Saturday, February 24, 2018

Conservative but never subservient


Mark Fraser

In my last piece I wrote about Michael Maxwell Philip. Today I want to look at another mixed-race lawyer, Henry A Alcazar. He was born in Port of Spain in 1860, into a light-skinned family of the upper middle class. He was educated at St Mary’s College, and qualified as a barrister at Gray’s Inn, London, being called to the Bar in Trinidad in 1882.

As a barrister, he enjoyed the largest private practice in Trinidad in the early 1900s, with important companies among his clients. He was appointed Queen’s (later King’s) Counsel--meaning he was recognised as a senior member of the Trinidad Bar--at the unusually young age of 37 (1897).

Alcazar entered the public life of colonial Trinidad as a young man. He was elected to the Borough Council of Port of Spain and served as its mayor 1892-94 and 1896-98. In this capacity, he led a struggle to preserve the autonomy of the elected Borough Council, at a time when the legislature had no elected members, against the efforts of the imperial government to curb its powers and independence. Ultimately Alcazar and his colleagues lost this struggle when, in 1898-99, the authorities in London abolished the elected council and replaced it with a board with members nominated by the governor.

The Borough Council struggle which Alcazar led indicated his liberal politics. In the 1880s, 1890s and early 1900s, Alcazar was a leading figure among a small group of men, mainly well-educated African-Trinidadians or those of mixed African/European descent, who opposed the policies of the imperial government. In particular, they campaigned for elected members in the colony’s Legislative Council, which then contained only official members (top government administrators) and unofficial members (private citizens nominated by the governor)—a constitutional arrangement typical of Crown Colony government. This campaign was known as the Reform Movement and Alcazar was one of its main leaders in the 1880s and 1890s. As a leading ‘reformer’, as well as a prominent lawyer, Alcazar was himself appointed as an unofficial member of the Legislative Council in 1894; he resigned in 1898 in protest against the abolition of the Borough Council. He was reappointed in 1903 and continued to sit on the Council until his death in 1930. Between 1915 and 1930, he was also a member of the colony’s Executive council which advised the governor on policy and administration.

Alcazar was a member of the legislature in March 1903, when a stormy debate over a new water ordinance precipitated the Water Riots, which saw several people killed by the police and military forces; the main seat of the government (the Red House) was destroyed by fire. He protested strongly against the government’s attempt to prevent the public from entering the council chamber and witnessing the debate. He then walked out of the chamber, which triggered off the actual riots, caused more by the belief that the new ordinance was a symbol of high-handed colonial governance than by its actual content.

After the riots, Alcazar served as legal counsel to the men who were put on trial for inciting the riots (they were all acquitted), and also helped to represent the interests of the colony’s people before the commission of enquiry sent from London to investigate the causes of the riots and make recommendations. His actions in 1903 reinforced his standing as a prominent opponent of Crown Colony government. In the Legislative Council, Alcazar was noted for his liberal politics and his support for reforms which would benefit the people and would give locals more say in the colonial government.

He was a vocal opponent of Crown Colony government, and an equally strong admirer of British institutions and culture, a dual position quite characteristic of educated middle-class men in the British Caribbean in this period. He wanted Trinidad to remain part of the British Empire, but with a more liberal constitution by which Trinidadians could enjoy all the rights of British subjects, as in the ‘White Dominions’ like Canada and Australia.

In the later period of his life, and especially after he entered the Executive Council in 1915, his views became more conservative, though he continued to advocate for elected members in the legislature, which was finally granted in 1924. Alcazar’s increasing conservatism made possible his knighthood in 1918, a rare honour for a colonial subject who was not a government official or a judge. It came at the end of World War 1, during which he had been active in encouraging locals to enlist to fight for King and Empire.

Alcazar was an important figure in the political history of Trinidad in the period between the 1880s and the 1920s, a staunch opponent of Crown Colony government while at the same time an advocate of Trinidad’s rightful place in the British Empire.

These beliefs would come to be seen as conservative and even reactionary in the more radical 1930s and beyond. But, in the words of his biographer William Smith, Alcazar’s greatest achievement was “his contribution to finding a way out of the darkness of Crown Colony government to the dawn of elected representation”.