By Gérard A. Besson
When asked to write on independence I remembered a line in the foreword of a book of Angelo Bissessarsingh’s that read, “. . . Angelo is concerned with legacy. Legacy in this case meaning both what is received and what is passed on.” Then, someone rang up to ask what I thought about the renaming of Queen Street in Port-of-Spain. I felt that the one had to do with the other:
The roots of our indifference.
Our history is unlike that of other islands in the Caribbean. Trinidad, not Tobago, did not have as long a gestation in the womb of colonialism as say Barbados or Jamaica, which commenced their social and economic development before the 1600s. Caribbean slave societies, sugar economies with mostly ethnically homogenous populations, they matured through a long history of societal gestation.
In the case of Trinidad, our disparate and even then segmented population arrived suddenly from 1783 with the Cedula for Population. Before that, Trinidad was an almost deserted island. Not Tobago. From 1783, Europeans and Black people who were not enslaved and those who were arrived, mostly from the French islands. Many were refugees, political enemies and strangers to each other. Some had actually been involved in the slaughter of the relatives of the people next to whom they lived in Port-of-Spain. After the British conquest of 1797 to this milieu were added Chinese, Portuguese and African freedmen. Then, after much miscegenation, some decades later, Indian indentureship commenced, and latterly the Lebanese and Syrians arrived. It was, in the majority, an Afro-French–Creole society from which the Indian segment was kept separate and who themselves maintained separateness. It served the interest of the British colonial administration to maintain these divisions.
In spite of this segmentation, which still exists, Trinidad and Tobago had a really good start. Although there was great inequality and institutionalised racial prejudice that kept everybody in their respective places, the colonial period did actually put into place the mechanisms that formed the bedrock for the democratic institutions of today. Compared to many other newly independent nations of the 1950s and 60s, Trinidad and Tobago has done, in that regard, remarkably well.
The divisions that shaped our colonial experience have continued to blight our post-independence existence. This is so because of the politics of independence, which did not take sufficient consideration of the assimilation of the Indian-descended population that had been in Trinidad for over 100 years and then represented over one third of the population. It was not taken to heart by the shapers of the independence movement, who were Creole people of a generation born in the 1910s. They behaved as though the Indians were transients who had outstayed their welcome and would somehow return to India. The Colonial Office, knowing that the Indo-Trinidadian politicians had a very shallow professional and intellectual base and were not familiar with the Civil Service, tended to favour the independence movement.
Dr. Eric Williams’ personality was in many ways formed by 19th century notions, and his academic study of African slavery had shaped his worldview. He appears to have had, personally, a heightened sense of victimhood. All this he turned into the politics of entitlement, which were readily accepted. That, coupled with his belief that guilt could be inherited, served to alienate the European segment in general and the French Creole and off-white community, to which he was connected, in particular. Thus one form of racism was replaced with another.
We are still living out, in our social life and in our politics, Williams’ divisiveness. Independence did not create a unity of identity; it merely gave us the right to elect politicians from the tribal elements. There lies the challenge for future leaders.
When people change, things loose their relevance.
Here are two examples of what has further contributed to our inability to arrive at a commonly held sense of identity, which should have given us a commonly shared belief in the idea of legacy.
First. Over the last 55 years, we have had an experience that no other Caribbean island has had. Of the more or less 50 percent of the population who are not of Indian descent, more than a third have gone abroad. These emigrants were mostly urban, secondary school educated, more or less middle class. Not to say that Indians haven’t emigrated as well, but not in any significant quantity.
At the same time, about the same amount of people or more than that of those who left, have come from the islands of the Caribbean. Those immigrants’ backgrounds were mostly rural and primary school educated.
This unique demographic transformation has impacted on Trinidad and Tobago politically, socially and culturally, and has significantly diminished the identity of the Afro-Creole sector. More than a ‘brain drain’, it was a deep cultural alteration within the context of the local Afro-Creole culture. The fruit of that culture, produced throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th century, have emigrated, taking their legacy with them. And this is why there are fewer and fewer people to whom the state of the Red House, President’s House or if Queen Street changes its name, has any relevance. When people change, things lose their relevance.
In the Indian-descended segment, now in their fifth or sixth generation of being born Trinidadians, a burgeoning business and professional class has developed, producing a growing middle class, possessed of a large tertiary-educated cohort.
On the other hand, the decline in intellectual capital amongst the Afro-Creole segment through emigration and immigration has led to the shrinking of their middle class, and to what Professor Selwyn Ryan understands as “the loss of hegemony” of that segment, resulting in what economist Dr. Terrence Farrell describes as an “underachieving society” also in that particular segment.
It is ironic that the independence movement, which was crafted mainly for the advancement of the Afro-Creole sector, has seen such decline while the marginalised Indo-Trinidadian sector has advanced.
The second factor that has negatively impacted on our collective identity as a people, certainly on discipline and on productivity, was the end of the agricultural economy. Agriculture in Trinidad and Tobago prior to independence was large, racially inclusive and very diverse. It had existed for 200 years, and gave us shared notions of identity, built through the 19th century and into the first half of the 20th.
For example; there were 13,000 acres planted in citrus that produced 432,000 crates of citrus in 1954. Bananas saw 45,546 stems exported in 1953. Rice production from 288 mills drawn from 18,000 acres produced 12,000 tons of rice. Forest production reserves in 1953, 49,000 acres; protected reserves, 194,900 acres; sugar estates’ cane acreages, 36,000. Farmers’ cane acreages, 44,000; number of farmers, 111,000.
Coconuts, 40,000 acres under cultivation produced 21,400 tons of copra valued at $1,840,509 in 1953. Our famous cocoa had 120,000 acres under cultivation, this produced 200,000 cwt of cocoa in 1954. Can you imagine the work, the productivity, the discipline, and the compassion that all this engendered?
One of the effects of the loss of the agricultural sector is that we have become a compassionless society. When you have hundreds of thousands of people, whether they are Indian, white, mixed-race or African people, who are all devoted to the bringing up of livestock, market gardening, vegetable planting, cocoa and coffee cultivation 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! Which brings us to livestock: in 1954, there were 37,900 cattle in Trinidad and Tobago, 3,000 water buffaloes, 39,000 goats, 5,000 sheep, 35,000 pigs, 2,400 horses, 2,800 mules and 6,000 donkeys.
When things lose their relevance, their meanings change.
The social transformation caused by emigration and immigration within the Afro-Creole segment, in combination with the destruction of the agricultural economy as well as other factors, created a profound dissonance in the body politic and in commonly held ideas of identity and a shared understanding of legacy.
This dissonance causes us to honour Angelo Bissessarsingh with national awards for his preservation of legacy on the one hand, but to erase, with impunity, the historical street names of our capital city on the other.