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This article is extracted from a forthcoming book by Professor Lewis on The Growth of the Modern West Indies to be published by Monthly Review Press, 1967. Documentation provided in the book has been omitted in this presentation.


The English Antillean society has to be seen as an integral part of the larger Caribbean society. At the same time it possesses, of course, its own distinctive features. For each metropolitan culture-system left its special mark upon its colonial subjects, the French in Martinique, the Dutch in Surinam, the Spaniards in Cuba.

The English in the West Indies did likewise, creating a local culture almost utterly derivative of the most suburban of English values, even although geographically remote from the ancestral sources. They did this the most successfully in those Islands, like Barbados and Jamaica, where a cultural tabula rasa, as it were, awaited their imprint.

A society like Trinidad, with some two centuries of Spanish and French occupation preceding the English ownership, did not so readily surrender itself to a complete Anglicanisation. That, as much as anything else, explains why even today, to pass from Bridgetown to Port of Spain is to pass from a tropical English market town to a bizarre and Byzantine city life, and why the center of West Indian society as a culture sui generis is Trinidad and not Jamaica. Even in Trinidad, however, the main directive force has been English, so much so that the territory’s physical contiguity to the Latin American mainland has had surprisingly little effect upon its socio-cultural development.

West Indians, then, as a people, have been shaped mainly by England, and they are indeed not the least English when they are in revolt against the system England has created. That is why even the radical nationalist, like Dr. Williams, can at the same time be an ardent Oxonian, why the literary native son, like Vida Naipaul, can describe, Dickens-like, his own local culture at the same time as he reveals his own rejection of it in favour of an East Indian Englishness, and why the professional West Indian Trotskyite insurrectionist like C. L. R. James can at the same time constitute himself the fulsome Victorian-like eulogist of the English gentleman class. It has been rare even for the West Indian intelligentsia, who might have done better, to look beyond the horizons of their society as an English cultural dependency, and an exception like the late Adolphe Roberts, whose book The French in the West Indies marked him off as a romantic Jamaican nationalist of the Latin rather than of the Anglo-Saxon persuasion, only proves the general rule.

The old West India society was replaced, after 1834, by the post-abolition society which prolonged itself, with unimportant changes, until the advent of cataclysmic events – the widespread riots of 1935-38, the outbreak of the Second World War, the break-up of the old colonial empires after 1945, the growth of nationalism – forced upon it revolutionary changes that have still (1967) not yet run their full course. For a whole century, that is to say, the new free labour tropical society established by Emancipation developed along lines set by Victorian Christian bourgeois modes of thought. It was, almost completely, a unilateral relationship, since as minor colonies; the West Indian local capitals stood little chance of influencing the metropolitan culture or politics.

The crisis over the Jamaican constitution that precipitated the downfall of the Melbourne government in 1839 marks the end, in fact, of serious West Indian influence on British politics, a fact finally demonstrated by the failure of the London Jamaica Committee nearly thirty years later to embarrass in any serious way the Derby government of 1865 on the occasion of the Jamaica Morant Bay “rebellion” of that year. Cultural influence was even less apparent, and the image of the West Indies that flourished in England was somewhat that of the Jamaican passages of Jane Eyre, a sort of sinister Gothic background productive of miscegenation and madness; notwithstanding the fact that the Antigua of Jane Austen’s Sir Thomas Bertram and the St. Kitts of Thackeray’s “Woolly Miss Swartz” were regular mines of wealth supporting dozens of Mansfield Parks all over England.

It must also be noted that the final success of the abolitionist movement terminated the popularity of the West Indian theme embodied in the English anti-slavery literature of the Augustan age and ably documented in Wylie Sypher’s Guinea’s Captive Kings. That explains why, even up to the present day, the average Englishman’s conception of things West Indian has been a mixture of uniformed prejudice and paternalist condescension, so that even as late as the 1940’s Lord Olivier could complain that his own authoritative books on Jamaica had been received in the London journals as if they were merely guidebooks for the West Indies as a charming residence and not a studied defense of the West Indian subjugate native peoples against colonial capitalism. And not the least ironic aspect of the Englishness of the West Indies was the fact that West Indians for so long preserved among themselves a Victorian Anglophilism, an almost imperialist chauvinism and an uncritical loyalty to the Crown long after those attitudes had waned in Britain itself. Only the more recent risorgimento of West Indian nationalism promises perhaps finally to terminate that climate of opinion.


In the meantime, that climate of opinion can only be understood if the major factors that shaped it are understood. The post-emancipation society has been called a “new order.” To some extent, of course, it was. Abolition of chattel-slavery precipitated a real property revolution, with the master-slave relationship being replaced however, slowly, with an employer-tenant relationship; and the misconceived apprenticeship system, an experiment adopted in all of the Islands except Antigua and Bermuda, only served to generate additional popular resentment against the alliance of planters and colonial assembly politicians who had hoped by that means to maintain the spirit of slavery under the letter of freedom. The tactic of the slave revolt was replaced with refusal to continue working on the plantation system or, as in Jamaica, with flight from the plantation into the hills.

The economic struggle between former master and slave continued, but in new forms, so that the labourer came to depend more and more upon his new power to influence wage rates and the estate proprietor upon his power over rent, accompanied by the power of eviction. The basic maxim of slavery – that, as Cairnes put it, the most effective economy is that which takes out of the human chattel in the shortest space of time the utmost amount of exertion it is capable of putting forth – disappeared forever to be replaced with the capitalist principle of supply and demand, albeit within an underdeveloped semi-feudal West Indian framework. The history of West Indian labour disputes, indeed, begins at this point; and the record of those disputes during the early apprenticeship period, fully described in W.L. Burn’s Emancipation and Apprenticeship in the British West Indies, makes it clear how much the new instrumentality of the stipendiary magistrate gave to the freed slave a bargaining power and an independent legal representation quite unknown in the slave economy.

All this, furthermore, was accompanied by deep changes in the structure of society, for 1834 without doubt marked the beginning of a new societal phase in which the old groups of planter, merchant monopolist and white colonial official were gradually superseded, both in economic power and social status, by the new groups of creole cultivator, peasant farmer and native politician. The decline of the old planter class, well under way long before Emancipation, has been catalogued in Ragatz’s classic volume. The decline was accompanied by the rise of the class of “freed coloured,” recruited from the growing body of peasant Negroes who had benefitted from the process of manumission, the solicitous care of white fathers and special economic conditions, and who rapidly became urbanised town and professional people. This was a general process itself well under way, too, long before 1834.

The Jamaican historian Edward Long noted as early as 1774 the virtual monopoly of slaves in the Jamaican internal marketing system, and the memoirs of missionaries and the reports of stipendiary magistrates indicated, sixty years later, that by the time of abolition there existed in that leading Island a body of coloured people with the financial capacity to purchase land and the initiative to build homes and chapels; while a generation still later the introduction of the banana as an economic crop gave new opportunities lo this class of peasant cultivator, the economic energy of the type being attested to by the growing prosperity of the Jamaican banana parishes after 1870.

The West Indian custom of interracial sexual liaison, inevitable in a sex-slavery situation, at the same time conferred economic security and social placing upon the woman of colour who consorted with a white man; and half a dozen or more phenomena – the racial statistics of the “free schools”, the figures of land sales, especially of ruinate estate property, the construction of Nonconformist churches and chapels, the growing liberality of wills, entries into journalism and the law – attest to the social advancement of her children. Practically every traveller’s report on Victorian West Indian life noted the existence of a flourishing coloured “society” in the regional towns, whose members were at once the most fully creolised group of the colonies in their general life-style and the most Anglophile in their political and social attitudes. Thus, to take the case of Grenada only, an English resident in the late 1820’s noted approvingly how the grant system had enabled the class of “free coloured” to become well-to-do merchants, as well as occupy prestigious posts like the editorship of the St. George’s Chronicle, and that many of them were better educated than the class of white managers and overseers.

By the time that Froude came to compose his slanderous volume (1888) the growth of these liberalising forces, as well as the development of more liberal attitudes both in the local coloured group and in the group of the imperial administrators, had made his racialist authoritarianism quite obsolete, and the English groups to whom he made his appeal were, in fact, as one of his critics noted, a very different body of men from the old slave-owners and planters whose disappearance Froude so much regretted. ”We hear ceaselessly,” wrote the same critic, “of the ruin of the West Indies; but this simply means the breakup of the old order of things. The new order of society which is being evolved contains elements of stability which were missing. The establishment of a large body of peasant owners and a number of middle class cultivators alongside a few great proprietors cannot reasonably be accounted a calamity in any country….In the new and better order that is being established in these dependencies the old notions will happily find no place; the usual gradations of society found in every advanced community will be established.”

That sentiment – the ideology of a rational liberalism in a rational class-oriented society – was indeed almost the official creed of West Indian society in the century between 1838 and 1938. But when all is said and done its “new order” was in reality new more in degree than in kind. The class-colour alignments shifted; but they did not disappear. The more odious of post-Emancipation injustices – a repressive legal system, for example – disappeared with the Morant Bay affair of 1865. New occupational opportunities, true enough, emerged for the ex-slave; Phillippo described in his book of 1843 on Jamaica how much the native leader and lay agent system in the popular churches became a training ground for Negro leadership and Negro entry into occupations such as confidential servants in mercantile houses, subordinate estate managers, governesses and schoolmasters. But all this, at best, was simply the effort of the emancipated slave to raise himself in a slowly-changing society. It was not a fundamental reconstruction of the society, any more than postbellum Reconstruction in the United States a generation later meant the growth of a new, free society in the Deep South.

1834 removed the gross features of the slave system without basically upsetting the underlying class-colour differentiations of the society. The three hierarchically ordered sections-white, coloured and black – remained as solidly entrenched as ever. The changes that took place were changes, albeit important for understanding the new internal dynamics of West Indian life, within the sub-world of their organised interrelations.

The white group, as already noted, accepted the end of slavery without open counter-revolutionary activity (as in fact did occur in Hispaniola). But it was a long, reluctant process. Caste prejudice declined; and a brief generation after Emancipation both black and coloured men had obtained positions of prominence, not only as merchants and landed property owners, but also as clergymen, barristers, schoolteachers, magistrates and members of Assembly, the Jamaican leader Gordon being the son of a slave-woman and her white master and rising, through the position of justice of the peace, to membership of the House of Assembly.

But race prejudice remained; and Dr. Elsa Goveia has demonstrated in her exhaustive Historiography of the British West Indies how long it took for the exaggerated racism of the pro-slavery creed to disappear from nineteenth-century literature. The plantocracy in a comparatively unimportant island like Antigua sought to give Emancipation a fair trial. But in the more important territories like Jamaica and Barbados they met it with systematic opposition, and some of the harshest passages of Sewell’s remarkable volume, The Ordeal of Free Labour in the British West Indies, published as a warning to the American Southern plantocracy on the very eve of the Civil War, were reserved for the Bourbon intransigency of the Barbadian white oligarchy in whose field of values, as he remarked, even remote descent from an African ancestor made some unhappy creature a pariah in that Island’s little world.

Those reactionary attitudes held up progress for a generation and more, and in Jamaica, the leading West Indian Island, it was 1865, not 1834, that marked the end of the full reign of the planters and the beginning of the ascendancy of the Negro. As a body, the whites clung to their traditional prejudice that rum and sugar were the only economic cultures permissible to the tropics. They consequently failed either to encourage more productive varieties of cane through more efficient production methods or through more intensive research (which did not come to Barbados, indeed, until the great work of John Redman Bovell towards the end of the century) or to develop the cultivation of other cash crops. The abandonment of properties – the well-known scene of West Indian ruinate – was more their fault than that of the ex-slave population, and Sewell demonstrated conclusively with wealth of statistical data how far more productive free labour was as compared to slave labour and how much the decline of the sugar estates, espe­cially in Barbados and Jamaica, was the result of a general entrepreneurial lethargy pre-dating 1834 by some thirty years or more.

