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People, Colour and Class:

In the Caribbean slave colonies people belonged to one or other of three main classes: the few whites, the growing number of free coloured people, and the mass of slaves. Each class contained its own hierarchy, and within each class there was some room for social mobility. But between classes the lines were firmly drawn. In this society, obviously, the attributes of the elite were whiteness, wealth, and education, in that order. The greatest wealth belonged to the whites, a higher education was available only to the wealthy who could afford to go abroad to get it.

The abolition of slavery ostensibly removed the legal supports of these divisions. After August 1st, 1838, all were equal citizens-in the eyes of the law. But all were not equal in the eyes of society or in the eyes of those who were the makers and the administrators of the law. Still, it was now theoretically possible for a man to make his way up the ladder. In practice, the climb was hard and long; and for the majority, even of those who wished to attempt it, it was impossible. Slavery as a legal institution had gone; but the society shaped by slavery remained with its criteria of whiteness, wealth, and education. And these criteria were upheld by British opinion of the proper structure of society; and by the myth that whites could not labour in the tropics.

In the social climb whiteness could be achieved only by long-term planning and parental strategy. But in the 19th- century, as the fortunes of sugar-planting declined, fewer whites came out and many went back home in disappointment and bankruptcy. Improving the colour, by marriage, or rather by concubinage, became less easy Wealth was harder to achieve. So too, therefore, was education. The social climbers consequently became frustrated; and because it became harder to go up, they became even more determined that they should not slide down. The aspiring middle-class felt the ladder becoming slippery when they were only half-way-up. They therefore firmly drew a line beneath them to prove that they were not half-way down. Masters and slaves were no more. They had been succeeded by the “we’s” and the “they’s”. Very few seemed to be aware of the fact that whiteness, wealth, and education were inappropriate as measures of excellence in populations overwhelmingly composed of blacks, in islands in which the historical basis of wealth was in decline, and in communities in which village dames and catechists offered their largely irrelevant lessons to the uninterested.