By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 18, 2016
I wish to take up where I left off last Sunday to examine the implication of the “Report of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Dissent on Its Mission to the United States” for Trinidad and Tobago since there is an assumption that these reports have no relevance to our society. Sometimes we even refuse to believe that the slave experience lies at the base of our society masking our origin under the umbrella of an illusionary multiculturalism.
Slavery touched Africans in a multiplicity of ways. Enslaved Africans were beaten mercilessly by their masters. When they complained to the magistrates about their ill-treatment, they were beaten for complaining. The female slaves were beaten because the masters could not control their tongues. Sir Ralph Abercromby, governor of the island (1813 to 1827), argued that “it required great patience to bear with the provoking tongue and noise of the women” (Anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter, November 1827).
In 1827, after an 1823 Order in Council prevented the whipping of enslaved women, the planters pleaded to resume the practice. They feared the women because they were the eminence grisse or the decision-makers behind much of the resistance against slavery.
In 1888 Canon Philip Douglin (1845-1902) outlined the psychological damage slavery did to Africans of T&T descent. He was born in Barbados but served in Rio Pongas, West Africa, as a missionary of the West Indian Church Association for the Furtherance of the Gospel for twenty years (1867-1887). In 1887, he came to Trinidad as rector of St. Clément’s Anglican Church.
On August 1, 1888, on the fiftieth anniversary of the emancipation of slavery, he offered a remarkable insight into the psychological implications of slavery on black people. He said: “There are secret agonies, known only to God, which are far more acute than any external torture. Oh! It is not the smiting of the back, until the earth is crimsoned with the streams of blood-it is not the pursuing of human beings with blood hounds-it is not the branding of the person, or the amputation of the limbs-it is not the killing of the body-it is not these that are the keenest sufferings that a people can undergo. These affect only the outward man and may leave the majestic mind untouched.”
He continued: “But those inflictions which tend to contract and destroy the mind-those cruelties which benumb the sensibilities of the soul-those influences which chill and arrest the currency of the heart’s affection-these are the awful instruments of real suffering and degradation; and these have been made to operate on the Negro” (“Jubilee of Emancipation,” San Fernando Gazette, August 11, 1888). Until then, no observer, anywhere in the world, had articulated slavery’s impact on the psychology of colonized people.
The Working Group of Experts acknowledges three important aspects of the problem. It says there is “a profound need to acknowledge that the transatlantic trade in Africans, enslavement, colonization and colonialism… were among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, Afrophobia, xenophobia and related intolerance.” Such a concern was implicit in Fitzgerald Hinds’ warning that a group of businessmen and former PNM ministers agreed that Dr. Rowley was too “dark-skinned” to become Prime Minister (Express, February 2014).
The report also called for the erection of monuments, memorials and markers “to facilitate public dialogue.” It says, education “must be accompanied by acts of reconciliation, to overcome acts of racial bigotry, and legacies of racial injustice” and the school curricula should reflect “appropriately the history of the transatlantic trade in Africans, enslavement and segregation.”
As a start, each UTT student should be required to take a year-long course on the history and culture of Trinidad and Tobago if s/he wishes to be considered an educated T&T citizen. Within that rubric, s/he should be taught the fundamental role Africans played in building this society.
People of African descent in T&T are faced with a conundrum: they see the PNM as being interchangeable with their fundamental group interest. But if PNM is “the rallying cry of all” as the party proclaims, can it advocate, in a serious way, the liberation of black people without alienating the other groups upon which it depends for its support?
Trinidad and Tobago is not a homogeneous black society in the way in which Jamaica or Haiti is, nor for that matter is the interest of black people necessarily coterminous with that of PNM or UNC. Who, then, is supposed to advocate black interest in T&T?
The Chinese, the Syrian and the Indians, to name three groups, know who advocates their causes. Can we identify who advocates for and makes similar claims for Afro-Trinbagonians?
The society should ponder this question if we wish to move forward, together.