Sunday 8 January 2017

Migration is Changing Trinidad’s Identity

Interview with Gerard Besson
Cultural researcher, historian, blogger, writer, and founder/director of Paria Publishing Company Ltd
by Trinidad Guardian Reporter Shereen Ali, September 1, 2016

In this land of many peoples and people of many ancestries, how do people see their ethnic heritage? How do they practice it, ignore it, or celebrate it?
On the occasion of our 54th year of independence from Britain, Guardian feature writer Shereen Ali spoke to T&T citizens of different backgrounds to ask how they see issues such as ethnicity, race and in some cases, their own uniquely diverse heritages. People, in their own words, helped paint a picture of an ever-changing, complex twin-island nation of many different ancestral influences.
Last week we heard from people of First Peoples ancestry. Yesterday and today, we hear from people who have European ancestry as part of their heritage. Today's contributions are from historian Gerard Besson, who describes himself as a mix of French Creole and African.

When you have to fill in a form asking you your race, what do you put?
I put “mixed”.

How do you see your ethnic roots & heritage? Is it important to how you define yourself, or is it irrelevant, an accident of birth?
I see myself as Afro-French Creole. It is important because it gives me a sense of identity. I see myself as being a part of the French/African-Creole, patois-speaking Catholic people of long ago.
But I think heritage goes beyond ethnicity. It goes to identifying yourself in terms of being a Trinidadian. And not only a Trinidadian, but for me, someone who was born and grew up in Port-of-Spain.

Do you celebrate your ethnic heritage, ignore it as irrelevant, or have mixed feelings about it?
I acknowledge and embrace my heritages. For example, in 1970 I empathised with Geddes Granger; I was only in my 20s at the time, but I understood deeply what the Black Power movement was about, and I empathised with it. It expressed itself in my work at the time. I didn’t ignore it.
And then on the other hand, at another time in my life, I went to France to see the village that my family had come from in the first place. It was a nice feeling to do that as well. So I think that I have celebrated both aspects of my heritages at some point in my life.
I also celebrate my ethnic heritages in the work I do as a historian. For instance, when I took an interest in the African part of my heritage I spent a few years researching the Rada people and Shango in Trinidad. I went to Haiti and to Brazil. I found great similarities.

Do you know about the beliefs and lifestyles of T&T people of different ethnic heritages from your own?
Yes. I’ve spent much time reading, researching and writing about people here. Dr Bridget Brereton and I, for instance, published a book in 1989 called “The Book of Trinidad”, really an anthology of different people’s writings and observations about T&T over the years. That book will give you a fairly good historical perspective.
And then, in a different kind of way, I recently published a historical novel on Trinidad called “Roume de Saint Laurent … a Memoir”. Roume is interesting because he was the person who was responsible to a considerable degree for the creation of a document called Cedula for Population. He was especially visionary for his time.
The significant thing about the Cedula for Population is that it enshrined the rights and the privileges of free black and coloured people in Trinidad. So that, yes, about 1,200 French European people came to Trinidad as a result of the Cedula, but 11,000 free black and coloured people also came! They were all French-speaking.
That document has been described by Professor Carl Campbell as the first Constitution of Trinidad. Because it spelt out the terms and conditions, in law, for people coming to living here. And it acted as precedent for many of the laws that came into existence subsequently. So much so that there is a distinguished jurist right now in Trinidad, retired, who is studying this particular document with a view to seeing how it has affected the evolution of jurisprudence in Trinidad.
I tell the story of Roume de Saint Laurent and his affairs and his adventures, but what I also do is publish the entire Cedula of Population, so people can get an understanding of the foundation of Trinidad. You see, people do not understand these foundational elements of our society.

