Monday 3 October 2011

Empire Days

For close to 160 years, Trinidad was a part of a global phenomenon: the British Empire. The creation of this worldwide expansion of a small nation-state off the coast of Europe can be compared with the earlier empires that were of importance to the then known world: Egypt, Greece, Rome and Byzantium.

For those of us born in the 1930s, Empire Day was a holiday that you got up early for, and put on your uniform: Police Volunteers, Cadets, Red Cross, Prisons, Post Office or school uniforms. Then we would go to the parade. You were given a flag, told where to stand and you obeyed all instructions. Afterwards, in the blinding light of midday, you were given a bun and a cup of tepid tea, courtesy of His Majesty King George VI, and then dismissed! Life was so simple in the days when Great Britain ruled the world.
Sir Winston Churchill, writing in his ‘History of the English-speaking peoples’ (Thomas & Hudson) said:
“Occupation of the empty lands of the globe was violently accelerated by the fall of Napoleon. The long struggle against France had stifled or arrested the expansion of the English-speaking peoples, and the ships and the men who might have founded the second British Empire had been consumed in twenty years of world war.”
The first British Empire had been essentially a New World creation, carved out of the wilderness of North America’s eastern sea board. Won from Spain in the Caribbean by the privateers, Sir Henry Morgan and Sir Francis Drake, it was immediately challenged by the French, losing the American colonies by the 1780s by gaining Canada in the following decades and drawing even in the Caribbean.
Great Britain was able to cripple the French battle fleet at Trafalgar and win the battle of Waterloo. “A near run thing,” remarked the Duke of Wellington in the fading light after the Prussians had come.
“Once again the oceans were free,” wrote Churchill. For all intent and purpose Britain ruled the waves. “News began to spread among the masses that fertile, unoccupied and habitable lands still existed in which white men could dwell in peace and liberty and could perhaps even better themselves.”
Trinidad and Tobago in the British Caribbean was a port of that first British Empire - Tobago, Barbados and Jamaica perhaps more so than Trinidad.
The mindset of victorious Great Britian after twenty years of war is well expressed in Churchill’s words. The idea that ‘lands’ were out there for the taking by ‘white men’ who were in pursuit of peace, liberty and self-improvement was the concept that underpinned the next empire. That these lands were already inhabited by the original owners at that point in time must have been incidental to these would-be colonists. Might was not just right, it was also white.
Canada, the Caribbean, parts of the South American Mainland, most of Africa, Australia, New Zealand, all of India, Burma and innumberable islands all around the globe became the British Empire. Vast, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, it combined peoples who ranged from highly complicated monarchic societies to the stone-age people in the Tasmanian Sea, to the fossilized remnants of advanced civilisations in the high Himalayas.
This world expansion of a relatively small island off the coast of Europe was driven by several important developments. Firstly, the process that had produced England’s system of government was unique for its time. The parliament, the king, the city of London’s banking and other concerns created a liberal self-interest that augured well for Britain’s early entry into the industrial revolution. This was underpinned by the world’s only ocean-going battle fleet. Secondly, a population explosion in England from 11 million people in 1800 to close to 40 million sixty years later sped things up. And thirdly, with England’s traditional foes France and Spain vanquished, the outward flow of people commenced. More than 250,000 people migrated to the colonies in 1820, and more than half a million by 1830. 1.5 million people had left England by 1850, and by 1870, that number had risen to 8 million people. Canada was the easiest choice and seemed most familiar. Shipping lines to Canada were well established and the fares relatively cheap. Once there, the immigrants discovered how vast the continent was. The maritime provinces that breasted the Atlantic thrived. Problems only arose as settlers pushed into lower Canada, the province of Quebec. Churchill notes:
“In Lower Canada, the French were deeply rooted, a compact, alien community, led by priests and seigneurs uninterested and untouched by the democratic ideals of liberal or revolutionary Europe, and holding stubbornly, like the Boers in South Africa, to their own traditions and language.”
Many of these French would later make their way to the French Antilles and then to Trinidad. The de Gannes family as an example, have their New World origins in Canada.
Canada’s population rose from about half a million in 1815 to 1.25 million in 1838 - a very low number considering that vast area! In 1846, the Oregon Treaty with the United States extended the 49th parallel right across the continent as the border between the two great countries, and gave Van Couva island to Great Britain.
The arrival of the steam-driven trains on steel rails - all products of the industrial revolution - opened up both North American countries. With the defeat and virtual starvation of the native people, white men could develop the country ‘in peace and liberty’.
Africa, however, was a different story. Its story leads us to Woodbrook in Port of Spain, which has a collection of street names that come from a time when Great Britain sought through force of arms to bring order and establish peace in South Africa. The ultimate aim was to gain for the Empire itself vast wealth in gold and diamonds that lay beneath the surface of Africa’s southern cape.
In the early days of Britain’s first expansion, South Africa had scant attractions. It was largely a stop-off point on the way to the east. Not many people from Europe wanted to stay there. In the case of North America, the great Gulf of St. Lawrence made it easy to enter the interior, but the coastline of South Africa, washed by powerful currents and towering cliffs, barred the way.
In the 1670s, Dutch adventurors made use of the Cape as a watering spot. They called it the ‘Tavern of the Seas’. A young doctor from Amsterdam, Jan van Riebeeck, took possession of a bit of coast and called it Table Bay. By the 1760s, there was something of an establishment of Europeans in the Table Bay region: Dutch, Germans and Swedes had settled on frough forms. Mostly protestant, they had escaped religious persecution in Europe. Cape Town was then called ‘Little Paris’, so bright was it with its 5,000 inhabitants! The insland plateau was taken from the local tribes by the frontiersmen, described as ‘restless, hard, self-reliant, narrow-minded, isolated from society and impatient of the restraints of civilized government. They were the forerunners of the Transvaal Boers of a century later. Holland had exercized some control over this wildland, but with a collapse in its banking system and its subsequent defeat by the French the British seized the colony in 1814 in return for an indemnity of 6 million pounds.
It is interesting to note that this was a case of a party of people taking over a large part of an entire continent and then reselling it to another country with the local inhabitants having no say.
There were, however, other players. As the British pushed north and east from South Africa, they came into contact and later conflict with the great southward migration of the Bantu peoples from central Africa. This extended right across the continent from Hereros in the west to the Ngumi coast in the east. The Kaffer wars lasted for almost 100 years and coincided with the Ashanti wars and the wars in the Gambia. In those wars, West India regiments, comprised of black troops with white offiers, took part. Their descendants, families such as the Hodges and the Warners, still live on in Trinidad.
Later, the conflict known as the Boer war was to capture the imagination of the British people. The generals of this conflict, in which Trinidadians served as well, are remembers today in Woodbrook’s street names: Buller, Kitchener, Roberts, Baden Powell, Gatacre, Methuen, White, MacDonald and Colville. 

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