Friday, 23 December 2011

African cultural influences


Trinidad started late as a colony, which was partly the reason that it experienced several waves of immigration lasting from the 1780s to the 1950s.
The various groups of people who came contributed to the development of our overall culture and music and folklore in various ways: some to story-telling and singing, others to music, to dance, to cooking. Out of all this has come our unique way of expressing ourselves. As it is with all true folk arts, they provide an excellent method by which to gather an overview of social development. In the 1800s, these were in Trinidad a mixture of creole (that is, born in the Caribbean) slaves and African slaves. To what extent there was contact and sharing of culture can only be guessed at. We know that in a census taken in 1813, there were 13,980 people from six or seven areas of West and Central Africa and Mozambique, and 11,629 creole slaves, the majority of them French-speaking. It is estimated that just over 5,000 slaves were brought into Trinidad between 1798 and 1802. After emancipation, between the years 1841 and 1867, the African population - that is, the people who had never known slavery as the result of being taken off slave ships and freed in Trinidad - amounted to 3,383 who came from Sierra Leone, 3,510 from the Kru coast and 3,396 from St. Helena.
Between 1838 and 1931, approximately 100,000 British West Indian migrants settled in Trinidad. They came from both Protestant and Catholic islands. This was culturally important as each denomination possessed a different cycle of festivals. All these people were absorbed into colonial life, and as a result of extensive intermarriage virtually lost their identity almost immediately. However, there remained a vast assortment of words and ways of doing things, spiritually and culturally, that remained unique. This expressed itself in song, dance and lifestyle. L.O. Inniss in his "reminiscences of Old Trinidad" recalls "Bloke", a game played with a hole being made in the ground or in a wall. You played this game with dry gru gru beff seeds, hard and round like big black marbles. Bloke was highly competitive and often led to fights in school yards. It was, in fact, the precursor of pitching marbles.
Professor Phillip Sherlock tells us that bloke has a West African origin, similar to another one, called "Warri". Warri is the name of a tribe in the Niger delta. It is also a board game, not dissimilar to Backgammon. Long ago, at the end of the day, men would sit with a board between them and with small stones enjoy this game of skill.
From the African languages, other words have survived like "zami" (meaning "friends"), and "susu", which we use when we become "partners", each contributing so much a week to a savings club. When gardeners went into their fields, they would take with them a calabash full of water, known long ago as a "paki", unsing the Ashanti work "apakyi". In parts of West Africa, it is the custom to name a child by the day of the week on which it was born, for example "cudjoe" is the the Ashanti word for Monday, "quashie" for Sunday, "quaco" for Wednesday, "cuffie" for Friday and so on.
In our search for African words that have survived, we have to turn to our folklore. Here we find fascinating evidence of African survivals: anansi, the central charater of many folk tales, is in fact the spider god of the Akan-Ashanti people. In Accra, Lagos and the northern regions of Nigeria, where the land falls away into a vast ocean of tawny-coloured sand, people know all about this Anasi, the spiderman who is weak but who overcomes the strong by guile in a way that the Greek hero Odysseus overcame the cyclop.
Nansi stories brought delight, but as a boy gowing up in belmont in the 1940s and 1950s, these were jumbies living in the "big canal", in Olton Road by Papit's Shop, and at the corner of Reform Lane and Hermitage Road - a dangerous place after 9 o'clock!
Throughout the Caribbean region, a chance word used in conversation, a game played at evening time, a song chanted to still a restless child, the names given to food and plants, link us with distant times and with men and women long dead. Cudjoe, Quashie, Paki, Zami, Senseh: words like these whisper of the past, revealing our history to us - but only to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Bhadase Sagan Maraj


The buffalo emerged from a lake of mud. Huge, it seemed that a part of the earth itself had become detached. It rose majestically against the dark gray sky with a white egret perched precariously upon its hind quarter facing in the direction from which it had come. The boy sitting under the oldest mango tree on the estate, hugged his knees and stared past the beast to the line of blue gray mountains to the North. They had recently shot his father as he lay, reading from the Bhagavad Gita in his hammock under his house in Central Caroni. Matthew Sagan Maraj, his father, had been a big, very strong, powerful man, he dominated the neighbouring villages and was known to invade them. Mitto Sampson said “He made laws and no man in Caroni broke them...” He was feared. “Expert stickmen crumbled under his ferocious blows.”
Michael Anthony wrote of his son, “Bhadase Sagan Maraj was born into an environment full of drama and bravado, lived in the self-same style of life, while contribution enormously to this country’s good.”
The hitmen promised to return for him. The boy had to flee. In the distance, the smoke, a harsher hew than the thunderous sky, rose from his father’s funeral pyre. The boy stepped from the cane piece just in time to stop the bus. He was 13; it was 1932. The bus was bound for Tunapuna, where a close relative would look after the boy. His earliest education had been gleaned from the Canadian Mission to the Indians in his home county of Caroni. Later, he had traveled to Port of Spain to Pamphylian High School. Now, however, with his beloved father dead, it seemed that his childhood had come to a close, as he was faced with the responsibility of looking after at least the material needs of his brothers and sisters.
The tall, gangly youth turned his hand to whatever came to it. Bottle collecting, running errands, he loaded cane trucks at the nearby estate, put on some size, he bought and sold scrap iron, he acquired a boat and took sand from the Caroni river so as to sell it in the building boom that came with the war days. He had inherited his father’s handsome features, size and manly manner. He was a man of his times, knowing that the future could be of his own making. He was good at business and knew how to make a profit. He was young, and felt compelled to return to his village, wanting to confront the reality that had forced him away. But the tensions were gone, and he moved on with his life. He became a wrestler, challenging all comers - it brought in a little extra money. He remembered one in particular; his name was Gotch. A natural leader of men, the American employers at the Naval Base at Chaguaramas were glad to see him. He went into trucking.
Made aware of the various shortages brought on by the war, like nails for example, Bhadase bought up as much old boards as possible, took the nails out, hammered them straight and sold them, making a profit. He worked hard and honestly for the Americans. This paid off handsomely. As the bases closed, he was allowed to purchase surplus goods at prices that allowed him to turn a remarkable profit. The foundation for his first fortune was laid.
In 1948, three years after the war, India was granted independence. This coincided with his own. He was wealthy now and could afford to finance a lavish celebration to mark India’s Republic Day.
In the context of the Indian community, he was regarded as a man of stature, a man to respect. His generosity to all was a hallmark of his life. He entered politics, and in the general election of 1950 “won handsomely” and became the member for Tunapuna in the island’s Legislative Council.
The boy who, tortured by his father’s death, had gazed helplessly into a bleak future, was now very popular, very powerful, and very wealthy. As a Hindu, his religion meant a lot to him. In 1952, he formed the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, a religious organization which had as its goal the preservation and dissemination of the Hindu philosophy, and which possessed a political wing, the People’s Democratic Party. A great wellspring of support rose about him. He was, however, not without detractors, who accused him of using his “Indianness” for political ends. It touched him, and he declared that he was a Hindu and could do nothing else but.
As a man of little education and knowing how little there was available, he rallied the Hindu community to organize a school building program. Forty schools were built between 1952 and 1960. In the real politic, the changes taking place in the overall society were to set the tone for the next four decades. The Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha acted as a catalyst in bringing the Hindu community together. Bhadase became a leader of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) in 1953 and prepared to fight the general elections due in 1955. For various reasons, these elections were postponed to the following year. Disappointed and furious, he resigned his seat in the Legislative Council, only to reconsider fighting the by-election and regain his seat. The DLP contested 14 seats in 1956 and won 6. The People’s National Movement (PNM) under the brilliant Dr. Eric William's won 13 seats.
In the federal elections of 1958, Bhadase’s success was outstanding, leading the DLP of the West Indies, winning 6 of the 10 Trinidad seats for the Federal parliament. Politically, he moved from strength to strength. In 1959, he was able to win control of 5 out of 11 county councils in the municipal and county council elections of that year. He refused to be taken in by those who accused him of being a racist, insisting that he was a Trinidadian, a Hindu and a citizen of the world. People said his popularity was based on the schools he had built in cowsheds. His response was that it was better to be educated in a cowshed than not to be educated at all.
To the tens of thousands who passed through Bhadase’s cowsheds, there was no doubt in their minds. In a sense, he outgrew the DLP he had created, left the party and in the words of historian Michael Anthony, who wrote a short biography of Bhadase, he “fought on, like a lone gladiator”. He carried his battle to both the PNM and to the DLP. In parliament, he was a fierce critic and a true independent.
In 1960, the reins of leadership of the DLP passed to Dr. Rudranath Capildeo, a remarkable man possessed of genius. As age and illness crept upon Bhadase, he started to diversify his considerable interest. A substantial landowner, he sold to Canning & Co. as well as to the government some 310 acres of Streatham Lodge. The Maha Sabha benefited from his generosity with the site of a new headquarters at St. Augustine. In 1966, he lost at the polls to Dr. John Bharath of the DLP, and in 1968 he was on the huskings again, winning the Chaguanas seat in a by-election.
In 1969, he led a bread-away faction of four members of the DLP. In 1971, he suffered a total defeat at the polls, and died at the early age of 52 on Thursday, 21st October of that same year.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The glow of the Street Lanterns


 For the generation born after emancipation, life in Port of Spain was possessed of great contrast. The economic collapse brought on by the demise of free labour drove many French Creoles  from the countryside to the eastern extremities of the city streets. Later to be known as the “French Shores”, these streets had names that recalled the provincial towns of France whence their ancestors hailed, like Besson Street, and had French names that persisted way into English times: Rue des Trois Chandelles (Duncan Street, named after the three candles burning outside the Mason's Lodge), Rue d'Eglise (Nelson Street), Rue de la Place (George Street), Rue de Sainte Anne (Charlotte Street), Rue Neuve (Henry Street), and Rue des Anglais (Frederick Street).
The wooden mansions they built when they moved to east Port-of-Spain are now all gone. Old-timers, however, recall that the town had about it an air not dissimilar to Fort-de-France or Pointe-à-Pitre in the French Antilles. The land over the dry river known as Piccadilly was then called “Grand Jardin” (Big Garden), and further north was Mango Rose and Lacou Harp. The large central area, stretching from Argyle Street to St. Paul Street, was called Sorzanoville, with large parts covered with sugar cane. The entire are to the north and east was bounded with high woods, ancient forest that had never been cut.
Former slaves who had escaped in previous times and the newly emancipated encamped in the forest, to be later joined by an increasing population of former slaves from the other West Indian islands. As a consequence, many African customs and usage's were maintained in east Port-of-Spain form many decades. Several yards, divided along tribal lines, were established, along with  gangs or bands which originated in the secret societies of West Africa. There were “malongues”, special groupings of people how had shared the experience of the slave ship or the barrack room.
Smart town houses, lived in by the now somewhat impoverished French gentry, existed side by side with amazingly squalid yards, peopled by the city’s poor, who were mostly black, but also contained in their number many destitute Europeans, some Spanish, some French, some of indeterminable origin. There were wakes, dances and religious ceremonies. The sheer volume of noise emitted by these astounded the visitor of Port-of-Spain. C.W. Day, English traveler, describes such a dance with astonishment (note his ignorance of how drums are made):
“One night, hearing a horrible drumming, I followed the sounds and in the suburbs of the town came to a Negro ladies’ ball. A narrow entry led to a spacious shed, rudely thatched with palm branches. Standing in the four corners of this dingy salon de dance were well-muscled young men holding aloft wooden candelabras with tallow candles casting a fearful glare over the place. There were five huge Negroes thumping might and main on casks, the tops of which were covered with parchment. Ranged along the side were twenty negresses roaring a chorus. These dingy damsels, of whose features nothing but their rolling eyeballs and brilliant teeth were visible, raised their voices to a pitch that would have satisfied the King of Ahanti.”
Another man, C.H. Eckstein, had the following to say about this period:
“At this period of history of our experimental island, the town society could not yet boast of sufficient stock of elegance to assume a ‘bon ton’ and the ‘haut ton’, to which it has since so rapidly aspired, was scarcely suspected. The seductive soirees at Mademoiselle Annie’s - the fascinating Ninon of Trinidad, collected at this time, the male beau-monde round her sofa or the harpsichord satiated with the ordinary indulgences of human appetite, relish of higher society became so exquisite nothing less will now soothe the modern ear than Parisian-tuned harps. None must touch the bosom of the finished school miss except the pedal lyre.”
Against this contrast the city fathers struggled to establish a semblance of modernity. One such was the introduction of street lighting. The Port of Spain Gazette reported in 1878 (as reported in the Guardian Centenary Issue):

First Lighting On The Streets

The inauguration of the lighting of the lamps placed by the Municipality in Marine square and from the square northwards to the gaol, took place, as announced on Christmas Eve. The lamp was lit by His Excellency the Governor; and among those present we notice the Hon. the Attorney General, The Hon. T.A. Finlayson, The Hon. L. Guiseppi, John Agostini Esq., L. Mathieu Esq., Oliver Warner Esq., R.D. Mayne Esq., John Fanning Esq., J.F. Rat Esq., (Town Clerk). We also noticed that, His Worship the Mayor’s published program notwithstanding the Borough Councilors were conspicuous by their absence. We were ourselves unable to be present at the display of fireworks offered to the population, (at the cost of the population), by His Worship the Mayor. (28th Dec., 1878)”
These lamps like most elsewhere were imported from England. Made of cast iron, they were shaded by glass and burned whale oil. They were placed on street corners and were lit at dusk by the lamp lighter who made his way in a ceremonious style, accompanied by a boy carrying a ladder and another ringing a bell signaling the close of day as dusk settled on the little town.
In the distance the bells of the towns two cathedrals tolled the hour. It would be another generation that would see the marvels of the introduction of electricity.

Interview with the last lamplighter

“Me mudda, she da make me de year de cholera be so bad. Dat be so long time and look how I get, I must be well old.”
He may have been born in 1855, he may have had no idea really, black people seldom knew how old they were or when they were born.
“Yes, I be dey de day de govener light the first street light.”
He could also remember the small pox epidemic, when no precaution was taken to isolate cases to prevent infection. People said that if you were brave, and you visited all your friends that had it you were safe but if you tried to run away you’d inevitably catch it or it would catch you. In order to combat the “disease in the air” they burnt pitch on the street corners under the newly installed oil burning lights.
Mosquitoes carried the fever and to drive them out of the house a Wood-ants nest was burnt in a coal pot. The smell of smoke pervaded the town. The streets were swept and the drains flushed once a week by a gang of short time prisoners and the corbeaux saw after them in the interval. Carnival, well, no descent person would attempt to go about the streets on Carnival days as the masqueraders had a free hand and the opportunity to settle old scores. The confrontations between Baker and his bobbies (policemen) and the stickmen reached a high point in 1881. The Cannes Brulées broke every lampshade in the city. He remembered that the lamps remained unlit for a long time until new glass shades could be imported from England. Creole patois was prevalent he said, and it was the habit that when “you had a dead” you hired a Patois speaking person, preferably a woman in a Martiniquan dress: chemise, jupe, foulard, a pair of "zano cylendre" in her ears, a string of "grain d'or" round her neck and a stiff "canlanday" head kerchief tied turban wise. It was important that she had a good voice for she would pause at every street corner under the new lamp post and proclaim “Ladies and gentlemen Pierre Jean Modeste has died. His funeral will leave the house at the back of the grass market this afternoon at 4 o’clock for the cathedral. His wife Marie Louis the seamstress, his mother is Mrs. Murphy who sells chutney by the cab stand, his aunt is Mrs. Chantall who lives at the back of the Black Lion Bar on Park Street, his uncle is the baker from Venezuela, who in jail for stabbing “Doudouts“ the carterman.

