Conflict between East-Indian and Blacks in Trinidad and Guyana Socially, Economically and Politically by Gabrielle Hookumchand and Moses Seenarine
May 18, 2000 (Published by Saxakali.com on August 1st 2000)
Caribbean history comprises of a long and tumultuous colonial past. Guyana and Trinidad both have a rich cultural past, however, it is a history tat has been marred by it’s own people its adopted natives. Much of both countries’ history has been soiled: First by the race issues created by the Europeans ten secondly by petty jealousies each race, East Indian and African, had towards each other. But let my point about the ethnic dividebe put with more focus: the two races are the two main groups in these two countries are East Indian and Blacks. My country Guyana’s motto is "One People, One Nation, One Destiny" and likewise Trinidad’s motto is "Together we Aspire Together we Achieve" it is indeed ironic that this is far from true.
Trinidad’s makeup is 39.6% African and 40.3% East Indian vis-A-vis Guyana’s ethnic make-up 51% East Indian and 43% AfroGuyanese.’ While Guyana and Trinidad are not located in the similar geographic location sharing a similar ethnic makeup has resulted in a similar past and most likely a future where racial conflict will continue undoubtedly to affect their society. This racial divide has detrimentally affected both countries; the effects can be noticed socially, economically and politically. It will continue unless there is more regard for this fragile coexistence between East Indian and African.
One might ask how are these two countries are easily comparable since they are not located in similar geographic settings, one an island the other a mainland country, however there are many characteristics common to both countries. Guyana and Trinidad have experienced major similarities in development of their societies. Both were British colonies. Africans were enslaved in both countries and Indians brought to be indentured to replace them. Both Indian and African are the two major ethnic groups. Both are characterized by a high degree of conflict between the two major ethic groups, and the organization of their political system along virtually rigid ethnic lines.
The need for cheap labor landed both groups, Indian and African by chance in the Caribbean. Africans were brought to these two countries and were enslaved on sugar and cotton plantations from the 17th century until the early 19th century when the slave trade ended. Slavery was abolished in both colonies in 1833. (Hintzen 1989) East Indians were imported into the two colonies as indentured laborers to replace Africans on the plantations. Racial stereotypes developed early in the two colonies. British planters characterized Africans as physically strong but lazy and irresponsible. East Indians were stereotyped as industrious but clannish and greedy. Views that are still present today. To feel sleepy after eating is referred to in and around the Caribbean as having "niggeritis", a direct allusion to the lazinessof Africans. To some extent, these stereotypes were accepted by the immigrant groups themselves, each giving truths to positive stereotypes of itself and negative stereotypes of other groups. They believed what was said of the other group but none of what was said of them.
The stereotypes provided a useable explanation of behavior and justified competition among groups. Africanswere described as indolent when they refused to work for low wages or make long-term contracts with the plantations as the Indians had. East Indians were considered selfish when they minimized their expenses to acquire wealth.
In modem Guyana, the connection of behavior with ethnicity is less rigid than it was in colonial days. Where once there was a sharp and uniform distinction between behavior considered "British" and behavior considered "coolie,’ now there is a range of situations that can receive different ethnic labels in different situations. Acting "coolie" in a situation would be something as simple as wearing an uncoordinated colorful outfit. Or typifying "British" behavior would be refusing from using the local Creole and speaking the Queens English. What is considered ‘British" in a rural village might be considered "coolie" in the towns. In addition to stereotyping, the colonial value system that favored European beliefs, specifically British, ideals, has been encouraged. Euro centric beliefs were promoted by the colonial education system, which idealized British customs. The ex-slaves, who perceived their Christianity, as proof that they too were as civilized as the British
accepted the superiority of British culture. Since the late 19th century, the emerging middle class of urban AfroGuyanese and Indo-Guyanese developed a nationalist ideology based largely on British values. They claimed a place in society because they met standards that had been set by the British.
Ethnic perception among these separate groups has emerged from the divisions of color, religion, place of residence, and occupation. Problems started with the white colonists and were further perpetuated by early leaders. In these two countries the policies of ethnic rule changed from politics based on ethnic preference to politics based on ethnic dominance. Both groups became envious of each other’s successes. In both countries there existed a high degree of racial exclusivity in residential concentration of the population in villages, communities, and in villages, communities, and in broader geographic areas. (Hintzen, 1989) [A phenomenonwhich emphasized economic separation.] Simply put, the two groups hardly mingled. Communities are either solely African or solely Indian; it is only in the more urban areas that they are more integrated communities. This is a problem that still affects these countries, the lack of intermingling.
Politics in Trinidad followed a similar pattern with Guyana where there was a period of brief cooperation followed by an increased separation along racial lines. In Trinidad before the Second World War a small white elite dominated politics, in the absence of class mobilization, political leaders used race to mobilize the support of large, voting blocs. As independence from British colonial rale seemed to becoming to an end in Trinidad, the white population was centered on a single party the Political Progress Group (PPG). After the Second War, adult voting was introduced to the colony. Blacks formed the West Indian National Party (WINP), succeeded by the Caribbean Socialist Party. An African Urial Butler formed the Butler Party, which in the first elections in 1950 carried a huge Indian vote. It was here racial issues first played a role in the political circle. Butler was unable to retain his familiarity with his East Indian supporters and they broke away and formed the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Prior to this event there was no unified black political organization. The African intellectuals of Trinidad fearful of what could result from the formation of the PDP and thus reacted defensively at the impending threat of a unified Indian party. (Hintzen, 1989) In 1956, a former history professor Eric Williams formed the People’s National Movement (PNM), the AfroTrinidadian Party. By independence in 1962, Eric Williams headed the country. The Trinidadian PNM regime that came to power in 1956 lasted until 1986, continuing even after Eric William’s death in 1981.
Racial issues had destroyed any possibility of lower class solidarity, where ideological viewpoints would replace racial identification. Ideological appeals to class during the early phase of the nationalist movement served more as an adhesive holding these racially diversified groups together, rather than as a basis for thecompression of a confederated mass movement. Race became the preeminent ingredient in the organization of popular political participation. (Hintzen 1989)
The shift to racial politics first became noticeable in Trinidad upon the introduction of adult voting rights. In Trinidad, "The 1956 elections established the pattern of politics for some three decades: ethnic affiliation determined party preference, and a bifurcated Creole-Indian policy thus emerged, lacking unity and surviving on sectional legitimacy." (Hintzen, 1989) To galn support of the masses, one of the tactics used in developing racial politics was that leaders made use of patterns of social groups which was worthwhile considering the existing racial make-up.
The 1957 elections in Guyana held under a new constitution gave light to the growing ethnic division within the Guyanese electorate. The People’s Progressive Party (PPP) had two wings, one headed by Linden Forbes Sampson Buniham, the other by Jagan. The 1957 elections were won by Japan’s PPP faction. The party’s main supporters were increasingly identified as Indo-Guyanese: more rice land improved union representation in the sugar industry, and improved business opportunities and more government jobs for lndo-Guyanese. The PPP soon stopped being a multiracial party; it was an Indo-Guyanese party. Another important element was soon added to the developing tension.
Burnham had not forgotten the lesson he learned from the 1957 elections. He could not win if supported only by the lower class, urban Afro-Guyanese . He needed middle-class allies, especially those AfroGuyanese who backed the moderate United Democratic Party (a party sympathetic with Jagan) Burnham began to work to create a balance between maintaining the support of the more radical Afro-Guyanese lower classes and gaining the support of the more capitalist middle class. He would now need a common uniting force to keep these two groups together and himself in power. The answer was something very simple to manipulate--race.
Burnham’s appeals to race proved highly successful in bridging the rift that divided the Afro-Guyanese along class lines. This strategy convinced the powerful Afro-Guyanese middle class to accept a leader who was more of a radical than they would have preferred to support. Burnham’s and Jagan’ s conflicting economic policy views led to their split in the PPP. Burnham snatched the United Democratic Party from under Jagan’s feet and broke away from the PPP altogether and formed the People’s National Congress (PNC). Burnham was a socialist. He saw the immediate goal to be the gaining of political independence after which the country would sustain itself by producing everything it would need. Jagan on the other hand was a Marxist; he saw economic exploitation as the main problem. This made Jagan disliked by the United States and thus he lost his position as leader. British troops landed and suspended the constitution of Guyana and threw the PPP out of office. This was the obvious action; what wasn’t known was the covert operation being sponsored by the United States. The United States had supported this intervention. Most Guyanese were not aware of was taking place which was a maj or anti- communist offensive by the United States in Guyana and the Caribbean and to me, it was worse that the United States had significant local support.
After this, Jagan strengthened his hold on the Indo-Guyanese Community. Though he openly expressed his admiration for Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and, later, Fidel Castro Ruz. Jagan felt that his Marxist ideals could be applied uniquely to Guyana. In the late 1 950s, the British Caribbean colonies had been actively negotiating establishment of a West Indies Federation. There was a growing agreement among nonIndian politicians that federation with the rest of the British West Indies offered the best post-colonial political solution for the colonies. The issue, however, inflamed the passions of the East Indian population and its political representatives who were already worried of the possibility of black political domination. The Indo-Guyanese, were apprehensive of becoming part of a federation in which they felt people of African descent would outnumber them.
