By Dr. Rita Pemberton
The struggle against continued planter control and the quest for justice, to attain real emancipation and obtain a better life in Tobago has had a long painful trajectory since 1834. During the second half of the 19th century the freed Africans made use of a variety of strategies to improve their condition which included making use of whatever opportunities were available and using the very system which was intended to oppress them to wring advantages for themselves. Despite the fact that there were few outbursts, the freed Africans consistently expressed their dissatisfaction with the conditions of work and low wages which they were forced to accept. However, there were times when the journey was punctuated by instances of confrontation as occurred in 1876 and 1919 but there remained “an underbelly of resentment” which mushroomed and became increasingly volatile as the 20th century wore on. During the late 1960s a group of recent high school graduates and other concerned individuals employed a different strategy to bring about change on the island which gave expression to Tobago’s Black Power movement. This column is the first of a two part series on this movement in Tobago.
Dissatisfaction With Pace of Change
During the 1960s Tobago’s social and economic condition was in such a state of degradation that it had become intolerable to the population which was very dissatisfied with the slow pace of government’s response to the problems on the island. The five established secondary schools were inadequate for the population and the only other option was Guy’s Commercial School which trained secretaries. There were few employment opportunities on the island with the main ones being: as labourers on the estates, as domestic workers in the homes of the well to do, hotel workers (as cleaners or porters) and self-employment as gardeners on their own or rented plots of land. The public service was not then organized to provide employment for large numbers of qualified people and the opportunities for promotion within the service were restricted. Hence there were only a few positions at the lower levels of the public service to which Tobagonians could be employed and those seeking promotion had to migrate to Trinidad. Access to employment in the private sector was mainly based on colour. Hence, Black people, the majority of the island’s population, were unable to get jobs in the banks and insurance companies and Black businessmen, although they provided evidence that they satisfied the requirements could not access loans from Barclays Bank, the main one on the island. White privilege was extended to some beaches where White people had exclusive rights to some of the island’s best beaches. Gates were erected at Bacolet and Mt. Irvine beaches to keep Black people out and the golf course at Mt. Irvine Hotel was out of bounds for Black Tobagonians except for the underpaid caddy boys.
Exploitative and Oppressive
Hotel workers, who were required to work for between twelve to eighteen hours per day, earned very small wages, like their counterparts who worked on the estates. The situation was particularly exploitative and oppressive at the Blue Waters Inn in Speyside which was the only source of employment in the village. The estate was then owned by Trinidadian Francis Lau who maintained the oppressive practices of the previous owners in the 1930s and 40s, the Tuckers. Like his predecessors, Lau claimed exclusive rights to the land and sea which abutted the estate and excluded the locals and had a reputation as being extremely disrespectful to his workers. The problem was that the residents of Windward Tobago were harder hit by the escalating cost of living.
Concerns about the state of Tobago led to the formation of a number of groups made up of people who undertook a population empowering mission which was intended to bring about change on the island. Members of these groups included some very young secondary school graduates who emphasized youth empowerment. The groups held community meetings, the agenda for which included education and information on the importance of, and avenues for, self -improvement. The education dimension included disseminating information on the history of Africa, developments in the rest of the Caribbean and the writings of thinkers such as Lloyd Best, Norman Girvan, George Beckford and Walter Rodney et al whose works were published in the New World Quarterly. The main organizers of this activity, who also served as discussants, included Jeffrey MacFarlane, Kenneth Sebro, Delano James, Ronald Charles and Ethelbert Wilson. The programme, which generated much community interest and support and included youth meetings in Scarborough, Mason Hall, Moriah, Roxborough and Belle Garden, was fully operational in the late 1960s.
Community Education Programme
As the pace of Black Power movement heated up in Trinidad, it was felt that it would only be a matter of time when it would be brought to Tobago. It was agreed that a formal structure of the organization in Tobago should be established to provide a medium for the expression of Tobago’s views and to be able to control developments in Tobago. Members of the group were wary of the violence that had attended the events in Trinidad which they did not want imported into Tobago. The group involved individuals who reflected a variety of backgrounds and interest groups; socialist orientations, trade union connections or persons with links with other organizations such as the Black Panthers. Its organization was greatly assisted by the input of recently returned graduate of Sir George Williams University, Anthony McFarlane (aka JaJa). A loose central committee was formed in Tobago under the leadership of Bayliss Frederick, Anthony McFarlane and Duport Ewing. Other members included Tana Daniel, Telford Barrow, William Benjamin and Carlos Williams. In order to establish a wider level of involvement from the society, meetings were arranged with members of the conventional parties. During March 1970, the first of a planned series of public meetings with established political party groups, was held in Speyside, Mason Hall and Moriah over a weekend. The outcome was very disappointing and the committee decided to abandon that effort and continue with its planned community education programme. This was the state of affairs when the Trinidad Black Power delegation arrived in Tobago in March 1970.