Trinidad and Tobago’s independence and the importance of African centered struggles

Trinidad Flag
The flag of Trinidad and Tobago.

 So much of who I am is blended into the rich colors of red, Black and white, is moved through a calypso tune and horns, steel drums and chipping on the road, is a reflection of spices and pepper sauce. As the US born daughter of two Trinis, one who loved politics and one who loves bacchanal, my identity has always been twofold, like many Black people who reside within the US. 

Trinidad and Tobago’s “Together We Aspire, Together We Achieve” motto means “the hope of a people for a better life to be achieved through cooperation and working together to build a better nation”. The twin isles also happen to be the birthplace of Black Radicals such as Claudia Jones, Kwame Ture, and Darcus Howe, all of whom embraced African centered internationalist politics.  Because these aforementioned Black Radicals left Trinidad and became symbolic figures in movements towards Black liberation elsewhere, the history of Trinidad and Tobago’s resistance movements, workers movements, women’s movements and Black Power movement is not well known—- or as known as it should be. What is known is that Jones, Ture and Howe, while away from the twin isles, encompassed not only the motto, but the spirit of resistance that led to Trinidad and Tobago’s independence. 

Trinidad, originally called Lere, was one of the first islands in the Caribbean Sea to encounter settler colonialism when Christopher Columbus landed on July 31, 1498,  encountering the Arawak and Carib peoples and related groups. Columbus observed but never made it to Tobago, originally Tavaco, which was the home of various groups of Amerindians. Following that first encounter, there were periods under rule from various settler colonial powers such as Spain, France and eventually the British with Trinidad formally becoming a crown colony in 1802. 

During this time of transition of settler colonial power on the island, invasion and conquest drastically minimized the size of the AmerIndian population. This was also the period of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Trinidadian scholar, The Hon. Dr. Eric Eustace Williams TC CH notes in his thesis, The Economic Aspects of the Abolition of the Slave Trade published in 1944 under the title Capitalism and Slavery, “With the limited population of Europe in the sixteenth century, the free laborers necessary to cultivate the staple crops of sugar, tobacco and cotton in the New World could not have been supplied in quantities adequate to permit large-scale production. Slavery was necessary for this, and to get slaves the Europeans turned first to the aborigines and then to Africa”

In the beginning enslaved Africans on the island planted cotton, cocoa and coffee. By the time the British conquered Trinidad, sugar had become the most important crop. This, of course, fueled the need for more labor from enslaved Africans. “Expansion is a necessity of slave societies; the slave power requires ever fresh conquests”, Williams explains in Capitalism and Slavery.

An increase in the price of sugar resulted in an increase in sugar plantations on the island to meet the increasing demand in Europe. 

Across the Caribbean, enslaved Africans revolted against European colonial rule and capitalist driven slavery. Hard labor and cruel conditions were constantly met with resistance. It is also important to note that the tradition of Trinidad Carnival derived, as a form of resistance, from the conditions of slavery under French rule. While the British slave trade may have officially ended in 1807, slavery did not end until August 1,1834 in the British Caribbean following the Slavery Abolition Act.

The British took control of Tobago during the Napoleonic Wars, a series of major conflicts between France and other European colonial powers, and the two islands became a combined territory in 1889. When Tobago was united with Trinidad, the laws of Trinidad, which at the time still remained Spanish colonial laws under British crown rule, were extended to the smaller island. Tobago’s debt to Trinidad was cancelled after a period of time, thereafter. 

But as noted in Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery, the end of slavery was not a moral issue, but a financial one. Williams established the link between the growth of capitalism in Britain during the eighteenth century to slavery and the slave trade and also identified that the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 and of slavery in the British West Indies in 1834 can be explained by the declining economic importance of the Caribbean colonies to the emerging industrial capitalism.. 

Few now doubt, today, that an intersection exists between slavery and capitalism. Williams was not the first to advance either of these claims. W.E.B DuBois also draws attention to this connection in his work, Black Reconstruction. As the new global standard of industrial capitalism took hold, antislavery sentiment conveniently accelerated in support of an apparently more efficient and less capital intensive method of commodity production. In short, slavery was no longer needed. 

