SEMINAR REPORT: PAST HISTORY AND PRESENT PLANNING IN THE WEST INDIES

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SMALL SOCIETIES IN TRANSITION

This is the first of a series of papers which are the transcripts of talks given to a Seminar now current at Mona.

This paper is intended to deal with the limits imposed by the legacy of history upon present-day attempts at planned change; and I should like to begin by briefly defining what I understand the subject to be. As a historian whose interests centre around the study of social change, I am naturally disinclined to regard the limits imposed by the legacy of history as completely fixed and unchangeable. There is plenty of evidence that men have changed both their institutions and their values in the past and that these changes have profoundly affected their relationship to their environment, both physically and psychologically. I see no reason to believe that these human potentialities for change have ceased to exist in the West Indies of the present day. In my view, therefore, historical limits are merely tendencies, which may be more or less strong, and which exert an important influence on all attempts at planned change.

This influence will vary significantly according to the direction and pace of the processes of change. In economic change, for instance, it is possible to follow what one economist has called a “passive” path, which will develop the present economic structure without introducing fundamental changes within it, or else it is possible to attempt to move along an “active” course, involving a basic transformation of the existing economic system. In making a distinction between “economic development” and “the development of an economy”, one sociologist was essentially referring to the same basic alternatives in relation to planned change.

At the risk of seeming to introduce political overtones into the concepts of change, l shall refer to changes which lead to the preservation of any existing system of relationships as “conservative” changes, because their tendency is to perpetuate what is already established; and I shall speak of changes designed to transform existing systems at their basis as “radical” changes, since these changes imply fundamental alterations of existing relationships and, in some cases, their complete replacement.

Before going on to examine these alternative possibilities of change, however, I should like to state the two general points to which all the details of my analysis of the historical legacy of the present-day West Indies will be related. The first is that “conservative” change is a much less difficult form of change to achieve in any system because it is carried forward to success by the momentum of the existing system. The second point is less simple. I hope to demonstrate as briefly as I can that our inheritance from the past is more ambivalent at present than many people stop to consider. This means that what is “radical” change within one system of relationships may well be “conservative” change within another.

In the development of the West Indies, since the Europeans first began to build their empires in this region, there has been a heavy emphasis on trade and profit-making, not only as bases of the economic system, but also as a raison d’6tre of the whole European colonial society established here. These values or goals have given the productive system of the islands a place of central importance in the formation of West Indian society and culture. Where the productive system rested upon a numerous population of white small-holders, as it did, for instance, in the early seventeenth century in many of the islands, both the structure and the function of the resulting society were quite different from those of the slave society which subsequently emerged on the basis of a landless and dependent labour force of Negro slaves, greatly outnumbering the small remnant of white land-owners, managers, attorneys and other professional men who controlled the West Indian economy and society during the next century.

The experience of basing the productive system of the European colonies in the West Indies on Negro slave labour has, in fact, been crucial for the whole development of the West Indies. It not only confirmed tendencies towards economic individualism and materialism which had already appeared among the white colonists, it also entrenched an export economy, dependent on trade and profits, and eventually tied it to the metropolitan interests which provided tariffprotection and financial backing for the West Indian plantation system. This dependent economic system also encouraged the European planters and other whites, even when they were born in the islands, to regard the West Indies as a tropical estate to be exploited for its economic returns, and not as a physical and social environment in which to be permanently at home.

In spite of this estrangement from the West Indian environment, however, the colonists living in the West Indies could not escape from its influence. As a result, they gradually ceased to be Europeans and became instead West Indian whites, that is to say, members or a society and culture quite different from that of their European origins. This is not. to suggest that they did not preserve many European cultural and even social traits. But these surviving features were incorporated into a new context which transformed their significance. Being white and Christian, for instance, had basically quite different connotations in the West Indies and in the Europe of the eighteenth century, since in one case they were the distinguishing characteristics of a privileged minority, while, in the other, they were the common features of almost the whole population, regardless of status.

Because of the demographic, and particularly the racial, structure of the West Indian slave society, colour and culture had a highly significant relation to status in the economic and social organisation of these territories. In fact, by the end of the eighteenth century, almost the whole system of stratification in the West Indies was based on a hierarchy ranging between low status black and high status white, with middle status brown, yellow, and off-white in between. Race, or more exactly colour, correlated with a whole cluster of interlinked economic, social, cultural, and political features, all of which “placed” individuals or groups within the established society with a very large measure of accuracy.

The West Indian whites were very apt to speak of the field-slaves as “the Sinews of the Plantations”. But this did not prevent them from placing the black field labourers at the very lowest level of the status-hierarchy. Economically, the field-slaves were expected to live on the very margin of subsistence. Socially, they were despised by all other groups and their African-based Creole culture was regarded as symbolic of the distance of social inferiority dividing them from the dominant groups in the community. Politically, they were regarded as property rather than as persons and every effort was made by use of the sanctions of force, law and habit to ensure that they were kept subservient to the will of the master class of whites.

By custom, slaves of mixed blood were not placed among the group of ordinary field-slaves, except as a punishment. They were allowed to become domestics or artisans or to enter other slave occupations which were specially privileged and enjoyed not only higher status but also a better standard of living, better employment opportunities, and better opportunities for acquiring the manumissions which enabled them to transfer into the free coloured class, which came next in the hierarchy.

As might be expected, given this social and economic discrimination between black slaves and slaves of mixed blood, the free coloured class included a large proportion of persons of mixed blood; and this proportion was being constantly increased throughout the slave period by the practice of concubinage between the coloured women and white men, who were preferred as mates because of their higher social and economic status and their general dominant position in the community as members of the ruling class.

The free coloured were in every sense an intermediate class. They generally had less property than the whites, though they enjoyed a standard of living which was better than that of the majority of slaves. Their occupations were most often those of the more privileged’ slaves or else of the less privileged whites; and they occupied a marginal position not only in colour and economic opportunities, but also in culture and political and social status. They strove mightily for “Europeanisation” in race and’ culture, but they generally encountered determined opposition from the whites when they attempted to reduce the social distance separating their groups or to acquire symbols of political equality with the whites such as the right to serve on juries or the right to vote.

Consequently, political influence and political power were largely monopolised by the small group of whites who owned most of the property, including slaves, and controlled most of the economic activities, as well as the political and social life of the islands. For these colonists of the ruling class, their European race and cultural origins were the outward and visible marks of their established superiority over all other groups in the West Indian slave society.

The role of this ruling class in the relationships between the West Indian societies and the European metropolitan powers has been significant. Whereas it may be stated, in general and perhaps oversimplified terms, that the former has been heavily dependent for its ideas on the latter, it is more true to say that it is the white dominant groups in the West Indies who generally determined what ideas became central to debates about change in these territories. This is because they were for so long the effective ruling class of the West Indies; and it seems to me that what has encouraged the idea that we simply borrow ideas from the European metropolis is the fact that the effective ruling class, especially in the British islands, was, during the later nineteenth century, and for much of the present century, made up of officials in the metropolis and of official representatives of the metropolitan government working in the colonies. I suggest, however, that their ideas have been influential only in proportion to the degree of their actual authority over the local society and government, and it is their position as a local ruling class that has decided and for much of the present century, made up of officials in the metropolis and when. This has meant, for example, that European scientific traditions have failed to establish themselves firmly in the West Indies, as, for the most of our history, they have not fitted in with the ideas of our effective ruling classes.

In the course of the nineteenth century, new events created new dynamics in the situation and created new conflicts in the political, social and economic organisation. When the closely integrated slave society of the West Indies gradually broke down during the course of that century, the old ruling class was weakened by the Introduction into the legal and political system of the principle of equality without regard to race. The reluctant acceptance of this principle by the old white ruling class was not due only to metropolitan pressure. It was also due to a partial breakdown of their former control over the local society, because of the rise of political and social dissidence among the free people of colour and the population of slaves. It can be argued, in fact, that without this local weakening of the ruling class, a much more effective resistance might well have been opposed by the whites to the imposition of metropolitan precepts about the treatment ot the subordinate classes.

In fact, it was a development locally, as well as in the metropolis, of the idea that the Crown was the best and safest arbiter between the interests of the old ruling class and those of the new emancipated population which prepared the way for the general acceptance of Crown Colony government in most of the British West Indies during the later nineteenth century. The form of government had become so static and ineffective during the 1930’s that both the middle class and the lower classes experienced a renewed surge of political and social dissatisfaction directed against the existing ruling class. The Crown Colony government then faced the same alternatives between reform and revolution which had persuaded its planter predecessors of a century before to bow to Emancipation.