By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 11, 2018
If one listened to the scholars and scribes, one would think that when the Indians came to Trinidad in 1845 they met a barren land where Africans played and joked around. No one would believe that those Africans, working from sunup to sundown, made William Hardin Burnley, an Englishman who came to Trinidad in 1802, the richest resident slave owner in the West Indies (see my forthcoming book, The Slave Master of Trinidad).
If one paid more attention to the gossip, one might also think that when the Syrians and Lebanese came and walked around the island selling their cloth that black people with money rather than animals bought it. These sales allowed them to accumulate the necessary capital to develop their business conglomerate that stands atop the economy today.
Therefore, it is always amazing when friends and foes talk about the laziness of Africans, which they say will take us back into economic enslavement similar to what our foreparents endured in the nineteenth century. If this happens, it won’t be because of our laziness.
After slavery ended, the whites and French creoles continued to control T&T’s business activities. Oil production displaced sugar and cocoa as the major exports during the 1920s. Tubal Uriah Butler formed the British Empire Workers and Citizens Home Rule Party in 1936, which became the dominant political organization until 1956. Many Indo-Trinbagonians were members of his party.
In 1937 the oilfield workers struck for better wages and were joined by the agricultural workers. The joint work of Butler (African) and Adrian Cola Rienzi (Indian) reflected the interracial unity that has allowed workers to achieve better working conditions.
In 1956 the People’s National Movement (PNM) came onto the scene advocating the same nationalist policies as the People’s National Party of Jamaica that was founded by Norman Manley. Primarily a nationalist rather than a racial party, PNM’s support came primarily from the urban areas that were mainly African. The works of Tagore, Gandhi, and Nehru also influenced Dr. Williams’ political and philosophical philosophy.
In 1947 The Teachers’ Herald, the organ of the People’s Education Movement (PEM) which eventually became the PNM in 1956, carried articles by Manley and ran extracts from the speeches of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria. They also sold copies of Dr. Williams, Education in the British West Indies.
The PEM wanted to convey “the kind of knowledge and training that would enable them [adults] to be more competent and efficient workers to produce more and yet more of everything they now produce by the use of methods practiced in the progressive countries of the world. In every field of human endeavor we aim at improving the competence of our people” (De Wilton Rogers, The Rise of the People’s National Movement).
The PNM, built primarily on the backs of ordinary black people, consisted of teachers, pharmacists, medical doctors, and working people who had fought their way out of poverty. They established their businesses along the East Main Road, from Arima to Port of Spain, on Cipero and High Streets in San Fernando, and on the main thoroughfare of Point Fortin. These people, “poor but respectable,” were animated with a desire to make it.
The PNM elevated the entire population. Between 1956 and 2010, T&T’s national income increased 50 fold, our national income rising from US $380 in 1956 to US $20,000 in 2010. Our GDP rose from about US $273.3 million in 1956 to US $163 billion in 2010.
Black people placed their hopes in the PNM, which they saw as synonymous with their well-being. As the country progressed they saw themselves as progressing with it as well. It never occurred to them that other groups were carving out special places in the business world as they boasted about their parochial educational achievements. Many of them saw a classical/colonial education as the central means of social mobility. However, by 1950 Indo-Trinbagonians “had succeeded in business, (and) were coming up in the professions” (Ivar Oxaal, Black Intellectuals Come to Power.)
As the country became more prosperous, the business interests of black people were pushed aside. While the Indian, Syrian-Lebanese, and mixed groups took advantage of the rapid economic advances in the society, blacks still hoped the PNM would look after their interests.
Things did not turn out that way. Today, as one looks upon the economic landscape, there are only about four African companies, Hydrotech (oil and gas); Kenson (oil and gas); Consec Ltd., (structural engineers), and Raymond and Pierre (valuators) of any prominence in the country. That’s the sum total of our business achievements after sixty-two years of existence under the PNM and other Indian political parties.
As one evaluates this record, one can only conclude that the PNM and the different manifestations of the UNC used political office to empower every other group at the expense of black people. The PNM did so at the cost of the people to whom they owe their very existence.
Many people will take exception to my analysis. I ask that they make their judgment on the basis of the facts rather than their feelings. More important, they should ask themselves if they are satisfied with where black people stand economically in the society.