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From Calcutta to Whim

By Selwyn Ryan

Was Hilton Sandy's provocative warning to Tobagonians about the ship docked at the Port of Calcutta waiting to sail to Tobago if his constituents voted incorrectly informed by vulgar racism, exuberant platform picong or a clever (by half) attempt to change a game that until then was not going well?

Has the message gone viral, and if so, has it helped the PNM (People's National Movement)? Did the TOP (Tobago Organisation of the People) inadvertently help to spread the message?

Were Sandy's remarks in any way tied to the thought-provoking questions asked earlier in the week by Orville London as to who is or is not a Tobagonian?

London had earlier asked, "How do we define a Tobagonian?" "What do we do to ensure that these definitions of 'Tobagoness' are maintained, and that the core values are not lost?"

London went on to pray that his generation will pass on "traditions of our pride, our history, our heritage, and a caring for our community and for its future".

Was London being xenophobic or a patriot in pursuit of a legacy?

London's questions, and Sandy's malodorous comments, reminded me of similar questions which engaged Sir Hugh Wooding and members of the Constitution Commission (of which I was a member) in 1971 as to what should be done with respect to Tobago in the new Constitution that we were then attempting to revise. Our questions were similar. Who or what was a Tobagonian, and why should it be treated differently to any other county in Trinidad and Tobago?

The commission concluded the Tobagonian was "very different in temperament from a Trinidadian", and there was a lack of understanding between them which was psychologically based and which generated reactions which strike the Trinidadian as being unduly querulous. The answer to the questions lay in the mists and myths of history and demography.

We begin our analysis with the historic debate that took place back in 1898 as to whether Tobago was made a "ward of Trinidad" by the Colonial Office or a "ward of Trinidad and Tobago".

The matter is important because the myths about what was done in 1898 help explain Trinidad's imperialistic attitude towards Tobago and Tobago's inferior complex in relation to Trinidad.

Eric Williams was of the view that Tobago was made a "ward of Trinidad".

Tobagonian scholar CR Ottley agreed.

To quote Williams, "Tobago, in 1899, became the most offensive of terms in our political vocabulary, the island ward of Trinidad."

Ottley accepts Williams' view as to what happened. To quote Ottley, "With effect from January 1, 1899, Tobago, with head downcast and spirit completely broken, accepted the derogatory and humiliating position of a ward of Trinidad—a very unwanted ward." These two versions of what happened constitute the warp and woof of the early history of Tobago, in respect of Trinidad.

Arthur NR Robinson radically disagrees with both Williams and Ottley.

As he complained, "That is the greatest and most damaging fallacy of all. The poor Tobago child has been brought up in an atmosphere where he has been taught in the schools that he is a dependant of Trinidad...that he will not be able to exist unless he has Trinidad."

Robinson, who incidentally was correct, sought valiantly to disestablish that myth which he argued explained the ambivalent mood which existed between Tobago and Trinidad and why it was important to insist that Tobagonians and Trinidadians should walk "side by side" and not one behind the other.

Not many would know that Tobago was once one of the most prosperous sugar- and cocoa-producing islands in the Caribbean. It is also not widely known that when Tobago was being yoked to Trinidad, Tobagonians asserted that the union was conditional, and if the restructuring did not prove to be beneficial to a majority of Tobagonians, they would want to have the status quo ante restored.

The British did not agree.

Tobago's social structure is as different from that of Trinidad as its history. The society was less stratified and more ethnically homogeneous. Unlike Trinidad, Tobago is really a collection of villages. The 1980 census indicated that Tobago had a population of which some 1.6 per cent were Indian. The percentage of Indians now approximates three per cent.

Unlike what obtained in Trinidad and Guyana, few Indians were settled in Tobago, in large part because the island's Treasury was too impoverished to pay for such immigrants.

The denominational character of Tobago is also different from that of Trinidad.

Whereas Trinidad has a plurality of Catholics, followed by Hindus and Anglicans, Seventh-Day Adventists and Methodists are dominant in Tobago.

Tobago is still essentially a rural society, much more than is the case of Trinidad where the city is intrusive and where village localities and traditions remain strong.

Anthropologist JD Elder (now deceased) noted the concept of the "stranger nigger" still exists in rural Tobago. I would imagine that many Trinis, whatever their race, would also be considered strangers unless they were primordial residents.

My surmise is that some Indos who are long-time citizens of Tobago (or Trinidad, for that matter) would also, like Sandy, not applaud the arrival of the ship from Calcutta. In sum, length of residence would trump race as the birthmarker of the Tobagonian, and this would apply to Indos and Afros alike.

The indelible mark of identity is related to village, family and kin and not to biological race.

Elder was indeed of the view that village loyalty in Tobago was closely akin to tribal loyalty.

Robinson also talked lovingly about village life in Tobago.

As he wrote in his treatise on self-government, "Tobago wants a chance to strengthen and develop its village life. Village life in Tobago is a beautiful thing. It will do your heart good to see how villagers get together and co-operate with one another. The term "gayap" and "lend-hand" came from Tobago."

Winston Murray said the same thing.

Life, he says, revolves around the village in Tobago—marriage, religion, baptism, weddings, funerals life, place in our village...just as in the African village. It is from these villages that Picasso got his inspiration.

Kinship was also said to be of grand importance

Who then is a Tobagonian? Is it wrong to try and preserve ancient values which had been passed on by one's ancestors as one pursues abstract global values? Do citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, regardless of creed or race, living in Tobago, have equal rights and equal access to "stocked" jobs, scholarships, land, public patronage and whatever else is in the gift of the State?

Who has the right to vote?

What about Tobagonians living in Trinidad and the foreign diaspora?

It used to be said that race was of little significance in elections in Tobago since the Indian population was small. That is not quite true anymore.

The issue has surfaced before.

What Horace Leighton Mills, a Trinidadian journalist living in Tobago, wrote in 1977 continues to be relevant and informs Sandy's current cri de coeur: "Twenty years ago, the number of Indians living on the island could have been counted on the fingers of one hand.... Today, they have multiplied to the extent that they are an economic force to reckon with, and apart from owning big businesses which provide lucrative employment, they are buying up land wherever it is available."

Sandy might well be aware the ship from Calcutta had already docked and unloaded its cargo and cannot be stopped or turned around. Sandy has apologised, but no one believes that he was truly sorry. They would say he was clumsy and crass and politically incorrect. Ships do not only sail in the night, however.

To be continued

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