Labor coercion continued in the form of sharecropping and wage peonage post emancipation in Trinidad. Former enslaved Africans quickly experienced proletarianization. As explained in classical Marxist theory, workers under capitalism are impelled by their lack of ownership of the means of production to sell their labor power to capitalists for less than the full value of the goods they produce. 

Labor unrest and demonstrations against the British colonial rule erupted across Trinidad. In the 1920s, organized trade unions increased pressure for greater local democracy and independence. Soon after, a new constitution was presented. However, due to high property and language qualifications, the constitution brought a limited form of electoral representation. This did not satisfy the growing demand for political expression. 

The NWCSA, Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association, led by Elma Francois, emerged as a call to answer.  The anti imperialist NWCSA was committed to the empowerment of people of African descent. The organization centered ‘cultural’ and ‘social’ areas in their work that easily translated to the issues of women who made up much of the organization. Centering collective political consciousness, they organized the unemployed and lobbied for small traders, helping to form the Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union and the Federated Workers Trade Union. 

They also took active positions on international issues relevant to people of African descent, like the Scottsboro Boys and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 led by Mussolini. Their “hunger marches” provided the momentum for the Sugar workers’ Hunger March of 1934 and 1935, led by TUB Butler. In 1937, during the infamous “Butler Riots”, the NWCSA mobilised support for the striking oil workers in spite of harassment by the police. Francois was eventually arrested, becoming the first woman in Trinidad’s history to be tried for sedition, speech inciting people to rebel against the state. She defended herself and won.

In the book, Women, Labour and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago, Rhoda Reddock recounts when asked why she persisted in making speeches which were ‘causing disaffection among his Majesty’s subjects’, Francois replied:

“I don’t know that my speeches create disaffection, I know that my speeches create a fire in the minds of the people so as to change the conditions which now exist, and it isn’t for me here to tell you what is existing because I believe that you are a son of some working-class family despite your lofty position as you stand before me as a prosecutor.” 

In 1950, following tremendous pressure from an increase in labor unrest, the constitution was redrawn. A legislative council of 26 members (18 of the members were elected) and a rudimentary ministerial system, a constitutional convention in governments using the Westminster System, were the initial results of long consultations. Further constitutional changes followed, and by 1959, the legislative council had more elected members and an elected Speaker. The ministerial system developed into a cabinet elected from the legislative council which lessened the Governor’s powers

The 1956 elections gave the majority votes to the People’s National Movement (PNM), which was led by Dr Williams. Under the guidance of Williams, further constitutional talks with the UK were instituted, resulting in full internal self-government and a bicameral legislature (nominated Senate and elected House of Representatives). This placed the consideration for a Federation of the West Indies, an association of political parties with a socialist outlook which aimed to become an independent country, at risk. The need for a politically united Caribbean was strengthened by an earlier claim in 1933 by Trinidadian communist, C. L. R. James, who argued persuasively in his essay, The Case for West Indian Self-Government, for the British West Indies to be granted self-government.

In 1958 Trinidad and Tobago became a co-founder of the Federation of the West Indies.

Jamaica withdrew from the federation in 1961, deciding to seek its own independence. That same year, Trinidad and Tobago also decided to seek its own independence. Although it’s aim was self- government, the Federation of the West Indies struggled with neocolonial leadership. 

In 1961, after winning the general election, the PNM implemented the new constitution. On August 31,1962, Trinidad and Tobago gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Williams, widely considered to be the ‘father of the nation’, became the first Prime Minister.

What intrigues me the most about what led to Trinidad and Tobago’s independence is that so much of the history of twin isles international African-centered politics has been diluted. It was the socialist centered PMN party that gained support of the people towards their independence from British colonial rule. It is significant that the country’s independence struggle is rooted in internationalism, Pan Africanism, Revolutionary socialism and feminism. All of those ideological politics coupled with the development of organized political consciousness helped achieve independence. 

Undoubtedly, the country has struggled to maintain a specific political line throughout the decades. However, for me, it is clear that from leaders like Dr Eric Williams, whose scholarship helped broaden the perspective on the global position of people of African descent post emancipation to organizers like Elma Francois who’s anti war politics shaped an entire labor and women’s movement, how Trinidad and Tobago achieved its independence is just one of many African centered struggles we can look to as a blueprint towards an overall liberated continent and diaspora. 

Happy Independence Day, Trinidad and Tobago.