By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 21, 2017
I am sorry I am only now getting back to Kamal Persad’s response to my article, “Getting It Right” (March 26). I noted: “While Indians were treated in a horrible, inhumane manner…, there is no doubt the Indians were brought to Trinidad to undercut the progress that Africans were making at the economic front.”
I argued further that the sole rationale for sending Indians to the Caribbean and Mauritius in 1836 was, as John Gladstone, stated: “It is of great importance to us to endeavor to provide a portion of other laborers, whom we might use as a set-off, and, when the time for it [emancipation] comes, make us, as far as possible, independent of our negro population” (John Scoble, Hill Coolies, 1840).
Persad claims “I got it wrong” (Express, March 27).
This is the essence of his refutation to my position: “Emancipation in Trinidad had a devastating economic impact on ‘low density’ colonies when the free blacks withdrew their labor from the sugar plantations or were unreliable. Plantations were abandoned or were overgrown with bush or were in an unkempt state. Donald Woods…recorded ‘Lord Harris reported that the whole colony was in a miserable state. May 1848 was the blackest month. By then the colony coffers were empty” (Express, March 27).
Persad does not challenge my major contention. Instead, he quotes a secondary source (Donald Woods), who quotes Lord Harris who arrived in the island in 1846, and whose quoted views reflected the economy of 1848. Almost invariably, serious scholars consult primary sources.
First: the productivity of black labor at the end of emancipation. The Trinidad Standard reported that the sugar crop of 1839 was larger than the crop of 1838, the year apprenticeship ended. It noted that the 1839 crop will be “clear surplus revenues as compared with the preceding year” (Anti-Slavery Reporter, February 12, 1840).
Sir Lionel Smith, governor of Jamaica (1836-39) made another observation. He said: “What was wanting was not more labour, but better treatment of the laborers. People who offer fair wages and punctually pay them, who rent cottages at a just price and for a secure tenancy, can get as many laborers as they want. And if there are persons who cannot, it is because their dreadful habits of oppression disqualify them to secure the confidence and industry of free laborers” (Anti-Slavery Reporter, February 12, 1840).
Second: with regard to the withdrawal of black labor from the plantations and their purported “unreliability.” On July 29, 1840, Mr. Prescod, a colored gentleman, wrote “The Alleged Deficiency of Labor” published in the Anti-Slavery Reporter:
“I admit at once that since Emancipation, some of the Negroes formally engaged in field labor have withdrawn themselves to other occupations. But I deny that, in any one of the colonies, this has been in the proportion, or anything like it, which the planter advocates have people believe.
“Mr. Burnley of Trinidad [the biggest resident slave owner in the Caribbean], in his letter to Lord John Russell [Secretary of State] which was copied into the Reporter on 22nd April , writes eloquently about a middle class of shopkeepers and traders which has sprung up from the wreck of slavery to supply the wants of the emancipated slaves, no longer dependent on the supplies of their masters; and he infers from this, as a thing of course, that a diminution of labor equivalent to the number of persons composing the middle class, has taken place.
“In theory perhaps, this may all be fine; but did the experienced Mr. Burnley not happen to know, that the former free people, possessing to some extent that capital which the emancipated generally wanted, were the more likely persons to step in and compose this middle class, and that, in the very fact, they do compose it.”
Prescod continues: “Some of the emancipated Negroes have become shopkeepers and traders; the plantation tradesmen, who were also occasionally employed in agriculture, have almost to a man taken entire to their trades; some have purchased or leased small allotments of land; and settled down independently: several mothers of families (principally in Jamaica) have retired from the fields to the duties of home and the young children instead of picking grass or tending cattle, all now in great numbers at school.”
Neither Woods nor William Green who Persad quotes can help us on these matters. One has to go to original sources—which I have done—to understand the lies the planters were spreading about black people and which Persad, without the necessary information, continues to disseminate.
I end with Prescod’s words to give Persad a sense of the tenacity of human beings who set out to build a new life after slavery: “First, sir, is it not reasonable to suppose—does it not accord with all we know of human nature and the laws that govern it, that the free man, working for a fair hire, will work more cheerfully and efficiently—will do more work, than the hated slave, who is driven to work for nothing?”
Wasn’t this the point Adam Smith and Eric Williams made in their path-breaking works?
To all my Indian brothers and sisters: HAPPY INDIAN ARRIVAL DAY.