Friday, December 15, 2017

Trinidad then is now


Mark Fraser

One of my pet peeves is any statement equivalent to “bring back the old-time days”. It’s a nice tune, but it misrepresents Trinidad’s past. But at least Nappy Myers had the excuse of being high on cocaine.

More sober people who speak and write as though Trinidad was once some paradise, which we have lost, are ignorant of history and disinterested in learning about it. Many who are over middle age claim to be speaking from their own experience, which either means they are selectively amnesiac about their past or that they grew up in such narrow circumstances that the inevitable result was a narrow mind.

This is partly the fault of the academics at The University of the West Indies who, 60 years after its establishment, are yet to produce a social history of Trinidad. Indeed, the only history text about Trinidad is Bridget Brereton’s A History of Modern Trinidad, which was first published in 1981 (and whose title is now a misnomer since the book ends in 1962). So, unsurprisingly, the 50th anniversary of this country’s independence passed without anyone in the Government or UWI or any other institution thinking to commission an up-to-date history of the nation—a project that might have cost just $200,000 out of the millions spent on that event.

Such a history would help correct many of the false ideas Trinidadians have about their past. And one such useful corrective I recently came across is a memoir by a Scottish doctor named Vincent Tothill who worked in Trinidad back in the 1920s. The book, titled  Doctor’s Office, was first published in 1939 and was reprinted five years ago by Paria Publishing.

Many of Tothill’s observations about Africans and Indians might be considered racist by the denizens of the Emancipation Support Committee and the Maha Sabha (though only his comments about their own groups, of course) but Tothill was shunned by most of the local and expatriate whites because he socialised with the “coloured people”. At any rate, I found his observations to be particularly noteworthy in that certain traits in the two main racial groups are readily recognisable nearly a century later.

But the most fascinating aspect of Tothill’s memoir, for me, were the social mores which flatly contradict received ideas about the Trinidad of yore. 

In one anecdote, for example, he describes a “very elegantly dressed black lady” who comes to his office with her sick husband and her “keeper”. According to Tothill, this was a fairly common arrangement among black Trinidadians, especially those who worked in the oilfields. 

What I found surprising is that the men knew of each other but, if there was any jealousy, it didn’t reach to murder.

Moreover, this liberal attitude was not confined to the individual but also to the institutions—another patient, a 60-year-old man, came to invite Tothill to the christening of his three newborn babies. But, the man explained, the babies were not his wife’s children nor were they triplets— they were three children for three separate women born in the same week. “They are all good women and the babies will all be good Catholics,” the man told Tothill who, though himself an atheist, praised the Catholic Church for its “broad humanity”. I doubt, however, that the same Church would be so open-minded in this 21st century.

As for the Indians, Tothill describes them as “contemplative and calculating”, who would eat only rice flavoured with red peppers in order to save money. When he went to work for the sugar estate, Tothill had the management institute a policy of part-payment in food rather than coin, in order to eradicate malnutrition among the workers.  

Tothill is acerbic about the Trinidadian whites, and his comments give a useful insight into the then-ruling class: “The white Creoles as a rule ran up bills, wasted our time, and did not pay.” He also notes that a white woman who marries a coloured man and comes to the West Indies will be completely ostracised by other white woman, while a white man with a coloured wife will be received once he doesn’t bring her to any social events. And some well-off white Trinidadian men married low-class foreign women in order to have a white wife. 

“The ridiculous part of the whole thing is that so many of the coloured people are not only better educated but more highly cultured than the imported white woman who scorns them,” Tothill wrote.

I found it interesting that some things have not changed in Trinidad in the past century. For example, Tothill notes that magistrates were overworked, particularly from having to write their own notes during cases. That issue was only tackled 20 years ago, but time management in the Magistrates’ court remains a problem. 

Many such details in this memoir demonstrate, for all our oil-fuelled modernity, how little this society has progressed.