Even more so than in Trinidad, the East Indian population in Guyana were strongly opposed to any such political union on the grounds that it was a plot to deprive them of their electoral majority. East Indian leaders were strong in the belief that it’s ratification would have had the effect of decreasing the East Indian population to an insignificant minority by initiating mass migration of Africans into the two colonies from other lesser developed West Indian countries. East Indians in Trinidad leaders and their supporters felt that "Indians had worked to build the country, and blacks wanted to get the better of Indians." (Hintzen, 1989) The East Indian population was led by its leaders to believe that a West Indian federation would erase any possibility Indians had of any representation in future governments. Jagan was the chief voice of East Indian opposition to Federation, in Guyana. By contrast Burnham, the Afro- Guyanese leader fully supported the federation. Jagan’s
veto of the federation caused his party to lose all significant Afro-Guyanese support.
In the early 1900’s Garveyism and other black intellectuals began to preach "Africa for Africans" which spurred a great resurgence in Afro-centricity and black pride, which furthered the divide between Indian and black. Almost simultaneously there was resurgence in regaining ties with India. Indo Guyanese and Indo Trinidadian women began wearing Indian garb. These factors all compounded to widening the divide between these two races. In Trinidad, the black pride resurgence led to the February Revolt, which at first was a labor dispute then incorporated racial overtones. An IndoTrinidadian said this in regards to the resurgence of Black Pride and power:
The Black Power leaders underestimated the importance of these divisions, and failed to provide the necessary groundwork within the Indian community. The term "black" moreover, generally referred to persons of predominantly African descent. Most Indians did not regard themselves as being black. In a letter to the editor, for example an Indian writer responded negatively to having been categorized as such by the Black Power Movement:
"I object to being black.. Indian belong to the Caucasian or "white" race... why then call Indians black?"... You the Black Power members are asking us to join you in your march for power.. Your sudden interest in the East Indian sugar worker is viewed with suspicion... We are not prepared to support you."
A statement only proving that there ill feelings towards each other are still present. Black Power or even Indian Power has no place in Guyana and Trinidad, although it advances both peoples, it ignores the existence, of each other. A concept that will only destroy the slow integration process that already exists here: an integration, which is anxiously anticipated by both groups.
Since independence in 1963, two characteristics have dominated Guyanese society and politics; the presence of strong political personalities (Cheddi Jagan, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham and Desmond Hoyte) and ethnic and racial divisions based on mutual suspicion and manipulation by these strong personalities. At the same time, the struggle for political ascendancy between Burnham, the "Man on horseback" the hero of the Afro-Guyanese, and Jagan, the hero of the Indo-Guyanese masses, left a legacy of racially polarized politics that remained in place in the 1990’s. (Merrill, 1993) The race politics practiced in Guyana, where political majoritanism aligned one group against another was extremely harmful to the country.
The result of the enactment policy in Guyana caused an almost civil war, where blacks burnt the businesses of Indo-Guyanese, and during the ensuing melee, hundreds of Africans and East Indians lost their lives. More recently in Guyana, there was an increase in racial tensions, where they were looting and ransacking of homes and businesses by both sides. Many similarities as can be found between these two countries there is one difference. Racial conflicts in Trinidad had never reached the serious levels it did in Guyana where Guyana was almost propelled into Civil War. However, ethnic conflicts have in fact been increasing in recent years, and have tended to increase as greater contact and communication is made between the two groups as it is in Guyana and Trinidad.
Socially, taboos regarding intermarrying led to the preferences for straight hair vs. what is considered "nappy" hair. The cultural development of the East Indian populations in Guyana and Trinidad took on a character that was quite distinctive. Unlike the rest of the racial groups in both colonies, East Indians have remained attached to their religion. Hinduism and Islam and to the broader cultural tapping associated with these religions.
However, some things have changed:
The traditional caste relationship among the East Indians has lost most of its religious Sanction and the Brabmin, who is not a religious leader, is not given any special deference. Money, position and education are the new cultural values which the East Indian now use or social ranking within the ethnic group. Marriage does not often take place between the East Indian and other groups, not so much on account of that group’s status but because of the persistence of a marriage patterns from India. The marriage patterns of this group are changing with acculturation, and increasing incidence of marriage results. (Horowitz, 1971)
I can recall while at school watching children both Afro- and Indo playing in the schoolyard and at the same time would say things like:
Coolie Water Rice, Pork and Spice
Wash yuh baffle with dal and rice
Coolie Man Eat Rhaggi fit get scrawly
Black Man Eat Flour fit get Power
Black Man black man Neva Lie
Wid broad face and Chinee Eyes
Wid turn up nose and jigga toes
On his bead black pepper grows.
In Trinidad, according to a friend of mine school aged children, would say:
Coolie man come 6 roti,
Roti Dun, Mash potato, Mash potato
Half past One.
Black come fi Roti,
Roti Dun, Mash Potato, Mash potato
Half past One.
When di nigga pull di trigger
Ole’ man coolie run.
Where does this all this come from, viewpoints such as this one given by an AfroTrinidadian as to why the East Indians are more socially mobile are reasons why little children think up of these cruel songs to sing to each
"Black man is falling. When the Black Man used to wear feathers in his cap, the coolie was eating water-rice. Black man used to say, "Go way, you water-rice coolie!" Today the coolie think they are big people. After one time will be a next. Today is time for coolie. I don’t mind cause the Lord say, "In the last days, race will rise against race, and nation will rise against nation, and there will be wars and rumors of wars." (Horowitz 1971)
In Guyana and Trinidad class can be divided as such:
An upper class of large businessmen and large planters. An upper middle class of professionals, owners of medium-sized businesses, college levels educators, corporate managers, and senior bureaucrats in the public sector and leaders of voluntary organizations. A lower middle class of small businessmen, primary and secondary school teachers, white collar workers (in private business, in civil administration, and in the parastatals), skilled workers, and owners of medium-sized farms. A rural lower class of small peasants, agricultural laborers, seasonal and short-term migrant laborers and the rural unemployed. An urban lower class of unskilled and semi-skilled urban laborers and the substantial number of urban unemployed. Few Whites, Mulattos and the majority, East Indians make up the more successful upper half The lower shared by blacks. (Hintzen 1989)
Guyana and Trinidad are countries small in size and population and thus their economies are mostly based on exports and producing a small amount of products. This results in a limitation on the efforts of economic control. What make them differ from the more industrialized nations? The answer to this question explains much of their current economic woes. All countries, small and big are subject to the effects of outside economic fluctuations. The difference is that the larger more industrialized countries have the ability to manage or attempt to manage any economic fluctuations.
Small countries like Guyana and Trinidad are dependent on limited exports, mostly agricultural and small products. In Guyana and Trinidad the existence race based politics and poor economic policies led to the breakdown of economic system. Guyana is just after Haiti on the list of poorest countries in the Caribbean, with high levels of unemployment, and double-digit inflation. Trinidad is by no means a wealthy country but it has faired better than Guyana due to its oil deposits, tourism appeal and it’s automobile manufacturing. In Trinidad under the PNM government the beneficiaries ofjobs, services, facilities, loans and housing were the African masses who supported the party, the same policy the PNC practiced in Guyana.
Nevertheless, the masses still suffer in both countries. This is a reason for the mass exodus of immigrants from both countries to the United States and Europe. Here one again effects the other; this has lead to the lack of manpower and brainpower to facilitate any kind of resurgence in the economies of two countries. A survey conducted by a graduate student of Black and Indian school teachers and other educational personnel in Guyana and Trinidad produced the following conclusion:
Most Indians want a state in which cultural pluralism will be an accepted norm, in which they can be both Guyanese or Triidadian and Indian. Africans tend to acknowledge only one cultural standard as congruent with Guyanese or Triidadian. Identity, and also do not accept the legitimacy of a continued uniquely Indian identity. The two groups share the same state, but have very different conceptions of the nation. (Baksh, 1999)
This can only give a poor outcast for the future of the two countries; solidarity is a far away dream. When I look in the mirror I ask myself, Guyanese, Indian what am I? I landed in Guyana by accident. Thinking of the question you posed to me in my outline, am I ethnocentric? I think my view is warped because of my life experiences in the United States, where it is no longer important what race I am, but essentially that I am not Caucasian. In comparison to others while most see themselves by race first, I see myself as simply, Guyanese. People both Indian and black in Guyana and Trinidad fail to acknowledge how similar they truly are and only focus on their differences and that is said. They share similar cultures, celebration of Carnival, foods, and customs.
In these young countries there is a great fear of cultural domination: each group wants to assert the benefits of their own culture. When public figures and public policy proceed to shape the national identity the result is who will control who and who the nation will belong to. While the historical struggle for political power is seen as the primary cause for the bad race relations, another cause should be examined, the lack of economic resources.
The eternal conflict over whom has everything and who doesn’t have anything. It would seem that if the economies of these countries could be rejuvenated and enough resources could be available so that all groups could be satisfied without favoring one group over the other, this ethnic conflict could possibly be improved. Groups should be left to intermingle and develop their own solutions to their own problems. Although the cultural structure of the Indian and African people might appear to be distinctive, there are more common values held between the two than appears at first sight. For instance, the both accept the British social system and most of its values, sadly they accept it as being superior to their own national cultural values. Race and ethnicity will infinitely continue to be central to the Caribbean definition of self. Ironically, nearly all the leaders of the new nations of the Caribbean came to power on platforms of social justice and condemnation of any
form of racial discrimination.
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