By Raffique Shah
July 18, 2015
Take the UNC’s choice of venue for its last Monday night meeting, the Country Club in Maraval. When I first heard the advertisement for the meeting, I thought there must have been some mistake, that maybe some upper-class support group had organised a soirée or banquet or some such social event to raise funds for the party’s campaign.
Surely, I surmised, no one in the UNC would select the Country Club as a venue for a political meeting—unless all attendees were of a particular class, not to add colour. But after checking and re-checking, I realised that the ads were correct, that the party was actually hosting a mass meeting at one of the historically racist, anti-Afro, anti-Indian clubs in the country that remained a bastion of White supremacy long after similar institutions had dismantled their colour-coded barricades.
I could not believe that no one in the ruling Partnership, not even Makandal Daaga, who, in 1970, marched to protest the club’s naked racism, objected to the party holding any event there, least of all a mass meeting.
Others in the coalition—Suruj Rambachan, Bhoe Tewarie, Winston Dookeran, Winston “Gypsy” Peters, Errol McLeod—ought to be aware of the negative symbolism of that cussed compound.
That they remained silent, condoned this insult to the memory of all the patriots who stood steadfastly against all that the Club inflicted on non-white natives of this country over many decades, saddens me, but does not surprise me.
For the younger ones who may not know the history of that large and exclusive enclave that is a relic of slavery and colonialism, let me edify them and explain why I feel so strongly about the club.
I shan’t go into its early history, the fact that like so many other large estates, the land on which it stands was gifted to a French family by the Spanish governor under the infamous “Cedula” of the 18th century. It changed from white hand to white hand until the early 1950s when Portuguese rum magnate Joseph Fernandes purchased it.
By then, the club had become not just a racist establishment, but a bastion of the social elites that debarred even whites who were seen as not of the “class” to rub shoulders with the “nobs”. Ironically, by then a few black-skin white-masks who had climbed the social ladder were granted membership although they were not allowed use of the pool.
I have heard stories from the children of then members, mostly whites and what we call “Syrians”, that reeked of the racism of red-necked Southern USA. They spoke of taking Indian and African school friends or yard-boys or household helpers to the club, only to have them insulted by the “House Negro” staff who ordered them out of the pool.
The most infamous display of racism in modern times occurred in early 1970 when the Black Power Movement was gaining ground. An Afro-American couple, medical doctors I believe, were holidaying in Trinidad, staying at the Hilton Hotel.
Because Hilton did not yet have tennis courts, the hotel had an arrangement with the Country Club whereby its guests would use their courts. The Afro-American couple were refused entry. That overt act of racism became a cause celebre of NJAC, which Daaga led. In fact, it sparked a march against the club.
Fernandes stood firm, refusing to retreat or to apologise. Long after 1970, the Country Club remained racist. When it did open its facilities to non-whites, it was out of need for their dollars, not their presence.
I understand that anyone who has the money can book the venue for wedding receptions, corporate functions and even Carnival fetes.
And in an ironical twist, when the Government acquired a small piece of the club’s land to widen Saddle Road and build a roundabout back in 2006 or thereabout, the current Fernandes said: “You have no idea of the abuse that we have suffered at the hands of the State.”
Many people might argue that we have to forgive and forget, that even in apartheid South Africa, the great Nelson Mandela later embraced his one-time persecutors. I have no problem with that—once the sinners atone for their sins.
The owners of the Country Club never did. In fact, in 2004, when Mandela visited Trinidad, his host Jack Warner had arranged for a banquet in his honour to be held at the club. Outrage forced Warner to change the venue.
The club may have changed its colour, in a manner of speaking, but it is no place for a self-respecting party to host any function.
We must never forget its racist history.