Monday 24 October 2011

What makes Tobago different

 There was a big crowd. In the distance, I could see a woman with one big breadfruit on her head, another carried a large tin trunk tied with a broad pink ribbon. Just further back, a man in top hat and tails, white trousers and home-made spats escorted an elaborately dressed lady who had assumed, despite her age and size, all the coyness of a bride. Another person had a vintage Singer sewing machine on her head, and she was followed by yet another with a truly antique chamber pot that would assuredly fetch a couple dozen pounds at Sotherby’s. Tambourines were played with energy, and several fiddlers produced a cacophony of noise that sounded like a bagpipe band tuning up.
It was a Tobago wedding in a village on the leeward side, not far from Castara. It was a private affair, no media, no tourists. Somebody’s Gang Gang, long dead, had already prophesied the future of both bride and groom. (I believe she was the one with the Singer.) The prophecy was produced in a trance in the voice of the joint of the joint ancestress of the bridal couple, who had died in the same year of the Belmanna Riots, a century previously. Tie Piggy was her name.
Tobago, until just a few years ago, was truly unique. It was a place where a wedding was a WEDDING, echoing the 19th or perhaps 18th century ritual. For both Europeans and Africans, there was real magic - not the one with rabbits and stuff like that. Fairymaids could take your son, and when he came back, you would have to take him by a river and beat him with a fowl. Mermaids could make you rich and learned - for a price. Tobago had evolved from a prize of war, contested over by countries on both the North and Baltic seas, to a pirates’ paradise, to a desert island. European powers came and went and left their cannons in the sun. People stayed despite the wars, and became Tobagonians. It did not really interfere with them or their property, they just changed hands when the estates changed owners. They assimilated, syncretised and absorbed. Moravian churchmen and Methodist pastors instilled a sort of Puritanism in the post-emancipation period.
Life in Tobago always had to do with land and the process by which the land passed from the old slave masters, local and foreign, to the descendants of slaves. Land brought independence to the small farmer. But as the plantations system faded and the official economy bottomed up, Tobago was annexed to Trinidad as a ward, and ultimately, Tobagonians formed another segment in the overall segmented society; a society whose segments are determined by economies that have brought people from all over the world to work. Sugar, cocoa, coffee, oil, banking, commerce: let’s look at the sequence of events that led to annexation.
It is an easy assumption to make, but it would be a mistake to assume that Tobago and Trinidad’s colonial experiences produced the same sort of society by the early decades of the 20th century. True, the Dutch had created a colonial establishment in Tobago by the 1630s, with 6 sugar factories. However, by 1763, when the island had been ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Paris, Tobago had experienced some 50 years of abandonment, so-called neutrality or deserted island status, the stuff of the popular novels of the day, Crusoe island.
In effect, apart from the now dislocated Amerindians and a handful of mixed people and remnants of slaves, the place had ‘gone to bush’. In 1777, sugar was exported to Britain, and there was some indigo, coffee and cocoa. The French in Tobago in the 1780s opened up the windward coast by building a road. Some wealth was created in the period when Governor Dillon ran the island’s administration. Basically, both Trinidad and Tobago made a fresh start in the sugar plantation economy by the 1800s, but this is where the similarity ends. The investment that went into Trinidad’s cane production may be compared to Cuba or British Guyana. Tobago was more like Dominica. Trinidad and land, capital and labour especially imported.
After emancipation in 1838, the support system in Tobago started to evaporate. As sociologist and historian Dr. Susan Craig remarks: “Slavery, imperial monopoly and protection from competition were all removed.” The introduction of free trade, the collapse of the West Indian Bank, plus a hurricane in 1847 seemed to dislocate Tobago’s plantation economy. Increasingly, estates in Tobago became the property of Britain’s merchant houses, to the extent that a single merchant consignee in London bought out all of the 16 estates, sold under the West Indies Encumbered Estates Act in 1868. There was, however, a movement by Tobagonians to buy up estates. For example, in 1863, of the 71 estates in full cultivation, 58 were in the hands of local resident proprietors. These were of all shades. In fact, people of very modest means could buy estates in Tobago.
“This was an indication of the extent to which abandonment of land, under-utilisation and overall backwardness had crept in by the end of the 19th century. Of the 57,408 acres alienated for plantations, no more than 10,000 were ever at one time under cultivation in the 19th century,” writes Dr. Craig in her book ‘Smiles and Blood’.
The island’s economy had all but ground to a stop. There was no money to bring the telegraph line to the island. Tobago remained unconnected to the other islands and the world. There was no money to pay the Royal Mail Packet Boat. Just about every public facility, water, roads, the hospital, the jail, the jetty, schools, public buildings “presented a picture of extraordinary decreptitude and neglect. “
Social unrest erupted in Roxborough, the so-called Belmanna Riots.
The Tobago planters were quite willing to let go of the Assembly and go for Crown Colony Rule. At least, aid would be forthcoming and there would be strong government forcefully applied. But Tobago’s lingering financial twilight was about to plunge into the ‘red’. Dr. Craig puts it into context as follows:
“By 1884, there was no effective change in the circumstances of the island. In 1884, the Treasurer of Tobago, L.G. Hay, listed 80 estates of which 13 were in the hands of the merchant house, A.N. Gillespie and Co.; 5 belonged to Messrs. Thomas Reid and Sons of London; and another 3 were the property of Alexander Davidson and Co. of Scotland. But when Gillespie and Co. collapsed in 1884, the entire sugar economy in Tobago crashed with it, since their monopoly was exercised via advances and loans to the planters. Gillespie and Co. seem also to have controlled McCall and Co., the leading merchants on the island. The McCalls were the largest planting family in Tobago from the early 1870s to the crash of 1884. In 1878, John McCall, the senior partner in their business, declared that he was ‘the owner or attorney of 33 estates’ in Tobago. Some of the other merchants - the Keens, Blakeleys, Hendersons and Agards - were also estate owners; and many of the planters and managers ran estate shops. There was, thus, a well-entrenched planter/merchant oligarchy in Tobago, but the hidden hand controlling the entire system was Gillespie and Co.”
This collapse changed the class structure of Tobago altogether. The old plantocracy began to fade. The nature of land ownership would never be the same. Both white and coloured people came in from Trinidad and bought up land. Coconuts replaced cane. The annexation of Tobago to Trinidad came into existence in 1884 with mixed emotions on both sides. It solved some problems and introduced new difficulties. However, it benefited the ordinary black Tobagonian peasantry. There was a sort of flowering. Land became increasingly available. One would hesitate to use the word wealth, but a little money made the rounds. For example, by 1936, the number of properties under 10 acres was 7,714. Between 10 - 50 acres there were 230 holdings, and 23 holding from 50 - 100 acres, as well as 76 estates of 100 acres. The grandsons of slaves were able to buy estates.
95% of the population owned land. This meant that workers were not dependent on the estates for work. They offered a few hours a day (a task) and only a few days a week. The warden’s report for 1936 states that “it appears that those who rely solely upon their earnings in cash from working on the roads or on estates as a means of livelihood and cannot fall back upon their stock rearing and gardens are indeed a minority.”
What made Tobago so quaint, so old-fashioned in a unique manner, was the nature of village society, the network of families and community ties, and the retention of traditions. The point of Dr. Susan Craig’s interesting little book ‘Smiles and Blood’ is that because Tobago had produced by the 1930s a landed peasantry not involved in wage labour it had missed out on the strikes, riots and labour unrest that had flashed across the Caribbean in that period. Tobago did no possess a proletariat. In its isolation, one is tempted to say, blessed isolation, Tobago had not been visited by Marxist polemic which bred envy and jealousy and caused people to covert their neighbour’s goods, and which also lay fertile ground for racial hatred. There were no ‘tribal’ divisions in Tobago with a view to create scapegoats. Land, ancestral land, was sacred. It had been paid for in blood, sweat and tears. It had produced food, an income and a sense of security and self-respect. All this makes Tobago different.

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