Today, March 22, 2011, is the 50th anniversary of “Massa Day Done”, the famous Woodford Square speech by Eric Williams. I say “famous”, but for many persons it was one of the most infamous statements ever made in this country, by Williams or anyone else. Such persons are convinced that it triggered a societal indiscipline which has only worsened over time and from which T&T is unlikely to recover.
Those who have told me this throughout the years tend to be of certain varieties: white, off-white, mixed, upwardly-mobile black, Asian and Arab origin; mostly the first two categories. By sharp contrast, I have hardly ever heard it from the average black. The divide is utterly significant; therein lie many of our problems. But leave that for now. What did Williams say on March 22, 1961?
He was responding to criticisms from the Trinidad Guardian, the then Opposition Democratic Labour Party (DLP), and various commentators (among them the Anglican cleric Max Farquhar, whom he contemptuously called “that notorious sycophant”) of his attack on the Guardian three months earlier. (He may also have been sending a gift of sorts to his political enemy, Albert Gomes, whose 50th birthday would fall three days later, on March 25.)
According to Williams, the Guardian had suggested that the entry of Sir Gerald Wight, a local white grandee, into the ranks of the DLP was a feather in that party’s cap, and that the T&T population should follow Wight’s lead.
Enraged, but sensitive to the perils of the terrain he was about to negotiate, Williams was careful, at the outset, to define his parameters. “Massa,” he said, “is not a racial term. Massa is the symbol of a bygone age (and) Massa Day is a social phenomenon. Massa Day Done connotes a political awakening and a social revolution.” He then detailed his concept of Massa.
Massa was “more often than not an absentee European planter exploiting West Indian resources, both human and economic … (He was) portrayed as a very wealthy man who had enough sugar and rum to turn all the water of the Thames into rum punch… (He) employed unfree labour… The period of (his) domination over workers who had no rights under the law...lasted in our society for almost 300 years.
“(His) economic programme was to grow sugar and nothing but sugar… (I)t was the African slave who kept alive the real traditions of agriculture in the West Indies and concentrated on the production of food for his own subsistence. The Indian contract worker went even further than the African slave, and it was he who brought West Indian society to its present level in terms of the production of such essential commodities as rice, milk and meat. Massa’s economic programme represented the artificial stunting of West Indian society…”
Massa “controlled political power in the West Indies and could use state funds for his private gain...As far as (he) was concerned, this organisation of (the) West Indian economy, this dispensation of political power, was one of the eternal verities. He developed the necessary philosophical rationalisation of this barbarous system. It was that the workers, both African and Indian, were inferior beings, unfit for self-government, unequal to their superior masters, permanently destined to a status of perpetual subordination, unable ever to achieve equality with Massa.”
Anti-intellectual, Massa “stated unambiguously in the Trinidad Legislative Council of 1925…that as long as Trinidad was to remain an agricultural country, the less education the children of the plantation workers had, the better.”
“Massa was always opposed to independence,” Williams charged. “He welcomed political dependence so long as it guaranteed the economic dependence of his workers. He was for self-government as long as it was self-government for Massa only and left him free to govern his workers as he pleased. Our whole struggle for self-government and independence, therefore, is a struggle for emancipation from Massa.” (My emphasis.)
But Williams also stressed that “not every white man was a Massa”, and he offered several examples of whites, local and foreign, who he said stood or had stood on the side of exploited non-whites. Where T&T is concerned, he made favourable mention of the Grants and the Mortons, the Langes, the Alcazars and the Stollmeyers. Abroad, he cited among others Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish bishop who in the 16th century fiercely opposed his countrymen on behalf of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and was officially appointed “Protector of the Indians”.
It’s an example with which I have some difficulty, because Las Casas, in his passion to safeguard Amerindians against the horrors of the encomienda system — slavery with a Spanish flavour — imposed by his gold-digging compatriots, advocated the importation of Africans as hardy replacements.
In his History of the Indies, he writes of himself in the third person: “(T)he advice that licence should be given to bring Negro slaves to these lands, the priest Las Casas first gave, not having considered the injustice with which the Portuguese take them and make them slaves. This advice, after he understood the nature of the thing, he would not have given for all he had in the world…for the same is true for them as for the Indians.”
Yes, he acknowledged sua maxima culpa, his most grievous fault, and expressed remorse. But the damage had been done. In the name of God. And Massa.
• Reginald Dumas is a former
ambassador and a former head of the Public Service