Trinidad and Tobago - the Road to Independence

Trinidad and Tobago - the Road to Independence

Self-government was gradually increased between 1946 and 1961. The elections of those years served as dress rehearsals for independence. From 1946 to 1955, East Indians were the best organized group in Trinidad and Tobago. Comprising only 35 percent of the population in 1946, East Indians united under the leadership of Bhadese S. Maraj and won almost half of the elected seats in the Legislative Council that year. They used their votes to finally secure the legal right to marry and bury their dead according to Hindu and Muslim rites. Since their arrival in Trinidad more than a century earlier, many East Indians had been classified as illegitimate because no unregistered marriage was considered legal for inheritance purposes (see Population, this ch.).

Political parties remained fragmented in the 1950 elections, often united, as one historian has put it, by nothing more than a "common passion for the spoils of office." One hundred forty-one candidates contested the eighteen elected seats; the single largest bloc of seats on the Legislative Council, eight out of twenty-six, was captured by an alliance between the "Butler party" and East Indian leaders. The British and the non-East Indians disliked the idea of having Butler and his supporters come to power. After the 1950 elections, none of Butler's party was chosen to sit on the Executive Council, the result being that Gomes practically ran the government. Within the restrictions of his semiautonomous government, Gomes tried to function as a mediator between capital and labor and to placate both Britain and Trinidad and Tobago. He had limited success, however, and constitutional reform was postponed until 1955, with elections scheduled for the following year.

The election of 1956 was a watershed in the political history of Trinidad and Tobago because it determined the course of the country for the next thirty years. Gomes was defeated, and a new party, the PNM, captured power and held it until 1986. PNM founder and leader Eric Williams dominated the political scene from 1956 until his death in 1981.

Williams was a native Trinidadian who had spent almost twenty years abroad in Britain and the United States. Although his family was poor, Williams had received a very good education by winning scholarships and had earned a First Class Oxford degree. Williams's academic prowess set the standard for all Trinidadian and Tobagonian political leaders through the late 1980s. While at Oxford, Williams was subjected to a number of racial slights, and he also suffered racial discrimination when he worked for the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission in Washington from 1948 to 1955, an organization created in 1942 to coordinate nonmilitary aspects of Caribbean policy. This discrimination profoundly and permanently affected Williams's outlook on life and his politics. He was a man who knew himself to be the intellectual equal of educated people in Oxford, London, and Washington, and he felt that he had not been accepted as such. Returning to Trinidad in 1948 as deputy chairman of the Caribbean Research Council of the Caribbean Commission, Williams involved himself in cultural, educational, and semipolitical activities and became well known. In 1956 he decided to enter politics and to forge a political party, the PNM. The PNM was created by middle-class professionals who were mainly but not exclusively black. Its main support came from the black community, although Williams was also able to attract some whites and East Indians. Williams gained a public constituency and a loyal party following by giving lectures in Woodford Square, the main square in Port-of-Spain. His lectures on Caribbean history were attended by thousands, and Williams dubbed his interaction with the crowd the "University of Woodford Square." There, Williams forged a bond with the people that remained even after his death twenty-five years later. Trinidadians and Tobagonians were proud to have an international scholar in their midst. Williams gave them a sense of national pride and confidence that no other leader was able to match. His charisma and leadership made it possible for the new party to be independent from existing political organizations and from trade unions. PNM leaders envisioned a broad national party that would include both capitalists and laborers; as such, the PNM rejected socialism and welcomed foreign capital investment.

In 1956 the PNM captured a slim majority of the elected seats on the Legislative Council, receiving 39.8 percent of the vote. Butler's party and the TLP split the other elected seats. The British governor, who controlled five appointed seats and two ex officio seats, filled all of these with men acceptable to the PNM, thus giving the party a majority of two-thirds of the seats on the Legislative Council. Because the British were hoping to form a Caribbean federation or, as a second choice, to launch viable independent countries, it was in their interest to support Williams, a charismatic black leader who had founded a strong political party, who had international education and experience, and who believed in private domestic and foreign investment. Between 1956 and 1962, Williams consolidated his political base and resolved two very important issues: federation and the presence of United States bases on Trinidad.

The British created the West Indies Federation in 1958 (see The West Indies Federation, 1958-62, ch. 1). During the next four years, ten island nations, including Trinidad and Tobago, struggled without success to make the federation into a government. The two largest nations, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, had opposing viewpoints; the former advocated a strong federal government, whereas the latter preferred a weak one. Trinidad and Tobago, with its higher revenues, preferred representation according to financial contribution, but Jamaica, with its larger population, wanted representation on the basis of population. After Jamaica decided in September 1961 not to remain in the federation, Trinidad and Tobago also decided to withdraw, not wishing to be tied to eight small, poor islands for which it would be financially responsible.

Despite British assistance and Williams's compelling personality, the PNM did not come to rule Trinidad and Tobago without a struggle. A number of groups united to oppose the PNM in the federal elections of 1958 under the banner of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP). Once again the campaign became racially polarized as the DLP attracted the East Indians and others who were left out of the PNM. East Indians felt that their cultural identity might be lost if they did not stick together. They deplored marriages between East Indians and blacks because they considered blacks to have an inferior culture; East Indians were less hostile to marriage with whites. Blacks also looked with disfavor on intermarriage with East Indians. In addition, the East Indian middle class, which had developed since the 1930s, seemed a threat to the black professionals who were just coming to power. The PNM increased its share of the vote in the 1958 election from 39.8 percent in 1956 to 48 percent; under the winner-take-all rule, however, the DLP won 6 out of the 10 contested seats, as most of its victories came in regions where the East Indians had an absolute majority.

The PNM profited from the British policy of granting increasing self-government to Trinidad and Tobago. Cabinet government was introduced in 1959; the governor no longer presided over the Executive Council, the Executive Council and chief minister were renamed cabinet and premier (the preindependence title for prime minister), and the premier had the right to appoint and dismiss ministers. Mindful of their slim majority in the 1958 election, leaders of the PNM determined to take whatever steps were necessary to win the 1961 elections and be the party to lead Trinidad and Tobago into independence. The PNM decided to use the issue of the withdrawal of the United States from the Chaguaramas naval base to unify the country and solidify their political base. In party rallies in 1959 and 1960, Williams pledged that the flag of Trinidad and Tobago would soon fly over Chaguaramas and also declared independence from Britain and from the 1941 Lend-Lease Agreement. Declaring that Trinidad and Tobago would not exchange British colonialism for the United States variety, Williams rallied the country to oust the United States from Chaguaramas and to support the PNM.

When British prime minister Harold Macmillan came to Port-of- Spain in June 1960, he told the government that he would open negotiations between the United States and Trinidad and Tobago over Chaguaramas and that Trinidad and Tobago would be an independent participant. Once Williams had won the right for Trinidad and Tobago to sit as an equal with the United States and Britain, he cooled his anti-imperialist rhetoric. The December 1960 settlement gave the United States base rights until 1977 and granted Trinidad and Tobago US$30 million in United States Agency for International Development assistance money for road construction and education. The United States closed the naval base at Chaguaramas in 1967 (see Historical Background, ch. 7).

The December 1961 election, which took place after Trinidad and Tobago had received full internal self-government within the West Indies Federation, was characterized by the use of racial appeals by both parties. The main constitutional issue was the drawing of electoral boundaries. Pro-PNM supporters broke up DLP meetings with stone throwing; the government declared a state of emergency in areas where East Indians were a majority and called out 3,000 police. The PNM used its government leadership to good advantage. Responding to labor unrest, Williams gave all government workers a raise during the summer of 1961. He also moved politically to the right, purging some left-wing supporters who had been prominent in the Chaguaramas fight. The PNM profited from the fact that the DLP was not a unified party. Its leader, Maraj, had been ill, and younger East Indians felt that his lack of education was a liability when contrasted with Williams. During the DLP political infighting, the new generation of East Indian professionals chose R.N. Capildeo, a high-caste Hindu, to head the DLP. Although Capildeo was highly educated, a Ph.D. and a fully qualified barrister, he lacked Williams's ability to appeal to the masses. Eighty-eight percent of the voters turned out for the December 1961 election; in a vote that largely followed ethnic lines, Williams and the PNM won with 57 percent. Reflecting the ethnic split, Williams filled the twelve cabinet slots with eight blacks, two whites, and two East Indians--one Christian and one Muslim. Appointees for the newly created Senate followed similar lines. As Trinidad and Tobago faced independence, the black middle class was firmly in power.

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