Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

Changes in the Social Base of Political Power

Although the riots of the 1930s brought swift political changes, the conditions that precipitated the explosion had been building slowly for more than half a century. The long period of direct and modified crown colony government after the Morant Bay disturbances produced two political patterns throughout the British Antilles. The first, to which allusion has already been made, was based on strong executive power in the hands of a governor. Whereas this undoubtedly made administration easier for governors, it had negative effects on the social basis of political power and political development. As Carl Campbell so eloquently put it, "[Crown colony government] sought constantly to increase the area of government and decrease the area of politics." Harris, was, of course, describing the situation in Trinidad in the middle of the nineteenth century, but his portrayal would have been apt for any British colony at the beginning of the twentieth. Colonial governors were not inhibited by the threat of legislative council vetoes of their decisions nor by the type of obstructionism that had characterized the assemblies before 1865. Colonial governors were responsible only to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London. By appointing to the legislature members whose views were compatible with the goals of empire, the governors reduced the range of experience and advice available to them. They were not interested in local opinion and local advice. If they had been, they would not have stifled public opinion by consistently discouraging political organizations and insisting that only individuals could express their views.

Not surprisingly, the dominant views of the local governments were those of the planter classes, especially the older, more established planter classes. Nevertheless, by the end of the nineteenth century, the planter class not only was divided but also was being challenged by the popular classes. This challenge created a series of recurring political crises among the governors, the legislatures, and the Colonial Office, leading to some modest reforms in the system in the early twentieth century.

After emancipation, dissolution of the old caste structure of the Caribbean slave society, which was based on the confusing divisions of race, occupation, and status, gave rise to a new, more complex class society. Class divisions within the declining castes generated new groups and produced new tensions. For example, the planter class, which had never been homogeneous either within territories or across the British colonies, became even more variegated.

In the nineteenth century a new petty bourgeois class emerged consisting of merchants, successful estate owners without the ancestry and traditions of the older landed class, members of the professions, and an expanding managerial sector. This class was far more heterogeneous than the class it was surreptitiously displacing in economic and political affairs. In Jamaica, a very large number of Jews were given the franchise and participated actively in politics. Remarkably, Jews obtained equality in Jamaica and sat in the House of Assembly long before they secured such privileges in Britain. In Barbados, a small number of free nonwhites and Jews moved up, but the resilience of the planter aristocracy inhibited the opening of opportunities found elsewhere. In Trinidad, the white elites included English, French, Scots, and Spanish, and the religious division along Catholic and Protestant lines was as great as along political and social lines. Although governors might prefer the older planter families, especially those of English ancestry, the new reality was inescapable, and gradually the appointments to high political office reflected the social arrival of these new men. They tended to be politically conservative, but theirs was a less rigid conservatism than had prevailed for centuries in the Caribbean.

Although the small, predominantly planter and merchant elites retained political control until the 1940s, increasing social and political democratization of the Caribbean societies occurred. This democratization derived from four sources: economic diversification, which opened up economic opportunities; the expanded educational system, which produced a new professional class; the dynamic expansion of organized religion; and the rise of labor unions. Although not of equal weight, all these forces contributed to the formation of the strong tradition of democratic government that has characterized the British Caribbean during the twentieth century.

Between 1880 and 1937, expanded economic opportunities helped create a new, broader-based middle class throughout the British Caribbean. Much of this middle class was non-European--formerly from the free nonwhite community of the days of slavery, reinforced by the more industrious East Indians and other new immigrant groups of the later nineteenth century. Thus, the black and colored middle class has as long antecedents in the Caribbean as the white class. This class expanded significantly during the post-slavery period.

The lower ranks of the civil service had always provided an opening for nonwhite talent because in a typical colony sufficient Europeans could not be found to fill all vacancies. In the larger islands local groups sufficed. In the other areas the lower civil servants were intercolonial immigrants. For example, the police force of Trinidad was composed mainly of immigrants from Barbados although the senior officers were always European. Bridget Brereton points out that in 1892 only 47 of 506 policemen in Trinidad were local (7.8 percent), compared with 292 from Barbados (57.7 percent) and 137 from the other islands (27 percent).

New exports, such as rice, bananas, limes, cacao, nutmeg, and arrowroot, provided the means for a few people to join the middle economic classes and for their offspring to rise even higher. Rice cultivation, although primarily a peasant activity in Trinidad, also helped propel a number of its black, East Indian, and Chinese producers into the ranks of the middle class. Wealth, of course, was not enough to endow middle-class status, but it often facilitated the upward social mobility of the sons of peasants, who with the requisite education could aspire to full status.

Education was the great social elevator of the British Caribbean masses. From the middle of the nineteenth century, public education, expanded rapidly. A primary education combined with some knowledge of languages was useful in commercial concerns because most of the British Caribbean states conducted much of their commerce with neighboring Spanish-speaking countries. A secondary education was helpful in getting into the lower ranks of the bureaucracy and essential for entering the professions. A system of scholarships enabled lower-class children with ability to move into secondary schools and into the professions. The number was never large, but the stream was constant, and the competition for scholarships was fierce. Studying for these scholarships was more than an individual effort--it was a family enterprise. Moreover, by the early decades of the twentieth century, this process of academic selection and rigorous preparation for the British examinations--uniform for both British and colonial students--was controlled by predominantly black schoolmasters, the foundation of the emerging "certificated masses."

As Guyanese political activist and historian Walter Rodney wrote, "The rise of the middle class can only be effectively chronicled and analyzed in relationship to the schools... The position of headmaster of a primary school must be viewed as constituting the cornerstone of the black and brown middle class." Eric Williams, a distinguished product of the system, wrote, "If there was a difference between the English public school and its Trinidadian imitation, it was this, that the Trinidad school provided a more thorough preparation for the university than the average English school, partly because the students stayed to the age of twenty rather than eighteen and took a higher examination, partly also because it was not even the cream of the crop, but the top individual from Trinidad who found himself competing with a large number of English students of varying ability." The fact that village primary school headmasters were also lay preachers and intellectual and quasi-legal arbiters of the community increased their importance both socially and politically.

The churches became important in molding the intellect and the political sophistication of the masses beginning in the nineteenth century. In the 1980s, churches continued to play an important role in the Caribbean. Even more interesting, the churches have managed to be both politically revolutionary and conservative, avant garde and reactionary, depending both on the issues involved and the denomination.

Whereas the mainstream churches--mainly Anglican and Roman Catholic--accompanied the expansion of imperialism with the expressed desire of converting "the heathens," their close identity with the established order was a severe handicap to their effective incorporation of the lower orders of society. They were especially ineffective with the Hindus and Muslims from India. As a result, what early religious conversion took place was most effectively accomplished by the so-called nonconformist groups--Baptists, Methodists, Moravians, Presbyterians, and Quakers. These essentially evangelical sects originated in the metropolitan countries with a mass, or working class, urban clientele in mind. Their strongest converts were among the poorer classes. In the Caribbean they were faced with a rather anomalous situation: the hostility or indifference of the planters and the established churches and no equivalent class structure. They had either to work among the slaves and free nonwhites or change their clientele. They chose the former course and so came into direct conflict with the local elites. Nonconformist missionaries, white and nonwhite, were some of the unsung heroes in the struggle for the disintegration of the Caribbean slave systems.

The nonconformist churches enjoyed phenomenal success among the nonwhites until the late nineteenth century, but they paid a price. Their practice and their preaching became syncretized with the rival Afro-Caribbean religions such as Kumina and Myal. When social practice blocked the upward mobility of nonwhite members within the hierarchy of the churches, they flocked to form their own congregations, much as occurred in the United States. Some of these congregations moved into a succession of charismatic religions beginning with the rise of Pocomania in the 1880s, Bedwardism in the early twentieth century, and Rastafarianism (see Glossary) in the 1930s. All of these religions espoused trances, public confessions, dreams, spirit possession, and exotic dancing. The churches provided experience in mass mobilization and grass-roots organization. More important, they provided the psychological support for the black masses and gave them comfort and a self- confidence rare among those of their color, class, and condition. Politicians such as Marcus Garvey successfully tapped this popular religious tradition for support.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress