was at war and the governors sent out to run the place were military men and professional soldiers: Picton, Hislop and Munroe. Assemblies existed in some of the older British colonies, however, in Tobago, Jamaica and Canada.
In any event, Trinidad possessed Spanish laws. Some 90% of the population - both African and European - were French and Patois-speaking and were catholic. The major engines that drove the economy were the great estates. They were in the hand of mostly French people, both European and ‘free coloureds’, who also happened to own almost all the slaves.
As the time came, almost 40 years later, to free the slaves, the Colonial Office in London decided that the moment had arrived to grant Trinidad a law-making body. Not an elected assembly, but a Legislative Council, the membership of which would be nominated by the governor. This was put into place in 1831 and would not be altered until 1924. This body effectively replaced the Council of Advice that dated back to Sir Thomas Picton’s times.
The new council was organised thus:
a) the official members, being the leading officers of the British establishment, such as the police, health, immigration etc., represented by the heads of those departments;
b) the unofficial members, private citizens who were nominated by the governor. These were drawn from the ‘principle proprietors of the colony’;
c) the governor who presided this body.
The Legislative Council was to enact ordinances to which both the governor and the Colonial Office in London had to assent. This became the norm, although the British government retained its right to govern directly from London ‘by order in council’.
The governor in fact elected everyone and between 1832 and 1862 could command the officials, who were in the majority, to vote for him.
The island was well off. By the 1840s, it was producing a small but literate coloured middle class. The French planter society that had been financially devastated by the freeing of the slaves, were beginning to ‘catch themselves’ in the 1850s. Much like their African compatriots, the French also had nowhere to return to and began to harbour nascent nationalistic sentiments that were to express themselves twenty years later in the reform movements. Culturally, the descendants of both the free blacks and the French Creoles had a lot in common with each other. Both groups subscribed to the aristocratic tradition, were catholic, land-owning and most of all shared a common feeling of being alienated in their own land, now owned by Britain, to which various officials came and ultimately left. This was, however, a limited communality, one that would be eroded with time, as the memory of shared experiences dissipated with the old plantation way of life over the years.
To the mass of recently freed slaves, it hardly mattered who sat with the ‘gobnor’ in the stone-cold building on Abercromby Street, that would later be known as the Red House. The newly arriving Indians, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabs and others were completely out of the picture. The black creole urban culture in its lower economic extremities was just forming a way of life known as jamette or diametre, ‘beyond the diameter of polite society’.
Essentially, government in Trinidad was most exclusive. It included only the Crown’s commercial interest and that of the most wealthy planters. These two, one can say, saw eye to eye. However, as the new legislative worked to tackle issues such as a rationalization of Spanish law, particularly in the context of civil law, difficulties were met. Ordinances in 1843 amended the laws that prevented free disposal of property by will and removed the rights of a woman to property that she brought into a marriage.
“These laws were objectionable to the Spanish and French creoles, who felt that they were a part of the Anglicising process, and believed that Spanish law, with its special provisions for the rights of illegitimate children and married women were more applicable to Trinidad society than British law,” as Dr. Bridget Brereton points out in her book ‘Race Relations in 19th century Trinidad.
With regard to criminal law, it was felt that the Spanish code was too lenient and in favour of the criminal. With emancipation, the harsher British laws were enthusiastically supported by the always nervous upper classes who had a lot to lose. Trial by jury was introduced for the first time in 1844. By 1846, the old Spanish laws were replaced by English law. The fifteen year-old Legislative Council had worked well in transforming the island’s laws. It was during this period, from the 1850s to the 1870s, that the colonial administration, both locally and in England, formed the view that Crown Colony rule in Trinidad was best. The masses, both African and Indian, were largely illiterate and the descendants of the French colonists who had opened up the country in the previous century were not necessary loyal to England. Further, it was felt that the governors and the officials protected the ignorant and the weak against the planters.
“The Crown was the best guardian of the interest of the masses as against the propertied few,” writes Dr. Brereton.
This was of course a myth. The white upper classes controlled everything. British colonial prejudice kept everyone in their places, including the French creoles. However, the planter-merchant society, made up of French planters and British merchants and planters, did exercise extensive influence over the policy-making function of the Legislative Council. Gradually, the unofficials did hold a majority in the council. This, however, could not change ‘the price of cocoa’, as Crown Colony rule was unchangeable. The planters in the 1870s did make an attempt for elected representation. It failed. It was argued that the population was too heterogeneous and basically uneducated to be trusted with a representative form of government. It was against this background that thinking people began to agitate for reform. The ‘New Era’, a paper of the educated black middle class, wrote of the local members of the Legislative Council, the unofficials, in 1885:
“Men who are selected for the business of Government from a particular class will naturally be prone to give undue prominence to their exclusive interests. It is only in the natural order of things that our Legislature would be used as a machinery for the furtherance of the particular interests of the class whose supporters so largely predominate in its composition.”
In 1887, a Royal Franchise Commission was set up to decide whether we were ready for elected members. This had been brought about by a petition with 5,000 signatures, a campaign which had been mobilised by Philip Rostant, a French creole who used his newspaper ‘Public Opinion’ to raise public involvement. The commission found in favour of an elected Legislature. This was, however, turned down by the Colonial Office in London - a frustrating process for the Trinidadians.
It would take a world war, plus the riots of 1903, the great depression, the strikes of the 1920s and 1930s, plus the rise of trade unionism and socialists international for the colonial power to ease its grip.
Legislative Council of Trinidad and Tobago 1921
His Excellency Lieutenant-Colonel Sir John Robert Chancellor - Governor, President
H.B. Walcott - Acting Colonial Secretary
R.S.A. Warner - Attorney General
W.C. Huggard - Solicitor General
R.G. Bushe - Auditor General
Colonel G.H. May - Inspector General of Constabulary
A.G. Bell - Director of Public Works
K.S. Wise - Surgeon General
B.T. Murray - Acting Protector of Immigrants
D. Slyne - Receiver General
T.R. Cutler - Acting Collector of Customs
Sir Henry Alcazar
A. H. Wight
Reverend C.D. Lalla
Sir Norman Lamont