DARA E HEALY
“The colonial nationalist movement in the Caribbean, in its struggle against colonialism, necessarily has had to pay the greatest attention to economic and social improvements to provide a better life for its citizens and raise their standard of living.”
– Dr Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro
I FELT a sense of calm descend on the nation in the immediate hours after our 60th anniversary celebrations. In my normally tumultuous neighbourhood, the brief silence opened a space for the sounds and rituals of the natural world. A gentle breeze fluttered the trees as the cockerels heralded the day. The clear blue sky was dotted with the occasional puff of cloud, a majestic backdrop to flocks of birds moving in primordial, co-ordinated symmetry. Even the dogs only barked occasionally, more a conversation rather than the typical warning of murder and death.
In the relative silence, it felt as though we were thinking. Perhaps pondering what nationhood means to us, wondering too, after celebrating 60 years of independence, what do we do next?
Merchant’s calypso filled some of the silence as it repeated in my head: “…come let us work hand in hand/Because this is our land/Come, my brother, come my sister/And let us build a nation together.”
In the song, the calypsonian offers a roadmap for how to achieve a more cohesive nation – hard work, respect for country, forgetting our differences and adhering to the guiding principles of discipline, tolerance and production. Still, as we have been discovering, the process of nation-building is extremely complex.
Scholars trace our journey to independence to the early 20th century. In TT during the post-emancipation and indentureship periods, Africans and Indians attempted to understand how they belonged in this space. Class, colour and financial position became intertwined into our interpretation of identity. As Williams explains, there was “a vociferous demand on the part of the middle classes for racial equality in the civil service, democratic institutions, widening of the franchise, constitution reform and federation of the islands.”
The conditions of labour were seen as key to self-determination. In the Caribbean, the labour laws did not provide for “peaceful picketing” or other protections for trade unions as did the laws in England. Collective bargaining was, predictably, not encouraged by local employers. As the aftermath of war affected global economies, there were increasing demands for colonial authorities to treat Caribbean people better.
As we will see in the coming weeks, Britain consistently resisted these calls. Its arrogance, along with a perception of inequitable distribution of resources, helped spark the labour rebellions of the 1930s. Uprisings occurred not only in TT, but in colonies such as St Kitts, St Lucia, Jamaica, Barbados and British Guiana (now Guyana).
The mood of the time was also antagonistic to the calypsonian. Censorship of the art form was such that songs had to be submitted to a committee for approval. Gordon Rohlehr notes that many of the calypsoes documenting this period came from calypsonian Atilla, who developed clever ways to avoid censorship and support the cause of the workers: “All I know is that the wages too low/And tribulation the workers have to undergo/And we know – we all know the times are bad/We want better conditions in Trinidad.”
In another calypso, Atilla praised Uriah “Buzz” Butler, leader of the labour revolts: “And authors in England and America/Wrote strongly about Uriah/Because he is fighting for his people wholeheartedly/So his name is recorded in history.”
Needless to say, this calypso was completely banned.
Artists were having an impact on the landscape in other ways. Quietly, in the hills and Orisha yards of Laventille and elsewhere, the steelpan was being created. From discarded materials in the midst of some of the most economically impoverished communities in our country, an instrument of great musical power was emerging.
As our nation began to reclaim a better sense of itself, dancers began researching and interpreting traditional African belief systems. Influences of East Indian art forms were there too, deep in the communities; from their ancient martial arts to the skilful crack of the whip, reminding that the scars of abuse still traumatise our nation today.
As we ponder the question of nation-building, there are a few more words of advice to add to Merchant’s vision. We must remember that freedom was fought for; it did not come “jus so.” Oppression was a deliberate tactic by colonial authorities and few among us were spared.
Thus, for a stronger TT, we must heal, forgive each other and then, build a nation together.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN