Cudjoe's Home AfricaSpeaks RaceandHistory Trinicenter
Selwyn Cudjoe Online

The Changing Social and Political Landscape of Trinidad and Tobago

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 22, 2010

(A Lecture delivered at the Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards)

I wanted to thank my friend Brian Moore for inviting me to address you as a part of the educational lectures that are being offered by the Bureau of Standards to acquaint workers about common trends in the society that are likely to make them more efficient in what they do. I also wanted to remind them that anytime they reduce their work to its mere technocratic dimensions they set themselves on a road that misses the essence of the jobs they perform for their society and their constant evolution as informed workers. Therefore, it is good thing to be here today to share with you my sense of what transpired over the last month in the society and why I believe that Trinidad and Tobago has arrived at another level of its social and political development.

In Trinidad and Tobago, when anyone tries to give an honest appraisal of what transpires in society or, at any rate, how he sees his society developing one is always tempted to call him a racist and to describe his analysis as a reflection of his party or ethnic affiliation which they claim prevents him from seeing things in an objective manner. However, to the degree that one considers himself a public intellectual it is to that degree that one has to continue to grapple with what Gandhi called "the Truth" which one can only discern, in our country at least, by looking at the historical trajectory of the society, seeking to determine what the events of the past month is liable to mean for the development of our society.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise if I say that one of the most important developments in this society over the last century has been the triumph of the People's Partnership (PP) whose decisive triumph at the last national election changed how we do our politics and the alignment of social forces in our country. In this context, I see the triumph of the East Indian segment of our society as the most important result of the last election in that it suggests that the society overcame another hurdle in its development. I can trace that development by looking at some of my own work and some of the things I have been saying over the past few years.

As all of you know, East Indians arrived in Trinidad in 1845. Through no fault of their own they undercut the economic gains that the Africans had made as a result of the abolition of slavery in 1834. In his book, A History of Indians in Guyana, Dwarka Nath observed that after the abolition of slavery the "colonial planters were faced with the difficulty of obtaining an adequate supply of labor. They knew that they could no longer rely on the Negroes to work regularly, and it became clear to them that unless something was done without delay, a crisis was near at hand." William Burnley, the largest slaveholder in this country even took a trip to the United States to recruit the freed slaves to fill the gap left by the Africans but was unsuccessful in his endeavor. The Indians, therefore, filled the gap that Africans had left on the sugarcane plantation.

Having served their indentureship, by the 1890s, the East Indians moved in large numbers from the estates to the newly established villages and emerged within that period as a political force in the island. By 1897, they formed the East Indian National Association of Trinidad, an organization that acted in defense of their interest. Eventually, it became "one of the major Indian political organizations during the early twentieth century. During this period, the East Indians participated in mayoral politics in San Fernando and in the movement for constitutional change. Girad Tikasingh writes that Indians reconstructed the panchayat, "the one traditional Indian social institution, which had the potential capacity for challenging political activity."

In that same year, an Immigration Ordinance sought to deny the Indians many of the freedoms to which they were entitled for having served their period of indentureship. Their objection to this ordinance brought the Indians closer together and signaled their political strength. Things reached a boiling point in June 1899 when Rev. John Morton, vice president of the Agricultural Society, proposed that East Indian immigrants who were being recruited as permanent settlers were not to be entitled to a free passage back to India. Jugmohun Singh from Tacarigua, one of the wealthiest shopkeepers in the island summoned a panchayat to consider Morton's motion which, according to B. Beharrysingh "had never been submitted to the consideration of Indian people whom it would affect." They could not accept such an act.

In the presence of at least 1,000 Indians from all parts of the island the Indians challenged Morton and let him and the island know that henceforth they would speak for themselves. By their action they signaled they had become a part of the national community. On July 26, 1899, the Mirror wrote that the "East Indians of Trinidad form a very important part of the body politic and there is no doubt that it will not be very long before we shall find them represented in every walk in our social and political economy, and that the day is not too far distant when they will claim, and we doubt not successfully claim, an unofficial seat at the Legislative Council table."

In 1925, the first elective legislature was established in Trinidad and Tobago. Although the East Indians were against the elected system their fears turned out to be ill-founded. At the first election one Indian member, Sarran Teelucksingh was selected. In 1928, Teelucksingh was joined by two other Indian members, F. E.M. Hosein (St. George) and T. Roodal (St. Patrick). Roodal, a leading member of Cipriani's Workingmen's Association, brought a substantial section of the Indian working class into the labor movement with him. Eventually, Roodal emerged as an important leader in the Indian community.

Adrian Reinzi, a fourth Indian was elected to the Legislative Council in 1938. An important leader in the society, Reinzi worked with Tubal Uriah "Buzz" Bulter and the labor movement to advance the causes of both the East Indian and labour. Apart from Reinzi, four of the seven members elected to the Legislative Council in 1938 were representatives of labour: Cipriani, Roodal, Teelucksingh and Milliard. Cipriani was white; Milliard was black and the three others were Indians. In 1946, the first year in which the election was fought under universal adult suffrage, four of the nine victorious members were Indians. Although Indians consisted of 35 per cent of the population, they represented about 44 percent of the elected members. Two of the four elected members were placed in the Executive Council.

Nineteen forty-five proved to be a very important year for the East Indian group when they celebrated one hundred years of residency in the country. The Indian Centenary Review, One Hundred Years of Progress, 1845-1945 described the scene on the First Arrival Day of East Indians in the island.
Weeks of arduous preparations by the Hon. Timothy Roodlal and his committee of organizers were well rewarded when 20,000 Indians formed on the greens of Harris Promenade in front of the Town Hall and marched into Skinner Park with Mr. Roodal and the Acting Governor at the head...To those privileged to witness the spectacle the day will ever be remain indelible in their minds. In its course our pioneers were remembered and tribute paid them and the part their descendants have played in the advancement of the Colony was vividly portrayed. Months of labour was rewarded by the remarkable response in number by the orderly behavior of the mammoth crowds and by the sense of unity and strength which the coming together of Indians from every walk of life created. Truly a fitting climax to 100 years of successful settlement in this Colony"
Roodal headed for the Celebration Committee while Mitra Sinanan read greetings that were sent from distinguished personalities such as Mahatma Gandhi. Rienzi and M. J. Kirpalani made stringent appeals for donations to create a fitting memory for Indians in the island while the Hon. T. A. Marryshow, that distinguished West Indian labor leader and champion of a West Indian Federation, spoke on behalf of the West Indian Community. This was a significant moment for East Indians in Trinidad and Tobago. It marked a compact they had made with a land of which V. S. Naipaul would write in A House for Mr. Biswas when he contemplated how the in-betweenity East Indian of an earlier generation felt about the land:
In the arcade of Hanuman House, grey and substantial in the dark, there was already the evening assembly of old men, squatting on sacks on the ground and on tables now empty of Tulsi Store goods, pulling at clay cheelums that glowed red and smelled of ganja and burnt sacking. Though it wasn't cold, many had scarves over their heads and around their necks; this detail made them look foreign and to Mr. Biswas, romantic. It was the time of day for which they lived. They could not speak English and were not interested in the land where they lived; it was a place where they had come for a short time and stayed longer than expected. They continually talked of going back to India, but when they opportunity came, many refused, afraid of the unknown, afraid to leave the familiar temporariness. And every evening they came to the arcade of the solid, friendly house, smoked, told stories and continued to talk of India.
Naipaul was writing about a time (perhaps in early 1930s) when, as he says, not even his younger brother, Shiva, could not have envisaged. However, Indian Arrival Day Celebrations of 1945 signaled an important moment in East Indian history in Trinidad and Tobago. It was a time when they were beginning to feel a sense of their mass. They had settled on the island. They did not necessarily feel they were a part of the land.

Trinidad itself had gone through some significant changes in the first part of the 20th century. From 1920 to 1935 Captain Cipriani and the Workingmen's Association had played an important part in changing the social conditions of the island through their agitation for several important social amenities such as age old pensions; a modicum of representative government and fortnight holidays for municipal workers.

The Oilfield workers strike of 1937 went a long way to change the political situation in Trinidad and Tobago. The deteriorating conditions of the workers in the oil belt and sugarcane workers in the agricultural districts allowed Butler, with the help of Reinzi, to rally dissatisfied workers to his cause. In 1936, he formed the British Empire Workers and Citizens Home Rule Party and became a dominant political figure in the country. The emergence of universal adult suffrage in 1945 and the raised political consciousness of East Indians led to an important alliance between Butler's party and the East Indians who banded with Butler to make him one of the most prominent political leaders in the society between 1935 and 1956.

Dr. Williams and PNM entered the political arena in 1956. Needless to say, Black national consciousness was on rise since Butler came on the scene. When Williams arrived organizations such as the Teachers' Education and Cultural Association, a predominantly African group, provided a platform that allowed Dr. Williams a foray into Trinidad and Tobago politics. Dr. Williams' Oxford education; his teaching at Howard University and this work with the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission had prepared him adequately for the tasks that awaited him as the political leader of the PNM and eventually Prime Minister of the island. He and his party ushered in a new political culture in which party politics began to matter more than individual attempts at seeking political office. It was not so much that parties did not exist prior to his arrival but they became more solidified and accepted as a form of political organization once he came onto the scene.

The first twenty years of PNM's rule was characterized by the achievement of internal self-government, national independence and republican status in 1976. It also saw to the massive transformation of the economy that was aided by the work of other governments that came into power. Between 1956 and 2010 Trinidad and Tobago's national income increased 50 fold, our average income rising from US $380 in 1956 to US 20,000 in 2010. Our GDP rose from about US 273.7 million in 1956 to US 163.3 billion in 2010. In 1963, our unemployment rate stood at 13.7; today it stands 5.8 per cent, a more impressive performance that either the U.S. or Europe.

Within that period, however, several changes were taking place in the society. For one thing the East Indian population grew from about 35 per cent in 1946 to about 42 per cent in 2010 whereas the African population decreased from about 46.8 per cent in 1946 to about 38 per cent of the population in 2010. In the period, nationalism — the mantra of the PNM — gave way to globalism, a phenomenon to which the PNM had not adjusted itself fully. Although PNM came up with its 2020 vision the lack of internal democracy within the party and a kind of anti-intellectualism prevented the PNM from attracting the best persons into the party. Meanwhile the party seems to have forgotten founding doctrines of "morality in public affairs" and the education of its members which led to the spectacle Calder Hart and the UDeCOTT scandal and a lack of questioning the various taken by the party and the government that represented it.

PNM was beset with other problems. Among the party leadership there arose a lack of accountability to its members and the general public. Many party members and the general public resented what it saw as authoritarian tendencies of the leader and an inability to listen to what party members and the general public were saying. Sensing this tendency, in March 2010, I compared Patrick Manning's lack of listening to a similar tendency that emerged at the end of Dr. Williams's career and made the following observation: "There came a time when Dr. Williams not only lost touch with his society's discourse, he also seemed to become deaf to some of the things people were saying. Once he ceased to listen, he merely uttered himself, he was unable to hear what others was saying and thus destabilized the dialogic project and dislocate himself from the discursive political process. One might be seeing a similar intransigence on the part of Mr. Manning. In a way, it may be a curious example of getting what he wanted by getting rid of anyone who seemed to have had a contrary point of view but not anticipating the outcome of such actions. Yet all is not lost. If Mr. Manning and the other members of the PNM government can initiate what I am calling respectful listening then they can resuscitate a productive dialogue with the public. At this moment of crisis, there is no more urgent task than the practice of respectful listening on the part of every member of the Government and even the members of the press."

The death of Dr. Williams in 1981 coincided with an ended PNM's hegemony and decentered the nationalist agenda. After PNM's defeat in 1986, (it had lost the Federal elections in 1958) national governments changed five times — an indication of the fragmentary and unsettled nature of the society and the crying need for something different. Although Vision 2020 tried to fill the gap, its inability to cater to people rather than obsess about things (big buildings, gigantic projects, etc.,) diffused the post-nationalist movement further.

Today, the society is at a crossroads. The PNM has lost its way but the PP has not offered anything different. Initially, it was in competition with the PNM to offer the society more things (a rise in old age pensions, a raise in the minimum wage, etc.,) although the realities of governing has given them pause over the promises they made. Suddenly, crime is once more in the headlines having taken a hiatus suggesting that getting rid of crime may not have been as easy a matter as they thought. The intimidation of the Integrity Commission and bullying tactics of the Attorney General may be a harbinger of things to come. Experience has a way of teaching the harshest lessons as the PNM learnt at its peril.

Although it is too quick to tell, the PP victory might be an impetus towards the creation of a truly interracial society. In the throes of victory, Sat Maharaj declared triumphantly "From being totally discriminated against, we find an equal place" as if to suggest that East Indians can only feel they belong and not discriminated against if they control the government. Anything short of that is tantamount to discrimination and racism on the part of Africans in the society. In this context one cannot rule out the possibility of the intensification of ethnic chauvinism although I believe that the climate is more propitious for the lessening of ethnic tensions.

The election of the PP represents a triumphant of the East Indian presence in Trinidad and Tobago. Their social evolution over the years suggests that their taking a leading party in the society was inevitable and was certainly made sweeter by the support they garnered from the population. That even Jack Warner, an African and chairman of the UNC, had to wear a rakhi, the Hindu symbol of brotherhood and fellowship, demonstrates how thorough Hinduism and penetrated into the life blood of the nation.

Every Trinidadian and Tobagonian can share the pride that every Indian person takes in the triumph of seeing one of their own come to power very much in the way that black people all over the world took pride in the election of Barrak Obama to the highest and most powerful office in the world. In this sense every citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, black as well as white, Christian as well as Hindu, can justly take pride in the election of the first Indian woman to office outside of the continent of India.

Although it is true that whole world—certainly the non-white people of the world—welcomed Obama's election to the presidency of the United States and his favorable rating reached as high as 79 per cent immediately after he was inaugurated, the tide had begun to turn and he might even be in danger of not being re-elected in 2012. At the end of the day, if one cannot perform or if one does not seem to share the pain of one's people it is not likely that one's days in high office would be long. Trinidadians and Tobagonians are no exception to this rule. Indians and Africans are willing to get the PP the benefit of the doubt but we expect them to perform and to leave Trinidad and Tobago a better place than they found it.

So that even as I congratulate Prime Minister Bissessar on her victory and wish her the best in office, I also leave her with the advice that Wendell Phillips, a great American freedom-fighter, who, in his address, "The Scholar in the Republic," to Harvard University in 1881 made the following observation:
Trust the people-the wise and the ignorant, the good and the bad-with the gravest questions, and in the end you will educate the race. At the same time you secure not perfect institutions, not necessarily good ones, but the best institutions possible while human nature is the basis and the only material to build with. Men [and women] are educated and the State is uplifted by allowing all-every one-to broach all their mistakes and advocate all their errors. The community that will not protect its most ignorant and unpopular member in the free utterance of his opinions, no matter how false or hateful, is only a gang of slaves.
The PP has an opportunity to offer a new momentum to the development of our society. We would judge them by how well they conduct themselves in office; how well they treat with the minority classes; how well they allow different and divergent views to flourish and how well they approach questions of civic and citizens education, not to be confused with the mad race we see in our citizens towards becoming certificated. Learning and knowing our history and the culture of all our various ethnic groups are the necessary prerequisites for the flowering of a new civilization. And just in case Kamla needed the inspiration, I offer the advice of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the greatest men who ever lived. She only needs to substitute Trinidad and Tobago where Gandhi writes India:
I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country, in whose making they have an effective voice, an India in which there shall be no high class and no low class of people; and India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony. There can be no room in such an India for the curse of untouchability or the curse of intoxicating drinks and drugs. Women will enjoy the same rights as men. We shall be at peace with all the world. That is the India of my dreams.
Professor Cudjoe's email address is

Share your views here...