T&T at 50: Analysis

Opera singer at TT reception
The human colours in the T&T “Rainbow” - are they equally bright?


By Tony Fraser in Port of Spain


Which colour has burned brightest in the fabled “Rainbow Country” of Trinidad and Tobago over the first 50 years of political Independence?


Has it been the Afro-Trini (black) or the now majority Trinidadian of East Indian (brown) descent?


What of the members of the old planter class, French-Creole (white)? Have they found methods different from cracking of the whip to remain in charge of society, 178 years after the end of African slavery and 95 years after Indian indentureship subsided?


How has the more recently-arrived Syrian-Lebanese trading class progressed?


Have the progeny of the Chinese, the first batch of whom came 205 years ago, been able to convert the shop and parlour trade into something else?


This insight into the T&T Rainbow traces the outlines of the answers to those very complicated questions.


Indo-Trinidadian in 2012


Indo-Trinis, who first emerged as a land-owning peasant class in the late 19th Century, have converted many of the rural towns and villages where they originally settled into bustling business centres.


Additionally, they now own and manage parts of today’s big commercial enterprises and new manufacturing industries.

Indo-Trinis predominate in the professions of medicine and law and play a significant role in other professions such as accounting, banking and finance.


Today, as it was the last time an Indo-dominated party controlled the government, an Indo-Trini economist, Jwala Rambarran, has replaced an Afro-Trini at the head of the financial system as governor of the Central Bank.


The most cursory of glances at the examination and scholarship results through primary, secondary and tertiary level education would demonstrate Indo-Trinidadian dominance.


At the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine campus, the Indo-Trini presence accounts for in excess of 65% of the students.


The proportion is even higher at the private tertiary-level institutions.


Educational roots


Educational opportunities were first brought to the indentured Indians in the last quarter of the 19th Century through the Canadian Presbyterian Mission schools.


Then, many Indians chose to exchange their ancestral Hindu religion for education in the Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and Anglican schools.


At present, Indo-Trinis predominate in half a dozen and more of the top secondary schools in the system.


By the 20th Century, Islamic and Hindu institutions were providing educational opportunities at the primary level and, so too, reinforcing ancestral religious and cultural beliefs.


The acquisition of political power by the predominantly Indo party, the United National Congress (UNC), first in 1995-2001 and 2010 to the present, has fostered a culture of self-assertiveness and resulted in economic rewards through contracts and the elevation of Indos to senior positions in the public service.


Political analyst Prof John La Guerre has argued that Indos used the 1970 Black Power (Afro-power) quest to instigate greater consciousness amongst themselves.


Afro-Trinidadian voyage


If the Indo-Trini juggernaut has sailed into the 50 years of political Independence on powerful outboard engines, the Afro-Trini crew set its sails dependent on occasional winds which have blown unsteadily across the Gulf of Paria and Caribbean Sea.


This has meant that the development and advance of Afro-Trinis have, at times, been punctuated by stagnation and decline.


An interesting perspective here is that, having achieved full freedom in 1838, Afros began the acquisition of education, developed themselves into craft and artisans and, by the turn of the 20th Century, had entered the professions.


Indeed, in John Jacob Thomas (1841-1883), Afro Trinidad produced perhaps the most significant native intellectual of the 19th Century and author of Froudacity – a stinging response to British historian James Froude’s categorisation of the “negro” in the Caribbean and his Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar. 


In the first five decades of the 20th Century, Afro-Trini intellects and scholars of international stature such as CLR James, Eric Williams, the McShine brothers, Hugh Wooding, Sir Ellis Clarke, Lloyd Best and several others left all else, including the sons and daughters of the planter class, way behind in scholarship.


To reinforce the start in education, the predominant Afro-Trini party of Dr Williams - the People’s National Movement (PNM) - got the first hold on national power.


In the 56 years since, the PNM has been in power for 43 of those years, inclusive of an unbroken 30-year stretch from 1956 to 1986.


Even in business and trade, Afro-Trinis once owned and managed the small and medium-sized businesses.


Converting the gains


But as the late revered academic Lloyd Best observed, these small businesses were not converted into factories and larger business establishments.


By 1970, a new generation of Afro-Trinis realised that economic and business power had eluded them and revolted against what they perceived to be the inadequacies of the Williams regime.


Today, the poor black urban ghettoes of the 1950s have been deemed by police to be the “crime hotspots”, festooned with black -on-black violence, serious drug addiction and drug-peddling.


As could be expected, that is not the whole story of the Afro-Trini population of Trinidad and Tobago.


Even though they are shrinking in relation to Indo-Trinis, there are still substantive Afro-Trini middle and professional classes.

In big business, black ownership and control are almost non-existent.


The names of Cyril and Lawrence Duprey of insurance giant Clico, Ken Gordon of One Caribbean Media, newspapers and television and William Munroe, the creator/owner of the multi-million dollar soca monarch annual extravaganza, stand out.


In Trinidad’s second city, San Fernando, there is only one black property-owning businessman on the main shopping centre of High Street.


“I feel lonely here,” the owner/manager of “Raymonds”, Raymond Walcott, told Caribbean Intelligence©.


Cultural gains


Where Afro-Trinis have dominated is in the performing and fine arts and sport.


It is Afro-Trinidad which created steelband, calypso and soca.


The president of the Republic, George Maxwell Richards, recently called the steel pan the only innovation of the society.


However, Afro-Trini supremacy in sport and culture, outside of individuals of the (Dwight) Yorke, (Brian) Lara, (Mighty) Sparrow and Machel (Montano) variety, has not made sport and the performing arts into financially strong institutions.


Other groups


The members of the small Chinese community, who began arriving here in 1805, first developed the small business parlours and shops.


