Just over 120 years ago, the late 1870s, life in Trinidad reflected the ups and downs and overall uncertainties of the colonial experience.
All in all, the island was prosperous. Sugar was making money for those with money. Cocoa was on a sound footing, providing a trickle-down economy whereby many benefited. The indentured Indians laboured in the hope of either repatriation or in resignation to being consigned forever to this island.
Already, the central plains were acquiring the look of India that they would never see again, or which their children would never know. Jhandis fluttered over backyard shrines, dedicated to Lord Shiva as devotees murmured mantras, maintaining a transcendental connection to half-forgotten ashrams on the banks of Gangama; all these frozen in memory, evoked with ganja, specially imported by the British authorities as a solace and as a relatively safe alternative to the demon of rum.
Already there was an organised importation of West Indians negroes, mostly from the island of Barbados, who were more self-possessed than their local equivalents. They provided inexpensive labour and filled the ranks of the nascent civil service. They were also Protestant, which served to swell the numbers of that denomination favoured by the British. In those days, the real politic took place not between rich or poor or even black or white, but between Catholics and Protestants. This really meant between the British establishment, the governor and high officials, business people and professionals, and the local French whites and their coloured adherents. At the end of the day, what mattered was the cost of labour. Indians from India, negroes from the impoverished smaller islands, ensured that the price of raw materials for export was kept as low as possible. colonial rule was simple. The Indians in the cane, the negroes in the slums.
Where the real social action took place was in the murky, slightly out-of-focus interface between the people of African descent, from dark to light complexions, local or from other British territories, who were moving upward by dint of education and that most nebulous criterion of all, respectability. Nice manners, well-made clothes, a good grasp on the distinction between servility and graciousness or perhaps gratefulness—these educated people of colour had their champions who put up a show whenever obvious racial discrimination was dished out. Black editors complained:
"One class is protected blindly, without regard even to decency and propriety; and other classes degraded with a similar disregard to prudence, common sense and even safety ... The authorities show a lamentable want of discretion and judgment by irritating so often, so determinedly, and so unnecessarily, a sensitive race ... The dominant race enjoys to the top of its bent everything it can desire—power, place, emoluments, social position. It lives, it luxuriates, on the fat of the land. Why does it not enjoy itself quietly? And not every now and then insult the Children of the Sun by acts of gross injustice..." (from contemporary newspapers, as quoted in Prof. B. Brereton's "Race Relations").
Some made it as in the case of a Mr. O'Brien, whose recommendation by his boss went, "he is a coloured man, and it is difficult to find appointments for men of his class," but, "the fact that he is annually chosen as secretary of the [Horse] Race Meeting shows the sort of consideration in which he is held by the community generally".
O'Brien was acceptable to the whites and so could work in the upper middle ranks of the service. It was regarded as scandalous in 1894 when a registrar of the supreme court, Ralph Monier-Williams, wrote a letter to the governor, requesting him to appoint to a clerkship "a person with as little coloured blood as possible and, if practicable, with no coloured blood at all, as these have given considerable trouble in the department within the last two years".
Trinidad, being as it is, the letter became a topic of discussion even before it got to the governor. The "Long Tom Cigar-Smoking Club of Almond Walk", made up of "a collection of rogues, intellectuals, chantwells, mystic-masons, gentlemen of leisure", to name a few, who met every morning to sit outside Mouttet's dry goods store on Almond Walk, now Broadway, to smoke cigars, take coffee and discuss the events of the day, condemned the occurrence. There was talk that he the official in question should be "tarred and feathered".
It was arranged for posters to be put up all over town, asking "what shall we do with Monier-Williams?" A police constable was ordered to protect him. The reaction of the governor was to appoint a "jet-black" man to the post. Many of the commentators of the day felt that Monier-Williams had been set up by the prejudice of people in his department who had attempted to use him to make a point and "to further their own notions about race". At a Long Tom meeting, held one rainy morning in August 1899, the Hon. Maxwell Philip observed "the coloured and black class in the West Indies occupy an intermediate position". "Marginal men" he called the educated, genteel, well-dressed, hopeful applicants to positions they could hardly imagine. They, the club members, knew what he meant. The English thought them treacherous, fickle and unstable, clever, yes, but lacking in moral worth.
Louis Fabien, raising to avoid a leak dripping from the ceiling in the old shop, said, "Insecurity, my dear, is the root of ambivalence on the one hand. We want to be like everybody else." "You mean you want to be accepted at the Union Club?" "Yes, I don't see why not!"
They laughed, knowing full well that the bags of cocoa that filled Jean Mouttet's store rooms, in fact what they were sitting on, belonged to Louis Fabien. Maxwell Philip proposed having a ball, and proceeded to organise it, at which, because of his prestige and wealth, he brought together what was in their opinion the best of the coloureds and the most acceptable of the whites.
They were not many actually "black" people at the ball. It was held at the Princes Building and was considered a success. Isolated as an event, it however caused comment. The "New Era", a newspaper owned by a coloured man, wrote in his editorial, "Europeans arriving in the West Indies believed that the natives were savages and cannibals". Educated non-whites had a strong sense of their moral and intellectual worthiness to move in the "best" circles. They felt that society was divided into "those who justly deem themselves entitled to a social position in the island consistent with their means and general behaviour, and those who believe that they have a prescriptive right to dictate who shall or shall not, be received into the ranks of the colonial society."
In the weeks that followed Philip's ball, two young men entered Monier-Williams' office in the Red House one evening and, to his surprise, emptied a pail of warm tar over his head and then the contents of a large pillow case. It is of interest to note that they were both white...
Some sixty years later, in the 1930s, C.L.R. James wrote, speaking of his own time, "There are the nearly whites hanging on tooth and nail to the fringes of white society and these hate contact with the darker skin far more than some of the broader-minded whites. Then, there are the browns, intermediates, who cannot by any stretch of the imagination pass as white, but who will not go one inch towards mixing with people darker than themselves."
The society tortured itself, "writhing in the confines of the racist ideology of local and metropolitan whites," writes Prof. Bridget Brereton. Quoting historian Donald Wood, she notes, "the whole intricate experience of the Afro-European encounter since the renaissance, the stereotypes formed by slavery, the legacy of the master and slave relationship, the complex of prejudices and judgments which formed the white view of the 'negro character' during slavery a mixture of affection and contempt, patronage and fear was carried into the post-emancipation adjustment."
The people of mixed race, who had risen from poverty or, in some cases, never were there, they bought into the white attitudes while taking on board various European mores, styles and points of view as they could manage. They tried to disassociate themselves from the working class blacks. Writing letters to the press, asking government "to act more stringently against immoral drum dances, for the sake of the respectable coloured sector which, being coloured, was sometimes classed with the scum that took part in the dances".
The colonial experience created a definition of self-hate that was remarkable, profoundly segmenting the society. Calypso, ever the mirror of society, went:
"Dan is the devil, the devil is dan,
brown nigger more bad than baccraman
but black is the baddest in the land."
J.J.Thomas, a black educator who expressed strong racial pride, spoke out against the extent to which self-contempt and self-hatred existed in his fellow blacks. He condemned the internalising of European values with regard to their superiority. he wrote, "colour prejudice is a ladder with almost endless rungs. It is a system of social aggression and retaliation."
J.J. Thomas was insightful with regard to his concept of Afro-America. He recognised that there were common links binding all blacks in the New World, realising that it was and is in fact the black presence that defined the New World.
His writing influenced many of his contemporaries. One of them was Edward Blyden, the founder of "African Nationalism" and "Négritude". As Prof. Brereton points out:
"Many Trinidadians saw that race prejudices were not the monopoly of any one group. It was not, said J.J. Thomas, a matter of oppressing whites and oppressed blacks. Race prejudice and discrimination were practiced by all sectors, and the coloured and black middle class was the most shade-conscious of all."
The equation of whiteness with superiority had been thoroughly internalised by many educated coloureds and blacks and the consequences of this indoctrination were easily noticed. There were those self-styled whites who desperately tried to conceal their 'negro blood'. According to the radical coloured activist Edgar Maresse-Smith, Philip Rostant was one of those. He wrote to the press:
"Mr. Rostant, in defiance of his crisped hair and the copper colour of his skin, has elected to be a white man. This would be harmless folly if Mr. Rostant would persuade himself of his bequéism and allow others to think as they please. But he feels that he dupes no-one and therefore falls into convulsions as soon as the word 'African' is pronounced, for fear that a hyphen will be placed between himself and the detestable African race."
Maresse-Smith and Rostant were political enemies, and Dr. Brereton points out, "the accusation may well have been entirely untrue, but the letter describes what was probably a well-known phenomenon."
It is of interest to note that both of these men were ardent nationalists, staunch supporters of greater local representation in elected bodies and justice for the poor. J.J. Thomas pointed out that educated and respectable creoles of all skin tones shared a common love for their country and a common sense of identity. This was a view that was shared by many, as one contributor wrote:
"The descendants of the old French and Spanish families, whether they have preserved their distinctive idiosyncrasies by intermarriages among themselves, or have formed a distinct race by the intermingling of African blood, as well as those who form that portion of intelligent blacks who have of late come to the front, are now known and designated as Creoles. These different sections of the native population are now so well linked to each other by intermarriage and daily intercourse that they form a compact body."
Creole society in the colonial period was dependent on social stratification, both in terms of class and caste. The white upper class excluded those with a "touch of the tar brush", notwithstanding wealth, breeding or the lightness of his or her complexion. They also excluded other Europeans, deemed not socially white, such as the Portuguese or the Syrians for that matter, and many of their own countrymen who did not belong to their social order. On the other hand, the line between the black masses and the non-white middle class was class-consciousness.
A working class, black person from the lower levels of society could, through education and the making of money, move upwards amongst the blacks and coloureds who had acquired respectability, and as such had become teachers, civil servants, or journalists. One could say that there were three significant indications by which a person's class may have been defined. There is by and large a certain yardstick of values in the society in terms of which families may be judged and ranked. In the context of Trinidad, to believe in and subscribe to the idea of superiority in being white, of a command of European culture, and of having a place, real or imagined, in the European ranks of the nobility. Other factors such as land ownership, once having possessed slaves, acceptance as such amongst their peers.
Both the white creoles and the coloured and black educated, land-owning professionals, shared and practiced a broadly similar lifestyle, in that they both modelled themselves on the European upper and middle classes, and subscribed to their cultural and social values. The white creoles with more cash in hand could make a better show of it. For lower-class blacks, the masses, they lived an entirely different life in a world very far removed from their sometimes close neighbours or relatives for that matter.
Thus, the roots of the segmentation of the society were laid. To this day, they run deep, and as such may be manipulated by clever people to support their own ends. One should bear in mind that these prejudices were in the first place artificial and were perpetuated by the colonial power for the purpose of dominating a subject people. "Divide et impere"—divide and rule. We all must now know that those days are past and we must condemn those who would have them return!