Hard to believe that in three days time, Trinidad and Tobago will be marking its 51st anniversary as an independent state, 51 tumultuous years that appear to have flown by in the wink of an eye and during which, on at least two occasions, we seemed to come close to tipping over the edge.
Of course, the dominant political figure in the immediate pre- and post-Independence years was the charismatic Dr Eric Eustace Williams, whose People’s National Movement (PNM) had first come to power in the general election of 1956, a position it would maintain until 1986 and the advent of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), led by former PNM deputy political leader ANR Robinson.
But Dr Williams had died in 1981, his death surrounded by as much controversy as his political career.
When his sealed casket was finally placed in the rotunda of the Red House for public viewing, then national security minister, the late John Donaldson had to call out the riot squad to cope with an unruly viewing audience, mostly made up of women who, disappointed they could not actually see the body in the casket, struck up the chant “No face, no vote!”
The August 31 date marks another kind of anniversary for me personally, for on September 1, 1962, I started my career as a journalist, joining the newsroom staff at what used to be then NBS Radio 610 as a trainee news reporter. So that I began a sort of journalist’s diary on our Independence, almost from the very outset.
Exactly a year after that, I took up my first newspaper reporting job with the short-lived Trinidad Daily Mirror.
By the time the Mirror folded in 1963 (bought out by Lord Thomson of Fleet, then owner of the Trinidad Guardian, and simply shut down) I had quit journalism to take up a job as a junior public relations assistant at what was then Canning & Co Ltd, then run by the late Maurice Quesnel.
It was a subsequent chance encounter with the late Lloyd Cartar, the then business reporter for the Trinidad Guardian, that led me back into active journalism, a career I then pursued for the next 42 years.
I had known Lloyd casually, having first met him on the job at the Guardian. Walking along Queen Street in downtown Port of Spain, one morning in early 1965, I ran into Lloyd, who informed me that he was leaving his job at the Guardian to open his own public relations business.
Aware that I was somewhat disillusioned by my job at Canning’s, he suggested I apply to the Guardian to fill the vacancy he was creating. I did that, very conscious of the fact that I knew very little about “business” and doubtful that I could successfully function as a “business reporter”.
To my surprise, I was hired by the Guardian and virtually learning on the job, I went on to spend the next five years as that newspaper’s business reporter.
I must say that most of the leading businessmen I encountered on that job (men like Maurice Quesnel, Tommy Gatcliffe, Tony Sabga and Cyril Duprey) were very helpful in “educating” me about the world of business and in a few years, I began to regard myself as quite an expert on the subject.
And then, in early 1970, Black Power erupted. I was fully aware at this time of the Black Power Movement that had developed in the United States, following on the heels of the civil rights movement.
On the morning of February 26, 1970, I was making my way to Royal Bank on Independence Square when I came across a vociferous protest demonstration being led by young University of the West Indies (UWI) students and whose original grouse had to do with the Sir George Williams University in Canada where a student protest had turned ugly. A university computer centre had been set on fire and some of the protesting students had been arrested and were facing trial in Canada.
The UWI students were blocked from entering the Royal Bank that morning and simply turned to a protest march in downtown Port of Spain, with the Black Power slogan being prominently repeated. For some inexplicable reason, the students decided to march on the Roman Catholic Cathedral on Independence Square where, in spite of the objection of a couple priests at the church, some of them entered the Cathedral, draping black cloth over some of the statues of “white” saints in the church.
Then they filtered out of the church and continued their protest march in downtown Port of Spain.
The march eventually dissipated and might probably have gone no further—except that the police arrested several of the protesters, charging them with violating the sanctity of a place of worship.
When the arrested students were brought to court a few mornings later, that original UWI student protest demonstration had grown significantly—and would now daily grow larger and more vociferous as then UWI students like Geddes Granger (later to be known as Makandal Daaga) and Dave Darbeau (Khafra Kambon) emerged as leaders.
For 55 days, those Black Power demonstrations filled Port of Spain on a daily basis and they even ventured once on a march through central Trinidad to demonstrate solidarity with Indo-Trinidadians—and which march ended peacefully, in spite of fears that it could lead to racial clashes.
It seemed to me at the time that then Guardian political reporter John Babb didn’t have much interest in this Black Power eruption, so I abandoned my business coverage and began covering those demonstrations on a daily basis—right up to April 21, 1970, when Prime Minister Williams declared a state of emergency and most of the leaders of the movement were arrested and detained on offshore Nelson Island.
That same morning though, even as the police moved to assert the state of emergency, I got wind of an army mutiny at the Trinidad and Tobago regiment’s headquarters at Teteron Bay inside Chaguaramas, a story I got confirmed that very day and subsequently had published in the Guardian.
You can imagine the conster-
nation such a story produced, both in the general public and the Eric Williams government.
The principal “rebel” leaders in that army mutiny were two young Sandhust-trained lieutenants, Rex Lasalle and Raffique Shah. Former army commander Brigadier Joffre Serrette, whom the “rebels” demanded be brought back to negotiate with them, was in fact so assigned by Dr Williams—and the mutiny virtually petered out when the “rebels” were arrested by the police and charged.
They were subsequently tried by a Commonwealth group of military officers brought in by the government and sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment—but the sentences on Lasalle and Shah were overturned by the Trinidad and Tobago Court of Appeal on legal technicalities, and both lieutenants were freed after spending just over two years in jail.
Dr Williams decided he might as well free the other lower ranks. Which brought an end to the most dramatic post-Independence events in Trinidad and Tobago.
—Part II on September 11: