By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 20, 2023
A few days ago, businessman Inshan Ishmael issued a pre-action protocol letter to Cro Cro (Weston Rawlins). He demands Cro Cro respond favourably to his letter within the next 28 days or face legal action in the High Court. Ishmael says he is the subject of Cro Cro’s calypso, “Another Sat Is Outside Again”.
Attorney Richard Jaggasar, Ishmael’s lawyer, says, “In the trial it will be contended that it was immaterial whether Cro Cro intended to cause harm or was careless in making his statements, as the tort of defamation is one of strict liability.” (Express, February 14.)
In other words, he argues that his suit does not require proof of mala fides (bad faith). He insists Cro Cro must be held accountable and made to pay for the blasphemies he has uttered about Ishmael and, by extension, the Indo-Trinbagonian community.
From the arrival of the English on our shores in 1797, Trinidad has been governed by Spanish and English laws. The libel laws in England and the American colonies “imposed criminal penalties, rather than civil. People were convicted of seditious libel for speaking or writing against the King of England or colonial leaders. People could be prosecuted for blasphemous libel for criticising the church” (David L Hudson Jr, “Libel and Slander”, The First Amendment —Encyclopedia.)
White people have been in charge of Trinidad’s Judiciary since the 1797. Until 1853, “no person was admitted to practise in this colony as an attorney and solicitor, whose credentials as such had, at first, been earned in England or Ireland, or who was recognised as a writer to the Signet in Scotland”. (William Seaton, “Vicissitudes of the Profession of Attorney and Solicitor in Trinidad”.)
After 1847, some exceptionally gifted black lawyers and solicitors, such as Alexander Fitzjames, Michel Maxwell Philip, Vincent Brown and Cyrus Prudhomme David qualified from the Inns of Court in England. They advocated for black people and contributed much to Trinidad’s jurisprudence.
Necessarily, the privileged folks (planters, merchants, shopkeepers, etc) had legal representation at the courts. While their issues were dealt with expeditiously, the gripes and injustices of the demimonde (or the people who resided on the edges of the society) were left unattended. It was the calypsonians who spoke on their behalf.
This is why Cro Cro was not afraid when Jaggasar boasted he would rely on a literal interpretation of tort law. Cro Cro may not have known about the legal formulations that Ishmael’s lawyer is prepared to use, but he recognised the strategy for what it is: a variation of the old tactics of intimidation that the dominant race has used against his people for ages. As a warrior of the race, he was not particularly afraid of such tactics.
The outstanding justices of the 19th century had knowledge of linguistics, an acquaintance with different languages, and a fundamental understanding of their infant society.
JJ Thomas, author of The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar, noted that William George Knox, chief justice from 1849 to 1869, “was not only an accomplished linguist, but he also had some acquaintance with philology… [He] spoke the vernacular French patois well, and was in 1869, preparing for publication a philological dissertation thereon over which he had long brooded”. (Anthony Delamere, The Old and the New Bar.)
Philip knew the Spanish law that under-girded the English law that governed the island. He drafted the ordinance that made the professions of attorney and solicitor more accessible “than it had been for well-nigh two decades” and the ordinance that brought Trinidad and Tobago together as a political entity in 1888 (“Vicissitudes of the Profession”). He also wrote Emmanuel Appadocca (1854), the first novel of the Anglophone Caribbean.
Jaggasar and his colleagues may be familiar with the letter of the law. As a calypsonian and “a conscious black man”, Cro Cro was concerned with the spirit of the law, which is vital to his people’s spiritual well-being. Therefore, his response to Ishmael’s boast of crippling him financially: “Calypso was born out of protest. I will always sing about the issues.”
These are the words of a warrior who is ready to protect a verbal-musical form that was performed also at African cultural practices such as the kalenda, shango, belair and other work songs. The calypsonian, part of the warrior class, always saw his function as defending the race, which is why he takes his responsibility to his group so seriously.
Instinctively, Cro Cro recognises the important truism, “He knows neither law nor justice who only law and litigation know.” Law is more than statutes and torts. He realises that one has to immerse oneself in the history and geography of a people to understand what makes them function.
Cro Cro says, “I am singing for people to wake up and get conscious, and that is the job of the calypsonian. Calypso was born out of protest, and I will always sing about the issues. I never had a rough year, so whether I am in the semi-finals or not, that is not slowing me down. They want me to stop? Not over my dead body.”
Sat Maharaj, a quintessential Trinbagonian, fought tirelessly for the rights of Indo-Trinbagonians although Cro Cro criticised him relentlessly. He never brought a suit against the latter. He knew one could not/should not try to silence the voice of the calypsonian. He didn’t care what Cro Cro said or felt about him. Like Cro Cro, he just kept on working to improve the well-being of his people.
We’ve come too far by faith and action to turn back now. Thus, I hail our warrior king.