To all that there must be added the fact that the general refusal of the white aristocracy to work out new terms of social co-existence with their former serfs was accompanied, in Trinidad and British Guiana, by the new policy of the importation of East Indian indentured labour (lasting until 1917) which had the fatal consequence of producing racially dualistic societies divided into mutually antagonistic groups of “coolies” and “niggers” (the very epithets themselves testifying to the general contempt in which both were held by the elite groups); and the subsequent history of those two colonies was one of the disruption of effective national community arising out of the presence of groups of radically different cultures and languages, with fundamentally different traditions, and existing, until well into the twentieth century, at different economic levels.

It is enough to read, for example, Peter Ruhomon’s centennial History of the British Guianese East Indians (1838-1938) to realise how the “new slavery” of contract labour effectively stifled, until the period after the First World War, the growth of either civic consciousness or political awareness on the part of that ethnic group. What power, altogether, that there was, was left to the white group to be used for its own narrow purposes “Theirs,” concluded Sewell in his book, “was not the broad, grasping selfishness of a powerful oligarchy wise enough to combine their own aggrandizement with that of the nation at large; but it has been from first to last a narrow-minded selfishness that pursued crooked paths to accumulate gain at the expense of the public weal, and to the infinite detriment of the colonial credit.” Nor has the effort of modern historians – Professor Douglas Hall’s argument in his Free Jamaica, 1838-1865, for example – to be kinder to the record been very successful, depending as much of it does upon reviving, in a way, one of the most famous arguments of the old pro-slavery apologetics, that the West Indian slave was better off than the English labourer. For if, as Hall argues, things were not much better in a mid-Victorian England dominated by laissez-faire capitalism, the comparison still fails to answer why the West Indian ruling class failed to produce its own Sheftesburys and Disraelis.

The truth was, of course, that the social contradictions first, of slavery and, secondly, of a post-Emancipation society, still deeply embedded with the spirit of slavery, precluded a positive leadership-role for the ruling white group. Theoretically, it could have led a West Indian popular revolt against British mercantilism, after the American fashion; but the fear of slave rebellion at home and, after 1834; the failure to forge a new modus vivendi with either the enfranchised coloured group or the vast mass of freed slaves stifled that possibility. It chose, therefore, to share its power with the metropolitan center, and humiliatingly, on the punitive terms set by the metropolitan center. The supine character of this group, on into the twentieth century, must be related to this social source. ”The North Americans indeed were too much for us,” an English observer noted in 1825, “the West Indians may be crushed by a wave of Mr. Canning’s hand.”

The creole power-groups thus preferred the colonial relationship rather than face the growth of democracy at home. The high-handed treatment of the region by British officialdom was thus given fresh encouragement, lasting up to the present time. If, too, West Indian national independence today has little about it of the mass enthusiasm that comes from a prolonged and militant struggle to wrest it from the colonial power the phenomenon likewise has its roots in the leadership vacuum of the nineteenth century creole society. All that, finally, must be seen within the context of the fact that, ironically, there was not absent, indeed, a real influence in that society of the democratic ideas of the American republican tradition, as the work of scholars like Kerr and Siebert has shown.

Effective leadership, then, for what it amounted to, passed increasingly to the coloured intermediate group. Its members had economic power and social influence long before they obtained enlarged political power. Not as exile-conscious as the whites in the hermetic West Indian society, since they were the most fully creolised of all groups, that is to say, the most fully acculturated in the direction of the dominant Creole-European tradition, at the same time their pro-British alignment, combined with their anxiety to deny their African heritage, made them into the social and political enemy of the black masses, a few liberal individuals excepted. They were the carriers, perhaps more than any other group, of the “white bias” of the society. When the desire was frustrated it generated, frequently, a pathology of self-disrespect so deep that they rejected even sexual contact with each other, a phenomenon which persuaded the eighteenth-century historian Edward Long, in the case of Jamaica, that the male and female members of the group were biologically incapable of procreation one with the other. They yearned for social acceptance by the whites; and the pathetic contradictions that they thereby embraced can be seen, to take an early example only, in the bitter complaint that the author of the early West Indian novel Marly (1828) put into the mouth of a cultured Jamaican coloured gentleman who had graduated from Edinburgh University, only to come home to a “white gentleman” society that re­jected him and his type.

Thirty years later, in the sixties, Grant Allen’s satirical romance, In All Shades, showed how colour still remained as a valid standard of value accepted by all groups in the white-black colour scale; for all of the figures in that novel were the well-known stereotypes of the West Indian racial character enmeshed in a tragic-comedy from which they could not escape: the educated mulatto son returning to vulgar family surroundings after being socially spoiled in England; the young English wife of the brown professional husband treated as a moral leper by the local whites; the affected and stupid “Hottentot Venus” of the brown middle class daughter anxious to marry an English officer of good connections if only the shame of her racial identity can be long enough hidden; the visiting English aristocrat whose own identity as a “throw back” to unsuspected coloured ancestors is readily exposed in a society which, unlike the English, has a fine detective instinct for the recognition of traces of miscegenation. In varying forms, they are all to be met with in West Indian literature, and so frequently that, clearly enough, they more or less accurately reflected the class-colour structure of the servile colour-variable West Indian society of the nineteenth century. Only the itinerant visitor could afford to satirise the general picture, as did Trollope. The local resident could hardly afford that dangerous luxury.

At the bottom of the social ladder there were, of course, the ex-slave masses, reinforced by East Indian and Chinese immigrants in, variously, Jamaica, Trinidad and British Guiana. Where they were not harassed by white and brown-controlled machineries of law and government, and by oppressive land tenure systems, they were openly neglected. Nothing was done to train them in the new duties of citizenship. The slave regime was dead. But it was replaced by a regime almost equally oppressive, imbued still with the slavery spirit. For while British capitalism killed slavery once slavery turned out to be unprofitable, it continued to nurture the colonial monopolistic commercial system as a continuing profitable enterprise. The economic power of the plantocracy declined. But that of the colonial mercantile class continued, became even stronger throughout the rest of the century.

Salmon’s book of 1884, Depression in the West Indies, cogently criticised the system from the viewpoint of Free Trade economic liberalism. Restricted inflow of capital; excessively high customs tariffs benefitting a closed monopoly of local merchant houses; a heavy burden of colonial revenues carried by taxation upon local necessities such as corn, flour, rice, fish and meat; the failure of local real and personal property to share in the tax burden; the excessive costs of colonial administration: all of these, Salmon argued, had produced a maladjusted economy in which the West Indies bought their foodstuffs dear and sold their produce low, and from which both planter and worker suffered. “It is obvious,” he concluded, “that a great injustice has been done to these islands; they have been handed over, as it were, to a powerful corporation, and the consequences of this monopoly are seen in that want of development and that stagnation which is the only end possible to such a state of things.” The criticism was composed in 1884. But the conditions it described remained virtually unchanged right up to the period before World War Two; nor, indeed, has the advent of labour governments since that period done much to curb the stranglehold of the “powerful corporation” that Salmon described. More than any other group, the West Indian peasant and worker masses paid a high price, in their generally depressed living standards, for that situation.

All of these different groups, conceivably, could have combined in a united front against Britain. But, frankly, there was little to unite them. There were, of course, odd alignments of common interest as, for example, the common eighteenth-century sexual code, reflected in the habits of consensual cohabitation and extra-residential mating, shared by both upper-class whites and lower-class blacks as against the Victorian respectability of the missionary societies and Nonconformist churches, not to mention Victorian England itself. But mutual distrust of each other precluded active union. The belief, expressed in much of the literature of the time, that exposure to the “civilising” European influence would fashion out of them a homogeneous body of people with uniform social values turned out to be unfounded, for even a group as pro-English as the ruling whites maintained their English customs only with important modifications specifically West Indian.

The general outcome was that the society remained, after 1834, and well on into the modern century, a basically disorganised society, with very few common values rooted in common experience. The social differentiations, based partly on property, partly on colour, remained fairly static for nearly a century, with the tempo of slow change quickening somewhat during the nineteen-twenties and undergoing marked acceleration during the nineteen-thirties. Each group “knew its place”. There was, increasingly, free acceptance in business circles and politics – a black candidate, Alexander Dixon, was returned to the Jamaican Legislative Council at the turn of the century – and also widening social recognition, especially on the official level under more liberal colonial Governors like Sir Henry Norman and Sir Sydney Olivier. Competitive examinations for the Jamaican civil service, established in 1885, opened up a new gainful “white collar” occupation for the Negroes. Yet at the same time there was wide-spread social ostracism based on colour. A dark person with a flair for “society” might be admitted to the homes of whites or reputed whites, but difficulties arose if he aspired to marriage. A coloured doctor or lawyer (particularly in the country towns) might live down his disability by sheer merit; but his type would not be readily accepted in the more exclusive clubs.

The club, and the club snob, indeed, became expressions of subtle segregationism. And there were few places of public resort, which made segregationism even more effective. In Jamaica at the turn of the century, for example, there were only certain restricted balls in Kingston society, the Caledonia Ball promoted by Scottish residents, for instance, or the Queen’s Birthday Party at Government House while the first public subscription dances only came into existence after the establishment of the Myrtle Bank Hotel. Around the same time Barbadian social life, as described in a Diamond Jubilee directory, centered around the five “gentlemen’s” clubs, that is, the white clubs, plus the Masonic Lodges, the Benefit Societies, the Barbados Auxiliary Bible Society and the Bridgetown Circle of the National Home Reading Union aiming “to encourage the reading of the works of good authors.” The divisions of Trinidadian society, likewise, reflected the ethnic separatism of its polyglot character, so much so that even its fiction reflected that fact, Negro Trinidadian life finding its voice in a novel like C. L. R. James’ Minty Alley and the life of the Portuguese Creoles in a novel like Alfred Mendes’ Pitch Lake.

Unity in this kind of society, finally, was made impossible by the fact that, being intellectually depressed communities, there was no play of common ideas, no educated and at the same time socially conscious class ready to take the lead in nationalist assertiveness. Thus the English Guianese resident Henry Kirke, speaking of British Guiana in the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century, could observe that the only material difference between society in the col­ony and in Great Britain was in the absence of the leisured and literary classes and that although there were Guianese classical and mathematics scholars, and erudite botanists and zoologists, they were a very small minority and had no influence upon the general lump. It was highly un­likely, in the face of all this that West Indians would unite in a war of national liberation (as happened in Haiti and, later, in Cuba). The relative cultural antiquity of Barbados, of course, made its servility to English social values the most pronounced of all. But all of the colonies, in varying degree, exhibited the same character.


By 1900, then, the West Indies, altogether, were a bizarre mixture of racial discord, crass commercialism and cultural imitativeness. Some relaxation in racial matters took place after 1920 by reason, mainly, of two factors, one being the fillip given to new sports, especially tennis and golf, the other being the progress to adult life of old school friends of various shades, coupled with the outstanding personal achievements of men of colour. A widening educational pattern also helped; it is worth noting, here, that in Barbados where, unlike Jamaica, agriculture and commerce remained throughout this period the stronghold of the resident white aristocracy, education provided about the only safety valve against brown-Negro frustration, as the careers of Sir Grantley Adams, Hugh Springer and Dr. H. G. Cummins amply prove. But this was amelioration only, and the Moyne Commissioners of 1938-39 felt constrained to report, in that section of their great report dealing with colour prejudice, that although prejudice was deplored by every witness who gave evidence about it, all responsible quarters in the region shared a widespread feeling that it was seriously on the increase, especially where economic differences between white employers and black employees inevitably became transmuted into racial differences.