The Maroons of the Blue Mountains


The Blue Mountains of Jamaica are spectacular. Almost twice as high as our own Cierro Aripo, they appear to have heaved themselves upwards at some distant and prehistoric moment when Atlas shrugged, easing his shoulder bone from the worlds weight.
The Blue Mountains of Jamaica are really blue, sometimes bluer than the sky and sometimes when their bases are lost in the heat haze their summits appear enskyed, distant, remote, removed. It was to their vastness, to their hidden secret valleys and remote plateaus that men and women, in pursuit of freedom, fled to be marooned.
In the earliest days of Spanish settlement those Africans who preferred to take a chance of freedom in the mountains rather than bear the burden of slavery on the ranches and estates ran away into the wild parts, to the mountains like those that rise up from behind Port Antonio. The run away slaves were called Maroons from the Spanish word ‘cimmarron’ meaning “wild” or “untamed.” As the number of African slaves brought to Jamaica increased so to did the number of Maroons. Some held the wild lands known as the ‘Cockpit Country’ or the ‘Land of Look Behind,’  with their chief base at Accompong. Another band was based on Nanny Town. These kept Port Antonio in a state of terror early in the 18th century. A third band held the eastern Blue Mountains under the leadership of men like Quaco. Experts in guerrilla warfare, they would win battle after battle against the British. The maroons would sweep down in the silence of the pre dawn shifting in and  out of the circling mist. The plantation dogs, curiously silent at their approach, appearance sudden, their departure swift, taking with them supplies of food, women and young people. Legends about them grew that they had the ability to appear and disappear, to stand so still in the evergreen that a party of soldiers could pass them by sight unseen. They could ambush and wipe out columns sent against them.
Caribs brought in from the Mosquito Coast of Central America to track them down were wiped out. Two British regiments were brought from England but the soldiers took to rum so enthusiastically that they never had a chance against the elusive maroons in a fortress of the Blue Mountains. An expedition under the command of Captain Stoddart fought their way into the mountains above Nanny Town and succeeded in dragging two cannons into the heights over looking the villages and blew them to pieces. Those who survived went further into the mountains. They showed the British by their subsequent counter attacks that they had not been destroyed. The British war against the maroons was costly in terms of men and materials.
Peace came only when a treaty was made with them in 1739. The remarkable document recognized them as a free people and handed over to them 1,500 acres of land. It further allowed them to administer their own laws. The maroons agreed to ally themselves with the government of Jamaica against any invader, such as the French from nearby Haiti or the Spaniards from Cuba as well as to hand over any runaway slaves. Sir Phillip Sherlock remarks in his paper on the maroons, “The Maroon has been absorbed into Jamaica though anyone who knows West Africa would find signs of Africa clearer in the Maroon villages than anywhere else in the West Indies.” The novelist Peter Abrahams found this when he went some years ago to Accompong to speak with the Colonel, as the leader of the Maroons from generation to generation over the centuries is described. He had recently returned from the Gold Coast and found the similarities in physical appearance and lifestyle striking. Impressed by the dignity of the Colonel, he described him as “a tall, slender man, very dark with a lined but tranquil face...”
Sir Phillip Sherlock in his closing remarks catches well the spirit of the Blue Mountains in saying:
“The Maroon is not representative of a national movement. He is tribal rather than national. He sometimes fights as an ally of the oppressor of Africans. But he is a symbol of man’s love for freedom, a token and agent of active protest against slavery. If you were to go to the Maroon village at Moore Town in the Blue Mountains you would find that there was no difference between the Maroon and the other men who gather towards the evening in the rum shop to talk and take their tot of white rum, or Cowneck as it is sometimes called since only a cows throat can tolerate the hair raising stuff; or who still go pig hunting in the shadow of Stoddart’s peak or Sugar Loaf or Candlefly, hacking their way through the thickets of sharp bladed bamboo grass or hog grass; or who sell leathery highly peppered jerk pork in the streets of Port Antonio, or tell tales at night of the giant wild hog that their fathers hunted, a great red boar that killed six dogs and a man. Of the giant boar: it is a backra duppy, a bad man duppy, says one. Or they speak of the common bushman’s belief that if you are so unlucky as to have to camp near Nanny town for the night, white birds will come and perch in tiers in the surrounding trees. You can let off all your shot in vain. It goes through them. They are all ghost of the Nanny Town dead..."
There is an enormous significance in this colonel talking over a glass of rum in an old house set in the forested mountain side above Accompong, for he has behind him a long history of protest and the rejection of slavery - more than 250 years of freedom!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

