Exulting at the Caroni Disaster
Posted: Wednesday, September 3, 2003
By Stephen Kangal
I rued the day that I would live to witness in Vision 2020, "one large family", where "every creed and race find an equal place", Mother T&T, that fellow nationals (brothers and sisters) would exult and sadistically celebrate at the swift and inhumane miscarriage of distributive justice that resulted in 20,000 of the community of Caroni workers including cane farmers, contractors etc (120,000 in all) being consigned by one stroke of the pen to the roti line. This is to say nothing of the tertiary Caroni-based trading community of Chaguanas, Couva, Princes Town, San Fernando etc whose very bien etre depended on Caroni and which is estimated at 360,000 nationals including the 120,000 directly affected.
These workers with little VSEP money (equivalent to what they would have been paid in severance payment in 1983) in their hands now face what was an avoidable bleak, unpredictable and traumatic future that is coincident with the 41st Anniversary of our Independence and the annual Emancipation celebrations. This is what 41 years of Independence and 117 years of indentureship means to the people of the Caroni heartland when they can now see the fruits of their toil under the burning sun dissipate into thin air just so. This is how we compensate dedication and patriotism.
The perpetrators of this impulsively crafted, politically motivated, national disaster proceeded to act without any compunctions in the full knowledge that these docile, politically-betrayed, prasadum- eating workers will not retaliate with the traditional urban-based trade union militancy and disruption that could threaten or endanger the integrity of the cane, rum, citrus and buffalypso stocks of now defunct Caroni Ltd. One Guardian writer, Lennox Grant lamented the absence of the "Cannes Brulees"( Camboulay riots)- the expected burning of the canes in protest.
Etienne Mendezís letter published in the Newsday (Aug. 23, p.4) seethes with undertones of sadistic delight. This is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If Mr. Mendez wanted to reflect upon and unnecessarily invoke as well as compare our sordid slave and indentured past, 1834 can only be conceptually or from a methodologically correct perspective compared with 1845- not 2003.
Mr. Mendez needs to be informed that the indentures were conned by "arkatias" into believing that in 1845 they were coming to "Chinidad" to chalay chinee (strain sugar). That the British planters paid them 24 cents a day to fill the labour shortages that resulted from the incremental abandonment of the sugar industry by the emancipated slaves in search of services jobs in the urban centres. Indentureship was disguised slavery. The Indians did not come on their own volition to replace our African brothers.
These indentures who were made to huddle together in cramped barracks with their rudimentary jahaji bundles, were debarred from accessing medical care at the POS Hospital on the presumption that they will contaminate the health of others. They needed a pass to travel outside of their indentured estates to visit their jahaji bhais and bhahins. If they received relatively superior rewards for their labour in post 1845 this resulted from the terms of their contract negotiated with the British Raj and not from the humanitarianism/favouritism of the Anglo-plantocracy.
The superior treatment accorded to the indentures does not make the position of the slaves any more adverse in its own right or more compellingly empathetic. The indentures came from a highly organised and civilised society albeit one that was highly socially stratified and regimented along caste lines. Their coming to the Caribbean may have been motivated by a desire to escape the dehumanising effects of the prevailing caste system in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
They were quarantined in Nelson Island prior to being assigned to the designated estates. They were deemed unfit to land on the docks of POS lest they contaminate the health of the rest of the population. Disrespect is still the name of the treatment meted out to the surviving indentures and their descendants. I can say this having worked in all aspects of the Public Service and observed the treatment dispensed by the servants that man and operate state apparatus. Examine the treatment meted out to the Bamboo residents on Independence Day without an iota of consultations as if they did not matter. If this is not disrespect then pray tell me what is?
Read the epitaph on Caroni written by someone with a Ph. D in agriculture, a "supposedly good" friend of mine. It was sent to me as one whom he considers to be his Indo-Trini friend via an e-mail on the closure of Caroni and the throwing of 120,000 nationals on the roti line. He called it the final emancipation:
"...Inject no more of the fat of the land to a crippling beast... Kiss them goodbye on emancipation day. Let them feel what it was like for the encumbered slaves who were put out of bread and board to live on an empty land before they came as mercenaries..."
In 1868 it took a visiting Canadian foreigner, John Morton and his wife Sarah to initiate the education of the indentures while the British colonial Government, the Catholics and Anglicans had already been according preferential status to the educational development of my African brothers resident in the urban suburban areas.
Mr. Mendez recounts the past very selectively. He will surely know that after the termination of their "bound coolie" status these same indentures understood the wealth creating potential of the combination of land and labour. Land, labour and capital were transformed and monetised by their innate spirit of entrepreneurship. They the indentures persisted in the sugar industry when others abandoned it as a persistent symbol of slavery. They revered the earth as Dhart Mai. The indentures and their sons and daughters contributed immeasurably to national wealth and the economic viability of Trinbago.
They subsidised the food bill of the nation with their blood, sweat and ample tears. Hitherto this sacrifice has remained unappreciated and unsung if we are to judge by the letters and commentaries in the print and electronic media. But with Prabhuji as their omnipresent and omniscient witness and judge they will receive divine justice and good karma. God does not curry favour but sends the rain on the good, the bad and the ugly.
For Mr Mendez et al to insinuate that in 2003 the de-employment of 20,000 sugar workers who historically gave their best to King Sugar restores historical parity between the two major ethnic groupings is clearly sadistic and of deep concern to those of us who wish our society to develop a caring spirit that straddles and narrows the ethnic divide. This hatred has nothing to do with colonialism to which is attributed all the ills of the society. This is independent Trinbago in 2003 aspiring to a 2020 Vision.
The foolish, vindictive closure of Caroni initiated by a cloth cutting Syrian Lebanese Minister who does not know the difference between bamboo grass and sugar-cane has exposed the deep cleavages, the festering antagonism and the ethnic polarisation of the nation that is still eating away like a cancer at the marrow of Trinbago. Somewhere in my mindís eye I also detect a nexus among the accelerated housing/voter padding demarche, the surgical annihilation of the political base of the UNC/ATSGWTU and the importation of Caribbean workers into T&T. There is sinister method in this madness.
Those of us who historically have lived amongst the cane-fields of Caroni have been fossilised in a state of deep shock and trauma. This has arisen from solidarity with our dispossessed and victimised brothers/sisters who "just like that" on Emancipation Day were the innocent victims of a most inhumane, insensitive, economically "dotish" and retaliatory politically motivated debacle that we the people of Caroni will never forget. Never!
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