The result was a continuing racialist sentiment, taking the expression, in the social lowly, of extreme sensitiveness to ridicule, and in the more well-to-do of is delicate touchiness where their ethnic dignidad was concerned. Nor were there any powerful institutional traditions to lend support to individual identity. For the established institutions were imperial and therefore unreachable, while those created out of crystallising local forces were constantly vulnerable to the jealousy and distrust of the colonial spirit. Just as slave revolts bred the defecting informer so the trade union, the benefit society and the political party bred, later, the disruptive adventurer. Local institutions have got broken up, as one West Indian union leader has noted, speaking from a lifetime of experience, because people feel they cannot trust each other or themselves: “One has only to raise a finger and say, ‘You see so and so has a new car; you know where your money is going’ and such insidious aspersions tend to break up the institution.”

That kind of suspicion naturally arises with ease, moreover, in a society of mass poverty in which the mere ownership of a car evokes popular suspicions against its user as a member of the “motorised salariat”; and for years any sort of collision between a pedestrian and an automobile in any West Indian town would almost precipitate a minor street riot, with racial overtones should the driver – as was mostly the case in the early days – be white or near-white.

Nor were the materialism and moral hypocrisy of colonial society – nicely satirised in their Jamaican expression in Herbert de Lisser’s novel The Cup and the Lip – seriously mitigated by the rise, in the twentieth century, of the slowly expanding coloured educated elite. It is true that the elite produced individuals in every territory who stood out, in their time, as persons of unusual merit – in Jamaica, for example, the Rev. A. A. Barclay, father of the Jamaica Agricultural Society, and Dunbar Wint, ardent champion of the depressed teacher class, in Barbados, politicians like H. W. Reece, the only self-acknowledged person of Negro blood in that colony’s House of Assembly fifty years ago; and in Trinidad the galaxy of brilliant men who, as Island Scholars, made their name, like Sir Henry Pierre, in tropical medicine or, like Sir Courtenay Hannays and Sir Hugh Wooding, in law. There were individual women, too, of outstanding ability like the Audrey Jeffers in Trinidad who, through the Coterie of Social Workers, taught a whole generation of Trinidadians a new concept of social responsibility. But whether due to the general social environment or inherent tradition the scope of influence of such individuals was generally restricted to the narrow sphere of their own circles. To the general public, they were little more than legendary figures, seldom reported, and usually denied widespread recognition by means of opportunities of public service at the top levels.

It is true, too, that in the fifty years after 1900 new occupational avenues opened up for the full-blooded Negro, so that the traditional opportunities of schoolroom and pulpit were replaced by the wider ones of the civil service and other professions. But the low repute in which the West Indian civil servant, even today, is held in popular public opinion, and the fact that, also as even today, the majority of West Indian professional men are content to occupy an honourable position and make a comfortable living with­out curtailing their pleasures or indulging in undue exertion, suggest that the new openings were used mainly for selfish personal purposes.

The West Indian churches also came to provide better career opportunities for the coloured candidate, although the vast personal popularity of an expatriate minister like Cowell Lloyd in the East Queen Street Baptist Church in Kingston, might delay the process for a generation or more in certain denominations. Yet it tells volumes for the light in which the local candidate saw his opportunities that when John Joseph Purcell reached a high post in the Catholic hierarchy in British Guiana he used his power, not to undertake a social Gospel movement, but to conduct violent theological disputes with his local Protestant enemies, almost as if inviting the colonial white congregation to admire the Newmanite zeal of a coloured priest.

In general, then, the West Indian middle class groups had little to do but to endure the ennui of colonial existence. The cri de coeur of one of them summed it up for all: “Look at my existence extending over twenty years. Work from 7.30 a.m. to 4.00 p.m., dull and uninspiring. Then home, and, if equal to it, sport. Otherwise literally nothing, except the banality of the cinema, or social grumperies”. For the lower middle groups, at the same time, a commercial clerkship came to be regarded as almost the only worthwhile existence, and the history of the West Indian Kipps has still to be written; although Mittelholtzer’s early pioneering novel A Morning at the Office described something of the inter-personal tensions of office life as they arose between the classic Trinidadian character-types of the Negro office boy, the sexy Chinese stenographer, the fawning Indian clerk and the supercilious English “bosses”.

Most people retreated into their private worlds or their own social games, frequently operated under complicated rules; the Trinidadian creole world, for example, characterised by the ironic contradiction between a national capacity to laugh, play “picong” and produce insulting calypsoes and, on the other side, groups of people who took refuge in pomposity and verbosity as a safeguard against ridicule. A laconic self-derisory sense of humour, clearly enough, did not easily flourish in the social climate of colonialism. It was the same, essentially, in every colony; van Sertima’s account of respectable social life in British Guiana at the turn of the century thus portrays accurately the emptiness of a social routine of carriage expeditions to the Sea Wall and the Botanic Gardens, only relieved by the spurious excitement of gambling in the Chinese chefa houses.

Leadership from the top and middling ranks was thus not readily forthcoming. Leadership from the bottom, on the other hand, was frustrated, in part, by the fact that the West Indian masses, of all ethnic strains, exhibited throughout a diffuse sense of immigrant mentality, as the history of the idea of East Indian communal representation in Trinidad and British Guiana shows. Groups either looked outwards for help, as East Indians looking back to “Mother India”; or they retreated in upon themselves, turning their back on movements of national unification, the most famous example of that exclusivist psychology being, of course, the history of the Jamaican Maroons. It was as true in 1938, all in all, as it had been a century earlier, when Lord Harris uttered the phrase that a race had been freed but a society had not yet been formed.


