Home / View Point / Guest Columns / Master’s Voice: Black labour pains: By the sweat of MY brow; thou shalt eat bread

Master’s Voice: Black labour pains: By the sweat of MY brow; thou shalt eat bread

“I have […] great doubts whether the Cooly and the African are morally and mentally capable of being acted upon by the same motives in this island on their first arrival as labourers are in more civilised countries…
“The only independence which they would desire is idleness, according to their different tastes in the enjoyment of it.” — Lord Harris, Blue Book, 1847

I suppose it’s fitting that I began writing this on Labour Day which, as I heard one person remark, is when the unions commemorate the fight for the right to get as much pay for as little work as possible. The commentator was not even from the “elite class”, mind you.

Photo: The value of labour unions.

How easily and conveniently some of us forget. How easy we analyse based on someone else’s cultural ideas. But then, history—as it was taught when I was in secondary school—was largely about adventurous Columbus, savage, lazy caciques, slavery and the struggles of de Las Casas, Wilberforce and those who came after them to make a better life for us benighted people.

So we are supposed to say them unions and dem anti-colonials damn ungrateful and wotless. Yuh feel ah lie? Read Stephen Kangal’s comments under Tyehimba Salandy’s dismissal of the hoopla over the recent royal wedding.

One of the most enduring racist stereotypes about dark-skinned peoples, is that of laziness. It’s essentially the cornerstone of contemptuous remarks that even African people in this country make about their own selves.

That is because, like violent crime, there is seldom any serious picking apart of historical and sociological backstories. Linear thinking and blinkered observations is virtually canon law in this society and a high murder rate that forces us inside our private prisons is not helping things.

Increasingly louder are the calls to get tough with crime and “unleash” the military. These join with the calls to privatise our industries and do away with the unions and the Public Service, the meccas of (Black) laziness.
Silence, however, on the causative factors.

Photo: A scene from acclaimed move “12 Years A Slave.”

In fact, any attempt to bring up the legacy of enslavement and colonialism is routinely dismissed scornfully as just excuses for lazy mentality among black people. This is the basis for Ms R De Verteuil’s October 27, 2016 letter (for example) which was and is representative of the thinking of a vast cross-section of this country’s population, regardless of class, status or colour.

Even in 2018, terms like “plantation economy” and “plantation society” aren’t well known, far less understood in the modern context of neoliberal capitalism. To understand what is meant by plantation economy/society, one simply needs to understand that at its basest level Trinidad and Tobago was settled by colonists whose primary intent was to extract whatever resources was in vogue in Europe, make as much money for themselves and minimise costs.

Therefore, unlike many European societies where the society created the economy, here the economy created the society—and the culture that went with that. And in that regard, almost from this country’s founding, what developed was a callous, blinkered, individualistically competitive focus on making money and amassing more.
The irrationality of cutting off someone from entering a major road ahead of you even in slow moving traffic, is only one visible example of this mindset that I call industrial asceticism.

At the very core of all this is a never-ending tug-of-war between two competing interests. On one end of the rope are the business elements who are by and large the inheritors of the settler-colonists who came to make money. On the other end are those (and their descendants) who simply refused to subject themselves—having come out of chattel slavery—to similar exploitation through wage-slavery.

Hence the lyrics in this classic calypso by the Roaring Lion:

I wouldn’t work/I rather lahay

I wouldn’t work/I rather lahay

For when I work I can’t get no pay

So I rather walk about every day

Put another way, we are still, in 2018, in the cycle where one side seeks to control resources and the labour force needed to monetise those resource; and, on the other, that labour force in which a substantial number is either trying to control its labour for its own benefit or get the best accommodation in an economic system that considers them disposable.

Their attitude towards work has little to do with “inherent” laziness—although a toxic culture of dependency has indeed grown out of an array of factors. Nonetheless, it is resistance. It isn’t as sexy as armed revolt, but as James Scott argues in “Weapons of the Weak,” acts of disobedience, go-lows, absenteeism, sabotage—and, in the case of Trinidad’s Ole Mas Carnival, mockery—are usually the forms of resistance peasant and working classes attempt, since the State usually has better armed resources.

And these passive acts are often just as effective in retarding a State’s economic ambitions. But to understand that and the underlying issue the resistor is trying to articulate, one has to have the kind of de-colonial mindset most of our formally “educated” people in the universities, media and parliament do not seem to possess.

Photo: A masquerader focuses on the education system during Blue Boyz’ Jouvert presentation in San Fernando on 12 February 2018.
(Photo: Corey Gilkes)

The attachment of “laziness” to “race” seems to date back to the early stages of European expansionism into the Americas—one can glean this by examining the descriptions of the First Peoples by the early European settlers.

It gathered momentum in nascent English capitalism when, according to Michael Perelman’s “The Invention of Capitalism,” English elites in the cities complained about the idleness of peasants in the countryside. It’s interesting that in its initial stages, the nobility were not welcoming of capitalism—which was advanced by bourgeois European men, who had little pretensions to royalty—as this system threatened to oust them from the dominant positions they held by virtue of birthright.

They felt that the democratising element of capitalism threatened the foundations of their civilisation. The railings against “sloth” and “idleness” was partly how they sought to rationalise their reversals in society.

Although most pre-capitalist peasants‘ living standards weren’t lavish, they had relatively comfortable, subsistence lifestyles and enjoyed tremendous free time. Land was used communally and they practiced elaborate methods of crop-rotation along with mutual co-operation.

City-based elites and nobles—essentially non-producers—sought to break this self-sufficiency by attacking their co-operative systems, and, through rents and laws, dispossessed peasants of the lands they occupied communally.

Photo: A painting of peasants at work in the United Kingdom.

Philosophers, economists and moralists found ways to connect “idleness” or “sloth” to disease and moral failings. In the 1620s, there were public whipping posts in London for beggars; the prevailing notion—that carried on till relatively recent times in England—was that poor people were poor because they were idle and/or guilty of some moral failing.

This was the beginnings perhaps of the “personal responsibility” trope many use today to blame victims of poverty or members of criminalised gangs—note the word I used—for their circumstances. This is not to dismiss the taking of personal responsibility for ones actions. However, the way it is used serves to place everything squarely on the individual; the society has no role to play in his/her assistance or circumstances and is thus absolved from any complicity in creating any pathological outcome.

All of this carried over into slaveholding and colonised Trinidad. Raymond Ramcharitar’s words here are worth noting. He says on pg 190 of his unpublished dissertation:

“[W]hile some attitudes and practices associated with industrialism took root in Trinidad—the attitudes to labour, the desire for profit at the expense of humanity, the ‘mechanised’ structures of feeling (which looked at the body and its constitution as an inorganic, unfeeling unit of production), all of which would emerge by the second decade of the 20th C—the counterpoint ideas of humanism were entirely absent.” (My emphasis)

Entirely absent; and I’ll argue that the “counterpoint ideas of humanism” weren’t widespread in England either. The elites of Trinidad and London wore finery made in run-down sweatshops in London by working class people who were caught up in vicious unending cycles of debt servitude.

Photo: A modern day sweatshop in Asia.

Unionised labour and proper governmental representation was achieved after the killing and jailing of many working class activists. Western enlightenment had very little to do with it.

In Trinidad, many of the hostile writings about African “laziness”, both enslaved and freed, are very informative. On the one hand there were the hubristic notions of English benevolence, displayed by persons like Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson.

In all of the narratives there is an underlying belief—often explicitly stated—that as brutally hard and exploitative was the physical work, the Africans were saved from a life of savage, primitive tribalism. Completely ignored was/is the fact that most of those enslaved came from complex, sophisticated cultures hundreds of years older than Europe, with commercial trading links extending across Africa through to the Indian Ocean—and Atlantic if we examine Ivan Van Sertima’s works.

