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The Past as Present

By Selwyn Ryan

The recent passing of Prof Anthony Martin (aka Tony) saddened me a great deal,  in part because I did know he was ill.

When we last met, I congratulated him on his recent book and promised to review it.

The book, Caribbean History: From Pre-colonial Origins to the Present complements, Eric Williams' From Columbus to Castro. 

It also complements my own forthcoming work, Black Entrepreneurship in Trinidad and Tobago: The Trinidad Experience. 

We should note that the volume under review in question is a text book, and that some of what  is presented is to be found in his other contribution to the UNESCO General History of The Caribbean. Martin tells us that his book takes "a new look at old source," but one cannot describe it as revisionist, since Martin's work has always been Africentric.

Given the wide scope of  the study, one would necessarily have to be selective in this review.

My focus in this column is  to look at the experiences of the various ethnic groups in the construction of the Trinidad mosaic – the Europeans, the Chinese, the Portuguese, the Jews, the Indians, the West Indians, the Syrian-Lebanese, and the Afro- Americans. I also use Martin's work to address some of the debates that are currently being debated.

Every generation rewrites its history to assist in the  construction of its current concerns and the present ruling group is no exception. Since the coming to power, there have anguished complaints that Indians were not fairly treated in the pre and post independence era and that they were victims of "Afro-creole" exclusivism.

The secretary general of the SDMS and the chairman of the UNC have been the source of many of these complaints. Many of the complaints have some truth. It is true that Indians in general and Hindus in particular have been underrepresented in the public sector and that they have been misrecognised generally.

Their anguish is real.

But there is another side to the shilling. 

Many of the complaints conveniently ignore the historical context in which the problems were forged. Many of the complaints about underrepresentation in the public sector in general and the security services in particular ignore the fact that Indians were illiterate in English and that this was due to the fact that they chose to keep their children at home because of the fears which they had that if they went to the public schools to get the requisite education, they would be converted to Christianity, and that their children would have to associate with impure Africans and would be ritually polluted in the process.

These choices, some of which were driven by considerations of caste, have consequences which are still with us though we pretend otherwise.

The fact that there is a gross imbalance in respect to the police officers, especially at senior levels is in part due to the fact that many Indians consciously chose other vocations. The security services were not places in which upwardly mobile Trinidadians sought jobs.

One had to import them from Barbados or Ireland. Martin notes that the Census records only one Indian policeman in 1881 and eight in 1921, notwithstanding the fact the British colonial authorities regarded Indians as a "buffer class" to blunt the forward thrusting of the Afros. Nizam Mohammed is right about discrimination, but he only narrates part of the story.

On this question of Indians as a "buffer class", Martin quotes Joseph Chamberlain, the secretary of state for the colonies as saying that he supported immigration not only to procure labour, but also"to maintain and strengthen the leaven of East Indians in the population". Interestingly many European  racial propagandists saw the Indians as  their "Aryan" brothers who were innately superior to the Africans. One could not expect Afro creoles to be keen to incorporate Indians in their struggle if there were structural factors which kept them culturally apart.

Martin also argues that much of the discrimination experienced by Indians was due in part to the terms and conditions under which they were brought to the Caribbean and allowed to return or remain as he preferred. As Martin argues, "the fact that as many as 25 per cent of those in the British West Indies exercised their option to return to India may have contributed to a 'psychology of transience'".

Two decades after the end of indenture in 1917, specially chartered ships still encountered more Guyanese and Trinidadian Indians wishing to return home than there was "space for".

Martin also claims that some Indian intellectuals also contributed to keeping the ethnic groups apart by preaching the virtues of communalism and making assertions about who was superior to whom.

F E M Hosein, one of the leading Indo-Trinidadian intellectuals of the times and the first Indian to become a member of the Legislative Council, regarded Africans as an "inferior race". In a major address given at a meeting of the East Indian National Congress, Hosein, in the presence of the British Governor and other prominent officials, had the following to say: "The Indian was full of his racial prejudices He had heard of the great races of the earth. But among the great sons of the earth, Africa was not mentioned...From him the son of India had nothing to learn, unless, perhaps something to ridicule."

Hosein went so far as to  boast that the sons of India would eventually overtake and overwhelm the sons of Africa, if one could call them that.

As he declared: "If the East Indian showed that progressive increase in number which they had shown up to now, and taking into account their natural productivity, it was no mere hyperbolical statement that Indians would people the colony and drive out the rest of the inhabitants. The African was not as productive as the East Indians: and if circumstances did not compel him to leave the colony, he would naturally die out. Such a thing had taken place in Mauritius. And Trinidad would be maintained and owned by the Indian in the field, the office and the shop."

Hosein was a social darwinist.

Hosein's remarks were strongly criticised by the  Governor who was in the audience as well as by Afro intellectuals of the day.

Algernon Birkett savagely criticised Hosein whom he described as "this half — baked East Indian against the Afro-Trinidadian".

Indian spokesmen also accepted the view that immigration was a "necessity" because "Quashie" was "lazy".

This view was popularised by the British public intellectual, Thomas Carlyle whose ideological tract, "Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question", was used by the plantocracy to justify their demand for cheap labour.

According to Carlyle, it was the "White Saxons" who developed the lands and forests and not Quashie: and the latter must work the land or face reenslavement. Carlyle could not see that by choosing to abandon the plantation and to become an artisan or a self-employed peasant growing pumpkins and yams, Quashie was being entrepreneurial and not "lazy" as charged.

Given the claim made recently by Ashworth Jack of Tobago that he built his new house on the proceeds of growing pumpkins and other vegetables, we should advise "Carlyle" that living off low hanging fruits and vegetables could be very profitable and satisfying.

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