The esteemed historian Bridget Brereton, in her paper “Contesting the Past: Narratives of Trinidad and Tobago History”, speaks of the “who suffered the most” issue in the dialogue between the two major ethnic groups.
Her paper ought to form part of required reading for Vishnu Bisram, the erstwhile pollster who contributed in the August 5 edition of the Express. He claims that the systems of slavery and indentureship were essentially the same and that there ought to be reparations for others beyond the descendants of African slaves.
To bolster his case, he cited a seminal work by Prof Tinker (1974), but failed to acknowledge that research has moved beyond that point. Indeed, Dr Northrup (Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism 1834–1922), in 1995, locates the inadequacy of Tinker’s work in the light of “the influence of a new generation of historical scholarship” not available at the time. While there are similarities between the two systems, he posited that one needed to look at the motives and actions of the migrants themselves to understand the full picture.
He concluded that while it can be interpreted as an extension of slavery, it also has to be understood in the larger voluntary migration of labour. The novel Sea of Poppies speaks to the lack of choice for the Indian peasant that was yet not equivalent to the forced abduction of the African slave, but must be studied alongside.
The cited paper by Tayyab Mahmud (2013) supports Northup’s views, placing indentureship in the context of labour law and the inadequacies at the time. Indeed, he builds on his initial argument Colonialism and Modern Construction of Race: A Preliminary Inquiry (1999), which he opened with the epigram, “A commonplace gesture of history: there have to be two races—the masters and the slaves”.
He argues persuasively that differences between the two ethnic groups were made manageable by assigning them racialised classifications which persist today, “Besides providing cheap labour, the Indian workers were to be the medium through which planters expected to assert control and discipline over the emancipated slaves...by enabling racialised identities of African and Indian labour.”
Africans were described as lazy, unreliable, untruthful and unable to honour a contract, and while initially the Indians were extolled, the praise soon turned to “avaricious, less robust, dishonest, idolatrous and filthy”.
Yet the Portuguese did not need inducements and got free return trips since “they did not require to be compelled to work” (Northrup, 1995). That’s a position supported by Mahmud (1999).
As Trinidadians, we need to accept that we were and are used by global capital. There is no value in the competitive victimisation game. We must reject those who play it and seek to bond ourselves together to achieve what separately we cannot. The spectacle of Roget and Sabga-Aboud and the posturing of nationalists and our politicians serve no useful purpose without serious dialogue and a grounded understanding of our past.