Also completely ignored was the cultural aspect; many African and other non-Western cultures where gift-economies were utilised did not and do not believe in perpetual work far less perpetual work in a cash-based economy. That notion of constant productivity in Europe is principally connected to their cultural attitudes of pessimism and the egregious doctrine of sinfulness where nature, including the natural Self, was viewed as a threat.

Instead, the African is constantly presented as a child in need of white guidance.

Photo: Actor Leonardo Di Caprio plays Calvin Candie, a colonial slave owner in the movie “Django Unchained.”
(Copyright Django Unchained)

Wilberforce, for instance, held the expectation that the freed African would then turn around and work for wages on the plantations and do their bit to uphold the economic and social system that the civilised English had created—again, see similar sentiments in Mr Kangal’s comments. This lives on today when Western powers speak glowingly about spreading democracy and free enterprise.

But on the other hand, the “lazy” narrative conceals a deeper aspect that continue on to this very day in various forms. The writings of Ms AC Carmichael, wife of an estate owner in Laurel Hill, Trinidad give us a very good indication of what the real issue was.
In 1831, she writes on page 126 in Volume II of her book “Domestic Manners and Social Conditions of the White, Coloured and Negro Population of the West Indies.”

“Every Negro had one day in the week to work his provision ground. There was a market every Sunday, closed however at 10am, and a market every Thursday—in order, as far as possible, to check by degrees the fondness for Sunday markets, and to lead finally to their abolition—a blessed change, which has been effected in Trinidad, and also in St Vincent.

“I […] never saw any of the white population who did not deplore the Sunday market: they were suffering the error, nay the sin, of their ancestors, who had ever permitted such an arrangement…..”

And on Page 127:

Photo: A farmer in his tractor.

“There is a weekly market at St Josephs, and… several other small villages throughout the island, where the negroes dispose of their surplus produce. I believe there was a little ebullition of feeling on the part of the slave population, when the Sunday market was abolished, but government was quite right to persist in it; it was an intolerable nuisance to everyone who had a spark of Christian feeling.” (my emphasis)

On page 160 we learn that:

“Negroes, from the earliest age, have their provision-grounds… The produce of course goes to the family who takes care of the child; who, as soon as he can work a little, goes up to his grounds on the negroes’ day and learns the art of cultivating the soil.

“At seven years of age, little boys and girls have often a great deal to sell of their own… and buy fine clothes and cakes etc, with the produce. […] They do often work… on Sundays also.

“[…] I do not believe that either English or colonial law will prevent negroes from working on Sunday. ‘The love of money is the root of all evil’ applies with great force to the negro character; and I do not think that if negroes had all the six days of the week to work their own ground, they would cease from labour on the seventh.

“I do not of course speak of isolated cases—but of the majority; nor is there wanting practical proof of this truth. Who labours more on the Sunday than the free negro?”

Just to remind you, these are the same people classed as “lazy” then and today.

Photo: Workers in the sugarcane field.
(Copyright News.Gov.TT)

The important point here is that the economic activities of the African labourers is what was causing much anxiety among the landholding elite. Africans labourers became hucksters, traders, entrepreneurs. The allowance of Sunday for farming and market during the enslavement period significantly reduced the planters’ need to provide food to the enslaved.

In the waning years of and after Emancipation, however, this activity and the co-operative model became an economic threat to the plantocracy. One Stipendiary Magistrate, speaking in British Guiana, said revealingly:

“The peasantry, as a body… can boldly challenge comparison with the happiest and best paid labourers of the most fertile districts in England…”

The garnering of material wealth by a people who European/Euro-American social scientists “knew” were incapable of self-organising, could not be tolerated in a plantation society.

Prof Selwyn Ryan tells us in “Social and Occupational Stratification in Contemporary Trinidad and Tobago” that colonial officials complained to the Colonial Office that the Africans had amassed too much money and spare time.

They urged the imposition of more taxes to relieve the burden of the estate owners. The business elites in Trinidad, then as today, constituted the real power in the society. This was echoed a hundred years later by this statement on pg.14 of the Moyne Commission:

Photo: Rituals owner Mario Sabga-Aboud.
(Copyright Aldwyn Sin-Pang/Rituals)

“There is a widespread impression that the Governor and his officials are little more than tools of a white oligarchy of planters, merchants and bankers, in whose society they spend most of their time, and whose will it is that really governs the islands; indeed, that the policy of the Government is the policy of the local club, decided on, perhaps, over a round of golf or a whisky and soda.”

Ahhhm… isn’t this the same thing “Mr Morvant” says every single week on some radio talk show? Wasn’t this the point made by Sabga-Aboud and Peter George on Anthony Bourdain’s infamous show?

(Yes, ah know, they eh white….but what’s the power structure they’re gatekeeping?)

We learn in this paper how, like the dispossession of English peasants, moves were made “to fix such a price upon all Crown Lands as may place them out of the reach of persons without capital.” (Secretary of State for the Colonies, 1836).

David Trotman in “Crime in Trinidad” tells us how that was reinforced with vagrancy laws and other pieces of legislation such as the Habitual Idlers Ordinance, which essentially forced Africans who were squatting on Crown lands back to areas around estates and into barrack-yard slums.

This is how places like East Port of Spain came into being. He also tells us that the business elites used the laws—that their classes had drafted—“to block, or make inconvenient, non-plantation activities.”

Laws were passed to police artisans and domestics to prevent the development of an independent peasantry. There were also “bureaucratic inconveniences” such as having all transactions finalised in Port of Spain. (See how far back that goes?)

Photo: Alleged Rasta City president and Sea Lots Good Fella, Cedric “Godfather Burkie” Burke.
(Copyright Islandmix)

The cultural mindset that pushed for diversification of the economy—what we’re supposedly striving to develop today—was discouraged since the 19th century in favour of monocultures.

In 1938—and, for comparison, so too in the 1970s—the situation had not advanced in any appreciable way. The Moyne Commission that investigated the labour revolt under TUB Butler, informs us on page 6:

“The present distribution of land is the vast legacy of West Indian slavery. In those grim days all the cultivated area was concentrated in the hands of a small white slave-owning aristocracy, and despite the rise in the past century of a not inconsiderable number of small landowners, the position remains virtually the same today.

“The consequences of this land monopoly are far-reaching. In the first place the planters, few in number and bound together by social and racial ties, are able to and do fix wages at the level which suits them best.

“Secondly, the distribution of income, and in particular the right to the rent of land, is most inequitable, the poverty of the masses contrasting sharply with the pleasant luxury of our landed aristocracy.

“Thirdly, the shadow of the plantation carries with it the touch of serfdom, depriving the labourer of that sense of dignity and independence which would be his in a society in which property was more widely diffused, and this is a factor most important in debasing mentally and spiritually the West Indian labourer.

Photo: A sugar cane worker enjoys a snack on the job.
(Courtesy Riomate)

“Finally, such a concentration gives to the planters in the political field a power which they have never felt it necessary to use in the interest of the rest of the population.”

Another factor often overlooked is the role of women in food production. Among the many African cultural retentions was the ways in which women in many African territorial-states controlled the agricultural, horticultural and trading sectors.

Women often built their own homes, assisted by other women. These homes and cottage industries, were the seat of their political, social and economic power and influence. Europeans, coming from male-dominant cultures, took all this as “proof” of the laziness of African men and the backwardness of all African people.

Another thing really popular is the individualistic anthem of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. This is the position taken by Ms R De Verteuil in her 2016 letter to the Express, as well as certain writers on the ICDN website, Akilah Holder in the Express and on this very site.

It’s nice, comforting, has some validity, but also an absolving purpose where systemic/societal hindrances are concerned. But setting aside Ms De Verteuil’s racist invisibilising of the African labourers who would have done most of the physical work to fell trees and clear lands; leaving aside the prevailing mindset of the time that the “divinely” ordained purpose of European whites were to lead, tame and civilise the darker “races” through the physical work they were placed on earth to perform.

Photo: Iconic Trinidad and Tobago labour leader Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler.

No, set aside all that. Let’s have a talk about how Euros were given land by colonial authorities, who denied it to the African labourers.

We learn from Prof Brereton in “The White Minority in the Caribbean” how in 1866 a group of French Creoles, led by Louis de Verteuil, petitioned for the opening of Crown lands to create opportunities for “white youths belonging to respectable families.”

Funny, I don’t recall seeing that anywhere in Ms De Verteuil’s letter or anything by Kamal Persad, Akilah Holder, Ramdath Jagessar or Dr Kumar Mahabir. None of them bothered to mention how the Moyne Commission informed us how:

“What we find in the West Indies is, broadly speaking, a small white oligarchy which, through its ownership of the land is able to dominate the community in church, society and state; an oligarchy jealous, as every such minority is jealous, of white prestige and privilege, and determined to maintain its ascendency.

“There is no racial legislation, as in South Africa, nor is there any open antagonism; and yet the coloured population is perfectly conscious of the efforts of the white minority to ‘keep the nigger in his place’. These things reveal themselves in small ways—in social clubs, in official social functions, in church, etc—but the form which is most resented is the reservation of certain appointments, both by the state and by private concerns, for white men […] with a few exceptions.

Photo: US television personality Anthony Bourdain (centre) has dinner with representatives from Trinidad and Tobago’s Syrian/Lebanese community.

“[…] Other branches of the service—agricultural, engineering, financial, administrative—are retained as white preserves to the exclusion of highly qualified coloured men. And it is mainly the presence of a permanently settled powerful white minority, jealous of white prestige and privileges and of avenue of employment for its sons which accounts for this.”

CLR James also noted that the politics of the whites and the “coloureds” remained rigidly conservative right up until the 1950s—that would be the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of many managers and members of various Chambers of Commerce today he was referring to.

In 1938, Arthur Calder-Marshall perhaps summed it up best in The Glory Dead:

“Trinidad has never been a poor island. Since the English seizure of it wealth has constantly been drained from the island, a toll taken from the various people imported there to be exploited.

“A rich island with 90 percent of the population impoverished… The benevolent tyranny, which is supposed to be superior to the interests of the exploiting capitalist, has in fact legislated throughout in the interests of that class. It has been the political side of capitalism, with a different personnel but a common aim.” (My emphasis)

With that culturally entrenched in the societal ethic, how do you think the work ethic would then be?
There is a reason that the song “Full Extreme” was taken to heart so passionately by the masses last year and that reason was succinctly explained by journalist Tony Fraser in a column early last year.

Photo: Edghill “MX Prime” Thomas (left) and the Ultimate Rejects perform their monster 2017 hit, “Full Extreme.”

The point is that the bootstraps argument is a lie in the Trinidad context, as Prof Stephanie Coontz showed it was, and remains a lie in the US context in her fascinating book “The Way We Never Were.”

Identity, family, networking and most importantly governmental assistance is what made the moguls they are today. Yes, a healthy individual attitude is also essential, but that comes when one is made to feel part of the society one lives in.

With that understanding, it’s important to acknowledge another unpleasant truth. Dr Williams, far from being the black messiah, had few options available even if he was not colonially conditioned—which he was.

There were many external factors, some of which contributed in one way or another to the belief that the hyper-productive work ethic contributed to a system that had nothing to do with labourers. All of the factors arose from convictions that White Western interests is what used to and will continue to determine the direction of all countries, even if doing so perpetuates their own underdevelopment.

On the eve of an “independence” that Britain was reluctant to grant as Dr Richard Drayton informed us here, Williams was faced with the prospect of white capital flight and Washington‘s Cold War paranoia.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago’s first Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams.
(Courtesy Information Division)

The “rising tide of colour” of “Third World” nationalism had resurrected old racist terrors of black/brown murderous retribution and anarchy. Any serious progressive move was routinely interpreted as Communist inspired. See what happened to Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, Cheddi Jagan in Guyana, Allende in Chile, Suharto in Indonesia, Lumumba in the Congo, Nkrumah in Ghana…

Williams essentially left the old institutions and the gatekeepers of those institutions almost completely intact. To the labouring classes, long subjected to manipulation by the educated elites regardless of colour or background, this was yet one more betrayal.

And as much as our lower income labouring classes may not be necessarily versed in sophisticated words and mannerisms, they have always been able to see through the bullshit.

So if there is to be a serious turnaround in people’s approach to work and productivity, there must be a major examination of the macro and micro acts of exclusions that have impressed on many people that they do not matter, that they do not belong.

The dependency syndrome must be dealt with too, yes, but so too the cynical, self-serving manner in which the country’s wealth is distributed.

But what do I know?

About Corey Gilkes

Corey Gilkes is a self-taught history reader whose big mouth forever gets his little tail in trouble. He lives in La Romaine and is working on four book projects. He has a blog on https://coreygilkes.wordpress.com/blog/ and http://www.trinicenter.com/Gilkes/. Vitriol can be emailed to him at coreygks@gmail.com.

Check Also

Dear Editor: T&T needs more thoughtful, collective response to crime, not blustery overreaction

“Being poor or even living in Laventille does not cause one to engage in crime …

4 comments

  1. Corey,

    This is a very interesting and well researched essay.
    The takeaway for me is that in “capitalist” societies like ours, those who control the capital get to call the shots, whether by shaping the laws, influencing the politicians, determining the labour rates or suggesting the tax regime.
    It was that way at the start, it is that way now and, without an all-encompassing revolution, it will continue to be that way in the future.
    To me the issue of laziness of labourers is irrelevant.
    It would be more relevant to probe the distribution of the country’s wealth between labour and capital and if one does that the conclusions are inevitable.

  2. Wow !! Well said, if we ALL could really Understand ?!!!

  3. Earl Best

    I wouldn’t work/I rather lahay

    I wouldn’t work/I rather lahay

    For when I work I can’t get no pay

    So I rather walk about every day

    Methinks, Monsieur Gilkes, that a comment on Lord Kitchener’s “Doh ask to wuk fuh Carnival”would be appropriate in view of the four lines reproduced here.

    Two questions occur to me: (1) Is it a surprise that Kitch, despite his many Windrush years, comes out on the side of the working class?

    (2) What would be your defence of Kitch’s stance?

    • I think Kitch explained it well Mr Best:

      My Landlady’s too rude
      In my affairs she likes to intrude (repeat)
      Five o’clock in the morning
      The landlady is peeping
      No it isn’t fair
      This persecution I got to bear
      (Chorus)
      And every Monday (Mister give mih mih rent)
      All how I try I cannot prevent
      And every Monday (Mr give me mih rent)

      This is how she start
      A lot of restrictions to break your heart
      After 10 o’clock
      Tenants must know my front door is locked
      And on the wall she stuck up a notice
      No lady friends not even a princess
      And if you disagree
      Out you go immediately

      (Chorus)
      And every Monday (Mr give mih mih rent)
      Poor Kitchener I eh got a cent
      She telling me (Mr give mih mih rent)

      No chair, no table
      The convenience is terrible
      And on the other part
      No hot water to take a bath
      And believe you sleep like a rabbit
      A dirty sheet with half a blanket
      And she has the audacity
      To tell me I’m living in luxury
      (Chorus)