Do you think race is important in T&T?
Race touches everything that we do.
T&T is a segmented society with a lot of overlaps, because of miscegenation over time — well, not a very long time when compared to Jamaica or Barbados, because both these islands are much older than Trinidad in terms of their colonial settlement. Tobago has a different history, its colonial experience is as old as Barbados.
Trinidad’s society came into existence suddenly. Before 1783 and the Cedula for Population, if can you imagine, the population was about 126 Europeans, a few hundred people of African descent, who were not really slaves because there was no industry, and a handful of Amerindians — tribal people.
From then on, with the advent of the Cedula and plantation slavery the population expanded.
Free blacks and coloured people as well as white French people brought slaves together with their own societal landscapes and political and religious views to Trinidad; as compared to Barbados and the older islands where the society developed over a long period, even though it was a period of slavery, their societies matured more slowly.
In Trinidad everything seems to have happened almost overnight. It went from a few dozen people in 1780s, to 50 years later, more than 50,000 people. So Trinidad began in a strange, unique way in itself.
Race in Trinidad is a very loaded topic. It morphs into politics very easily. And this is so, because of the movement for Independence, how that came about and who did it, and under which group it happened.
Because for a very long time, for some 200 and something years, Europeans controlled the economic landscape of Trinidad, and these white people were both local and foreign.
The local ones were in agriculture, mostly cocoa, and government service, and the foreign ones were in sugar, business and government. That is how it was. It was a society that was not as segregated as say Barbados, but still segregated in terms of class as well as race.
The black population, as it advanced, went into teaching, the Civil Service, law and medicine, and later gradually into other professions.
So those two groups, the local white group and the coloured, Afro group, controlled Trinidad completely.
They posessed a Creole identity. The Indians, who had arrived in 1845 to 1917 were largely confined to the countryside. For most of the 19th century, they often needed a pass to leave the estates – even if their indentureship was over.
All this changed after the world wars. After Independence, the children of the dominant groups began to go away to make a better life and a great many never came back. This was the French Creole people, mixed-race people, and people of African descent.
Trinidad has experienced in the last 50 or 60 years a demographic upheaval that no other island in the Caribbean has had, in that in the non-Indian population — this is in the Afro, mixed and other groups — say 500,000 or 600,000 people, over a third of that segment have gone away. And at the same time, about that same number of people have come from the other islands. That has been a blow to the identity that was formed from the 1780s to Independence.
No other island in the Caribbean has had the experience of hundreds of thousands of people going to it at the same time that so many people have left. The result of that is this:
The creole population, the product of the late 18th century and 19th century society, has had a huge dislocation caused by emigration and immigration.
This has produced a great disturbance within the cohesion of that group. A lessening of a Trinidadian identity. Now that is a serious issue. I notice that recently some social scientists are beginning to comment on it.
Now, insofar as the Indian side of the population is concerned, it has been argued that there were some events that made Indian people feel more intensely “Indian”, and less intensely “Trinidadian”, such as the black power movement of the 70s, being in political opposition, after Independence, for such a long time, what thirty years; the work of the various Indian religious orders whether it is in the context of Hinduism or Islam. The  appearance of Bollywood as well as the increase in business and wealth. There were many things that happened in the last 40—50 years in the Indian community that have made Indians feel more Indian, in a sense; while, in a contrary sort of a way, also more Trinidadian.
With the dislocation in the creole society taking place and with a deepening in the Indian society of an identity, the division has become more sharp and more obvious.
So there has been a dislocation in the society instead of the predominant races finding common ground with the sharing of identity. And this is what we see played out in politics. Because you don't see it played out in daily life, you don't see it played out in love affairs, you don't see it played out in business and work, it is played out in politics, where political parties go after their imagined constituencies.
So with Independence and the movement of people, the loss of a significant part of the Creole population, has meant that Trinidad has lost a lot of its Creole soul, and acquired, on the other hand, an increased Caribbean reality.
And you see it in the disappearance of certain cultural forms. Carnival is not as it was. The music — calypso — hardly exists anymore. You have to go in search of it in the tents. It has been replaced by other musical forms. Patois is no longer heard — and you have to bear in mind that up until the 1940s and 50s, a large amount of people in both Indian Trinidad and certainly Creole Trinidad — spoke this language.
Another important factor that has also impacted on identity was the end of the agricultural sector.
People see the agricultural sector from the perspective of today. And they only see Indian people – the world of the cane farmer.
In truth, the agricultural sector in the past was enormous. It included a lot of black and French Creole and mixed people. It existed for some 200 years.
But the ending of the agricultural sector was one of the things that undermined notions of identity which were built through the 19th century and into the first half of the 20th century.
One of the effects of the loss of the agricultural sector is a more compassionless society. Because when you have hundreds of thousands of people, whether they are Indian people, white people, mixed people or African people, who are devoted to the bringing up of livestock, who are devoted to gardening, market gardening, vegetable planting, to cocoa and coffee and so on, you have people who have a lot of love — for their animals and for their plants. You have to love your donkey!
So when you move hundreds of thousands of people out of that world of compassion, you create an increasingly compassionless society.
I think the agricultural sector died from the 1950s. The model that was introduced by Sir Arthur Lewis, the famous Nobel Prize-winning economist, in Trinidad, and through Dr Williams, saw a nation that would be modern and industrialised. It was a form of social engineering. A lot of these little islands in the Caribbean moved away from agriculture and went into tourism. It was considered modern, it was thought the thing to do. I do not believe it was the right thing.
So the combination of the end of the agricultural economy, the end of the railways (in itself a vast societal network of people who operated them), and then the displacement of so many people, in the emigration and immigration phenomena, created a dissonance and a collapse, a loss of identity.
You see, it was not only a brain drain; it was also a deep cultural drain. A lot of the identity of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century began to fall away.
And what that culture has been replaced with is something imported through television, through cinema, and through the importation of black American culture. And you see it expressed in dance music and gangland activity and so on.
So what has happened is that the society on the whole, as a result of the Independence movement, has suffered more than it has gained.
The Indian segment of the society, however, because of the isolation, of being 30-40 years in opposition, and being apart from the Creole society, because of their extended family support, the pursuit of independence though economic means, the pursuit of education (there are more Indians with tertiary education, a startling number of them young women, than anybody else), has produced a society within the society that owns an economy that is very, very large. Whereas the other side of the society does not possess an economy; there is no big Afro business there – it depends on the State.
So these are the differences in the society that create the movements and the tensions and the feel of the place.
Prof Selwyn Ryan wrote in one of his articles some time ago that for 150 years, the elements of the white society and elements of the black and coloured society dominated Trinidad, possessed a hegemony over Trinidad, and this hegemony is now decreasing at a rate. He startled a lot of people with that, but what he said was true. Immigration and emigration have changed the landscape of Trinidad. All this has had a deleterious effect on the identity-forming mechanisms of the society.
Notions of identity as a Trinidadian or a Trinbagonian are increasingly becoming something more important than just merely how you vote at election time.
I think that there's a generation of people who are growing up, not necessarily young young people, but people in their 30s or 40s, who are increasingly beginning to come to an understanding about their own identity in the concept of a Trinidad & Tobago.

Do you think different ethnicities have different values?
I think different people have different values. This is not a matter of ethnicity. I think the human race is possessed of the same yardstick where it comes to morals, ethics, values. I think they all possess the same thing. So it’s not ethnic.
People express these values differently depending on how they have been socialised.

How long have you/your family had roots here (best estimate)?
Both my mother and father’s antecedents have lived here for more than 200 years. They named Besson Street in east Port-of-Spain after my family – my father’s ancestor came to Trinidad in 1787. Boissiere Village is named for my mother’s people.

What do you like and dislike about T&T culture?
I like most things about our cultures, except the recent introduction of extremely loud music.
Also, in order to analyse important issues such as the impact of immigration and emigration, you have to have information available. And the Central Statistical Office in Trinidad is one of the places from where you do not get statistics (laughs).
I am 74 years old. And what I have seen in my adult life is an enormous change in Trinidad. I mean, when you take something like the Red House – 30, 40, 50 years ago or more, leaving a significant building like the Red House in a dilapidated state would have been a big uproar. Same thing with President’s House. Now, increasingly, there are fewer and fewer people who care about those iconic sites, because they don’t mean much to them.

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