Thursday 6 October 2011

The Segmented Society

As the Caribbean’s most cosmopolitan society, Trinidad and Tobago has been described by historians as a ‘segmented society’, notwithstanding 200 years of ‘miscegenation’, the inter-racial procreation of children. Interestingly, there seems to be no positive word for mixed-race people in our language, as the prefix 'mis' does not convey a plus. It conveys the idea that this was something inherently bad.
There are people in Trinidad and Tobago today who, in all honesty, describe themselves as Indian or African. Others may confide that they are French creoles, and if they know you really well, admit to a ‘touch of the tar brush’. People refer to themselves as dougla, hackwi, cocoa panol and to each other as red, dark, brownskin and half-Portuguese-Spanish-Indian-something.
All this is the product of economies. Economies which commenced in the 1780s with the slaves, their French creole and coloured masters, their coloured descendants and their relatives. They had come under the Cedula of Population of 1783 to establish a sugar economy. They met Spanish, Amerindian and apparently black people here, some of whom were already of mixed heritage. The Spaniards had come to these islands for pearls and gold, real and imagined.  The tribal people who had been around all along and worked the first economy for the Spaniards, the pearl diving economy, in the Gulf of Tears, now the Gulf of Paria. The Africans were few then, as there was no gold to dig, thus hardly any economy to speak of.
The French, however, changed all that. The Cedula of Population, a legal guarantee of entry to Trinidad as long as you were Catholic, set a precedent. The British, who inherited it in 1797 under the articles of surrender, used it to allow unlimited entry to the extent that British Prime Minister Canning could describe the island a few decades later as an ‘experimental colony’.
Some say the slaves were freed by England in 1834 so as to acquire the lands in the Caribbean islands that had been won from France and Spain. These islands were negotiated in pacts drawn up at the end of twenty years of war with France With the slaves freed and the French and coloured planters broke, the British bought the land and now had to experiment with importing labour. Chinese, Indians, Portuguese, impoverished Europeans, some of them criminals on the run or the religiously persecuted - various people found themselves in Trinidad and Tobago for the purpose of economies. Sugar, cotton, tobacco, coffee and cocoa brought people from all over the Caribbean to ‘la belle Trinidad’.
The British had no problem with all this, and formalised a simple segmentation of the society:  from 1845, Indians were put to work in the cane. The former slaves and the previously free black people worked as artisans, labourers, gardeners, clerks, minor trades people or did nothing at all. The Chinese couldn’t do the agricultural thing, neither the Portuguese, so they made their way as shopkeepers, barkeepers, grocers and poor clerks. The returning Amerindians cum Venezuelans were the ones that really opened up cocoa, creating by the late 19th century a vibrant economy from which the French creoles and others of all races profited enormously.
Thus, stereotypes in British Trinidad were soon cast. In a simplistic sense, one may say that Chinese had laundries, bakeries and restaurants. Portuguese had rum shops and groceries, and so did some Indians and Chinese. White people was not in that. More and more black and coloured people worked in government’s lower levels, as train conductors, policemen, nurses, teachers, clerks, later as lawyers and doctors.
In the segmented society in the making, none of these people were sleeping only with their respective segments. But in the eyes of the British administrators, it did not really matter what was produced in a subjected people. As for the French creoles, they married their cousins and updated their pedigrees. Later, the Syrians and the Lebanese would do the same. It all had to do with maintaining economies, and of course how one was socialised.
Two powerful forces were present on the colonial stage of the segmented society: the Afro-French Catholic culture of the older economies and the Indian culture of the more recent sugar economy. They were segmented by colonial fiat and racial prejudice on all sides.
It worked quite well for the British administration. The economies flourished. The Indians in the cane, the cocoa panols, Africans and some Indians in the cocoa, over-the-counter trade with the Chinese, Portuguese, and the French and English in commerce.  Under the aegis of empire, a belief system which was loyal to the throne and organised as religion, civil law and with institutionalised force, was simply imposed.
Independence, when it came in the second half of the 20th century, was not sought after for patriotic, emotionally driven reasons. Like the freeing of the slaves in 1834, the granting of independence was an economic choice. England could no longer afford an empire. She had won the most terrible war ever fought for the maintaining of western civilisation as we know it, and so had to get rid of the colonies. Inheritors of the coloured reformists movement and black intellectuals were allowed to take the country into an era of independence with no resistance from Great Britain.
The descendants of Indian indentured workers who were represented at the independence talks in Britain became the opposition in the legislative, later in the parliament. The segmentation of the society, created by men who wore powdered wigs and buckled shoes more than 200 years ago, is to this day a powerful political instrument.
Segmentation only works if people perpetuate it. Otherwise, it vanishes, and integration takes place. In history, we can see segmentation of societies having been reversed and forgotten about it. The Greek slaves of antique Rome who stayed on in Naples stopped being slaves and are today indistinguishable from other Italians. In Germany, where sixty years ago segmentation was carried ‘ad absurdum’ by the politicians, people don’t even know or care nowadays who is Jewish and who is not. And whereas in Ireland religious segmentation is still perpetuated, Catholics and Protestants live in greatest harmony in integrated societies the world over.
If a society, however, is segmented along racial lines like Trinidad’s, segmentation becomes a handy tool for people seeking power. The absurd idea of structuring a society along immediately visible physical features of its members - and expecting the segments to behave accordingly - is a demonstration of great historical tenaciousness in multi-ethnic societies.
Today, some forty years after independence, we are still a segmented society, claiming to be Trinidadians and Tobagonians in our more emotional moments. Mostly, however, we describe ourselves with great sincerity as Indian, Syrian etc. etc., even though we have not lived anywhere else but here for more than 200 years, four, five, six generations. Such is the power of the segmented society, institutionalised by a colonial experiment many centuries ago.

Tribal myths in the segmented society
Unresolved issues have now produced in this year of grace 2000 an interesting phenomenon. In ignorance, in pursuit of power and personal wealth, in self-aggrandisement and in the seeking of control of economies, present-day leaders in the form of politicians, trade unionists, calypsonians and social scientists create and utilise tribal myths. Supposedly, this is the natural progression in a segmented society - instead of resolving issues, myths become historical reality.
“Tribal myths emphasize not what men have in common, but what divides them,” remark ... in their book ‘The Messianic Legacy’. “Tribal myths do not pertain to the universal and shared aspects of human experience. On the contrary, they serve to extol and exalt a specific tribe, culture, religion, people or ideology - necessarily at the expense other tribes, cultures, peoples, religions or ideologies. Instead of leading inwards towards self-confrontation and self-recognition, tribal myths point outwards towards self-glorification and self-aggrandisement. Such myths derive impetus and energy from insecurity, blindness and prejudice.”
Tribal concepts in a segmented society willfully create scapegoats. Having no real internal core, segments invent an external enemy. Tribal myths reflect a deep-rooted uncertainty about one’s inner identity.
Entire populations in these islands are the product of the European wars and revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. These arranged themselves into productive economies in the conquered territories as segmented societies.
Ignorance of our historic past is our greatest pitfall, as Trinidadian historian P.G.L. Borde already lamented a century ago. Like in other former colonies, history has been hardly studied in itinerary and far less, been passed on to the young. The era of independence in Trinidad and Tobago seemed to mean the forgetting of our past and the shared experiences of the last 200 years. This nationally institutionalised amnesia has created a tremendous loss in the body politic of our country, and unfortunately, where amnesia sets in, tribal myths soon fill the gap.
Ultimately, history is about the present. We need history so that we can organise our futures

No comments: