The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth
... Six Feet Of It
By Corey Gilkes
May 29, 2005
There is an uncomfortable truth about the Caribbean; not much of an intellectual tradition exists here. There have been many intellectual giants such as CLR James, Lloyd Best, Vidya Naipaul, Earl Lovelace, Sir Arthur Lewis, J. J. Thomas, Dr Eric Williams and Sam Selvon, whose names will forever be etched in our history for their immense intellectual and literary contributions. However, by and large the desire to read - and, stemming from that, the desire to analyse and challenge - is not as widespread as it should be. It was once said that just about everything was imported into the Caribbean except books and the love of reading. Over the years many young people have been faring poorly in the academic system with many spurning academics as "acting white". Paradoxically, many people clamour to listen to your every word if you have the gift of gab backed up by the magic letters - PhD, Dr., LLB., and, perhaps most ominously, Fr. or Pastor. This, I suppose we can label "Dr Titles" (with apologies to Lloyd Best)
Time and again we see in the Caribbean - Trinidad probably being the most extreme example - people vehemently protesting some arbitrary, ill-thought out plan made by some figure of authority or someone representing the authorities, only to see the same people who protest the loudest turn around and meekly accept whatever it is. Or, we see them vociferously support the hair-brained scheme because the person who advocates it has the gift of charisma that seduces the masses and who can adroitly manipulate their fear of the "other" or their political innocence (ignorance?) and lack of reasoning.
Even more interesting is the fact that often the most radical, militant agitators living in the centres of Eurocentric power have Caribbean roots. A close examination of the Civil Rights and Black Power struggles in the United States and in Europe from the 1930s to the 1970s show that the leading lights of these struggles either came out of the Caribbean or had parents or acquaintances that did. Yet, within the Caribbean itself these same people had an uphill struggle galvanising the masses to fully overthrow the colonial systems that exploited them. What is the reason for this paradox? How can a people be so apolitical and passive in one environment be so political and militant in another environment?
Here in the Caribbean, particularly the English-speaking Caribbean, we have an entrenched culture of resigned - often mute - acceptance. Ours is a culture that looks favourably upon conformity and with great hostility upon 'thinking outside the box'. Disagreement is confused for dissent and the person guilty of same often finds himself ostracised, marginalised or otherwise banished to the doghouse. Ironically, the chief nurturers for this type of attitude, the heart of this self contempt and encouraged helplessness are the age-old principal vehicles of the perpetuation of Eurocentric hegemony: the school and the church.
It seems ironic that the roots of our sense of helplessness and disdain for intellectual pursuits lie in the same education system that is supposed to encourage us to do the opposite. After all, as the cliché goes, knowledge is power. Even more heretical should there be an indictment of religion: anyone familiar with Caribbean social activism and politics knows that one of the main galvanising forces behind the labour and independence struggles in the Caribbean is religion. This argument also should be (and rightly so) somewhat dated because most of the Caribbean islands have been enjoying self-rule for many decades now. But it is there where the problem lies; much of the "Independence" movements amounted to little more than a change of flags and anthems. We were still very much socialised in powerful, often unspoken Eurocentric paradigms that were built upon a foundation of physical and psychological violence and a worldview that bred a culture of collective self-contempt and self doubt. A paradigm that postulates that Western Europe is the benchmark for all that defines civilisation. Because of such indoctrination it is extremely difficult for the average Caribbean national to view himself through anything other than the eyes of the former coloniser. In spite of the Independence movements of the 60s and 70s (or, to be more correct, because of it), much of what comprises our society still reflects the pro-European (read British and now Euro-American) outlook that has been ingrained in us since the 19th century. Witness our slavish maintenance of the British Westminster system - not that what we have in our parliament is what is actually practiced in London; the retention of the jacket and tie and other European patterns of dress at formal occasions and in the courtroom in spite of the tropical reality that is the Caribbean. Witness our ceaseless clamouring for foreign validation, certification and expertise.
It is my argument that much of the damage was wrought upon us at the end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, when there was a greater inclusion of colonial subjects in the system of schooling and churching. The enslavement period was certainly horrific, about that there is no debate. However, there was greater consciousness among formerly enslaved African people in spite of the whippings and the "seasonings" than there is now. There was a greater sense of purpose among the people who rioted in the oil belt in the 1930's than their descendents of the 1980s and 90s. A couple years ago at least one scholar of the heady days of the Black Power period, James Millette, openly asked the question "What do the young people of today's generations believe in? Do they even have a philosophy?"
