PEOPLE AND CHANGE
To say that West Indian society was integrated around the recognition and acceptance of the idea of the superiority of English culture does not imply that these societies were either culturally or socially homogeneous. It does not mean that there was not resentment against British rule and some active opposition to it. It does not mean that there was not an active opposition to injustice, poverty and exploitation. It does not mean that there were not active, living subcultures that were definitely not ‘English’, nor that there was not from time to time active attempts to rejuvenate ‘African’ or ‘Indian’ or other cultures. It means no more than it says—that things in these societies tended to be judged in terms of a comparison with English culture and English standards and that the whole structure of the society including the ranking system, tended to acquire a “legitimacy” in terms of these standards and values. ‘African’ and ‘Indian’ and ‘Chinese’ and other sub-cultures existed and still exist, but they have always been evaluated in a general context by comparison with an ideal which was formally ‘English’ just as particular physical characteristics have been evaluated by reference to a European model. One is aware of all the difficulties that are raised by speaking of the “legitimacy” of a social order which assigned such radically different social statuses to whole ethnic groups, especially if it is assumed that all members of the society passively accepted this ranking system and agreed with it. But it is not necessary to assume that there was a complete consensus of opinion; all that is important really is to recognise that there was sufficient acceptance of the idea of English superiority to stabilise the system, and to lead to a particular kind of social integration.
This process of integration through some degree of commitment to common values should not be thought of as a process of ‘anglicization’. Although it involved the idea of the superiority of things English and based the ranking system upon that idea, it was not a simple matter of ‘acculturation’ to English culture for everyone in the system. The present writer and Chandra Jayawardena have referred to the process as being one of ‘creolization’, but since this term is used rather loosely it perhaps needs some explanation. Creolization involved two major processes; in the first place, it involved the creation of some area of common culture corresponding to the social relations in which people of varying ethnic groups were involved. Thus some form of English came to be the normal method of communication by all Guianese, to take one case, and eventually, there has been an increasing spread of common educational standards through formal schooling. On the other hand, it was an integral part of the process of creolization to stress the differences between groups identified as ‘racial’ groups’.
Thus creole culture, while encouraging some level of common cultural participation also emphasised cultural differences and resulted in the precipitation of socially exclusive groups at every level of the society. This resulted from the very fact that the value standards for the whole society were ‘English’ or ‘white people’s’; that is, defined in terms of race as well as culture. Non-whites could become ‘English’ only in a very limited sense, no matter how well they commanded the culture of the ‘mother country’. This is why the term ‘ Afro-Saxon’ is ironical.
So the argument advanced here is that creolization did involve societal integration and did involve a fundamental change in the culture and social structure of the constituent ethnic groups, but it did not lead to the creation of a unified society. On the contrary, it was basic to Creole colonial society to maintain an image of a divided society. The “plural society” model is in fact a very close approximation to the kind of cultural image necessary for the maintenance of a divided creole society. All it needs grafted on to it is the idea of the basic superiority of one of the segments.
The values and the ranking system we have been discussing did not exist in a vacuum. In the British West Indies, Englishmen controlled both the economy and the polity, but other groups and individuals in creole society struggled for a greater share of wealth, more power and higher status. These struggles were rooted in self and group interest but their general nature and mode of expression show how deeply internalised the notion of the superiority of English culture had become. Coloured and Negro and Chinese and Portuguese and Jewish and East Indian professionals, merchants and intellectuals proudly proclaimed their ‘culture’ and ‘refinement’ and education, and hotly contested their exclusion from political office and the charmed circle of Government House ‘society’. Even racially based organisations aimed more at the ‘moral upliftment’, ‘progress’ and general advancement’ of their members than at communal segregation or the glorification of ethnic culture.
The bulk of the population was preoccupied with its day-to-day suffering and frustrations. Ill-health, poor diet, long hours of work, poor wages, social degradation and constant humiliation all produced either an aggressiveness which was mostly turned inward upon the local community, or a profound yearning for salvation which found expression in magic and religion. Sporadic outbreaks of violence against estate overseers, Chinese or Portuguese shopkeepers, against fellow workers of different race, expressed some of the cleavages – the ‘pluralism’ – of colonial society, but they also indicated the extent of mass discontent which was rooted in conditions of perceived hardship rather than in racial differences.
The significance of the concept of ‘social class’ for the understanding of Caribbean social structure depends to a large extent upon the definition of class that is adopted, but even if it is taken to mean simply a division of the society into groups with differential access to wealth and spending power, it throws some light on aspects of the social scene neglected by ‘plural society’ theory.
These Caribbean societies have similar histories of plantation agriculture overlaid by the uneven development of other economic sectors, but everywhere there is a tendency for a common pattern of class structure to develop. This is due in large part to the similar relation these territories now have to Britain, the United States of America and Canada, but whatever the reason, the similarity of pattern is clear. At the bottom of the social hierarchy is a mass of low-income earners, unemployed and semi-employed who are beginning to feel progressively more deprived as the media of mass communication pour forth a steady stream of ‘market information’ originally designed for high consumption societies. Above this group and separated from it by an income gap which varies from one territory to another is that amorphous group often known as the ‘middle-class’, but which in this context, it is better to refer to as the high income sector. (Its income is not high in relation to its aspirations, but is high enough to permit of a socially conspicuous consumption level.)
This group derives its income from a variety of activities which we can ignore for the moment. More importantly, for the present discussion is the fact that it spends its income in a generally similar way, thus establishing a similar ‘style of life’. A family in this group aims to own a car, a refrigerator, washing machine, cooker, radiogram, television set, a standard group of house furnishings such as settee, chairs, dining table and chairs, coffee tables, glasses, crockery, cutlery, ice-containers, a suitable stock of drinks and proper clothing for its members. The ‘backstage’ areas of bedrooms, bathroom and so forth will also be properly equipped and careful attention will be given to the house itself and its surrounding garden no matter how small. The important point to make here is that although people of this income/consumption group may be divided in all sorts of ways into cliques, clubs, ethnic groups, and so on they are all very much alike; they can and do visit each other’s homes and know how to behave, they talk about very much the same things and think in much the same way.
On the employment side they are also fairly easily inter-changeable, since they all receive much the same sort of formal education (their children even more so), and while there may be some tendency toward ethnic specialisation in economic activity, this is rapidly breaking down or changing in character.