The most complete evidence for all this, of course, is to be found in the monumental Report of the West Indies Royal Commission of 1937-38, summing up in magisterial form as it did the record of West Indian life and society as they had grown up during the century since abolition. It was the supreme achievement of that Report to annotate, in damning detail, the social and economic servitude of the West Indian proletariats, thus providing a welcome change from a situation in which most reports on the region, being the diaries of travellers, had concentrated almost exclusively in describing the pleasant, if futile, life of the whites and Anglo-West Indians. Along with other documents such as the various reports of the Committee on Nutrition in the Colonial Empire and Major Orde-Browne’s report on Labour Conditions in the West Indies, the Moyne report, composed of conscientious Commissioners who insisted on seeing things for themselves, provided an astonishingly comprehensive portrait of West Indian life and experience; for, as the Commissioners themselves remarked, few Royal Commissions could ever have had to cover so wide a field of subjects, the West Indies Royal Commission of 1866-67 having been concerned principally with the plight of the regional sugar industry, as was also the case with the later Olivier-Semple enquiry of 1929-30.

In general cultural terms, the report saw the West Indian society as basically embryonic. “One characteristic of the West Indies,” it noted, “is the regrettable absence of those factors and traditions which elsewhere make for social cohesiveness and a sense of membership of a community…” “The whole West Indies”, it added, “are practically devoid of all the multifarious institutions, official and unofficial, which characterise British public life and bring a very large proportion of the population into some living contact with the problems of social importance”. In more particular terms, the Report meticulously catalogued the items of that general social malaise: a declining sugar industry supporting an estate labour force by means of an exploitative task work system and with wages so low that in many cases, St. Kitts and St. Vincent, for example, the wage level had barely advanced beyond the daily shilling rate introduced after Emancipation; gross malnutrition and chronic sickness in the people generally, made worse by a general medical education, of exclusively overseas character, which emphasised curative rather than preventive medicine, with the result that bitter resentment against the medical profession was evident in many of the colonies; a housing picture characterised by decrepit, verminous and insanitary “houses,” with the barracks or “ranges” system of the Guianese East Indian estate peasantry providing some of the worst examples; a “working class,” when it had work, in a state of economic servitude to a well-organised employer class, while the defense-mechanism of a strong trade union movement was stultified by the existence of punitive legislation, British Guiana alone of all of the colonies having passed legislation to protect unions against actions for damages consequent upon strikes; a status of women so low that the Commission heard of only one woman who was a member of a West Indian municipal council; children, the most exploited of all West Indian persons, denied opportunity for the healthy development of either mind or body as they lived in small, unlighted hovels with wooden shutters tightly closed at night in order to shut out evil spirits or thieving neighbours; an educational system characterised by serious absenteeism, obsolete curricula, a cheap teaching staff, mainly of pupil teachers, and dreadfully inadequate school buildings, reinforcing the findings, here, of the West Indies Education Committee of 1931-32 that had quoted an experienced observer of education all over the world as declaring that primary education in the West Indies was the least progressive of any that he had encountered in the British Empire; and much else.

“If”, wrote the Commissioners generally of the life expectations of even the lucky West Indian child, “he has been fortunate enough to continue his education until school-leaving age, which is usually 14 in the towns and 12 in the rural districts, he enters a world where unemployment and under-employment are regarded as the common lot. Should he find work as a manual labourer, his wages often provide only for bare maintenance and are far from sufficient to enable him to attain the standard of living which is set before him by new contacts with the outside world. If he is fitted by education and intelligence for clerical posts, competition for which is intense, he will have the prospect, at best, of a salary on which, even in Government employment, he will find it a serious struggle to keep up the Social position and appearances which he and his friends expect. He will have leisure hours but few facilities for recreation with which to fill them”.

Two further aspects of this deserve emphatic mention. First, it was made worse by the particular character of the British colonial service. Its bias was political rather than social or cultural, so that it was, in terms of its personnel in the colonies, strong on the administrative side and weak on the scientific and technological side. There was, significantly enough, no organisation whatsoever in the colonial empire which viewed the problems of science as a whole; the technical officer’s status was usually lower than that of the administrative official, who usually despised or, at the most, tolerated him, and he was usually condemned to stagnate in small and isolated departments, the bold initiative earlier on of Sir Joseph Chamberlain, when Colonial Secretary, of establishing the London School of Tropical Medicine had not been followed up; and expenditures in fields as varied as entomology, mycology, soil science and plant genetics were pitiably small to what countries like Egypt or the United States were spending. The people who suffered most from this type of administrative conservatism were, naturally, the subject-races of the Empire. They turned, understandably, to the obeah-man or the “water-people” medium or the “bush-doctor” for the help they could not get from officialdom.

There was, secondly, the special character of West Indian education in its social aspects. The exclusion of the masses from anything save a rudimentary primary schooling, following the class bias of the British metropolitan model, has already been noted; suffice it to add that contemporary West Indian educational enterprise still inherits the legacy, so that, to take an example only, in 1960 more than fifty per cent of the total working population of Trinidad and Tobago comprised persons whose formal education went no higher than Standard VII of the primary school level. But even more dangerous was the general fact that, being based on the prevalent snobberies of race and class, the West Indian school conspired to perpetuate the distrust and jealousy of the colonial social climate.

The scholarship system, in particular, by its competitive character, was profoundly anti-social and the scars left behind by the old Island Scholarship system can still be seen in West Indian life. It was a grinding, merciless system that each year, or sometimes biennially, let one favoured candidate through the escape-hatch from the colonial prison; and it would be difficult to estimate who was damaged most, the winners who themselves frequently collapsed from tension and exhaustion of new studies, or the losers who gave up hope as marked “failures” and settled down desperately into the familiar routine of early mar­riage, a large family, debt and heavy drinking on the West Indian cocktail circuit. Not the least of its total irony was that it was fiercely accepted, with all of its anti-democratic bias, by the Creole society itself, so that there grew up the amiable local tradition that to win the Island “Schol” was to achieve the best any colonial boy could do, even although the winner might, on occasion, be, like Sir Robert Scott in the Trinidad of the nineteen-twenties, an expatriate Scotsman who barely stayed long enough in the colony to win it or, like Sir Frank Newsam in the Barbados of the pre-1914 period, the son of a colonial civil servant who, having won it, left the colony never to return.

All this provided the backdrop for the “disturbances” of 1937-38. There were, of course, particular and local reasons behind the movement, reduction of wages in the Jamaican sugar estates, for instance, and punitive methods of worker regimentation such as the “red book” system in the Trinidad oilfields. But the underlying causes lay in the nature of the colonial economy itself; as the Mayne Commissioners (hardly fiery revolutionaries) themselves noted, the disturbances represented no longer a mere blind protest against a worsening of conditions, but a positive demand for the creation of new conditions that would render possible a better life; and, further, as the 1937 Commission that reported more particularly on the Trinidadian explosion noted, the demand had been made possible, in part, by the recent formation of a Trinidadian working class opinion increasingly affected by the Great War experiences of West Indian soldiers, industrial unrest in the United States and the spread of elementary education in !he colony.

The demand, thus, was the revolt of West Indian peasant and worker against a society in which, despite formal emancipation, they were still regarded merely as supplies of cheap labour to sugar kings and oil barons in search of quick fortunes. Slavery had been abolished; but the economic foundations of slavery, especially in the general picture of land ownership, had remained basically untouched. New social classes, it is true, had emerged to ameliorate the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, yet the social pattern of slavery – the vast masses labouring in poverty on the property of the minority – remained stamped on West Indian life. On the industrial side, the power of the local business class was strengthened by the virtual absence of effective trade unions, and the general inadequacy of industrial law. Up to 1938, indeed, the economy hardly knew the meaning of the phrase “industrial legislation”, and wage agreements, workmen’s compensation, health insurance, restriction of child labour, factory inspection, old age pensions and collective bargaining were matters practically unknown lo the colonial statute books. The Moyne Commissions only timidly hazarded the guess that powerful vested interests had stood in the way in these matters; but they were at least emphatic in their assertion that they had met no evidence that any active steps had been taken by West Indian governments to encourage the formation of trade unions either inside or outside the Civil Service.


On the agricultural side, however, there was no doubt at all of employer oppression, and even the special Blue Books of the period were outspoken on the issue. For some three centuries labour shortage had been seen by the West Indian planter as his most acute problem, and he had throughout fought fiercely against the extension of the independent peasant class as a threat lo his control of the labour supply. By 1938 the final battle in that social civil war between planter end peasant had yet to be fought Hence the special importance of the history of the peasant proprietary class, both as an idea and as a socioeconomic fact. From 1900 onwards, certainly with the championship of the idea by the 1897 Royal Commission, shocked by the social consequences of retaining the plantation system, local governments had begun actively to foment the creation of such a class. But the main motive, throughout, perhaps, was the fear of a labourers’ revolt; and little enough had been achieved by 1938. For such a policy required that West Indian governments (1) open up undeveloped Crown Lands on easy purchase terms and (2) undertake systematic land settlement by means, in part, of breaking up the large plantations. Bui planter-controlled governments were unlikely to do either; and in fact did not. In the case of Barbados, for example, the Olivier-Semple Report on the sugar industry observed (in 1930) that no attempt had been made in that island from the date of the last Royal Commission report (1897) by either the Government or the local Agricultural Society to organise any kind of popular associations for the encouragement and improvement of peasant and labourer’s garden agriculture, with the result, as the report added, that the Barbadian labouring population resided clinging on to the fringes of cane-fields and perched on the banks of the highway; a condition, incidentally, that remains almost unchanged up to the present time.

West Indian literature, of course, is full of the ideology of this particular dream; the dream, in the words of a frequently quoted passage from Sir Sydney Armitage-Smith’s financial report of 1931, of “a numerous, prosperous, happy and healthy peasant population, protected against plague, pestilence and famine, living in decent dwellings on holdings which, as the result of their own labour, wisely directed by Government, become their own property in their own lifetime; adscripti glebae not by any harsh constraining law, but by the operation of their own unfettered choice, cherishing the land which offers to them generous nourishment, and enriching the commonwealth by the fruit of their labours”.

But apart from the fact that West Indian colonial governments were at no time genuinely paternalistic regimes governing utopian commonwealths, there was the ultimate realistic consideration that the idyll of a pastoral society, of a serene past with its polite, contented peasantry, was the kind of feudalism the West Indies had never experienced; and looked even less like experiencing in the period after 1918. The main features of West Indian agriculture, indeed – shifting cultivation, low technical knowledge, indebtedness, reluctance to try new methods combined with over-sanguine adventurousness when a cash crop had a good year – all testified to the truth that the average West Indian peasant’s attitude to the land was that it was something to be used to scrape together a bare living until something better turned up. The ownership of land, in its turn, immensely fragmentalised, constituted, most of all, a sort of status symbol in the village social struggle, and a play like E. M. Roach’s Belle Fanto, set in Tobago, illustrates accurately all the rage and indignity of the West Indian peasant family’s squabbling over property. There was little room there, obviously, for agricultural reform dreams based upon the English attitude to gardening.

The strength of the Moyne Report, of course, was the remarkable candour of its examination of West Indian society. It is worth noting that the social liberalism of its members was far more capable of appreciating West Indian discontents than, by contrast, Lord Olivier’s Fabian Socialism in his volume of 1936, Jamaica: The Blessed Island, for the basic assumption of that volume was that Jamaican society on the whole was a well-integrated society in which smooth change could successfully take place, a view quite discredited by the events of 1937-38.

The weakness of the Report, on the other hand, was the general timidity of its recommendations. Since the underlying economic assumption of British colonial rule was that the colonies were best suited for producing agricultural products, it was perhaps inevitable that the Commission’s sole reference to the possibilities of West Indian industrial development should have been disparaging in tone; but the prejudice was noted by West Indian progressive commentators at the time. The social welfare recommendations, which gave birth, in 1940, to the Colonial Development and Welfare organisation situated in the area itself, were more positive and wide-ranging. But at least two things must be said of them in criticism.