French Immigrants


 Grenada had become a French possession in 1674. For some 20 years the Caribs had held out, boldly meeting their foe, matching weapons of wood and stone against cold steel and gunpowder. They had fought the French on the beaches and in the steep inland valleys amongst the towering trees of the islands interior. The ancient volcano belching fire and sulfuric flames, forming a hideous backdrop to this their doomsday scenario, which finally came with a mass suicide when the last remnants, hounded by the invader, leaped to their deaths in a mad forecast of the things to come some three hundred years earlier.
The island was cultivated and an African slave society was introduced. The plantocracy comprised in the main of the French provincial gentry with money to sustain their endeavor until profits could be realized. The other French islands in the Caribbean, apart from Haiti, comprised of Dominica, Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia and St. Vincent. Professor Gordon Rohlehr observes "The island of Grenada was captured by the British in 1759 and ceded to Britain in 1763. The British sought to accommodate the French residents whom they included in the limited assembly of the time." The British were aware of the necessity to maintain a united European front against the free blacks who outnumbered them. These arrangements in the main did not last as the French were more than a little sympathetic with the rebellious American colonists who were seeking to over throw British rule on the North American continent.
The French government did all in its power to undermine the British imperial expansion. In response Britain attempted a few years later to capture Haiti from both the French and the Black Jacobins who had risen in revolt. As the winds of the European wars surged back and forth in the Western oceans, Grenada was captured by the French in 1779 at the height of the American War of Independence. However it was returned to the British under the Treaty of Versailles. It was against this background of being fearful of British recrimination, for the discrimination which the French had perpetrated against the British over the previous four years, made the planters glad to take advantage of what was being offered to them under the Cedula of population of 1783. This accommodation by the Spanish crown to fellow Catholics in the Caribbean, that was increasingly torn apart by war, was in fact a defining element in the history of Trinidad.  The inability to recognise the bicentennial of this event in 1983 by the government of the day in Trinidad was a testimony of our social and political immaturity. Significant anniversaries  are important landmarks which give us the opportunity to re-examine these special events. The French entry into Trinidad was very significant. French researcher F. P. Renault wrote:
"The French inhabitants of the islands considered themselves as brothers, jointly responsible to each other and hardly coming to care for a nationality which they would probably never employ for long. Also, they were more attached to the islands where they had established themselves, to the islands in which they were united in memories and interest, than to a mother country which they had left with no thought of returning. It was because of this that the all powerful tradition of kinship developed and became central to the French Creole character.
The original colonists were known as the new colonists to distinguish them from the old Spanish settlers ... Many had left the land of their fathers several generations before, and had helped to colonise French possessions in other parts of the New World. Some families began their colonial experience in Acadia, in what is now Canada, in the 17th century, others in Louisiana and New Orleans.
In their migrations, subject as they were to changes political, economic and climatic, they found themselves at times completely uprooted; their circumstances substantially altered, often having to start afresh; and because of the fortunes of war, families would find themselves distributed among several islands whose ownership would change hands from one year to the next, while in reality they would continue to share identical interests and a way of life that had evolved as a result of living in the tropics, on cocoa and sugar plantations operated by slave labour for, in some cases several generations. All the while they maintained the language and traditions of the land of their origins. All these factors contributed to the fostering of a West Indian spirit, a West Indian French Creole way of life, as well as to produce a community of opinion between the colonists of various islands, in spite of the strict application of the various colonial laws."
Other French elements made their way to Trinidad, as Professor Bridget Brereton wrote in 'Book of Trinidad':
"Right from the start of the French Revolution, in 1789, privileged Frenchmen, and especially members of the noblesse, fled from their native land to the comparative safety of exile. This exodus stepped up during the first half of the 1790s, when the revolutionary regime  was at its most extreme. Although the emigrés included thousands of clergymen and members of the Third Estate (commoners), it was the noble exiles who gave the emigrés as a group their main characteristics: royalist, fiercely Catholic, and bitterly opposed to the revolution and all its works.
Since many of the noble emigrés had been military officers (the army being one of the few acceptable careers for young noblemen), it was natural that they would want to serve the great counter-revolutionary military alliance spearheaded by Britain, Austria and Prussia. And of these, large numbers did enlist in the armed forces of these three powers as officers, to such an extent that special French units were organised in each army. The British military authorities allowed many emigrés to raise regiments for regular service with the army, such as the 'Chasseurs Brittaniques', only one of many. Royalist emigrés often bought commissions in regular British companies or regiments.
Many of these emigrés serving as officers with the British armed forces fought in the Caribbean campaigns of the 1790s. As early as 1792, before Britain was at war with revolutionary France, plans were being hatched among emigrés in Britain with property in Ste. Domingue (Haiti) to ship an army of emigrés to the Caribbean, presumably to crush the revolution in the French colonies. This came to nothing, but many French emigrés from the Antilles received commissions in the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th West India Regiments, which were raised in Guadeloupe and Martinique and were taken into the British Establishment (i.e. as regular British troops) in 1798. White French Creole officers serving with British-raised black troops in Ste. Domingue during the British occupation (1794-1798) often remained in the British service after the occupation was over. Many emigrés without Caribbean connections, who had received commissions in regular British troops, took part in the West Indian campaigns of 1793-1797, in one of which Trinidad was conquered. Several of them stayed on in Trinidad."
Apart from the military men, there were other French royalists from Haiti who offered their services to the British forces during their ultimately abortive campaign to undermine the Haitian revolution and wrest Haiti from both the blacks and the French republicans. Rejected by the British in Jamaica because the assembly there feared that their Haitian slaves might have absorbed the dangerous doctrine of republicanism, Haitian planters and their slaves were re-settled in Trinidad. The impact of the Haitians, both planters and slaves, was felt in Trinidad. The Haitians tended to settle in the south of the island, and, whether true or false, the planters found themselves stigmatized as being licentious and accused by the other French colons of indulging in outrageous orgies. Their slaves introduced the syncretic African religion, 'voudoun', and with it the pathological fear of poisoning and the creation of the 'zombi', or the living dead, a cult that was unknown in the French islands of the Lesser Antilles. Mistrust, financial insecurity, an atmosphere bordering on hysteria, all this helped to determine the spirit of the first years of British rule in Trinidad. The British did not trust the loyalty of the French, whether freshly arrived royalists or seasoned Creoles in their second or third generation. They trusted the free coloureds and free black people even less, fully aware that the Grenadian revolution of 1795 was led by Fedon and other free coloured republicans. This revolution had cost the lives of some 7,000 persons on that island. Dr. James Millette in "Genesis of Crown Colony Government" tells us of the great care that was taken by the region's military governments with regard to slaves from Haiti. In the case of Trinidad, taking all but 39 of 300 Haitian negroes refused at Martinique, there were plots or rumours of plots to wipe out the entire European population. This was dealt with by Governor Thomas Picton very harshly. Notwithstanding poisoning did take place on several estates. One case, a serious one, occurred at Coblentz in St. Anns.
The year 1803 proved to be very fatal for the Coblentz estate, as the owner, Baron de Montalambert, lost 70 out of 150 slaves in a period of nine months. Governor Colonel Hislop commissioned St. Hilaire Begorrat, a member of the Council of Government, and Louis François Sergeant, a French notary from Martinique, to inquire into the circumstances of this tragedy. Eventually the principal driver, the hospital orderly and three slaves of the estate were convicted of poisoning and executed. During the inquiry, it became known that amongst the slaves on the estate were some who had been brought by Monsieur de Mallevault, the previous owner of Coblentz, from his estates in Martinique, where in 1793 a similar excessive mortality had occurred, where as well the use of poison had been suspected. Was one of the Africans he brought Trinidad's first (and thank God so far only) mass murderer, hitting his victims both in Martinique and here?
As the report of the Commissioners states:
"Every experienced planter knows that the negro doctors, obeahmen, are nothing but poisoners who profit by the ignorance and credulity of their comrades. They sell them some insignificant powders to which they attribute miraculous virtues, and after carrying on with this trade for some time to acquire reputation, always finish by selling poisons extracted from plants with which they are well acquainted and can always find. The police can never be too vigilant of these sort of doctors, as they are dangerous from their principles and from the consequences they produce."
The Baron de Montalambert was near total ruin by the loss of almost half of his slaves. In 1806, he sold his town house property on Frederick Street between Woodford Square and Park Street, and in 1808 he put up large sections of his St. Anns estate for sale. That same year, the planter died as well.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Look the devil dey!


Somebody, I forget now who, once said to me that Jab Molassi (the Molasses Devil) came out of cannes brulées and was played in depiction of the worst thing that could happen on a cane estate: a person meeting his or her death by falling into a vat of boiling molasses. The molasses devil was the ghost of the cane estate.
Jab Jab, whip-cracking, mirrored mass decorated with red and green satin skirts, mauve moiré taffeta and orange stockings, is the father of the Dragon Band or Devil Band. This metamorphosis commenced in 1906, when Patrick Jones assisted by Gilbert Scamaroni prompted by a sacred picture, illustrating the exorcising of the devil from a sick person, displayed in a shop at what is now 65 Queen Street, prompted the organising of the first Dragon mas. Khaki and slate were the colours chosen, cow horns and rope tails were used. They wore flexible wings that flapped. The band was comprised of about 70 or 80 men and women, who carried long forks. There were presidents with even more elaborate costumes, covered with brass buttons and gold fringe, diamante spangles and gold cord. Everyone wore small face masks. There was one central character called Lucifer who wore a golden crown and was even more elaborately costumed. He was portrayed by Gilbert Scamaroni who used a large head mask imported from Germany by the firm Waterman Brothers of Frederick Street. Between 1906 and 1909, cowtails held upright by wire were added. In 1909, Patrick Jones, along with 'Skeedo' Phillips and the Valere brought out the "Red Devil Band". Patrick Jones was a man who loved to read and was able to put his hands on to an illustrated copy of Dante's Inferno, and as a result was able to add a host of diabolical characters to his already charming retinue from hell.
In 1910, Jones brought out a band called "Demonites" and introduced the character of Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies. He was enclosed in an iron cage and bound by nine chains. Beelzebub was made of papier mache. Fearsome in character, the entire contraption was carried aloft on poles. In 1911, Satan was introduced. His costume was similar to Lucifer's and Beelzebub's, but he carried a book and a pen in which to record sins. This was the year in which the Beast appeared for the first time, and it was portrayed by a man called "Georgie". This costume of the Beast was made of large fish scales and so constructed that they could bustle up or be made to lie flat.
Professor Gordon Rohlehr tells us a lot about Patrick Jones in his book "Calypso and Society". Jones, he says, was one of the earliest devotees to serious masquerades in the early 20th century. he was a pyrotechnicist and a calypsonian. Known as Chinee Patrick, he was "hakwi", that is, half Chinese and half African. As a calypsonian, he sang under the name Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, and his songs were in the tradition of Atilla the Hun and Lord Executor. He was a powerful calypsonian, so much so that his challenges were often hardly taken up by even the most significant aficionados of the art.
His daring to put the devil and his hordes from hell on the streets of Port of Spain created an enormous impact on the city, its institutions and citizens and on the calypsoes of the time, and was to be retained in memory and folklore, still imitated, albeit poorly, to this day.
Bruce Procope, from whose paper most of this valuable information has been gleaned, points out that by 1911 the main features of the Dragon Band were already established and were to survive more or less intact for another fifty years. Fresh characters emerged, such as the devil as "gentlemen Jim", who, together with his devil mask, wore a tail coat and carried a stick, behaving in a courtly manner with much bowing and kissing of hands.
Various theories have been brought forward concerning the devil band. Procope writes:
"The theory is that the dragon band is an ambulatory depiction of Satan and his horde cast from heaven ... he and his followers return to earth on the two days before the Lenten season commences in order to try the virtue of the faithful."
The people who played this mas had no reluctance in playing the devil and the forces of evil, although many felt a great excitement, even fear, to be associated with it. By the 1930s, Patrick Jones' band was big, some 200 or 300 people. The devil mas generated mixed feelings. As there was much delving into occult literature, looking for information to enhance the portrayals. Such books as "Hope and the Race" by Frank Patterson and the "Chronicles of Leviathan", an anonymous work, were consulted. This was a time when, not only in Trinidad, there was a great interest in the esoteric. Dealing with the devil in exchange for souls was a minor industry amongst both the unscrupulous and the foolish. The fact that it was frowned upon by the religious was sufficient to make it desirable. Others followed Jones' idea. Devil bands had tents, bamboo and carat affairs, where members met to build their mas and to practice their 'pass' or dance steps, and its 'chantwell' to compose songs. The Dragon's head was built in secrecy, so that when it appeared, it would astound even the band members.
The green Beast would have a movable tongue with an iron band around the waist attached to three or four iron chains, held in different directions to control the progress of the character. The dance of the Beast consists of a lunging movement as it strikes out attempting to bring down the horde of surrounding red imps, who would constantly goad him, sometimes there would be several Beasts in a band with one being the chief Beast.
There would be a king imp in red tights, mask, wings, a tail, attended by other imps who would carry axes, scrolls, horns, bells, dice, face cards and scales with weights. The showing of the face card was vital for the water crossing. One authority affirmed that there should be 42 characters in a devil band, some of these would be a gown man, expensively dressed with a mask imported from Europe, a Queen Patroness with her court, Lilith, Eve's mother, a Bookman with a large book and an imp to carry it. The character of Beelzebub would have a host of blue flies, sexy girls, buzzing about. All this produced an amazing sight, with the imps taunting the Beasts and dancing away with highly complicated steps, as other imps would dance, twirl and skip, maintaining a constant activity and providing interesting contrast with the noble mien and stately bowing of the Satanic characters.
Long ago, the fight of the Beast was a feature of Carnival. The corner of Duke and Frederick Streets, midday Carnival Tuesday: the great Beast Zatog the Invincible met and destroyed Azoth, Keeper of the Inferno. This challenge to combat occurred automatically when two devil bands met. Bruce Procope recalls:
"The combat took the form of the execution by the reigning Beast of various dance steps, which the challenger had to imitate. If he succeeded, he then had to demonstrate his own for the reigning monster to imitate. The one who failed was dishonoured. To be the reigning Beast was considered the highest honour."
"Mr. Jones says that the Dragon or Beast was suggested to him by a picture of St. Mark and the Beast which he saw at Laventille church," writes Procope. "Another of our informants, Mr. William La Borde (alias Willie the Beast) also remembers Georgie. Georgie was the reigning Beast from whom Willie captured the crown. The step that brought him victory was one which was shown to him in a dream. One night after practice at the tent of his band, Willie went home to sleep. He dreamt that a man came to him dressed in a top hat and tail coat. The man suddenly turned into a zandolie and started to wriggle on the ground. Willie awoke, told his wife about the dream and immediately began to practice a step in imitation of the movements of the zandolie. He perfected this dance and by it won the crown from Georgie."
With regard to the crossing of the water, Procope recounts the "coming out" or the "invocation", which takes place as the band is coming from the place where it has assembled onto the streets to parade. Led by the King Imp and his sexy quick-stepping horde, the music band blasting live music on their feet in the road. they would burst upon the streets, the Beast itself, green-scaled with its clawed dragon's feet straining at the chains held by the musclemen, barely able to contain it. As the Beast approaches the first drain, the King Imp or "tempter" steps forward, confronts him, and rings a big brass bell. He shows him a face card to bring him to a halt. The imps, in blazing red, their wings quivering, sequins sparkling in the noonday sun, show their "pass" and perform their play with cutesy antics and much teasing of the Beast.
The Beast, head rearing, claws slashing the air, attempts the crossing, feigning fear lest any part of his person should touch the water flowing in the street's canal. With the Beast "over the water" other characters blaze out, bats temporarily traveling with the band, big with black huge wings; zombies, a section of jumbies in black and red. Two robbers also moving with the ban enter Piccadilly Street, glowing, pulsating with human energy, Lucifer last of all, elegant, black satin cape lined in red velvet, dressed in the costume of a grand duke with scarlet sashes and jeweled orders, and ceremonial sword in hand. Before him, mincing and cringing, his court of sycophants. They mime a play that none but they can understand. A coffin carries a man. A live black cat looks out from the Queen's hair piece. They have real dwarves who are old men, seen dragging chains to which are attached souls waiting to be reincarnated. The performance of crossing the water is repeated. The teasing of the Beast continues. Small boys run up with slapsticks to make him jump, and old women throw pails of water before Lucifer to stop him - isn't that a tradition from Catholic Ireland, throwing water before a hearse? But he just laughs hideously and shows them a morocoy and two live frogs he has in a small black and gold box.
The Beast makes a bolt for it, catching the musclemen unawares - but don't worry, he's not going far - just for a cold Carib from his nennen in the planning!
Some lyrics of the day relfect the Red Devil Bands, but that was long ago. Now we are afraid of a weather vane on top the Red House - the old iron dragon. They should put it back!

"I am a monarch from heart and soul
Whenever I go I bound to control
I am guided by the three stars
Jupiter, Mercury and mars.
And if tonight I shall lose my name
Blood is going to flow from every vein
They call me Beginner the terror, the brutal conqueror
Santimanite."
(Lord Beginner)

"Come into my den and there you shall see
Skeletons and bones of your family.
Your body shall be placed on a mountain peak
And there you shall say your prayers for a week
And after that dreadful pain you shall meet a hurricane
Santimanite.
From the very first day that I was born
Men like Houdini started to mourn
Monarchs wept and princes cried
When they saw this new star up in the sky
Astronomers in my horoscope state
He'll be proud, grand, illustrious and great
And they named me Atilla, the terror, the brutal conqueror
Master Mi Minor."
(Atilla the Hun)

Monday, 19 December 2011

Respectability

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"!

