Sunday 8 January 2017

A Very Short History of the Press in Trinidad & Tobago

Samuel Carter, editor of the "New Era", a newspaper that was published in Trinidad in the 1870s, remarked in an editorial "A Crown Colony is a despotism tempered by the Press . . . In Trinidad, more than in any of the other Colonies, has the existence of the independent Press been an absolute necessity; in none has it done more good". This insightful remark may be regarded as an excellent example of the saying that the more things change the more they remain the same.
The history of the media in Trinidad and Tobago is almost as old as the modern history of these islands—modern history in the sense that in Spanish times, 1498 to 1797, there was not much development socially or economically. It was with the advent of the Cedula of Population of 1783 that a society, so to speak, started to formulate itself in Trinidad, so that seventeen years later, when a squadron of British Man-of-War landed troops at Invaders Bay, right next to MovieTowne, and the Union Jack went up a few days later at Fort San Andres by the Light House in Port of Spain, one could say that the modern era of Trinidad's history had commenced. Tobago has a different story, a much older one that winds its way back to the days of the Pirates and the Buccaneers of the late 16th century, passing from hand to hand among the European powers of the day to finally become a part of the British Empire in 1813.
One could hazard the guess that the "Tobago Times" was, if not the first, certainly among the earliest newspapers published there. Some of the first advertisements to appear in 1807 tell the tale of those times "By the undersigned, a Saddle Horse, who has been a short time in the country; he is well broke and trackable; he has no vice or fault that the subscriber knows of, the reason for parting with the horse is, his intention of very shortly quitting the colony. Signed Neil Stewart, N.B. Rum will be taken in payment." (March 1807.) And: "For sale by the subscriber, a healthy negro wench from Barbuda; she is a good washer, and was sent here by her owner for sale, only on account of his great want of money." He goes on to advertise: "A few pipes of London 'particular' Madeira Wine, New Foundland codfish in 3, 6, and 8 quintal casks. A few barrels of beef and the same of Lamp Oil . . ." And in the news of the day: "A French privateer appeared off the North side of the island on Wednesday and captured the drogher sloop JOHN belonging to Mr. Robert Hay. She soon fell in with His Majesty's Brig "Attentive", whom she endeavoured to bring to. We are informed the "Attentive" suffered her to approach within pistol shot, when she gave her the contents of her broadside, upon which the Frenchman, finding his mistake, sheered off. From her great superiority in sailing the privateer made her escape. We are happy, however, to learn the sloop was retaken."
And in a letter to the editor of September of that year we read: "We had here a deluge of rain yesterday. Courland River overflowed its usual boundaries more than ever known perhaps, since Noah's flood. A negro boy was carried away to sea, and has not since been heard of. Great damage has been done to provision gardens on the banks of the river."
In Trinidad, there were over twenty-five newspapers published during the 19th and into the first decades of the 20th century. These tended to reflect the nature of the segmented society of the day. There were papers that carried the views of the so-called English party, who, when not offended by the noisy and boisterous character of the natives, were principally concerned with the opinions of the local British Establishment—meaning the vested interest of the merchants, planters and bankers, whose interest were in turn closely linked to those of the occupants of Government House, and ultimately to the Gentlemen of the City of London, which was, in those times, the financial capital of the whole world. 
Then there was the concerns of the French Creoles, who were in a perpetual state of feeling put upon by the British Establishment and who, when not discussing the price of cocoa or the upgrading of their pedigrees by marrying their cousins, were expressing the conviction that they represented the bona fide Trinidadian point of view, having been here from before the British, and as good Catholics were convinced that God was on their side. Using the Press, they maintained the struggle for equal opportunity, promotions, and pay increases for everyone of their complexion.
Not to be outdone, the rising coloured educated, professional middle class felt constantly aggrieved, slighted, and socially embarrassed by being marginalised despite advances made in elocution, piano playing, deportment, cake icing, paper flower making, Sunday school going and all the other things necessary to arrive at being considered socially respectable in the eyes of the British, who in truth did not pay any attention to them, or any one else, at all. The Portuguese were few in number and not considered socially white and as such had neither voice nor vote. There were no Indian newspapers, as there was no market for them as very few Indians could read English. No one even thought of the poor Chinese, and the Syrians had not yet arrived in Goodwood Park.
That being the case, the Media Wars of the 19th and early 20th century were fought out mostly by the above. To give some samples of what occupied the minds of some of our ancestors, there are recorded in Dr. Bridget Brereton's excellent "Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad" some of the more fascinating discourses like: "In social life," wrote one reporter, "the non-white middle class had much to complain of. A correspondent to the Telegraph [that's a newspaper of the day that supported black and coloured interest] wrote that no amount of wealth or education enabled a man in Trinidad to enjoy social prestige, if he lacked 'the correct tinge' . Planters of wealth, merit, and character were 'tabooed', being without the 'colonial passport'. . . more potent than education, habits, principles, behaviour, wealth, talent, or even genius itself". 
Then there was William Herbert, a very well known and highly respected black Barbadian. He was the owner of several newspapers: "The Trinidad Press', the"Trinidad Colonists" and the "Telegraph" mentioned above. He was very active in local politics and a Mayor of Port-of-Spain (he had a street in St Clair named for him), and was considered to be 'the chief educator of public opinion' locally. He used his papers to defend the African race, to the extent that the black and coloured middle class perceived him as a champion of their cause.
Samuel Carter was a well known Free Mason; he also owned more than one paper. He may have started with the "New Era" which he left in 1874, but soon bought the "San Fernando Gazette". Originally a Tobagonian, he had come to Trinidad in 1856 and had served on the San Fernando Borough Council for some time. Both these men, Herbert and Carter, apart from being newspaper editors and seeking the interest of the black and coloured people of the colony, also involved themselves in the public affairs of the time. 
Thin-skinned and constantly on the lookout for stormers, Protestants, parvenus, and pass-for-whites who wanted to get into their act, the French Creoles were extremely sensitive on all points of honor. As born-again aristocrats (first in France and then on a much higher plane in Trinidad), they were often offended by newspaper editorials written by editors who dared to cross swords with them by insulting their sentiments or cuticle. These were publicly attacked and assaulted as in the case of W.R. Gawthorne of the "Star of the West" some four times, and once or twice in the case of T.R.N. Laughlin (an Irishman and a relative of some of the French Creoles) of the "Port-of-Spain Gazette".The English were often on their case, suggesting that they were not "loyal to the Crown". With perhaps a little too much cocoa in the sun, "The Public Opinion", the paper owned and supported by the French Creole community that was edited by French Creole journalist Joseph de la Sauvagère, responded with indignation, and, perhaps protesting a trifle too much, hastened to dismiss the notion. Just imagine, that anyone could think that THEY were foreign and could be less loyal than those of British descent! Well, depui mama fai me, mea nom paca bam mea bois, which means: you have to sleep with fowls to if they snore. 
They all chorused, "Trinidad is to a large extant French in feeling, in manners, nay even in language. . . A large portion of our fellow-colonists are of French descent and while making good and honourable British citizens, they are still 'Enfants de la Patrie'." 
Some French Creoles were on the leading edge of the radical Press of the day, for example Philip Rostant, who stands out as the most radical political leader in the later years of the 19th century. It is Dr. Brereton's view in her aforementioned book that "he expressed and exaggerated the hostility of the French Creole old families against the English, and he developed a kind of anti-colonilaism which aligned all respectable colonists, white, coloured and black, against British officialdom and expatriate firms." Which, I suppose, makes him enormously attractive to people looking for anti-British sentiment in the colonial past. 
To most of his relatives he was a pest, and a constant source of embarrassment. He was attached to, and at times owned, some of the leading anti-English establishment newspapers and journals such as "Public Opinion", "Reform" and the "San Fernando Gazette". Lucien Ambard owned the "Port-of-Spain Gazette", which was edited by his mulatto son A.P.T. Ambard. This paper became synonymous with all forms of paper, "Gazette Paper" was used for everything—wrapping fish, papering walls, and in the lavatory. "The Trinidad Guardian" and the "Evening News" came into existence in 1917. A relative newcomer, it was owned by the most wealthy and influential men of the day, Sir George F. Huggins, Sir Lennox O'Reilly, Mr. D. McBride and Mr E. Fitt. Its first editor was Mr. Courtney E. Hitchins. This highly reputed broad sheet became known as the "Old Lady of St. Vincent Street"; no one one knows why. By far the most scandalous paper of the early 20th century was Tony de Boissière's "Callaloo". In this very yellow press, all the intimate dirty laundry of the upper-crust was washed under public scrutiny, giving rise to the lyrics of some of the era's more scandalous calypsos.
The English colonials were avid writers of letters to the editor. Their complaints at time would focus on the character of the locals, describing them as lazy, mostly drunk, superstitious, dishonest and sly. At Carnival time, there would be a dozen letters to the editor complaining of the noise made by the fêtes, suggesting that Carnival was barbaric and disruptive to social order, and should be prohibited.
However, the British Empire was by far the most liberal empire of its day. It possessed an admirable sense of confidence, and that allowed for its citizens to say and do what they pleased, within the framework of the law, of course. That being the case, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression, in calypso for example, became enshrined in custom and law as this nation became independent in 1962. These freedoms are not to be taken for granted. Being free to express our varied points of view in the Press for some two hundred years does not mean that they cannot be taken away. It is a responsibility that we must all shoulder and if it becomes necessary, defend, but freedoms all come with responsibilities and these too must never be taken for granted. 

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