First, they were so very much like the programme advocated by West Indian Labour parties and politicians for the previous twenty years that they came as no surprise; and the only change lay in the fact that, now coming from a high-powered Royal Commission, they stood a chance of being received by West Indian officialdom in terms other than the hostility and abuse with which Colonial Office and local government houses alike had met the similar schemes of West Indian political leaders and social workers.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, the bias in favour of social welfare conspired to prevent any bold attack upon the more basic problems of economic development, for the West Indian problem, then as now, was not so much one of obtaining more financial assistance from London as of making the West Indian economy self-supporting so that, with the termination of metropolitan grants, it could continue to finance the new public services of a West Indian welfare state out of its own resources.

The Report, it is true, at times seemed to be demanding a rebuilding of West Indian society, but in terms of concrete suggestions the demand too frequently subsided into limited specifics, buttressed by homiletic passages to the West Indian peoples lo become morally rehabilitated; and the successive biennial reports of the new C.D. and W. organisation after 1940 tended to carry the same note.

It is suggestive that Professor Simey’s influential volume of 1946, Welfare and Planning in the West Indies, profoundly sympathetic as it was to the social welfare movement in the region, nevertheless constituted a severe criticism of the welfare phobia of the Commission report and of the subsequent work of the C.D. and W. experiment.

The Commission wanted to repair the social fabric of colonial life; it failed to see that the social fabric itself needed replacement. It assumed that the basic need of the West Indies was the growth of a socially conscious middle class, hitherto conspicuous by its absence; it failed to appreciate that it was the class system, not merely class relationships, that needed attention; and that perhaps explains why it paid so little reference to the need for economic equality in West Indian life and so much attention to things like an organised campaign against “immorality” in sex relations.

Inevitably, then, the work of the C.D. and W. organisation exhibited the same limitations. All of its projects had a marked rural bias. They were piecemeal improvements of social services and agriculture rather than an attempted reorientation of economic life; as well as a multitude of minor schemes: agronomical demonstrations in Barbados, books for the Antigua grammar school, training of district nurses in Grenada, cotton variety trials in St. Vincent, a new jetty in Barbuda. The C.D. and W. leaders believed, theoretically, in West Indian “self-help”, but it was symptomatic of the colonialist assumptions of the organisation that the Comptroller and his very comprehensive staff were mostly all of them imported Englishmen, despite the fact that any number of West Indians were qualified to hold most of the posts with distinction.

The history of the organisation, therefore, was the history of its English administrators and specialist experts: Briarcliffe, Hammond, Wakefield, Ibberson, Benham and Beasley; on which the proper comment was, of course, Marryshow’s tart remark in 1945 that he would have confidence in C.D. and W. when he saw a West Indian on its executive staff. It was an outfit, altogether, with a marked consumption rather than production bias, so that its schemes had little, if anything, to do with the major task of net capital improvement. They were, rather, schemes on which the recurrent costs of upkeep would fall upon the shoulders of the West Indian taxpayer: public works programmes, construction of reservoirs, school buildings and medical centres, adult educational projects, the reconstruction of Castries after the great fire of 1948, land settlements, in the main abortive, for small settlers, and so on.

“There has been too ready an assumption in Great Britain”, observed Simey acidly, “that a pattern of social life has been achieved in the past which, given a few administrative reforms, is adequate for the needs of any people; that if troubles arise anywhere, all that is necessary is that the British way of life should be more fully understood and more closely followed”.

The Moyne report had talked, boldly, of constructive efforts to provide a satisfactory alternative to the original cultures now lost to the West Indian peoples. But, in practice, that grand concept declined into the game of administrative reorganisation so beloved of the colonial civil service mentality. “It is impossible to deal with the social problems of the West Indies”, concluded Simey, “without first inventing new tools to facilitate the task, or, in other words, without first promoting advances in the applied science of social engineering”. But such a recipe of cure was novel even in Britain in 1946. It was even more impossibly novel in the colonial dependencies.

This, altogether, was the condition of the West Indies as they stood on the eve of the Second World War, and of all the tremendous changes unleashed by that event. They were a decadent backwater, neglected by the British and overlooked by the Americans; for American liberal opinion had throughout been so much concentrated on India that it had paid little attention to the British colonial debris on its own Caribbean doorstep. British progressive opinion was occasionally jolted out of its traditional disinterest in colonial matters, as far as the West Indies were concerned, by the publication of notable books, W. M. MacMillan’s Warning from the West Indies, for example, of 1935, a cogently argued expose of West Indian social disorganisation and economic retardation, and an effective antidote to the Bloomsbury cult of the simple and healthy savage that infected so much of the thinking even of the British Left, and which was largely responsible for the cult of peasant ownership in the more liberal-minded of British officials in the Caribbean area, from Sir Henry Norman to Lord Olivier. But even that noteworthy book was limited by the fact that it was almost as much about Africa as about the West Indies and by its assumption that progress in the area would come, if at all, from reinvigorated official policy and not from the revolt of the West Indian masses.

Throughout all of the literature on the colonial society at this time, indeed, there was a startling contrast between the magnitude of the social evils it unveiled and the pedestrian ordinariness of the prescriptions of cure it advanced. That, once again, was the defect of the Moyne Commission analysis, for it seriously underestimated the importance of developing a trained West Indian leadership which would learn to manage its own affairs, a deficiency strikingly illustrated by the fact that although the Commission cited the need for special institutions – an educational institute, an agricultural school, a centre for training social workers, a school of hygiene – it made no mention at all of the tremendous contribution that a local university could have made to West Indian social and intellectual life; a contribution envisaged, much earlier, by the resident white minister James Phillippo in the case of Jamaica (1843) and the Keenan Report on education in the case of Trinidad (1869). The social legacy of colonialism – the deep-rooted social implications of colonial rule which have tended to be obscured by viewing colonialism as a political fact – would clearly have to be tackled by other forces and by other means.