Trade Unions

The trade union movement in Trinidad and Tobago really came into its own in the 1930s. Prior to this, the relationship between operators or owners of businesses, whether agricultural or otherwise, and those who were employed by them, tended to be along the lines of masters and servants. Workers, conditioned by the plantation lifestyle and the force of colonial might, which indoctrinated all involved with a certain stereotype of roles along ethnic and gender lines, more often than not just accepted existing conditions, even if it meant near starvation for them. They saw themselves as dependent on one hand on the Almighty God, whose providence made it possible to grow food in a tropical island, and on the other on the generosity of the boss or the proprietor.
Historians affirm that the patois-speaking Catholic black and mixed Trinidadians tended to be subservient to the system, whereas the Small Islanders, in particular the Barbadians, tended to be more independent and more aggressive.
From the 1840s, people from the other islands had come to Trinidad in quantity in search of work and a better standard of living. They came from both Protestant and Catholic islands, and as a result had known different cycles of religious festivals. The islands they came from had known slavery since the early 16th century, and there was virtually no coloured middle class there as existed in Trinidad.
Those immigrants assimilated into Creole life in Trinidad, but also kept a lot of their own history and culture. They didn’t necessarily stay on the land, but joined Trinidadians in small trades and crafts.
The Workingmen's Association was at the turn of the 20th century an aspect of the reform movements, and its membership was made up mostly of urban middle class liberals. The process to militancy would require a crucible, which as it turned out was the advent of industrialisation. Several circumstances began to arrange themselves, not the least of which was the demobilisation of thousands of men who had seen foreign service during the first world war. The stereotype of the master-servant relationship along ethnic lines was considerably softened up.
Another factor was the repatriation of migrants from Panama after the completion of the Canal. Many of these were cash-rich, and a lot of them did not return to their own islands, which were by comparison to Trinidad rather backward and prudish, but rather came here.
The nature of the black Creole lifestyle was changing. There was still the pursuit of respectability, of education and of European culture. There was still the overwhelming need to be accepted by the white pastor, the white overseer, the white madame, if only as a fellow human being. But for those who came of age in the 1920s, new ideas such as generated by Marcus Garvey came into play, which were based on personal pride and belief in oneself as a being that creates futures.
The literature of the time affected the thinking of workers, too. It was often banned, and hard to come by, badly printed brochures on cheap paper. The ideas were expressed in little newspapers, such as “The People”, “Trinidad” and “The Beacon”, which all served to define a greater political awareness for a wider circle of people.
Essentially, the social divide in Trinidad was between capital and labour. This became heightened by the fact that capital and labour were visibly different: the small employer class was white, the workers were black or Indian. There was hardly any political representation - only 6% of the entire population had the right to vote. The governor had direct personal rule. All power, all responsibility was centered on him.
Before the transatlantic cable, it took weeks to communicate with the Colonial Office in London. The governor was basically responsive only to the propertied interest. The landowners, the factory owners, the business and shop owners: these were regarded as the people with ‘responsible opinion’ who had ‘a stake in the country’. All others had neither voice nor vote. This situation was in fact not unique to Trinidad, but was the case the world over; certainly in England.
It is difficult for us, born in affluent times where opportunities for self-improvement actually exist for those with ambition and determination, to comprehend the dead-end poverty and the stifling frustration of the period between the wars. When with the great depression things suddenly took a turn for even worse, however, it was hard for all to accept. Money vanished. There was little to buy.
The situation was summed up in Growling Tiger's "Money is King", where the calypsonian says that a lot of education and "broughtupsy" will not help anybody in obtaining food in hard times as these. I quote here from Dr. Gordon Rohlehr's 'Calypso and Society':
"Money is King begins with the assertion that if a man has money people will overlook his leprosy or crime and grant him the highest social status.
But if you are poor, de people tell you 'shoo'
And a dog is better than you'
This thesis is then relentlessly illustrated stanza by stanza. A rich man receives extended credit while a poor man, including the gentleman or scholar fallen on hard times and reduced to eating in a cook shop, will not be credited even a penny by the illiterate proprietor, who will instead mock at his discomfiture.
'A man with a collar and tie and waiscoat
Ask de Chinee man to trus' him accra and float
"Me no trus' am," bawl out de Chinee man,
"You better move on from me fryin' pan.
You college man; me no know ABC
You want-am Accra, gi-am penny."
The worms start to jump in the man's belly
And he cry out 'A dog is better than me!'
Both the well-bread dog and the cur stand a better chance of survival than the poor man, whose very good breeding may reduce his instinct for the hard 'scrunt' of survival.
'A dog can walk about and take up bone
Fowl head, stale bread, fish tail and pone
If it's a good breed and not too wild
Some people will take it and mind as a child.
But when a hungry man goes out to beg
They will set a bulldog behind his leg.
Forty policemen will chuck him down too
You see where a dog is better than you.'"
Even for people who had jobs, the total collapse of the economy in the early 30s brought with it a dramatic increase in the size of tasks and a decrease in pay packets. Smallholders of 2 to 6 acres were badly affected. Many lost their ancestral lands. Sir Norman Lamont, and English planter and member of the Legislative Council, remarked on the system of indebtedness to the local shopkeepers. Dr. Susan Craig in her book 'Smiles and Blood' recounts his speech given to the Legislature in 1938:
"These smallholders are fattened up, as it were, on this bad system of debt until they are ripe for the slaughter and ready for their larger neighbour or the shopkeeper to squeeze them out or buy them in. Everybody is doing it, even the best people!"
Lamont went on to point out over 100 cases in the Manzanilla district who complained that they were no longer paid in cash, but with purchase orders which they could redeem at the local shop. Often the shops did not have the goods required, so they gave the cash less 25% interest. There was also the practice of giving tokens instead of cash. Many estates paid in tokens which could only be redeemed at shops which were owned by Chinese and Portuguese shop-keepers, whose ancestors had come in the mid-19th century.
The wholescale cheating of illiterate people, indebtedness at high rates of interest, lower prices to the smallholder whose crop were mortgaged to the local shop, reduced access to further credit - all this led countless people to the loss of their land, either to the estates or to the shops.
It was a time of merciless usury. Governor Sir Murchison Fletcher (1936 - 1937) remarked:
"When I arrived in Trinidad, I was somewhat painfully impressed by the poverty here.."
It was a time in our history when the interest of the state was hand in glove with the interest of the propertied. It was also a time of official deafness. The authorities could not or would not hear the voices of the people. They ignored the hunger marches, the petitions, the calypsoes; they dismissed the hanging together of hunger, unemployment, economic depression and worker militancy.
The fuse was getting shorter, but no one was paying attention. As far as the governor or the Secretary of State for the Colonies were concerned, there were about 20 men in the colony who really mattered. These were the men who spoke for oil, asphalt, sugar, cocoa and commerce: all that mattered for a "respectable opinion".
Ultimately, political power resided in the ability to control sanctions, particularly by force. The armed forces during that period were organised as follows:
The first line of defense was the local police, mainly black with English officers. The second line of defense was the volunteer force, mainly white-collar workers and led by local whites and expatriate managers. The volunteer force was in fact and extension of the alliance of state and capital. This was an endowment of the rich with police and military powers to shoot to preserve their superior position. In the event of the police and volunteers failing to control unrest in the population, imperial troops and ships were called upon to protect the interest of property. As Dr. Craig sums it up:
"Thus, the employer class was also vital to the defense of the colony and collaborated when imperial troops intervened by providing accommodation and food for them. In so doing, when workers struck a blow at poverty, they were striking too at the state and the whole structure of colonialism."
And what had happened to the "black masses"? Firstly, they were not "asses", as the popular rhyme suggests. They were, however, extremely poor, living in hopeless conditions comparable in the Caribbean today probably with Haiti. Children, whose bellies were bloated and whose navels hang out in a hernia due to malnutrition, shoe-less families, hopeless adolescents: they nevertheless knew exactly what was going on. They knew that the colonial government offered no options, and they knew that they were producing raw materials for things that came back manufactured, and unaffordable to them. They knew they were totally dependent on the patrimony of the colonial establishment.
In the 19th century, loyalty to the British crown was absolute, even or probably especially so by the colonials. To understand this from today's perspective, one can probably compare it to the absolute acceptance and devotion that Catholics all over the world feel towards a Polish Pope who reigns from the far-away peninsula of Italy. This loyalty also diminished in the 20th century. War, increasing communication, and the movies from America that illuminated the silver screens all over Trinidad contributed to this paradigm shift. All of a sudden, the "black masses" realised that white people too were poor, cussed, and were 'ketching their ass'! From then on, the image of the "white man" was no longer exclusive. The Second World War and the stationing of thousands of American servicemen contributed even more to that: in a country of 750,000 mainly coloured and Indian people, there appeared on the streets all of a sudden 500,000 young American men! For many Trinidadians, it only now became ordinary to deal with European-looking people on a day-to-day basis.
But all in all, it was the grinding poverty that drove the black masses and the enlightened elements of the creole middle class to make a change. The strike in the oil fields started on Saturday, June 19th, 1937. By evening, the police attempted to arrest the union leader Uriah Butler, resulting in the death of a police corporal and an inspector. On the following day, Sunday, H.M.S. Ajax was ordered to Trinidad. Governor Fletcher went to the oil belt. The following week, the second cruiser, H.M.S. Exeter, arrived in Port of Spain. Within days, the strike is over.
In 1937, the workers won the right to organise trade unions, but this was accompanied by the determination of the ruling class to control these unions in a way that the gain to labour would be nullified. The establishments of labour departments was an attempt to achieve this.
This entire period of the 1930s was a formative one in the shaping of the modern Caribbean. There were significant reforms; among them was universal adult franchise and political decolonisation. Labour had thrust itself onto the political arena. After the war, labour evolved into mass political parties, ultimately opening the way for West Indian nationalism and political independence.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Renaissance come to Trinidad


 The Renaissance was the European era between the 14th and 17th centuries, when art, literature, and the ideas of ancient Greece were discovered again and widely studied, causing a rebirth of activity in all these things. During that time The authority of kings, emperors, popes and dukes were overcome through the Reformation, through the farmers' insurrections, and through the idea of nationalism, re-directing thinking and feeling after the Middle Ages. Based on the ideals and aesthetics of pre-Christian times, the re-orientation towards the good, the true and the beautiful leads art and sciences to new hights. Europeans started to see themselves as freed from the fetters of the church, and went to take possession of far-away parts of the earth in brave adventures.

Some significant people of the time:
Kopernikus, Kepler, German scientists
Paracelsus, Swiss physician and researcher
Jakob Fugger, German tradesman
Sinan, Turkish architect
Tizian, Raffael, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Italian painters
Columbus, Italian discoverer
Dürer, German painter
Riemenschneider, German sculpturer
Shakepeare, Bacon, English poets
Calvin, Zwingli, Swiss reformers
Luther, German reformer
Melanchton, German religious philosopher
Cervantes, Spanish poet
El Greco, Spanish painter
Galilei, Italian scientist
Erasmus, Dutch scientist
Münzer, German freedom fighter


Christopher Columbus

The year 2011 AD presents an unparalleled opportunity for us to mount the cockpit of history and with a pilot’s eye gaze out upon the distant horizons of our historical experience. This historical experience, for those of us who live in the west, is relatively short, commencing as it does a mere 500 years ago. Some, in looking back, see only the start of an era of imperialist brutality and ecological degradation. Another point of view perceives with pleasure the commencement of an age of freedom and the divers pathways that progress has carved on the landscapes of the New World.
In 1992, which people commemorated as the “Columbus Quincentenary”, the point of view of some native Americans caught the ear of scholars, political activists and Black Awareness groups. They were offended by the idea that Columbus should have “discovered” the New World, a view that was adopted by many in the Caribbean as well. Even if their plight did not really change anything in the role that Columbus played as a historical figure, it must be seen as a testament to freedom and progress that the voices of those objectors were heard.
Anniversaries are very important in that they give an occasion to re-evaluate history. In not rallying around anniversaries, such as for example the 100th anniversary of the annexation of Tobago to Trinidad, to pick just one instance, those important occasions are wasted, and a fossilised status quo is maintained.
In the case of Columbus, the objectors negated the achievements of him as a great explorer and put his motives and consequences into opprobrium. This is understandable from their perspective, since in the aftermath of the Admiral’s coming to the Americas, their culture got nearly completely wiped out and African slavery was introduced.
However, it is important to put events and personalities of former times into their proper historical context. To belittle the past is a vice of those who seek to aggrandise themselves in the present, without having achieved greatness. As Anne Rice puts it in her “Vittorio”, a very insightful fictional book about the Florentine Renaissance, “Those who don’t do anything great, find suspect anything that is not in a perpetual state of disintegration”. This is to a considerable extent a problem of the so-called Third World, where poverty keeps many people from thriving and achieving greatness for themselves. To stay with the example of Columbus, who came to this island of ours 503 years ago, let us look at what this Admiral of the Ocean Sea really achieved in the context of his times, which was really the beginning of modernity in the western world: the Renaissance.
Dr. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, historian, writes:
“The significance of his [Columbus’] Atlantic crossing has been belittled and denied. Yet, bearing in mind the resources of 1492, the opening of reliable routes, both ways across the Atlantic, had a permanent transforming effect on the world. No single event contributed so much towards making our unified world of today different from that of antiquity and that of the Middle Ages, which were composed of discrete patches like a decayed mosaic.”
Christopher Columbus, then, can be commemorated as the discoverer of these reliable routes in the age of the sailing ship. He found a way to use cutting-edge technology of the time to its fullest potential. In fact, it was on his second voyage to the west that he concretised the ideal route, which led south-west from the Canary Islands in the mid-Atlantic to the Lesser Antilles, and on his way back to exit north from the West Indies to catch the westerly winds. These journeys from the old world to the new forged a significant link that has stood the test of time. But much more than that, the vast populated middle region of the world, stretching from the Americas to Europe across the caravan routes to Asia, India, and the sea lanes to China now formed a chain. No more would the world be comprised of loosely joined cultures hardly speaking, barely trading with each other. With the advent of the remarkable Genoaese adventurer, we were on the way to the making of the “global village”, the whole breadth of which “could be crossed by cultural contagion, human migration and commercial exchange.”
Columbus’ discoveries of the 1490s, remarkable and special as they were to the Renaissance, belong in fact in the context of an evolving and unfolding, a changing, world.
In this period, paradigm shifts took place in the religious, cultural and economic spheres. Explorers were setting out. Marco Polo had not too long ago returned to Europe, having visited China mostly by foot. Vaso de Gamma and de la Peyrouse would circumnavigate the world in the years ahead, which would be a significant development, since only full circumnavigation offered concrete proof that the world was round! This, in fact, was one of the great goals of Christopher Columbus. He felt sure that if he sailed west into the Atlantic, he would eventually arrive in the east - a great supposition at the time.
Egypt, ancient and obscure, was undoubtedly the original source of all the sciences known to man in olden times. The scientists of Egypt - today referred to as priests - taught the Greeks all they knew. At the time of Columbus and the later circumnavigators, the most important sources of geographical writings were those of the Greeks. The great Aristotle, who lived about 400 years before the birth of Christ, had demonstrated that the world was round. His views were discarded and eventually lost to the medieval Catholic world in western Europe. They were only remembered in Islamic works which were slow to make their way westward.
Another Greek, Pythagoras, born 472 BC., was a product of the mystery schools of Egypt. He too knew that the world was round. Pythagoras, amongst his several proofs, pointed out that the shadow of the earth cast upon the moon during a lunar eclipse was round, demonstrating that the surface of the earth must be round too, from whatever angle one looked at it.
This knowledge led to the belief that it would be possible to reach Asia by sailing westward from Europe. Columbus, in attempting to prove this, operated in the context of great personal bravery: it was not commonly accepted that the earth was indeed round! The value of his “discoveries” is thus to be found in the fact that he proved a scientific fact, that he conquered superstition and stupidity in the people who insisted the world was flat.
This value stands for itself and cannot be debased with the argument that the Americas and the Caribbean had been discovered by people already, that the hemisphere was populated, and that the Scandinavians had “discovered” it in previous centuries.
In analysing history, one has to be careful not to unravel events like an old sweater, and to end up with ends of wool that show nothing of the intricate knitting pattern. To judge Columbus anything other than a superb Renaissance man by arguing that it was because of him that enslaved people from Africa would suffer in the colonies would be to make the sheep responsible for the sweater!

Spanish Conquistadors

In the years immediately following Columbus’ discovery of Trinidad in 1498, the interest of Spain was concentrated on the larger or her new-found possessions to the north. In the earlier years, Trinidad was visited by the ships of those engaged in discovery, who, after taking wood and water, passed on. In time, the beauty and fertility of this island attracted attention. There was also always the prospect for gold. The island was seen as well-populated, thus a source of labour, mostly from the point of view of forced labour amongst the Amerindians. By 1509, Diego Columbus, son of the Admiral and governor of San Domingo, was buying Amerindians from Trinidad for 150 ducats each to work in the pearl diving industry on the island of Cubagua.
With gold ever in mind, the Spanish King directed attention to the exploration of the natural resources of Trinidad. In 1511, he instructed Diego to cease removing slaves from Trinidad and to send men to explore the island for gold. The two caravels dispatched from San Domingo, sailed southward in the blinding heat of May, careful to bypass islands known for the man-eating habits of their inhabitants. With great trepidation, they put a boat ashore at the island of Redonda, off the coast of Montserrat. Her volcano was idly smoking. The sailors’ intent was to capture and kill the giant turtles nesting there, the meat of which they salted. They set sail once more and touched upon the island of Guadeloupe for water and to rest the crew, before hazarding the next leg of the journey that would bypass the windward islands and take them to the towering cliffs of Trinidad and its port of entry, known as the Boca del Dragon.
Before them lay the great Gulf of Paria, and about their small and somewhat fragile vessels great whales disported, nursing their young and mindlessly enjoying the twilight of their existence.
From the shore, a small suspicious gathering of Amerindians saw for the third or fourth time these strange craft appear as if by magic. In the waters, just off their village that they called place of the silk cotton trees because of the giant trees that came down from the mountains to the mangrove coast. Later, the Spaniards would pronounce that turn of phrase as “Cumucurapo”, to be remembered hundreds of years later as Mucurapo.
Captain Roderigo de Bastidas brought his men ashore. They were sweating in their heavy armor and European clothes. Banners were flying, bearing the arms of Spain and depictions of the Virgin of Compostela. They made their way through the tangle of mangrove into the savannah lands studded with great trees, that would many centuries later be called Woodbrook, and whose streets would be decorated with the playful names of the children of Johann Benjamin Gottlieb Siegert, a German who found some of South America’s real riches in the plants that grow there, concocting herbs and tree bark into his famous Angostura Bitters.
The expedition followed the almost dry riverbed of the Rio Santa Anna, into the hills, to an area known as Ariapita. The Carib warriors moved purposely forward, their naked bodies painted bright red with roocoo against the mosquitoes. In the distance could be heard the roar of a waterfall. In the trees above, the bellbirds called. In the brilliant sunlight, the high cliffs seemed indeed to sparkle with a golden light. Golden nuggets appeared to protrude from the rock’s face, and the Spaniards, excited by their find, scrambled up the hillside. The mountain pools below them reflected in perfect union the circle of the sky.
The search for gold in Trinidad was not successful. Probably the Amerindians showed the Spaniards the deposits of marcasite, fool’s gold, and it was not long before expectations in this direction were proved unjustified.

Don Antonio Sedeño

Interest in Trinidad thereupon lapsed, except as a place for enslaving Indians to be sold in other islands until 1520, in which year, on December 15th to be exact, the King of Spain granted the conquest and pacification of the island to Don Antonio Sedeño, the contador of San Juan, Porto Rico. Sedeño was named governor and captain general. Don Antonio was thus Trinidad’s first governor. He was a tough soldier who had made adventure his life’s work. Shortly after his appointment to the Indies, his colleagues were sending adverse reports about Sedeño, and in 1518, he was suspended from office and imprisoned on the allegation of having seduced a very young girl from a convent in Porto Rico.
Allegedly, Sedeño had a “turbulent nature”. Put into prison for the offense, he set it on fire and escaped aboard a ship leaving the port. Diego Columbus had Sedeño acquitted and reinstated after an investigation.
The following year saw him back in jail, this time for making free with His Majesty’s revenue. He was said to have “put his hands deeply into His Majesty’s funds” with disturbing the island and fermenting factious disorders. He was sentenced to pay 5000 pesos. The index of papers of the Council of the Indies show Don Antonio in and out of jail. Such is the record of the man who aspired to conquer and pacify the island of Trinidad!
His brother officers were glad to see him go. To the authorities in Spain, he was a man of wealth with resources suitable for the conquest of Trinidad, a man possessed of an undoubted courage - exactly the qualities of leadership well suited to a conquistador!
When one thinks of conquistadors, the names of Cortés and Pizzaro come to mind, iron-clad men who went to Mexico and Peru. Men who burned their ships on the beaches of the New World and resolutely set out to conquer and in fact destroy civilisations that were thousands of years old. What those rough-edged, ignorant Spaniards mindlessly destroyed were in fact precious records of those civilisations’ knowledge of precessional astronomy, mathematics and geometry. Their vast libraries were annihilated, and the information of the “Gods coming to earth” was forever lost. Probably, the loss of their archives was more than anything else the undoing of the Aztec and Inca civilisations. Montezuma, emperor of the Mexicans, really believed that Hernando Cortés was the God prophesied to return.
The Spaniards at that time had come out of a terrible war for the reconquest of Spain. Generations of an aristocratic knightly Catholic class had clashed with the flower of Islamic warrior culture. Victorious against the ‘infidel’, the Catholics destroyed the high culture established by the Moors in Europe and proceeded to cross the Atlantic to wipe out another.
Trinidad received its first conquistador, Don Antonio Sedeño, in 1531. The frail caravels sailed for the Indies from the port town of San Lucar de Barrameda in Spain, carrying 70 men and some horses. He had a fortunate and successful crossing, and as was the custom, made landfall at the south east corner of the island, just about where the gas pipelines now come out of the Atlantic ocean on Galeota Point. He proceeded along the south coast, past Moruga, to enter the Gulf of Paria by the Serpent’s Mouth, and sailed straight north to seek for the Indian Cacique named Turpiari, who was the ruler of the north of Trinidad. These two became friends, and it is said that their relationship endured many decades.
Trinidad was hard for Sedeño to handle. He had arrived at a time when a war of Amerindian conquest was being waged between rival tribes of Caribs. He was caught in the primitive politics of the day, and beset by Carib warriors who were not afraid to die for their island. They attacked the Spaniards again and again, destroying Sedeno’s  stockade at Mucurapo in a series of bloody battles. Their bravery and commitment should be known and remembered with the same respect as the Apache braves: Geronemo, Crazy Horse and Little Bear. These were in fact the first heroes of Trinidad. They fought and died for this island, which they knew as Iere, the Land of the Hummingbird.
It is because of the valor of the tribal people that the hummingbird, now a national symbol, is in the centre of the cap badge and buttons of both the Trinidadian police force and the regiment, and is, in fact, saluted with respect.
Don Antonio did not conquer Trinidad. He died in the high forest of the province of Meta on the mainland, organising yet another attempt to colonise Trinidad. He had left his fortune behind in Spain and had come out with his ambition and his youth to make a fortune. He had earned the friendship and the respect of the caciques throughout many difficult years - no mean feat in those times - a success which should give him a notable place in the ranks of the conquistadors.
Today, if  you visit President’s House, there is a plaque at the entrance bearing the  names of Trinidad and Tobago’s governors. His is the very first.