The tragedy of slavery came to Trinidad with the Cedula of Population. This remarkable document, promulgated by the Spanish Crown, made it easy for Catholics to arrive in this deserted, neglected, but in terms of the times very strategic island. In terms of significant beginnings, this was a big one for Trinidad.
Prior to 1788 the island had no economy and was very impoverished. The difference in life style between the few enslaved and their owners was made even more opaque by the status of the children they shared.
One of the significant things that occurred with the Cedula of Population was the arrival of a large quantity of black people who were not slaves. Some had been born into slavery but had gained their freedom in various ways, for example as rewards for acts of kindness, faithful service or heroic action. Some bought their freedom. Others had been born that way as a result of parents being themselves free.
The fact is that of the ten or twelve thousand free people of colour who came to Trinidad with the Cedula, the majority were slave owners and a handful were big time slave masters. As an institution, the ownership of your fellow human being was an economic necessity. There was no economy outside the plantation system, except in shipping and trading, and money did not change hands as we have seen from earlier articles on the history of banking.
It has been put forward by Vidia Naipaul in his ‘Loss of El Dorado’ that part of the British government's disaffection with Sir Thomas Picton was that he followed the lead of the planters, both French and the coloured, and made Trinidad into a slave island by the 1800s. What was becoming policy was to offer Trinidad as being soft in slavery as a sop to the abolishment. Be that as it may, by the time the British government announced its decision to free the slaves, the real reason was not humanistic, but purely economic. From one day to the next, black slave owners and the previously held slaves were one and the same in the eyes of the law, society and to each other, although this may have been very one sided view. Both the white planters and their coloured counterparts were faced with economic collapse as their workforce walked.
Equally keenly felt was the hard-won ‘maintenance of status’ by the black former slave owners. The terms of the Cedula by which they had come to Trinidad provided a very unique arrangement for free black people at the time. They could own land, slaves, benefit from tax relief, inherit property, educate their children in respectable professions, become commissioned in the militia, make a lot of money: in short, live life for all intent and purpose like the white people.
With the conquest of Spanish Trinidad by Britain in 1797, these terms relating to the free blacks were enshrined in the articles of surrender. In the period after the Napoleonic wars, that is in governor Sir Ralph Woodford's time (1813 - 1829), there was a move to repeal those articles relating to the free coloureds. Fortunately for them, produced from their ranks a wealthy, highly educated, politically active and energetic person, whose name was Jean Baptiste Philippe.
Philippe travelled to London, armed with a petition, and made important representations. His case for the rights of the free coloureds in Trinidad was upheld in the House of Lords. Free blacks and people of colour were able maintain their status under the law. Racial prejudice, dished out to them by the Europeans under the Woodford administration, was dealt with. At the end of the day there still existed a social abyss between them and their slaves, which was not to change before emancipation in 1834.
This awesome dichotomy between the people of African descent, slave and former master, has eroded through the centuries, and the real historic reasons have long been forgotten. The myth that black people naturally do not like to see their own prosper has its foundations in the class structure among people of African descent, which has been formalised by the end of the 1900s. Those were the years that local political movements began to group themselves, but later the successors of those same political organisations could not fill the lack of unity. People of African descent became mixed up about whether they are Trinidadians or merely the ‘African problems’ of the segmented society. The social problems of this segmented society, and this has not to do with tribalism, may be summed up in the obituary of a well-off coloured businessman:
"Rich, educated, strictly moral, yet he had no place in society, because of those social distinctions with which the country is cursed. And he was not without manly pride, which enabled him to be satisfied with a very small number of chosen companions rather than to court those whom he felt to be his inferiors morally and intellectually, and whose only claim to consideration consisted . . . in the purity of their Caucasian blood . . . He felt keenly the disabilities under which certain races, notably that to which he himself belonged, were subjected."It was not in England's interest to deal with the social, moral and economic fallout of these beginnings. The responsibility lies with us at any point in time, because history is about capturing a beginning and following its resulting course of events in an attempt to organise meaning.