Bukka Rennie

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20th century history missing

August 03, 2002
By Bukka Rennie

Having listened to much of the lectures on emancipation that were delivered by various personalities over the last week, one comes to the realisation that there is a crucial and significant portion of our history that is constantly being ignored.

Great emphasis every year is paid to the struggles on the plantations of the Western world that culminated in the liberation of Black humanity from being chattel property. Black humanity was then in open warfare with an institutionalised racist system.

Given that open warfare, the level of political and social consciousness then, as well as the level of combativity among African people were sharp. African people never fell asleep then nor allowed themselves ever to be lulled into apathy.

Never mind all the talk about "house slaves" for in most instances they merely represented another strategy the white masters discovered too late, much to their own peril or, if in fact "house slaves" proved to be genuine "sell-outs", they were physically removed by the field-hands without the slightest bit of remorse.

After the 1834 proclamation, the unity and consciousness of the Afro-Trinidadians, who refused to accept "apprenticeship" and marched into the city of Port-of-Spain shouting "pas de six ans" ("no to the six years") of proposed continued labour on the plantations, indicates the level of consciousness and commitment these ex-slaves exhibited.

In fact, it is recorded that a number of the communities that sprung up on the outskirts of Port-of-Spain like "John-John" came about as a result of the resolve of many of these ex-slaves never to return to the sugar plantations.

Many of these ex-slaves set themselves up as the skilled artisans and craftsmen, the technical core-group, around the towns and the estates.

CLR James took pains to point out that the slaves were products of the "socialised production of sugar" and they mastered all the required techniques of such production because of "who they were when they were brought here in chains."

In other words, they came with themselves the best and surest manifestation of their own culture and the sum total of their own history.

John Ball further concretised the issue in his recent book, Slaves in the Family, by indicating plantation owners in the Carolinas of America knew exactly where in Africa to seek slaves relative to particular skills that they needed - they knew who were good builders, who were mechanically-minded, who knew about proper irrigation and other aspects of agricultural production and so on.

The ex-slaves were conscious of the fact that they had to break the back of the plantation system to maintain their freedom and guarantee the further development of their kind. So besides setting themselves up as the skilled artisans, they also became the driving social force, the free peasantry, who led the process of diversifying the economic base away from the sugar monoculture.

This independent free-peasantry sought to have control of, or some particular relationship to, land and the use of land as an imperative to develop and sustain their initial power by way of creating and re-creating wealth.

The white planters and the colonial governments sought out every way to block such development, keep the ex-slaves out of the wealth-creating process, and so extend the life of the sugar plantations.

Cocoa, coffee and bananas, etc as alternatives to sugar were largely the preserve of this free-peasantry as owners of small holdings or later on as "contract-farmers" utilising land owned by white planters who were forced objectively to abandon sugar.

The question is when did the apathy set in? When did Black people in T&T suddenly lose the psychological and emotional attachment to land as the basis of wealth-creation and sustenance?

It began to happen at the middle turn of the 20th century when Africans began to substitute "formal education" instead of "land", and the business activity that results from land utilisation, as the basis for wealth generation and sustenance.

Up to the 1920s and 1930s, Black people in T&T were significant holders of land throughout this country. How were these significant holdings lost? That is the 20th century history that is necessary now for our re-education!

Recently, I was shown a picture of the Port-of-Spain Downtown Businessmen Association of the 1930s, and all the gentlemen in the photograph were Afro-Trinidadian. Note well, I did not say "Downtown Black Businessmen Association".

In my book History of the Working Class - 1919-1956, the reasons for the transformation of downtown businesses are well documented.

Anyone familiar with the Eastern Main Road from Laventille to Arima even as late as 1957-58 would know most of the properties that lined both sides of the roadway were owned by Afro-Trinidadians. What happened? That is the history that is missing.

According to Milton Henry who talked about "territorial imperative", "the urge for territory seems to be an innate, deeply rooted part of the nature of all living species of animals. Living animals everywhere seem to know that land is in fact the basis for freedom, justice, independence and equality."

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