Besson writes ‘timely’ book on race relations

The Cult of the Will

By Gerard Besson

Paria Publishing Co. Port-of-Spain, Trinidad

The Cult of the Will by Gerard Besson is a most welcome, timely and useful book at this juncture of our history, for it comes at a time when epochal and dramatic changes are taking place ushering in, it seems, yet another ‘narrative’ in the unfolding development of Trinidad and Tobago, as groups supersede one another as dominant forces in the evolution of the society and state.

The main concern of the book is to debunk a ‘narrative’ in which the European-descended, or those appearing that way – Trinidadians all – were made scapegoats for injustices of the past by the politics of the Williams ‘narrative’.

Besson writes, “The notion of inherited guilt is, however, fundamentally wrong, morally unjustified and distinctly unscientific. Collective guilt is a basic fallacy of Marxism, which denies the individual of importance, only seeing him or her as a member of a class.

It also seeks to condone racism, and to convey the notion that it is alright to alienate Indians and hate white people in general and French Creoles in particular.” (p234)

Besson’s book is accordingly an exploration of the progression and trajectory of race relations from the time of the conquest, through early colonisation and into independence.

It thus follows on earlier explorations in the French Caribbean by Kovats-Beaulieu, in her work Les Blancs Cr?oles de la Martinique, Souquet-Basiege in his work Le Pr?juge de Race aux Antilles Fran?aise, Brereton in the case of Trinidad in her book “Race Relations in Trinidad” as well as Maingot’s thesis on the French creoles.

Besson’s book, however, is the first by a local white in recent times to speak out and comment directly on the various ‘narratives’ on offer over the years. Clearly the time for assessment has come and his book must accordingly be read as a contribution to that assessment.

Apart from Fr de Verteuil and Mrs Franco, the persons who are perceived as whites have been conspicuously absent from the debates on race relations over the years.

It is possible that the treatment of Albert Gomes in and after 1956, or that of the McArthys at Sangre Grande during the incidents of 1970, induced them to retreat into near oblivion.

Yet as every student will understand, race relations are essentially about tribalism and there is a tendency for all tribes to make scapegoats of others.

This is essentially a defence mechanism by one group against the other. It is now commonplace to recognise that no race or tribe has a monopoly of virtue and that all groups will have their heroes and their villains. Nor is it fair to judge the actions of a particular century by standardising the values of the 20th or 21st. Life is universally regarded as morally sacred but different cultures have displayed differing treatment of life over the centuries.

The Cult of the Will, more importantly, shows how inheritance of property plays an important role in keeping families together, and also how the shortage of European women, particularly among the French, led to m?tissage and the rise of a mulatto class.

That class was to play an important role in the various challenges to the social and political order over the years. Besson has also enlightened us on the extent to which the early French settler class originated from Grenada and the extent to which the development of the cocoa industry depended on them. They too were some of the early pioneers in the economic development of Trinidad and Tobago. Indeed it is well to recall that it was French, British and Spanish capital along with Amerindian, African and Indian labour that developed Trinidad and Tobago.

Yet the French, like the African, Indian and other groups, encountered their share of discrimination. Then as now there was a pecking order.

The English discriminated against the French and both discriminated against the Indians and Africans. Africans discriminated against Indians who reciprocated in their own way.

The house slave discriminated against the field slave, free against unfree, large slave owners against petit blancs. Colonial society clearly had its subtleties and various gradations of discrimination.

As the Trinidadian sociologist Braithwaite reminded us in his pioneering work in Social Stratification in Trinidad and Tobago, it was this subtle discrimination, based on the values of colour and status, which held the society together.

Indeed some of the lasting legacies of colonial rule was the enthronement of colour and status.

White slave owners discriminated against black slave owners. Colour became an addiction that was impossible to eradicate. It ensnared all, even the advocates of Black Power who showed a preference for lighter skins. Some of the discrimination to which Besson points was inherent in the system of colonial rule, based as it was on superordination and subordination.

The Indians who came to Trinidad were already prepared for some of these distinctions by their experiences of caste in India. Besson, however, recognises that some of the more perceptive critics of the Williams “narrative” were themselves African-descended, like Laurence, Rohlehr and Goveia. That “narrative” could also be seen, not as a failure to inherit, but as the behaviour of the “marginal personality”.

Dickie-Clark has employed this concept drawn from psychology to illuminate the behaviour of a number of challengers to existing social and political orders. According to Dickie-Clark, the “marginal man” or “marginal personality”, is one who is never properly integrated within a culture or a society.

They are persons who face rejection by one group or another.

Thus Jews, half-castes, mulattoes and other minority groups are prone to radical behaviour, because psychic integration is impossible for them.

Thus, like “Mohamet’s coffin”, they remain suspended in mid-air, prone to move in one way or the other, or to take in at short notice. Williams clearly falls within this category as the various biographical studies so far make clear. Plural societies tend to produce such types.

Besson is rightly concerned with the legacy of the Williams era and its “narrative”. For Besson, it has bequeathed us the”gimme gimme” and dependency syndromes. It must be recalled, however, that slavery also produced a dependency syndrome.

The master was required to provide appropriate accommodation, meet medical expenses and provide provision grounds and holidays. Indentureship continued the tradition, so that the Williams’ contribution was just one factor.

The party system of government also has a role to play as well as ideologies from abroad. As parties compete for votes they tend to out-promise each other.

The Williams narrative and accompanying policies did have its positive as well as negative side, and Besson does acknowledge some of them with regard to the private sector. As for scapegoats, this was the favourite pastime of most colonial politicians.

In Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere the politicians begged for power from their colonial masters. Nkrumah urged his followers “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all other things will be added unto you”. To achieve power they could not put blame where it rightly lay.

So external and phantom enemies had to be constructed.

As Fanon clearly argued, during the early 60s the nationalists with their cries of redemption, statehood and racism merely wanted to step in the settlers’ shoes and relax in the verandahs of their bungalows.

Nor must we forget that Singapore and Hong Kong at one time were colonies of Britain, and that China was also one time a colony of Japan. Politicians in their thirst for power recognised that race was a powerful weapon because it appealed to a very basic ingredient of identity.

This is why in the whole of the Caribbean it is employed largely in Trinidad and Guyana for political traction.

Williams or his handlers used it where they did because it made political capital at the time. It is true that Williams was preoccupied with slavery and became a slave of slavery. Yet this is the curse of those who do serious PhDs on social and political topics.

They become colonised by their theses and spend the rest of their lives delving deeper and deeper on their chosen topic.

The idea of inheritance is nevertheless a useful construct by which to understand the changing nature of race relations in Trinidad and Tobago.

Besson has undoubtedly written a useful book.

It is to be hoped that it will encourage others who now remain in self-imposed exile to have their say and illuminate our history, which is after all about the history of all the groups and persons who have contributed to the development of Trinidad and Tobago.


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