Wednesday 19 October 2011

History through the wrong end of the telescope

History could argue that independence in 1962, much like the emancipation of the slaves in 1834 was essentially an economic decision. Both decisions taken by Great Britain in the wake of terrible wars. In the case of the emancipation of the slaves, England had been at war with France for some 2 ears. These two empires struggles for control of the sea lanes and contested over the hegemony of the Americas and South-East Asia. The wars that had commenced during the French monarchy went right on through the revolution and culminated with exile of Napoleon Bonaparte to St. Helena, an island in the mid-Atlantic.
With this victory came the birth of the British Empire as we knew it. The islands in the Caribbean sea were ultimately portioned out between the great powers, and Trinidad and Tobago became by the turn of the 19th century British possessions under separate administrations. Tobago was a old slave economy, strategic in terms of transatlantic sailing routes, but with Pax Britannica firmly in place not so vital as it once was. Trinidad was different. Only just in its first phase of development, with only 17 or 18 years at the time of the conquest in 1797 as an island whose economy depended on slave labour. But the economic realities of maintaining slave economics were swiftly passing and there was a pressure in England from the  more enlightened to free the slaves.
In any event, in the case of the islands taken from Spain and France in the Caribbean, the best agricultural lands already developed and owned by, as far as the English were concerned, foreigners: the French planters. So why not free the slaves and get the land cheap?
The period of Crown Colony Rule in these islands extended from the 1800s to the 1960s. It was, despite various economic and social vicissitudes, and incubatory experience. Along protracted twilight seen today like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Trinidad described as and experimental colony, experienced several waves of emigration. the old Afro-French culture grew at a certain pace, syncretically absorbing the good, the bad and the ugly elements of each other's historical experience. The relatively newly arriving Indians, from 1845 were in a sense apartheided n the cane estates and viewed, if they were remarked upon at all, as transients.
The shock of two apocalyptic world wars in quick succession rearranged this protracted slumber, and in the awakening dawn of the post-war period. Great Britain, victorious in a war that had threatened to end western civilization as we know it, was literally bled white. The flower of two generations had died on Flanders' fields, Verdun and in the trenches of France, and then 20 years later in North Africa, Burma and in the skies over London. England could not afford an empire, even if there were sufficient men to run it.
By the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Kikuyu in Kenya were killing white farmers. In India, the Mahatma Gandhi was leading millions to the sea to make salt and Archbishop Makarios was fighting a war for the independence of Crete.
With the cold war icing up great Britain was no longer a world power to be reckoned with.
The islands in the Caribbean were not a problem. They were essentially an expense. There was too, a moral issue, in much the same way that the possession of slaves in the early 19th century was something of an embarrassment, so too the possession of colonies by the mid-20th century was perceived as a thing of the past.
In Trinidad and Tobago, largely as the result of the multi-ethnic nature of the society, quite unique in the Caribbean, the various segments had tended to develop somewhat separately. The remnants of the French plantocracy had evolved in business. By and large, the people of African descent who worked in the civil service as clerks or administrators on the lower levels, became teachers or lawyers and doctors. The Indians were mostly still in cane cultivation and agriculture. Other ethnic segments fitted in and did their best.
A reaction to colonial rule had long since played a role in the body politic of the island. A few individuals of European descent joined by coloured professionals and intellectuals had agitated for social justice in various ways. Urban upheavals from the 1840s on through to the 1930s virtually from generation to generation, had challenged Crown Colony Rule only to be put down with force. Out of this quite genuine struggle had emerged institutions such as the Workingmen's Association, the cooperative Bank, the building and loan association. They liked to see themselves as reformists, being soundly middle class they could not imagine themselves as revolutionaries.
From Philip Rostant to Mzumbo Lazare, to Cipriani, Uriah Butler and Albert Gomes: for close to 100 years the reform movement of this country produced civil rights leaders. As the Indians began to emerge in the 1900s, men such as Saaran Teelucksingh, Ajodhasingh and Badase Sagan Maharaj joined the ranks, calling for social justice and just rights for 'a fair day's pay for a fair day's work'. It was against this backdrop and in this post-war period, that a new political dynamic emerged which arranged itself around one man. Independence of Trinidad and Tobago will always be association with Dr. Eric Williams, who made his commitment clear when he said:
"I was born here and here I stay, with the people of Trinidad and Tobago who educated me free of charge for nine years at Queen's Royal College, and for five years at Oxford, who have made me whatever I am ... I am going to let down my bucket where I am, now right here with you."
This was Williams' entry into the political arena of 1955. In many ways, he was the inheritor of the 19th century reform movements, but he was also a man of the moment. Williams was the hopes and dreams of every mother come true, at least amongst the descendants of the Afro-Creole population. He was sufficiently arrogant to deal with the British administrators and politically powerful to put the French Creoles in their place.

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