Their descendants own large business establishments today and are very much part of the ruling professional class.


The members of the numerically very small Syrian-Lebanese community, who came almost penniless at the turn of the 20th Century, have made super strides in wealth and influence and are in control of the retail trade.


They also own large chunks of both residential and commercial properties.


Shorn of the deference which light skin and wealth once gave them, members of the French-Creole (white) class have shed some power, as formerly family businesses have become public companies on the Stock Exchange, but they still have large chunks of economic power.


They live in exclusive residential areas, but understand that the old skin-game which gave preference is over and walk quietly without seeking to give offence.


The traditional Portuguese shopkeepers have disappeared and their progeny have melted into the large and growing mixed-race sector, which is now estimated at close to 20% of the population.




“I now understand it was a community decision to live in humble circumstances to lift the next generation,” was the conclusion of CLR James, commenting on how Indo-Trinis sacrificed and eschewed conspicuous living in the early days.


Ravi G, an Indo-Trini community guru who once led the Hindu Prachar Kendra, a major Hindu organisation, says religion, Hinduism and Islam have been significant in the advance of Indo-Trinis.


For the Hindu community, part of the strength has been the Ramayana (an historical epic which depicts life) with its identification of Rawan as the enemy.


“Indians have always been conscious of a Rawan, first the whites and then the blacks, and that gave to Indians a sense and reason for struggle,” Ravi G told Caribbean Intelligence©.


He adds that strong family life and sense of community and culture have also been important to the development of Indo-Trinis.


“Education has been central to lifting the community and, with the caste system of India falling away, Indians from all social classes have been exposed to education; and so too girls, who previously remained at home,” says the Indo-community guru.


“Prosperity is important for Indian families so that prosperous Indians got married to prosperous Indians,” says Ravi G.


Role models and inter-marriage


For Leroy Clarke, Afro-Trinidad’s master artist and poet, the reason for the relative lack of success and human advance of Afro-Trinis when compared to others has to do with “the interruption of the psychological, social and spiritual development of the African in T&T”.


Mr Clarke says: “While others have had their gods and culture without disturbance, African rituals have been open and scandalised.”


He identifies, in particular, the loss of the “inner strength of the father in the family”.


“The father of today is a wounded man, no silverback gorillas amongst us,” laments Mr Clarke.


In place now is the absentee father and the gang-leaders on the blocks at the social under-class level.


A study by Professors Selwyn Ryan and John La Guerre (Employment Practices in the Public and Private Sectors in T&T – UWI, St. Augustine) commissioned by the government, recorded the complaints of Afro-Trini businessmen that the banks and the commercial and business community systematically discriminated against them.


It is said to have happened with lesser intensity against Indo-Trini businessmen.


The most significant Indo-Trinidad political figure, Basdeo Panday, has accused the PNM of engendering a “dependency syndrome” amongst their own people, making them dependent on governmental handouts.


As to race relations in the Rainbow Country, critically, there has been much easy blending, both before and since independence.


Inter-marriage, especially between the Indo and Afro populations, has created generations of people of mixed race, known as “Dougla”, who now comprise close to 20% of the population.


And this has happened, no matter how much ranting there has been from those on the extreme right of the ethnic divide who would like to see ethnic purity.


“The Ganges done meet the Nile,” sings David Rudder. But he also notes: “How we vote is not how we party.”


Political marriage


The two major political parties, the United National Congress (UNC) and the People’s National Movement, the former Indo and the latter Afro, have been mobilised and organised on the basis of race.


When the contest for political power and, with it, the control of the Treasury and the other trappings of power is on, the country remains bifurcated along the lines of race, with racial tension surfacing during these periods.


It must be said though that unlike in British Guiana (Guyana today) in the 1960s, Fiji and elsewhere, there has never been open physical contention.


Some mixing and inter-marrying is happening at the level of the French-Creole and Chinese business and professional classes with Indos and Afros, more with the former.


Working-class Chinese men, especially, have created a mixed-race segment of the population referred in the local parlance as “Congo Chinee”.


Back in the 1950s, the calypsonian the Mighty Terror mocked himself with “Chinee Children calling me daddy… some Chinee putting milk in meh coffee”.


But inter-marrying or copulation by the Syrian-Lebanese with Indos and Afros is rare; in fact, the merchants remain a closed community outside of their business operations.


People of all ethnic groups and social class can be found living and working alongside each other in harmony in town and country. The problems, therefore, do not reside in personal animosity and hatred of one group towards the other.


Commentators such as Professors La Guerre and Ryan, as well as Dr Hamid Ghany and historian Dr Brinsley Samaroo in newspaper columns, have identified the 1976 Republican Constitution as a source that concentrates power in the government and tribe in power. They see the need to transform it to allow for the more equal distribution of resources.


As far back as 1974, the Wooding Constitution Commission (Thinking Things Through, a booklet published by the national Parliament) proposed change from the first-past-the-post system to a form of proportional representation which would neutralise the tendency to the racial organisation of party politics and electoral behaviours. So, too, did the 1987 Commission led by then retired chief justice, Sir Issac Hyatali – Thinking Things Over.


Indeed, succeeding prime ministers Manning, Panday and Persad-Bissessar and their parties have talked about constitutional reform when in opposition. But once in power, they have preferred to enjoy the benefits that accrue to their parties and groups under the Republican Constitution.


The fear for the future expressed by many Afro-leaders is that of Afro-Trinidad becoming a social and economic underclass. It must, however, be said that change must come from within the Afro-community and family, with Afro-Trini leadership growing institutions to engender the transformation.


The lesson of multi-ethnic societies such as Fiji is that where one group lags behind in development compared with others, that can be a source of real conflict; Trinidad and Tobago needs to learn the lessons.