by Gerard A. Besson
This abstract is based on conversations with five Trinidadians of European descent, three were men and two were women, all of whom were over 30 in 1970. Two of the men were company directors, the women were housewives. Three were Syrians, comprising two women, one was a housewife, the other worked in her husband’s business and one man who was a teenager in 1970 and worked in his father’s business. A Chinese woman who was in her twenties in 1970 who worked in a bank and whose father owned a shop, An Indian man, a national of India, who worked in Trinidad as a retailer in the period. And a Portuguese housewife whose husband worked in rum shop owned by a Portuguese family. Three other informants were interviewed, there were coloured, mixed race Trinidadians and two Black Trinidadians who do not consider themselves Afrocentric. Indo Trinidadians were not included.
The views of the ethnic minorities in T&T with regard to the Black Power disturbances of 1970 are varied depending on what was experienced by those individuals.
These were the Chinese, the Portuguese and the Syrian/Lebanese communities, the Indians (from India), the French Creoles, that is European-appearing persons with French, Irish, Italian or German names, and the English Creoles. Some of these were evolved, more or less, in trade or other forms of family-owned and operated businesses. Light-complexioned people in general, persons of mixed-race backgrounds who may have identified themselves as French Creole, Chinese, Spanish or other and Afro Trinidadians who did not identify with the Black Power movement, that involved demonstrations of thousands of people.
The most common emotion felt by most of the above was fear, and a sense of surprise that was mixed with a feeling of disappointment. The sense of fear was founded on the experience of the random violence that was known to take place during the steelband clashes of the recent past, forms of labour unrest, and the collective historical fear of Black people assembled en masse and organised as a riotous mob.
The sense of surprise and disappointment was founded mostly on the belief that with Independence in 1962, a new status quo had been achieved in which the intellectual and the professional Blacks would run the government, but the society and business would continue as before. There was as well the feeling that Trinidad, “Sweet, sweet, Trinidad” was gone forever.
Independence had come following the elections of 1961, in which an intense racial outburst by Dr Eric Williams, in his “Massa day done” speeches (1960-61) shocked the minorities in the population. In these discourses he deconstructed the European mythology of their racial superiority and attacked the European-descended population at large and the French Creoles in particular, wherein they were characterised as having inherited the guilt of 18th century slave masters.
In these discourses, the East Indians on the whole were portrayed by Dr. Williams as being at the beck and call (the shoe shine boys) of the European-descended members of the DLP and (nincompoops) marginal to the PNM’s revolution. Williams had in effect broken the taboo that had surrounded open and public discourse on race, in which derogatory views would be aired with regard to Europeans. In so doing, he had inaugurated “the Williams narrative.”
Taken aback by the impetus of the election campaign, the originality and the pertinence of some of the presentations and the extent to which the European leaders of the non-Black vote, i.e. Albert Gomes, Gerald Wight et al, had apparently been disgraced and put to flight, all the minorities appeared cowed and went along with the Williams interpretation of history and how it was applied to politics. Trust was invested and power achieved by this mostly Black party, the PNM,
In effect, it was understood that all segments in the population would have to be subordinate to the “National culture” of the “true inheritors”— Williams’ words, that is, of the Afro-Trinidadians. As such, it was generally believed that with the PNM in power, there was no need for a Black Power movement at all. Hence, the Black Power disturbances came as a surprise to many.
Perhaps mostly so to Black and coloured Trinidadians who could not involve themselves with the Black Power movement for a variety of reasons: amongst these because they felt it did not involve them at all, that it was a low-class movement for people who were thought of by them as “the niggers”, that it was of little or no concern to them in terms of advancement of their own personal Black awareness, that it may spoil relationships between them and Whites, that it was a youth movement involving the undisciplined and lawless elements, that is was against the Law, that it was disruptive of social and racial harmony, that it was against Christian religious principles, that it was against the PNM and Dr. Williams personally, or that it was just foolish and misguided and imported from America, that it would not achieve anything for Black people that education, self-sacrifice and hard work could not achieve, that the pursuit of ambitions and taking the opportunity to live abroad was an obvious and better choice. Many Blacks felt that that it was Black people fooling other Black people in their pursuit of power and self-aggrandizement, which was in itself dangerous, in that the Government may be overthrown and the communists would take over—bearing in mind that it was the middle of the Cold War, and communist regimes had taken control in other former colonies.
Moderate Blacks and coloureds were often intimidated, some felt fear, and that they were betraying their brothers and sisters. Many did not have it in them to participate, but realised that in not doing so, they were placed in a particular category and were described as Uncle Toms, stooges of the White people, the honkeys, and were called names like house niggers, cowards, fools, and as backward colonials, Afro Saxons.
There was outrage and a growing dissonance between Black youth on the whole and some of the Black middle class, as well as other Blacks who had pursued European mores, speech, dress, hair styles and cultural values, who had notions of respectability, that could not identify with the type of behaviour associated with youth movements expressed as Black Power. This behaviour had to do with overt racialism against Europeans in general and local Whites in particular, anger against White and foreign-owned businesses, radical attitudes to sexual conduct, dress, Afro hair styles, use of marijuana, adulation of revolutionary heroes like Ché Guevara, Stokeley Carmichael, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Fidel Castro, etc.
There was also an awkward dissonance being created between mainstream Blacks and the Whites, off-Whites and French Creoles. They were committed to the Afro/French Creole, British colonial way of life, which included Catholicism and Christianity on the whole, language (patois), the lifestyle of agriculture and stock-rearing, boating and fishing, work in various professions, and the retained memory of the previous century with its cultural mores that were mostly French-Antillean dominated. Despite their support for the PNM and Dr. Williams and the nationalist independence movement, they were hesitant to repudiate these cultural mores in exchange for Black Power, whose values threatened theirs so absolutely.
In the Chinese community, which twelve years earlier had numbered about eight thousand and included mixed-race people who identified themselves as Chinese and not as Black, many were restaurant, steam laundry, shop and parlor proprietors and other owner-operated concerns, some of whom dealt with the Black public “over the counter.” Several were professionals or worked in the banks, private enterprise or for other Chinese. They experienced Black Power in terms of fear, harassment, violent threats, intimidation and in a few cases physical violence. This community suffered financial losses during the period as business slowed and in some cases closed permanently. Several business places that were owned by Chinese families remained abandoned for years; others were reopened part time. Chinese families moved away from predominantly Black neighbourhoods where they had lived at times for more than one generation. After 1970 there ensued a steady emigration of Trinidad Chinese to Canada and other places.
With regards to the Portuguese, those who were still in the retail trade, shops, groceries and rum shops, also experienced financial loss, thuggery and verbal abuse, violent behaviour and threats that were similar to those levelled at the Chinese. Both these segments of the population had been in the retail trade running shops and rum shops for generations, trading in mostly in poor Black depressed areas, and were in the front line so to speak, of Black Power intimidation.
There had also been a large degree of miscegenation between the Chinese and Portuguese and their Black neighbours/customers. To what extent this played a role in the attacks against them is well worth exploring. It may be said that Black Power, 1970, reduced the involvement of both these sectors in the sale of food and alcohol, in the traditional sense, as there are few if any still engaged in trade. Indians seemed to have filled the gap.
Both these groups felt unjustly attacked as they were, in a manner, not unlike Blacks: excluded from White dominance of the society. When asked about the charge of exploitation by them of Blacks in terms of property loss because of extending credit, or sexual favours exchanged for money or kind, the feeling was that these were arrangements made freely and without force, and served the purpose at the time. There was a distinct move away from Black neighborhoods after Black Power. The Portuguese became increasingly socially White.
The Syrian/Lebanese community was severely affected financially by the disturbances. Their businesses were mostly located in the urban centres, downtown Port-of-Spain and San Fernando, in that there was a high degree of damage to property, intimidation of customers and staff and an almost complete collapse of sales during the months of January to May 1970 and afterwards.
Several of the downtown establishments owned by this community had benefited by the steady growth and development of the middle class of all sectors and had made substantial investments in clothing shops and manufacturing plants and modern merchandising and advertisement for their stores. This had involved large outlays of cash and loans from the banks, whose repayments required a steady cash flow. When this cash flow was disrupted, pressure was applied to the owners and layoffs were experienced by the employees.
There was a degree of harassment, intimidation and extortion experienced by the Syrians. Several properties were burnt in the urban areas; arson was a threat and often a reality. This segment continued in business notwithstanding the large-scale street protest and the ongoing damage to property, and in some cases was able to form accommodations with elements of the Black Power. There was a feeling of resentment against the Black population because of the perceived kindnesses and acts of generosity given to poor and needy Blacks. When asked about exploitation, low wages, racial discrimination, sexual harassment and exploitation, they agreed that these existed, but maintained that these were human failures and any race could be found guilty of these placed in the right circumstances and that this was not peculiar to them. There was not any marked emigration in this community, but there was a distinct hardening of racial animosity towards Blacks that it is claimed was not there before Black Power. Charity given to poor Blacks and others was maintained, in fact increased, by the Syrian-Lebanese Women’s Association.
The Indians from India who formed a small merchant community in the business district were adversely affected financially in much the same way as the above. Both communities, being in the dry goods trade, experienced a collapse in business in the several months of disturbances. There was fear of violence, business failure and of sexual assault.
The European-descended, mainly English and Scottish merchants who owned and operated the big firms, i.e. Geo F. Huggins, Alstons, T. Geddes Grant, Gordon Grant and a dozen others, including the large department stores Stephens, Fogarty’s, Millers, Glendinning’s, Woolworth, were like the Syrians immediately affected financially by a collapse of sales. In the case of the retailers the effect was immediate, in the case of the wholesalers this was accumulative. As wholesale suppliers to small outlets, they were increasingly unable to deliver/supply their customers.
The fear of violence directed against them and their families had begun in the anti-White diatribes of the “Massa day done” politics of Dr. Williams, when it was remembered that he had “given them (his supporters) permission to cut their throats” and when he had said that “history used as the murderous weapon it can be”. Connected to Britain’s international markets, this segment was acutely aware of what was taking place in other parts of the Commonwealth with regard to racial/political upheavals and the threat of communist takeover, the Cold War being on everybody’s mind. There was a sense of guilt for past wrongs, and an admittance of racism, but it was explained that it was the times and that times were changing worldwide.
There was a feeling of confidence in the White Acting Police Commissioner, Peter May, and a police force that was perceived as loyal to the Government. With a justice system that was known to work, things would work out.
There was also the feeling that because of the oil fields, the Americans or British Governments would not let things go from bad to worse. There was a surprising amount of confidence in Dr. Williams who was thought of as not communist, but as a supporter of business interest, and also as a very clever and resourceful man. A large number of the White business community as well as French Creole families were supporters of the PNM. Party Group 13 was situated in Goodwood Park, an upscale, predominantly White area.
Several of the directors/owners of these businesses took the precaution of sending their wives children and relatives to Barbados or to the offshore islands during the disturbances.
The French Creole families, which numbered some 1500 persons, several of whom worked in the banks, in Government officers, in private firms, the cane estates and in the oil companies, or as professionals and as managers in the large companies, experienced fear and believed that their time in Trinidad may be over this time for good. As with the British merchants, they saw the Black Power uprising as an extension of the postcolonial experience of Nationalism that had replaced the legitimacy of Crown Colony Rule in the British Empire, which had safeguarded them as a remnant community in the colonies, a leftover from another time.
It was felt that between the Williams independence movement, the PNM, and now the Black Power movement, a profound breakdown of the Afro/French Creole culture had occurred, and that they were caught in the middle of the loss of this century and a half old culture. The start of a new Nationalist movement that would not include them, which was destroying all that was good and what they knew and trusted as real, had taken root and would grow menacingly.
The eight years between Independence in 1962 and the Black Power uprising in 1970 was a relatively short period in which a chasm, producing a deep dissonance, was created between themselves and what they had considered to be “their people”: the Black and coloured Trinidadians who operated/functioned in stereotyped roles in their daily lives and with whom there existed complicated relationships of kinship, dependence, paternalism, friendship, sport, camaraderie, exploitation and a myriad of relationships.
There was by no means a total breakdown between these groups, the Black and coloured and the French Creoles and other Whites, during and after the disturbances. Some say that it was only after a generational change that this was brought about, and very gradually in fact. There was, however, a certain amount of damage done, which was experienced in a collapse of trust and confidence on both sides during this period and after. Black Power to many marked the end of the Creole era in Trinidad, and the beginning of Trinidad and Tobago acquiring a more Caribbean reality.
The French Creole group as well as the English Creoles tended to start making plans to move away from Trinidad and Tobago. A great many of the owners of the big firms moved out of the country, several of them who had owned homes in which they lived when visiting, sold out, and in some cases never returned. The French Creoles with less resources per se made plans to start to send their children abroad and pay more attention to their education, preparing them to live abroad in various ways, trips visits to relatives, etc.
Black Power generated resentments with new nuances towards Blacks in general that were felt and displayed by all the minority groups. All felt that it was unnecessary, an unwelcome display of anger, intolerance, racism, societal discord and violence that achieved little or nothing that would not have come about over time.
The ethnic minorities of Trinidad felt that Black Power was about jealousy, and getting jobs in banks and in the trading houses and in other places. The minorities felt that it was largely imported from abroad, the USA, and was a dangerous juvenile fad that had caught on in Trinidad. Many felt that it would be relatively easy for them to go away and be successful where ever they went, and only those left behind would suffer as in Guyana and in other former colonies that had lost its entrepreneurial/business class.
Some minorities told stories of anger and defiance to intimidation, taking great pride in “putting people in their places” and facing down would-be attackers. Others remember only the great curfew parties. Some felt that some Black people benefited from the Black Power uprising personally, and that it was really an extension of the Independence movement that was good for the country on the whole. Some remarked that it was good for the marginal people, the pass-for-Whites/coloureds who could now say with pride that had Black ancestors.
Some believed that Black pride had been defined for a generation of Blacks at the expense of national harmony. Some supposed that what was gained by Black Power was lost in the oil booms that followed. Most felt that that Black youth had not benefited in the long run, because it was the start of law-breaking with a sense of righteousness, a sense of entitlement unearned or undeserved, and an even greater collapse of the work ethic. Justice was not served as so many of the perpetrators of arson and violence walked free of what was seen as treason. All groups mentioned that there had been an increase of drug use and the start of serious police corruption in the wake of Black Power. It was also mentioned that in the aftermath of Black Power, the Police Welfare Association of the Second Division was able to negotiate a forty-hour work-week, and that this changed how the Police functioned in terms of duty, professionalism and being seen as corruption-free.