By Cecil Paul & Gerry Kangalee
October 28, 2016 – workersunion.org.tt
We refer to a letter to the editor in the Express of October 27, 2016 in which one R. De Verteuil is “sick and tired” of Laventillians complaining “about how neglected and disadvantaged they are, and how much more money the government should throw in their direction”.
She said “we all came from different parts of the world without a penny and a lot of hard work was required from the first settlers who cleared land and planted”. She continued that “those who settled in Central Trinidad worked hard, ate flour and water, channa, pumpkin, potato and bodi – to educate their children etc.;”.
De Verteuil then wrote that “the Chinese came with a sack on their back, opened shops etc.; worked hard and made their way in the world” She then praised the Middle Easterners who “came and started off on bicycles, with suitcases of fabric. Look where they are today”.
Ms De Verteuil then stated that “Some of us of European stock started out without a penny” and said that her ancestors were killed by republican revolutionaries during the French Revolution over 200 years ago and mentioned reimbursement if her relatives were to demand reparation.
She revealed her work history from the age of 17 starting with a typist job and small salaries and described herself as a descendant of French Creoles. She went on that she had neither government housing nor any of the assisted peoples’ programmes except for paying her NIS and other statutory payments which are mandatory and paid for her mortgage and never used the general hospital. The only freeness she said she got from the government was two years of A-Level education.
De Verteuil finally called on the ”lazy touts to get off your butts, get an education, get trained and start working like everyone else, stop waiting for hand-outs which only encourage laziness!”
It is clear that R. De Verteuil was referring to Afro Trinbagonians when she criticized Laventillians. Not once did she mention the contributions of Africans to the development of Trinidad and Tobago. She praised the Indians, the Chinese, the Syrian/Lebanese community and, of course, her people the Europeans. The contempt for people of African descent is palpable. It’s nothing new and it isn’t going away any time soon.
Enslaved Africans came to this country in chains far less “without a penny”. The French creoles came here, fleeing the Haitian and the French revolutions and the British military, which was seizing French–held territories in the Americas. They came from, among other places, Grenada, Guadeloupe Haiti, Louisiana, St. Lucia, Acadia in Canada in the latter third of the seventeenth century. They came with their slaves.
They got free land in proportion to the number of slaves they brought and had the protection of the state in the form of colonial rule based on military force and the protectionist policy of the British government toward the trade in sugar. The French creoles exploited a brutal slave regime based on the exploitation of free, co-erced labour under the worst form of violent barbarism.
According to Besson and Brereton’s Book of Trinidad: “They were white, Catholic, of legitimate birth, and an aristocratic family…These families lived in large estate houses, with many servants and ornate furnishings. They dressed formally for dinner, and strict manners were observed…It became accepted for the French planters to have colored mistresses. The resulting offspring were sometimes legitimized and educated…”
The De Verteuil family, unlike most of the other French Creole slave-owning refugees, did not come to Trinidad as a slave owning planter. The first De Verteuil came as an officer in the British navy that established British colonial rule. He fought against his own country.
The De Verteuils were large land and estate owners, even owning oil lands, benefitting from the labour of oil workers who laboured under primitive conditions to produce the black gold that enriched the elites.
Ms. De Verteuil states “lot of hard work was required from the first settlers who cleared land and planted”. Yes a lot of hard work was required, but by enslaved Africans who planted and reaped the crops and produced the finished products that enriched the ancestors of our letter writer: all for free and with the violence typical of plantation societies. Now we are being called lazy!
When the free Merikin and the Portuguese, Indian, Chinese, American, West Indian and West African indentureds came to Trinidad they met thriving estates of sugar cane and other crops controlled by the French Creoles and the British.
Ms. De Verteuil should be aware that her ancestors were not the “first settlers” as she put it. The French Creoles were given the lands of the First Peoples for free by the Spanish cedula; lands the Spanish seized by sword and cannon over the two hundred and seventy five years it took them to subdue and ethnically cleanse those who had lived here for thousands of years. Even the Spanish pre-settled the French creoles.
When slavery was forced to be abolished, the French and British Europeans got compensation (reparations) for enslaving Africans, yet Ms. De Verteuil tries to trivialise Africans’ international struggle for reparations. De Verteuil yells “get off your butts” when we were off our butts enriching her European ancestors for hundreds of years.
Post-emancipation Africans became agriculturists, artisans, trades men, service providers of all kinds, industrial workers, business people, unionists, civil rights activists, revolutionary intellectuals and revolutionaries; professionals, musicians, sports people and artists, among other things.
Integral to the colonial economy was that the financial/banking system, jobs in the public service and the private sector and land were controlled by the elites. The then-colonial state, which has always been, and still is, the largest landholder and the arbiter of who gets land and who doesn’t, enacted laws to discourage former enslaved people from owning land. The ridiculous situation, then, developed whereby after emancipation, though Trinidad was a virgin territory and there was an abundance of land, you had the phenomenon of squatting.
The shape of all societies is historically determined; the interacting social groups in the society did not fall from the sky just so! We are what we have become. As the inequality in the relations between dominant and subordinate groups in the society increases, as it must in the logic of capitalism, the stridency in the tone of the class conflict increases.
Opposing perspectives emanating from different narratives of History lock horns in the arena of class conflict which in the Caribbean is heavily influenced and coloured by race and ethnicity. Individual effort is all well and good and is to be admired, but once the power relations between social groups are not shifted to serve the interest of all the people, then economic and social inequality will continue their rapid growth and will inevitably lead to social and political eruptions such as we have not seen since 1970.