Monday 19 December 2011


That remarkable quality that Trinidadians like to boast about, that is even touted on political platforms, and euphemistically describes us as a "Rainbow Country", essentially derives from our 19th century experiences during which race, class, colour and caste arranged themselves to create an elaborately complicated, intricately woven pattern of human relationships.

These, frozen, as it were, in the mould of colonial rule, stamped or stigmatised by colonial prejudices for almost two centuries, have only just in the last 40 odd years since independence, begun to thaw out. Like the mythical Sleeping beauty, we stir and sigh and open our eyes to the brilliant dawn of reality. we look about and see our castle overgrown and the people who had been frozen in time are somehow left behind, as they cling to the modes and mores of the previous century.

This kiss that has brought us to consciousness is the reality that to move forward, with all our inherent potential, we must grasp and understand the historical process in which we slumbered and the truth to which we have now awakened.

West Indian Society, in fact New World society as a whole, has been pervaded since the 18th century by racist ideologies (not even to speak of chauvinist ones!). Donald Wood, in his work "Trinidad in Transition", wrote that the whole intricate experience of the Afro-European encounter since the renaissance, the stereotypes formed by slavery, the legacy of master and servant relationships from the first slaves to arrive in Europe from sub-Saharan Africa and carried to Portugal, taken by Antâo Gonsalves in 1441, has produced the elaborate complex of attitudes and prejudices which inform the "white view" of the "black personality". A mixture of affection and contempt, patronage and fear was carried into the period of post-emancipation from the times of slavery.

In Trinidad, this was complicated further by the circumstances of the development of the island's economy, and the nature of its government. As a neglected Spanish colon with a small Spanish ruling elite, a handful of black slaves and a debased Amerindian population, its first cultural shock was to come with the French colonists, their free coloured cousins and their slaves. With the British conquest a decade and a half later, yet another culture was intruced. It was in the dawn of the British period, the 1800s, that the first conflict of class, race and religion began in this colony.

The French, marooned on this island by the revolution, were mainly a remnant aristocracy, and Catholic. They had the following view of the arriving English: "There was not a gentleman amongst them, except perhaps in the military." (W. Day). Also, the English were Protestant.

Black and mixed people who for one reason or another were not slaves, but slave-owning themselves (and this group outnumbered the whites by far!) were holding on to the rights and privileges granted to them by the Cedula of Population by the skin of their teeth. With emancipation, their position plummeted in the eyes of the Europeans. Slaves and former Free Black people were now "all black together". It was at this point that the concept of respectability began to be institutionalised.

Respectability was a very important idea in 19th century Trinidad. In many respects, the real difference in the society was between those who were respectable and those who were not, rather than between the white people and the black. White people, whether the French Creoles or the British or other expatriates, were by definition respectable. White people would have to do something very shocking in public to loose respectability.

In the case of blacks, coloureds and the Indians, the onus was on them to establish, prove and maintain their respectability. To be respectable today did not mean that you were generally, so you had to be respectable all the time, in private and in public.

On respectability, Dr. Bridget Brereton comments:

"It was assumed that they [the blacks] were not respectable, unless they showed that they were, by their education, attainments, occupation and style of life."

It was this that made the difference between the black masses and the black middle class - not access to money or complexion. It was manners, European culture, education and life style.

Other conflicts had their genesis in the crucible of Trinidad's 19th century landscape, particularly between the newly arriving East Indians and the 'respectable' coloured middle class intellectuals. These gentlemen engaged in an anti-white, anti-colonial struggle for the reform of colonial rule, and they were against labour brought in from India - not on humanistic grounds, but from the point of view that cheap Indian labour enriched the white establishment (especially the English) and that it drove down wages. Their agitation found support from working class blacks on the wages issue, support from the racists who were keen to hate white people generally, but most significantly this black middle class movement was instrumental in stereotyping East Indians through the use of newspapers owned by them as "immoral, wife-killing aliens". Left unnoticed by the early Indians and unchallenged by the British administration, this middle class movement too proceeded to become institutionalised.

Tobago as an entity had a different social, political, economic and religious experience from Trinidad. For more than 150 years before Trinidad was colonised, Tobago was a Protestant island, and as an older colony, its economy has had its ups and downs in cycles different from Trinidad's. Its main population was a "pure black" peasant, land holding society. Having had no experience of French creoles or Indians, cocoa panols, Portuguese or Small Islanders, and with the collapse of Tobago's economy, the Tobagonian whites found themselves in the same boat as the blacks. Towards the end of the 19th century, the island was experiencing an economic downturn and was without much ceremony joined to Trinidad. A culturally and sociologically more obvious choice should have been Barbados.

During this period, Portuguese peasants started to arrive. Because they were poor and not educated, much like the Syrians and Lebanese of 50 years later, they were not seen as "sociologically white", and had no place in white Trinidadian society, at least not until they made a lot of money. The same applied to the Chinese, most Venezuelans and lower class Europeans. Insofar as caste and class were concerned, the white French creoles together with a handful of Irish and Germans that they had married formed an elite, distinguished by its inbreeding and social exclusivity. During the 19th century, the French Creoles gave the country distinguished public servants, administrators, wardens and scientists, particularly in the field of medicine.

As a fossilised element in the body politic, however, the French Creoles became easy pickings for the first version of the PNM, whose leader in lieu of revolution put them into opprobrium and in a short space of time, 1956 to 1961, effectively removed them from the political scene after 150 years of dominance.

As the 20th century dawned, all these various peoples as a result of ongoing sexual contact had produced individuals with a mindboggling mixture of races, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Class became the only yardstick by which they could recognise each other. Century-old beliefs in "white elitism" and access to European cultural values by an established hegemony started to become brittle at the edges. In their aspiration towards respectability, the black and coloured middle class had produced a number of significant professionals, who came from property and estate-owning families. Those individuals went to universities in the British empire, received awards and knighthoods, and formed that particular elite that had their roots in the free people of colour of the late 18th century.

In the early years of an independent Trinidad and Tobago, the coloured creole middle class was also shunned by the politics of the day, described as "Afro-Saxon" and lumped together with the French creoles. Thousands of them emigrated, taking their culture and attainments with them. A sad loss for our country, and a gain to coloured society in New York, London, Toronto and other metropolis: to mention the fact that Trinidad-style Carnival was established by these cultured expatriates would only be to skim the surface of the "brain-drain"!

Thus, the respectability patterns of the 19th century were significantly changed over  time through education, industrialisation and two wars. The softening up of the rigid society has made it easier for the individual of any ethnic background to fulfill his or her dreams. In a true humanistic sense, the word "or" of the vocabulary of the 19th century has been replaced by the word "and" in the 20th. Let's see if the global village of the 21st will replace it with the word "with"!

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