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Who's left to 'take on' Tobago?

By Lennox Grant

In Trinidad, you can live a full life, or at least a whole life, without "taking on" Tobago. This is a little-considered aspect of what, from time to time, has filled the screen of national attention, captioned as The Tobago Question.

Like some big fish fortuitously hooked in the Bocas, or in the little-recognised Galleons' Passage between Toco and Charlotteville, it takes special effort to bring Tobago "on board". Since wildly assorted "fish" abound in the waters of public affairs presumably engaging Trinidadian preoccupations, something has to justify undue attention to the species tagged "Tobago".

This is a relative new something. For long,   "Trinidad" was taken to subsume "Tobago".  The "and Tobago" in the national identity came slowly about as a political correction.

Such local reverence is not always taken on board in international or even regional references. In dispatches even by Caricom region media, it's often possible to read of the "Trinidadian government", a non-existent entity, properly speaking. But who cares to speak so properly?

Around the "jubilee" time of the T&T Independence anniversary, words and music came back to me of a patriotic song that had been hurriedly taught to secondary schoolers over weeks before August 31, 1962. I thus saved "Our Nation's Dawning" on mental hard drive, even before doing the same for the ultimately more eminent national anthem

In the perspective offered by the song about the nation on which the sun was newly rising, not much signalled Tobago. The lyrics invoked a single "land of fairest beauty", with the signature "three sister hills" from down Moruga way, and the emblematic hummingbird, scarlet ibis and kiskidee.

Even if not specifically so taught, we came to picture Tobago as a continuation of Trinidad, over the short inconvenience of a watery passage. It was in my 20s that I first made the passage, unforgettably once on a boat that took 12 hours, an experience I bitterly reported in the newspaper for which I then worked.

Back then, the understanding appeared consensual that, for Tobago to be "taken on", it had to make headlines in Trinidad. Thus, my first reporting assignment there was to investigate (though so ambitious a word was hardly then used) the secessionist advocacy of Rhodil Norton.

I was able to confirm the finding by then Express columnist Elton Richardson, like Dr Norton, a physician, but a Trinidadian. Noting streetlights illuminating the Tobago wilderness, Dr Richardson contrasted the favoured enjoyment of streetlighting with the dismal experience by night along roads in Sangre Grande and elsewhere in rural Trinidad. So what, he implied, was Tobago's problem?

The streetlights under the Tobago coconuts impressed me too. Dr Norton, whom I interviewed in his verandah, holding the shrivelled stem of an ochro plant like a sceptre, impressed me in a different way. My reporting profiled him as a crackpot.

Secession stories would lose headline appeal for about another five years, until the short-lived celebrity emergence of another Tobagonian with a doctor title in Winston Murray. As always, Trinidad headlines tended to personalise and trivialise expressions of Tobago discomfort with the relationship.

A newsworthy something must happen for Trinidad to "take on" Tobago political self-assertion. Such as when Tobago bucked the national PNM trend and elected MPs from home-grown parties.

Like the one on January 21, Tobago has perennially been good for a "No" vote against whatever seems to romance Trinidad. Who or what is targeted by the "No" has always been clear.

Once again, it's hard to see what Tobagonians really voted Yes to last week. Hard to see, if you're looking for something on paper, say, in the Tobago PNM manifesto, themed "In Defence of Tobago, Protecting Our Heritage, Securing the Future".

Abstract nouns—"defence", "heritage", "future"—make up code speech, portraying Tobago as under attack, with something precious to defend, and with something to do and somewhere to go in some conservative tomorrow. Yet the party of tomorrow is the ostensible party of yesterday, in office for all the years so far of this millennium, presumably with a record to champion and a programme to promote.

The only opposition left to the PNM THA is vaguely identified with somewhere called Trinidad, source country of barbarians at the gates of Scarborough harbour and at the ANR Robinson airport. In today's world, that nobody else in the world appears to show interest, proprietorial or other, in Tobago should prompt corrective policy and programme.

But Tobago has now loudly identified a dreaded "Calcutta" as the source of would-be marauders aiming to reduce them to subjugation. The effect is, ironically, to throw itself at the mercy of the only salvation it now acknowledges: the T&T Treasury; Trinidadian know-how and can-do, even for food.

My expectation is for less and less Trinidadian  interest in "taking on" Tobago, since it's just been proved that those doing so incur only their own detriment. Embarrassed by alleged electoral riches, THA Chief Secretary Orville London's telling first act is to appeal to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to amend the THA legislation. His only other course of action is to embrace the Keith Rowley PNM, and to follow hopefully where it leads.

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