Wednesday 13 September 2017

The 18th century Brigand War in the Caribbean

Perhaps if you have the kind of romantic imagination that is now going out of style you may feel yourself drawn towards a Caribbean experience that goes beyond being baked to a crisp while becoming charmingly incoherent after of your seventh rum-punch.  If this is at all the case you may want to learn something about a topic that just a mere two hundred or so years ago made hearts race and brave men think hard about finding a place to hide. No, I am not talking about hurricanes. I am talking about an episode in our past that was called the Brigand War and especially some of the personalities that shaped that period.
Historians have said that these Antialien islands are a product of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. What they mean is that as the 18th century came to a close disputes that had their origins in Paris, London or Madrid were settled right here on these sandy shores or upon that crystal clear horizon, that with a bit of luck, you might not only see the fabled green flash illuminate the day’s end, but actually catch it on your iphone so as to put it on face-book.
One of the more outstanding events to take place in that period was the advent of a man called Victor Hugues.  The European wars for territories in the Caribbean reached boiling point in the 1790s. The French Revolution of 1789 served to add civil war to the equation. Turbulence and violence, political upheaval and revolt reigned throughout the string of islands. From Grenada, to St. Vincent, though to St. Lucia, Dominica, Guadeloupe and among the maroons - former slaves who had taken to the Blue Mountains of Jamaica’s central range. And most violent and catastrophic of all, in Saint-Domingue now known as Haiti.
This ‘ring of fire,’ which was in fact the effect of the Age of Enlightenment upon the western world, sought to bring an end to the dominance of both altar and throne. It had commenced in North America, under George Washington, as the descendants of immigrants there battled against British control, and would continue with Simon Bolivar until the Wars of Liberation brought an end to Spanish domination in south America.
There had been fierce fighting  in the Eastern Caribbean for some years. This was characterized by battles at sea whose very names – the Battle of the Saints, the Battle of Cape St Vincent or the Battle of Grenada– conjure the choking odors of grapeshot, black powder and battle ablaze, as seventy eight gun frigates fought it out against magnificent sunsets of legendary splendor. 
In 1794, British troops took Martinique. A month or two later, they landed in Guadeloupe. There, for the first time, they came up against Victor Hugues, a former shop owner and minor merchant of Port-au-Prince on the island of Saint-Domingue, now called Haiti. It was said that he had been born at Marseilles, France, perhaps in 1760. He had a grasp on learning it was said and like so many young men he yearned to travel. He shipped aboard a merchantman as a cabin boy, sailing the trade routes on the Atlantic run. He often wintered in the Antilles, enjoying the wealthy mulatto lifestyle of the parvenus and the debaucheries of the harbour towns.
He is remembered as a raucous fellow of a huge sexual appetite, who tended to attract the young, naive and impoverished whites.  A thirst for knowledge and the pursuit of belonging made him seek the membership in an esoteric, pseudo-masonic order, called ‘Societé d’Harmonie’. He became the leader, some say even the Robespierre of the French Revolution in the Caribbean. He sailed from Marseilles armed with republican fever, gold, a handful of loyal henchmen and a guillotine.  Hugues was a daring man; people said that he was coloured and hated the ‘békés’, for being placed by them beyond the diameter of society despite his grasp of culture and his intelligence.
The squadron under his command attacked the British in 1795 in Basseterre and forced them out of Guadeloupe by the end of that year. His reign of terror took the lives of over one thousand royalists.
Victor Hugues then set to work to exterminate the monarchists and drive the British out of the Windward and Leeward islands as well as convert people of these islands  to the cause of the French republican revolution. He dispatched agents to St. Vincent to stir up the population there, then sent in Jacobin irregulars on the heels of the agents, and before long the English were hardpressed to keep the capital Kingstown, while the French, made up of black and coloured troops, and the Carib Indians overran and held the rest of the island. In Tobago, there was serious cause for alarm. Now once again in British hands, the African slaves, most of them French speaking with connections in other islands, had already been indoctrinated by the revolutionary fervour that had swept the islands, causing Scarborough to be burnt. Tobago’s planters were asking for a ‘stout frigate to be stationed in Great Courland Bay.
Hugues dispatched his agents to Jamaica, where for the third time a full-fledged war was being waged between the maroons, these were slaves who had freed themselves, and the occupying British troops. They were so heavily engaged that no reinforcements could be sent from Jamaica to relieve General Maitland’s fever-stricken English soldiers in Saint-Domingue who were attempting to take that island from the African slaves who were in revolt under a charismatic leader known to history as Toussaint Louverture. By 1798, the English were compelled to leave that island, while in Jamaica, the black maroons had to be accommodated after a truce was arranged high up in the cockpit country of the blue mountains.
Victor Hugues, undaunted, turned to Grenada, where there was tension between the English and the French speaking free colourds. He was a genius at sowing division and a brilliant manipulator! His agents promoted revolt in Grenada. They were followed by picket men, who built up cells or small cadres. Then, soldiers were brought in. A coloured Grenadian planter, Julien Fedon, was chosen as leader. An army of French and free blacks was formed, and then revolutionary troops were sent in from Guadeloupe.
The rising under Fedon broke out at midnight of 2nd March, 1795. They surrounded the town of Grenville and commenced a massacre that to this day is still remembered. After fighting off the British for more than a year Fedon withdrew to his estate Belvedere, 2000 ft above sea level on the sumit of Mt. St. Catherine. He established three camps, named them the ‘Field of Liberty’,  the ‘Field of Equality’ and the ‘Field of Death’. Soon the governor and his staff had been taken, and Fedon warned that any attempt to attack the island would mean their death.
Meanwhile, Victor Hugues was attempting to destabilise Trinidad, and to demoralise Don José Maria Chacon, the Spanish  governor. He offered to send his men to ‘help’ the governor to ‘control’ the island. Chacon in Trinidad responded by sending a few Spanish soldiers to join the British in Grenada in their planned attack on Fedon’s mountain fortress.
Terrible rainstorms lashed Grenada on the day that Fedon’s encampment was attacked. The English troops were pinned down by relentless fire from above. Fedon’s troops felled huge trees. The English commander inexplicably killed himself. Yet the attack was maintained.
At the ‘Field of Death’ a terrible massacre had taken place. The hostages were executed. The governor’s wife and daughters, his aid and accompanying officers were all killed in a hail of bullets. Some 55 persons died. There were a few survivors, among them Dr. John Hay, Fr. McMahon and a Mr. Kerr.
The British armed a contingent of loyal slaves, the ‘Corps of Loyal Black Rangers’, and pursued Fédon’s men while garrisoning St. Georges. In April, Sir Ralph Abercromby arrived in Grenada with troops and attacked the mountain stronghold. He defeated Fedon there, but not before another 20 hostages had met their deaths.
None saw Fédon die. He was last seen trying to sail away in a small boat and is said to have drowned. Thus ended the Battle Mt. Qua Qua.

Over 150 years later, in the latter part of the 20th century, Grenada again experienced revolution, overthrow and massacre of more than 100 citizens at the fort in St. Georges. Is this a case of history repeating itself? Or is this a matter of unresolved issues playing themselves out? It is said that people who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it.

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Monday 11 September 2017

Review of "The Cult of the Will" by Dr. Selwyn Ryan

It is perhaps a coincidence that the publication of Gerard Besson's controversial book, The Cult of the Will, should occur at the same time as the defeat of the People's National Movement (PNM) in the recently concluded general elections. The book is also being outdoored at a time—Friday 9—when the Eric Williams Memorial Lecture is scheduled to be delivered at the Central Bank. One of the basic arguments of the book is that Eric Williams and the PNM are "dead" or, if not, deserve to be. 

The book consists of two basic parts. The first deals with rise and fall of the family of Francois Besson to which the author belongs. That family portrait is however not a vain exercise. Drawing on a wealth of documentary data, including wills, Besson fashions a tapestry of the black and white French creole community in Grenada and later in Trinidad from which one learns a great deal.  
The second part of the book deals, inter alia, with wills and Williams, and argues that wills had a lot to do with who got what in Trinidad's racially stratified society. It argues further that two wills in particular, involving Eric Williams and his white forbears, had a significant impact on the post independence politics of Trinidad and Tobago. 
Our analysis is confined to three of the books main arguments. The first is that Eric Williams and his intellectual patron, CLR James, wilfully and deliberately conspired to produce a contrived account of the British anti-slavery movement which Williams misused for political purposes. According to Besson, a significant aspect of the narrative, much of which is found in Capitalism and Slavery and The History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, tends to stereotype the European planters and their descendents as "villains", and characterises the African slaves, and latterly their descendants, as "victims". 
Besson's argument is that Williams consciously revised the British narrative about the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation to counter the conventional version which anchors the anti-slavery movements in British humanitarian concerns.  
Williams claimed that he had unmasked a "gross historical lie" and had unmasked "a great academic conspiracy" which had lent credibility to the British claim that they were humanitarians who had a moral right to govern and civilise the colonies. 
These arguments have, of course, long been the subject of academic argument and counterargument. For Besson, however, they are not matters that concern only academics. They have had great political consequences for Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean. As he complains, Dr Williams would carry his conspiracy theory about the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation forward into his political life.
He would develop a political programme that would exploit these ideas. His revisionist narrative pilloried the European population in Trinidad and Tobago not only as descended from slave owners, but also of inheriting their guilt, while ignoring the complicity of the Africans who had sold their fellow Africans in exchange for trade goods. 
Besson makes two other basic points which are germane to his argument. One is that Williams' neurotic behaviour was informed by hostility to the white creole group to which his family belonged. In sum, his personality was misshaped by his belief that his family were "victims of the Will". The complaint was that the family was robbed or deprived of the various bequests that were made by their white relatives. 
This obsessive reaction was projected unto the "true inheritors" of history's bequest, viz the Afro-creole masses. His politics was thus about "revenge" and racial entitlements. "He conveniently forgot that his own forbears, his father's people, had been slave owners." 
Besson further argues that his "massa day" diatribe in 1960-61 was an attempt to exorcise his demons. It also excited the gullible and those inclined towards anti-white and anti-Indian racism. 
As Besson writes, "the Afro-creole masses would inherit what he and his family could not. He may possibly have seen his personal history as the country's destiny. He utilised political control to compensate the Afro-Creole population for the inheritance that they had long been denied. This was the basis of Williams' interpretation of the ideal welfare state, and would later form an integral part of the political culture of the PNM and of the entire country over the next 50 years." 
Besson's third thematic argument is that the paradigm that emerged from his version of history and which shaped the post independence politics of Trinidad and Tobago has now run its course. It is now time, he argued, to articulate an integrated New World narrative which treats all constituent groups as part of a whole. 
All should be beneficiaries of the will, figuratively speaking. As he argues, and we quote him at some length, "the PNM's version of who was legitimate politicised victimhood and guilt and the scapegoating of certain of its members…and served to erode ethnic harmony, respect for law and order and notions of moral and civic responsibility in the collective mind of contemporary society. The Williams narrative has contributed to the feeling that everything is outside the law and is up for grabs or reinterpretation. Many civil institutions (the police force, the administration of justice, the education system) have lost credibility and are hardly capable of conveying meaning or confidence in civil society." 
In sum, Williams and the PNM are seen to be largely responsible for most of our past and present discontents. Salvation lies in exposing the fallacies and the policies that emerge therefrom. Besson claims support in the experiences of Obama who, in his Audacity of Hope, also called for a new moral dispensation. As Obama had argued, "the role of victim was too readily embraced as a means of shedding responsibility, or asserting entitlement or claiming moral superiority over those not so victimised". 
There are some who would dismiss the book a as an anti-PNM rant, which would be a mistake. 
The book does debunk as myth a lot of what Williams and his supporters have said and did. There is however much in the book that is of great interest and which one would find intellectually provocative. It should spark public debate. The mood of the country in fact parallels some of the arguments of the book. 
It is also clear that while Williams was responsible for much that was positive about our national development, we are also paying the price for some of the behaviours which he authorised and legitimised.  
It is however too easy to blame almost everything that has gone wrong on the Williams narrative. Williams was part of a worldwide anti-colonial movement. His Massa Day Done rhetoric and his personal and cultural hubris fed on this worldwide Bandung spirit which would have flourished, stolen bequest or no stolen bequest. The discourse about the cult of the will make interesting reading, but is made to carry too much of the burden of what could be explained in other ways as I have attempted to do in my Eric Williams: The Myth and The Man."

Monday 4 September 2017

Our Independence Legacy—Fifty-Five Years On

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 homogeneous 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. Raymond Ramcharita tells us that in Wendel Samuel's "Migration and Remittances" he finds that between 1950 and 1959 4,000 people emigrated.  This number increased astronomically in the next three decades: 110,000, between 1960-1969 left the island, 94,700, between1970-1979, and 75,000 between1980-1989. 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.  (there is no real record) 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. This is why carnivals appeared in New York, London, Toronto. That tells you who went away! 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 and a large and growing middle class. The decedents of mostly rural people they have no great personal or emotional interest in Port of Spain its built heritage or its historical significance as the Creoles do.
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.