Fears of Indo-Guyanese success as early as the 1920s
If your education system has taught you Eric Williams and Patrick Manning but not Albert Gomes, Bhadase Sagan Marajand Rudranath Capildeo, then you don’t have an education system. You have an indoctrination camp.
I don’t remember the exact date but it had to be somewhere around the year 2000. I was a First Year pupil and like most primary school students, I had to learn about our political leaders. The Prime Minister at the time was Basdeo Panday and A.N.R. Robinson was the President. We also learned about the ‘Father of the Nation’ and I even recall having to answer a comprehension about his life in Standard Five.
The political history of Trinidad and Tobago does not begin with Eric Williams. The posthumously awarded title of ‘Father of the Nation’ has brainwashed the nation’s youth. If schools aren’t going to teach the proper political history of T&T, then they ought to remove the component from the curriculum, save parents the hassle of spending money on ink and glue for these ‘assignments’, and return to teaching Math and English which some schools seem incapable of teaching properly as well.
Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague who is a Political Science student in his final year at the University of the West Indies. We had a good laugh about a student who stood up in a Kwame Ture T-shirt to profess her admiration for the ‘Father of the Nation’. She had no idea that Eric Williams banned Ture from entering the country during the Black Power protests and that it was only lifted when Basdeo Panday became Prime Minister. It’s scary to think that students on the verge of graduating with a degree in Political Science are clueless about their country’s political history.
Eric Williams has successfully written his political opponents out of existence. In History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, Williams lists his Holy Trinity as Arthur Cipriani, Uriah Butler and Solomon Hochoy, who he described as ‘labouring in the vineyard’ to produce the “barren fruit” of Albert Gomes. What a slap in the face of our history for Williams to call this book a gift!
It was Albert Gomes who fought tooth and nail to repeal the Shouter Baptist Prohibition Ordinance of 1917, persuaded the governor from using libel laws as a cudgel against calypsonians and motioned for universal secondary education. These efforts to fight for the underclass earned him the moniker ‘Champion of the calypso, steelband and East Dry River boys’. In the 1946 General Election, Gomes, a Portuguese man, defeated the candidate for the Butler Party to win the Laventille seat.
Both men were born in the same year, but where was Eric Williams when all of this was taking place? Over in England, crying about a promotion he did not get.
It was Albert Gomes, along with Education Minister Roy Joseph, who gave legal recognition to Hindu schools that Eric Williams wrestled away by denying funding and refusing to open. In 1961, students in Caroni were turned away by officials when the government refused to open a ‘cow shed’ despite the facility being approved by an engineer. It was Albert Gomes who partnered with Bhadase Sagan Maraj to form the Democratic Labour Party. The DLP handed the PNM a humiliating defeat in the 1958 Federal Election which triggered Williams’ infamous “hostile and recalcitrant minority” statement.
Photo : Bhadase Sagan Maraj
When Williams passed away in 1981, President Sir Ellis Clarke by-passed the two most senior members of the party, Kamlauddin Mohammed and Errol Mahabir, and appointed the less prolific George Chambers. “Trinidad not ready for an Indian Prime Minister” was commonly expressed at the time and this sentiment proves that Eric Williams brainwashed the population in just one generation.
Indians have historically been spoken about as underdogs in the political landscape, but time was when they were ruthless champions. In 1946, Indians comprised 44 percent of the members of the Legislative Council despite constituting 35 percent of the population. In 1950, the Legislative numbered 7 Indians, 5 Africans, 2 Whites, 2 Mixed, 1 Syrian and 1 Chinese. This is astonishing because an electoral candidate had to possess a considerable amount of wealth, property and education. At the time, more than half the Indian population was illiterate and Indians were the poorest group in society.
Political involvement, however, developed slowly. When the Indian immigrants first arrived in Trinidad neither the colonial office, the creole masses nor the immigrants themselves ever envisioned that they would one day become the largest ethnic group. Although indentureship began in 1845, permanent settlement only started around the 1870s. It’s not hard to imagine that the contracted nature of their employment made political aspirations unimaginable. But even among the free Indian population, the Sanderson Report noted that they were not disposed to join in on political movements or agitations.
Yet by the time permanent settlement became the norm rather than the exception, Indians would go on to wield a massive influence in the San Fernando Borough Council elections comprising one-third of the votes cast by the 1880s. This gradual interest in politics developed not only because residency gave the Indians a stake in political affairs, but political organization was a necessary measure of security to protect their interests.
The first major organization to emerge among the East Indians was the East Indian National Association (EINA) in 1897 which was founded by Abdul Aziz in response to the attempts by the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association to end Indian immigration to the colony. The Creole masses, particularly the African population, opposed the system of immigration on the grounds that the East Indian plantation workers suppressed the wages of the labouring classes.
The post-emancipation period saw a growing class of Africans in the professions, especially the teaching service. Jobs that Africans refused to do, irrespective of education levels, came to be associated with Indians. Selling newspapers, for instance, was viewed as “coolie work”. The Indians on the sugar plantations were not in direct competition with the black or coloured middle class, but rather the labouring masses of the lower class. However, once they began to climb the social ladder, the educated blacks soon found themselves adopting the hostile mind-set of the lower class towards the Indian immigrants.
Although the Sanderson Report concluded that indentureship was not responsible for African unemployment or depressing wages—it should be noted that indentured Indians would work for as little as 15 cents a day during economic depression, so they too felt the brunt—the sole dissenting voice against the system of immigration in the Legislative Council was that of C.P. David, the first black Unofficial member of the Council who was appointed in 1904.
The EINA had a vested interest in fighting for the equal recognition of Indians who, despite rejecting the label of ‘immigrant’, were still viewed and treated as strangers or even prisoners in their own land. Free Indians were not permitted in public places without their certificate of exemption and this certificate also had to be presented to prospective employers. In addition to opposing this Ordinance, the EINA organized meetings, submitted petitions to champion the legal recognition of Hindu marriages and called for the employment of East Indians in the Government. Another organization, the East Indian National Congress (EINC), was formed in 1909 mainly by Presbyterian converts to ‘broaden the scope of representation of East Indian problems’.
Both the EINA and EINC championed the right to legislative representation in Government, laying the groundwork for prominent Indian political leaders in the years to come. Over the next few weeks, I will be taking a closer look at the lives of some of the most prolific Indian leaders who have charted the course, not only for the Indian population but the development of Trinidad and Tobago as well. The legacies of these men are seldom discussed in academic circles but are enshrined in our constitution. It would be a great disservice to society to ignore their contributions because one man saw them as his political rivals.