Let us try to remember some basic facts: the Caribbean of the last 500 years was created by Europe for Europe. The various islands were set up to supply and process raw materials for the enrichment of Europe. This creation came into fruition by a systematic application of extreme violence the foundation of which was an assumption of religious and cultural superiority. Therefore, with those facts in mind, it should be easier to understand that during the colonial period the British recognised the power of education and the potential power of an educated colonial subject to question, challenge and eventually overthrow that illegitimate regime. However, unlike their unpolished US counterparts who vigorously opposed any form of schooling for enslaved Africans, the British (albeit reluctantly) developed systems of schooling and an instilling of religious ideas that would reinforce the notion of the superiority of the Euro and the futility of challenging the assumptions that were widespread at that time.
Religion was and still is, in my view, the most mentally debilitating colonial institution and which had a greater impact upon cementing the ideals of passivity and helplessness. It was the main vehicle that spurred on the European powers to expand geographically into the lands occupied by the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa and Asia. It was the principal vehicle by which they maintained their hold over these peoples even when the settlers were numerically smaller. Any serious and detailed study of how the Western powers were able to control their subjects who were resentful of their domination, must start with the way in which religion and spirituality, which have always been central to the lives of African and Asian peoples, were manipulated to serve the interests of imperialism.
Now Western oriented religions, particularly Xianity have always supported and justified the enslavement of peoples. Yes, there have been Xian figures who have protested and yes, there are many intra and extra biblical injunctions against the institutions of slavery. However, there were many intra and extra biblical passages in support of slavery as well. In any case, history is very clear about the close relationship between organised religion, especially Western Xianity, and enslavement. As early as 340 CE, the Church Council of Gangra in Asia Minor adopted as law the apostolic moral teaching concerning slaves' Christian obligation to submit to the authority of the master as if submitting oneself to God (Ephesians 6:5-8). The Council went further and, in response to a Manichean teaching, decreed:
If anyone, on the pretext of religion teaches another man's slave to despise his master, and to withdraw from his service, and not serve his master with good will and respect, let him be anathema.
Around 600 CE, Pope Gregory I taught that all men are equal in nature before God, but that "a hidden dispensation of providence" produced "a hierarchy of merit and rulership", since as a result of sin, different classes of' men have been produced, and that these differentiated classes are "ordained by divine justice". St. Isidore of Seville (c 560-636 CE) argued that there were certain individuals whom God considered unfit for freedom and therefore mercifully placed them under slavery. Lest the reader think that Christian leaders' thinking had advanced considerably by the 20th century, bear in mind that this remained the official stance of the Church until Vatican II in 1965. Additionally, please remember that the supposedly spiritual Church held immense political influence over secular monarchs and leaders up until the 18th century and so in 1493, no less than Pope Alexander could give the rulers of Spain:
"full and free permission to invade, search out, capture and subjugate the Saracens (African and Arab Muslims) and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities and other properties and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery."
Just to keep things in perspective, please remember that in 1935 it was another Pope who blessed Italian troops before they marched into Ethiopia along with their weapons which included poison gas.
Now while Isidore may not have been referring to Africans or Native Americans, this was one of the pioneers of the Christian Church and his words and the words of Paul, Augustine and the early Church Fathers who vehemently argued that slavery was the will of god, provided immeasurable ammunition for pro-enslavement, pro-imperialist and pro-apartheid apologists right up until the closing decades of the 20th century. It was their words that were drilled into the heads of colonial subjects by Christian missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries as they explained to the colonials that theirs was a lot assigned to them by God; that they should "struggle" to prepare for a better life in heaven and to rail against this system, as unfair as it may have appeared, was to defy God. It cannot be overstressed that one of the most powerful psychological weapons in keeping the Xian devotee faithful to the tenets of Xianity was and still is guilt. This weapon has been wielded to a greater or lesser extent depending upon denomination, with the US evangelists, influenced by ascetic Dutch Protestantism, being the most fervent in their use of guilt and fear.
In the British colonies, despite the fact that the Church fought the antislavery movement tooth and nail, the colonial authorities were still initially reluctant to spread the "Word" among the enslaved Africans. One of the reasons for this was because there were other Christian denominations that argued fervently against enslavement or at least the slave trade. There was also the question of some of the Xian tenets themselves: one of the myths propagated by Xianity was that all Christians were brothers and therefore could not enslave one another. I have no qualms about calling this a myth - and one that also exists in Islam - because history is very clear about the thousands and thousands of people who were themselves god-fearing Xian worshippers, who were persecuted, tortured and killed because they believed differently. In the context of African enslavement and subsequent colonisation, it did not take long for some adroit twisting of the morals and revisiting of the already entrenched teachings of Isidore, Augustine and the Early Church Fathers, so that Xian teachings could conform to the dictates of European imperialism and the racism that supported it.
It is also important to note that however varied their views were on the question of enslavement, almost all the Xian denominations, whether Catholic or Protestant were ignorant and contemptuous of the indigenous beliefs of the Native Americans, Africans and East Indians. Eternal damnation was blasted from the pulpit upon those who chose to remain or "backslide" to their heathen ways. It is not by chance that one of the most beloved hymns in the US and in the Afri-Caribbean contains the lines "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/ that saved a wretch like me/ I once was lost/ but now I'm found/ Was blind, but now I see". This and other hymns reinforced the belief that ancestral traditions were the primitive, backward and hollow superstitions of man in his savage state. In fact, one of the earliest debates about spreading the gospels to African people had to do with whether or not an African actually had a soul!
Even worse has been religion's relationship with and justification of race based exploitation and hierarchy. It is the only institution I know of that stressed that a person's enslaved condition was as a result of earlier 'sins': i.e. sins in a previous life or sins committed because of a sweeping curse upon an entire racial group. The curse of course was the "curse of Ham" in which according to biblical legend, Noah cursed his son Ham for mocking his drunken condition. By the 18th century this biblical legend was reworked to apply to enslaved Africans and was to grow as racist ideas spurred on by Social Darwinism took root. With the end of enslavement, the Ham story mutated to provide an explanatory tool for biological difference. Within contemporary racist propaganda, the theme of ethnicity now stands as the story's central point and is used to explain the social plight of people of colour in contemporary society.
Of course it goes without saying that the images of blond, blue-eyed Mary, Joseph and especially Jesus went a long way in reinforcing the psychological messages of the godlike power and appearance of the Euro. Then there is the profile of the Jesus character himself: an other-worldly individual with very little human qualities (numerous scholars have made mention of the fact that in the canonical texts he never even smiled), yet a person whose seemingly perfect, flawless virtues created a standard that was impossible for mortal man to attain or maintain, yet one that they were to spend their whole lives trying to reach.
The prominence and singular status accorded this Jesus figure sans consort also needs to be addressed. Although Judaism, Xianity and Islam can trace their origins back to the Nile Valley civilisations, they were nonetheless further developed in the Palestine and Arabic regions which represented a zone of confluence between the matrilineal cultures of the Nile Valley and the patriarchal cultures of Eurasia. What this meant in the context of Xianity was that although Mary his mother is given a certain amount of reverence - at least by the Catholics - she is still subordinate to Jesus himself. He on the other hand stands all powerful as the "Son of God (the father)" and all explicit references to his marital status (to Mary Magdalene) were carefully expunged from or concealed within the canonical texts. This is in keeping with Eurasian patriarchal culture, which has never placed women on equal footing with men. Therefore, since man makes god in his image and likeness, their sacred myths would reflect this marginalisation as well.
This worldview inevitably clashed with traditional concepts in African cultures which for the most part held women central to their existence. Most African territorial states from which the enslaved were taken held deep respect for women, particularly mothers and these women enjoyed considerable political and social influence prior to the incursions of Islam and Xianity. Naturally, their sacred concepts reflected this. In fact, many African languages use terms to describe the Almighty that are gender neutral whereas in the West, 'god" is essentially, well, god - "he". In what is sometimes called the union of opposites African sacred thought expressed the things of the spiritual world as having two opposing yet complementary sides (female/male), often with the female having greater influence.
What one found, then, was that women, with the support of the men, had a powerful voice socially, politically and sometimes militarily. All this was affected upon coming into contact with the male-centred West which eroded the traditional institutions that supported or were the domain of the strong, opinionated woman and contributed to the gradual passivity among the people of the African Diaspora.
Schooling, Civil Service and Politics
Much has been written and said in defence of the colonial education system and its roots in the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Indeed, education and schooling in the 18th and 19th centuries was to a great extent influenced by the ideologies and philosophies of those European thinkers who struggled to break free of the superstition and unreason of the Church. However, what is often overlooked was that these ideals were never meant to be universal and that the philosophes and Romantic thinkers themselves maintained certain assumptions about the superiority of the Euro in spite of their conflicts with Western Xianity and its brand of hierarchy. Many icons of the Enlightenment, such as Kant, Hume, Locke, Jefferson, Franklin and Voltaire, expressed views about the African that were shockingly racist. Many of the views of anti-slavery advocates such as the much touted William Wilberforce were every bit as racist as those on the other side of the debate. It was the institution of enslavement that was being attacked, not the relegation of the darker-skinned people to positions below the Euro or the "divine right" of the Euro to rule and exploit the resources of the Americas. Further, the symbols and measures used to emphasise the superiority of the British in the Caribbean were intensified in light of the panic caused by the successful ousting of France from Haiti at the beginning of the 19th century.
And so in 1835 the British created a system of schooling although initially, they were not willing to engage in any sort of education or schooling program. Eventually however, British colonial school systems - when it had risen above the mere teaching of the "three 'R's" - taught its students about the achievements of the British; its conquests and its expeditions to far-flung lands. The notion of the "white man's burden" was driven home in the classrooms of such places as Queens Collegiate School (now Queen's Royal College). Virtually nothing was taught about the ancestry of the African or the Indian; little was taught about the great antiquity of the Nile and Indus Valley civilisation; no mention of the cultures that spawned the centres of learning in Sankore and Mali. Even the debt owed by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and even earlier Western culture to these civilisations were written out. How could they do otherwise? Their rule was already illegitimate, their numbers were far fewer than the people they governed and their relations with the colonised were at best antagonistic.
In other words, there was a lot of schooling in the post-enslavement Caribbean, but very little education. The intent was to subtly turn the colonial pupil away from his ancestral traditions and to orient him towards the culture and mannerisms of the Euro. There was a very strong racist current in academic circles, fed by pseudo-scientific "findings" in psychology, anthropology, medicine and psychiatry that the mental capacity of the African brain was unable to progress beyond the basics in education and technical knowledge. Any teaching about the cultures of the traditional African or Indian was done to show the savagery and backwardness of these cultures as opposed to the "light" of Western culture. It was explicitly and implicitly indicated to the colonial subject that those who entered into this system would achieve the many rewards the Eurocentric world had to offer as long as the student stayed within the parameters of Eurocentric schooling.
For the innocent colonial subject, this meant an escape from the rigours and injustices of life on the land, the docks or the oilfield. In the 19th and 20th century right up to fairly recent times, the few options open to colonials were the teaching professions, the priesthood, the civil service and law, from which a privileged few could use to enter politics. If one was to compare this to the situation of African-Americans, it would appear that the Afri-Caribbean subject enjoyed privileges far greater than his US counterparts and unfortunately, there were many who thought that. However, this system of schooling was not designed to empower the pupil in any real sense; only to give the colonised an illusion of participation and progress. Europeans, especially the British, studied carefully the lessons of ancient Greece and Republican Rome and how they used the people they conquered to maintain their hold on power. As Best and others have argued, ours was a system designed to train the colonial to be little more than a middle-manager and a clerk; a sergeant, as it were, but not a Field Marshal. To do otherwise would be to educate the exploited to hold - or wrest - the reins of power that "rightfully" belonged to the Euro and to him alone. This has haunted us to this very day.
The results were remarkably successful in alienating the colonial from his ancestral roots. This of course did not only happen in the Caribbean; a look at the colonial legacy of India and Africa shows almost identical patterns of educated elites divorced from their ancestry. Often the colonised were overly zealous in their orientation towards the metropole in a deluded attempt at avoiding being classified as an "other".
The very political system is a testimony to our legacy of the glass ceiling and organised gangsterism that characterised the colonial Caribbean. A lot has said about the separation of powers - the legislative, judiciary and the executive. However, as recent events in Trinidad have shown, what is said in theory is not necessarily what is done in practice. In fact the Prime Minister, though by no means an elected dictator, enjoys greater powers than his counterparts in England and this can be traced back to the immense powers wielded by the Governor-General. The Legislative Council of the colonial period amounted to little more than a rubber stamp; the members could make recommendations but final word resided in he Governor-General.
Of course all this was backed up by a very visible military and police presence in the colonies. Governmental violence, or the threat of it, was a feature of colonial rule, which is perfectly understandable given its illegitimacy. It was an article of faith that the enslaved and the colonised were kept constantly reminded of the power of the white colonials. To this day many of the laws on our statute books were drafted specifically to maintain submission among the colonised by promising or meting out harsh punishments for a variety of "offences". Among these offences included vagrancy and squatting - to discourage moving away from plantations - and sedition - which included books and writings that "instilled" race hatred (of the whites) though in actual fact instilled self-awareness and empowerment. There was also legislation outlawing such spiritual beliefs as the Yoruba sacred science and the Spiritual/shouter Baptists because of their heavy and overt mixture of African beliefs and rituals. The trauma created by this psychology of violence has become entwined in our collective psyche and has never been properly examined.
I have not written any of this to "wash my mouth" on my fellow Caribbean nationals. This is not necessarily meant to be some sort of indictment against those who struggled in their own way to bring about freedom from imperialism. Lloyd Best speaks often about "sleeping resources" whenever he describes the generation that grew up during enslavement and colonialism; a people who desired to be free from the boot of Europe, but had to keep that desire dormant because of the Euro's stronger military and political power. The right moment had to be found when those resources could be brought to bear and the colonial system turned on its ear. Certainly the Eric Williams, Bustamantes, Marryshows, Arthur Lewis, Manleys of the Caribbean, were products of the colonial school and church system and used that same system to undermine and overturn it. The problem was that they could not help but be affected and scarred by that system. Almost as soon as the process of decolonising was done they themselves became obsolete and instead of stepping aside or grooming a new cadre to take up the mantle, they retained the same systems and the cultures it created as they sought to solidify their positions.
There are many things going on in the world around us today; extraordinary things. On the one hand, the world has become a more unstable place, largely because of the religiously - and by extension, culturally - inspired actions of the US and Europe with little or no regard for laws that they themselves had imposed upon the rest of the world. However, slowly but surely, there is a growing counterbalance to the excesses of Europe and Euro-America and their politics from above. Much of this is influenced by the power of the grassroots as in the case of the removal of the pro-war Spanish government of Jose Maria Aznar and their replacement by Socialist Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero. The solutions for most of our social and economic problems can be found right here in Trinidad and the Caribbean. There is very little need for outside assistance, advice or salvation. However, here in the Caribbean we still lack a powerful, cohesive voice on issues that affect our lives. Indeed, there is almost little interest in said issues, particularly by the younger population and what little interest is shown is tempered by a feeling of "well there isn't much we can do anyway because of our size or lack thereof". Even more disturbingly is that this resigned attitude is influenced by a view that it is "god's will" and therefore one should not (can not) do a whole lot about it. If that is indeed the case then god be damned.
For additional reading:
Colonial Legacy in Caribbean Education - Amon Saakana
Independent Thought and Caribbean Freedom: Essays in honour of Lloyd Best
Caribbean Slave Society and Economy - Hilary Beckles, Verene Shepherd (ed)
Caribbean Freedom: Economy and Society from Emancipation to the Present
- Hilary Beckles, Verene Shepherd (ed)
At the Crossroads - Edited by Burton Sankeralli
The City of God - St Augustine
Chrisitanity Slavery and Labour - Chapman Cohen
Trinidad Labour Riots of 1937 - Edited by Roy Thomas
Slavery and the Catholic Church - John Francis, Q Maxwell
Bulls Eximiae Devotionis and Inter Caetera. May 3, 1493.
Documents of West Indian History - Dr Eric Williams
Capitalism and Slavery - Dr Eric Williams