Dr Eric Williams’ last tome, The Blackest Thing in Slavery (1973), tells us that there were many more shady dealings in slavery than the African slave.
This is analogous to the Laventille situation; there are more criminal dealings than those who live there. While there is an undeniable need for personal responsibility, there are contributing factors that created Laventille. To get to a better place, we must understand how we got here.
In the 1950s, Laventille did not hold the crown for murderous acts. ‘Dole’ Adams’ reputed piracy was overshadowed by the Woodbrook pirate, John ‘Boysie’ Singh, who smuggled goods from and to Venezuela, trafficked humans and reputedly murdered at least 70 people. He owned racehorses and therefore must have been accepted socially.
Woodbrook of today was still being developed, the National Flour Mills and Massy Stores head office sites were still a waterfront. ‘Borders’ are not a new development since with the steel bands fighting for dominance: ‘every district in Port of Spain was an island… every street corner was a garrison …’ (Lovelace, 1979).
Laventille’s loss was the talented who moved to Woodbrook, ‘the juncture where the lower middle class entered the professional class’ (Kerrigan 2016). Prominent people boast about living ‘over the bridge’ as children, but seldom do they return to help the present residents.
As a thought experiment, transpose Beryl McBurnie into Laventille and put Spree Simon or Bertie Marshall into Woodbrook what may have happened? What would the middle-class politicians do? How would Carnival be appropriated? Even though Dr Williams frequented the yards of Laventille, what was the grand plan? What was the role of the MP?
Laventille has always been a place to move from despite its importance to our Independence. Its street names represent a virtual PNM Hall of Fame. If you had a fairer skin hue and money, you went west. If you were politically connected and had darker skin, you went east—where the industrial estates were being built and jobs were available.
If you were young, bright and had family abroad, your parents shipped you out. Laventille became poorer for these losses and the social cohesion necessary for strong communities was broken.
The people of Laventille were not unreliable, untrustworthy folk. Many men and women worked in the kitchens and yards of the folk in Woodbrook or St Clair. Taurel, then the finest furniture and appliances store, stood askance from Standards at the corner of Queen and Henry Streets, underlining the significance of the Hill.
The person, who then ran the Taurel chain of stores and whose offices were upstairs the store, affirmed—in a personal conversation—that the Laventillians were the most credit-worthy people in all his stores. For years until the mid-70s, Anthony Sabga’s offices were upstairs Standard’s on that corner.
The 1970s represented the ‘perfect storm’. The influx of migrants from the islands, who came in the burgeoning economy of the 60s, had created unplanned, underserved infrastructural development. The pictures of the pretty houses perched higgledy-piggledy on the Hill hide the open drains, unpaved yards and the raw squalor.
Laventillians, who worked with Dr Williams, saw others gain the benefit of social mobility (Reddock, 1991). They did not get the bank jobs, etc. This frustration caused the political break. Unemployment rose to 17% and the young educated black boys were the worst hit.
Urban poverty is more painful than its rural counterpart: there are no trees or yard to get fruit or to plant ochro. Things became grim. The IMF was hanging around. So NJAC leader Makandal Daaga offered a different solution. Political tabanca!
Fathers were out of work. Desperate job-hunting mothers migrated, leaving their children with hope unrealized but nurtured with empty baubles sent in barrels and half-day schools. Many girls became teenaged mothers, the result of sexual predators and the unsupervised time from school. The family structure was broken. Little girls became ‘big woman’, with different value systems.
When oil and gas prices rebounded, Point Lisas shifted the power and attention away from Laventille. The ‘Money is no problem’ thinking exchanged ‘all ah we is family’ to ‘devil take the hindmost’. Community, as a value, was abandoned. The PNM doubled down with lacklustre representation, except for Morris Marshall.
Gangs emerged as a critical issue in the 1980s (Bissessar, 2013). A signal event was the rise of the Sandy brothers, who had gone to the US with their mother, returning crime-hardened. They, through gunfire, drove visitors off the St. Barb’s hill, a place where many from all over the country went to see the Savannah Independence fireworks.
The police did nothing, a story to be often repeated. The Sandy gang grew into the fearsome coalition, with which PM Manning dealt. But these gangs did not control things: “The drug lords. You don’t see them. We don’t know them, but guys from we part of town link with them and guns come through the ghetto” (Guardian, April 2007). As gangs rise, communities decline (Sampson, 2006).
Dr Rowley lost his cabinet seat in 2003 when differing with Mr Manning and the UNC, he argued for COSTAATT to be part of the solution: “… the Afro-Trinidadian male [is] the biggest under-performer in the country… By addressing the problems of the Afro-Trinidadian did not mean that the East Indian was being neglected…”
Both Manning and the UNC conveniently ignored the World Bank 2000 report that said: “Students of self-declared African origin have been significantly more likely to score lower than those of mixed or Indian origin. This stratification reinforces perceptions of inferiority and low self-esteem among the students who perform poorly.”
The Parliament slouched away from the proposed special treatment for the African children.
We, over the years, closed our eyes or added fuel to this criminal neglect. Our hearts were black.
The nation pays the price now. But we can make amends.