Tuesday, 01 November 2011 11:45


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By Awaaz Correspondent


The Caribbean is persistently regarded as among the most ethnically diverse of New World locations. Indeed, the region's history of European colonialism, African enslavement, Indian indentureship, and the more recent immigration of Syrians, Lebanese, and Chinese have resulted in complex contemporary demographics.

Relations between the descendants of Africans and Indians, in particular, have emerged in the postcolonial, post-independence period, as a primary social and political consideration. While these two groups have contributed significantly to the enriching and unique cultural foundation for what is now termed "Caribbean culture", there remain serious conflicts over what constitutes the "nation", with each group continuously vying for cultural recognition and political representation.

The following is a contribution from Dr Sheila Rampersad, Trinidadian researcher in Indian/African relations in the Caribbean. sheilarampersad@yahoo.com.

The Caribbean Experience

Sociologists, anthropologists and historians agree that colonialism laid the foundation of racial antagonism between Indians and Africans and that pre-colonial casteist prejudice among Indians also contributed to Indians' general unwillingness to mix with the African population. There is hitherto no evidence of similar pre-colonial African prejudice against Indians although Maureen Warner-Lewis's attention to the cultural arrogance among Yoruba Africans in relation to Caribbean Africans and Joan Dayan's reference to the discord between Caribbean Africans and Congo Africans do establish the possibility. These generalisations are useful in pointing to the experiences common to all English-speaking Caribbean countries where there are Indian populations - Jamaica, St Lucia, St Vincent, St Kitts, Grenada, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.

In his enduring 1962 work, A History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams observes that colonialism produced exactly the same defamation of character against Amerindians in 1512, Africans in 1790 and Indians in 1869. Amerindians were described as being "arrogant, thieves, liars, stupid asses, cowardly, dirty like pigs, and filthy in their eating habits". Africans were by nature "unjust, cruel, barbarous, anthropophagous, traitors, liars, thieves, drunkards, proud, lazy, unclean, unchaste, jealous to fury and cowardly". Indians were similarly described as "liars, filthy in their habits, lazy and addicted to pilfering".

These colonial representations of Indians and Africans took root in both communities and continue to order present-day constructions of Indian and African identities. European imperialism imparted certain ideas of physical beauty (such as straight nose, straight features generally, "good" hair) and culture which discriminated more strongly against Africans than Indians; this explains why a Commission appointed to investigate the treatment of Indians in colonial British Guiana reported that Indians despised Africans because they considered themselves superior in civilisation. No doubt Indian casteist contempt for Africans, whom they regarded as hopelessly polluted infidels, also contributed to feelings of superiority among Indians in relation to Africans.

Drawing further on colonial constructions of African identity, Indians in Trinidad thought that Africans were too interested in dancing, Carnival and expensive clothes while those in Guyana echoed the myth that Africans are incapable of handling finances and preferred to spend all their money on entertainment. The African family structure, which contrasted with the gender politics among Indians and which was constructed in the terms of colonial discourse as loose and disorganized, sourced the stereotype of Africans as immoral and promiscuous.

Africans in turn, also using the yardstick of European culture, regarded Indians as culturally inferior. The Indian's distinct cultural and religious habits were the source of many stereotypes during colonialism. Historians Donald Wood and Bridget Brereton note that some of the more sinister aspects of Hinduism such as suttee, infanticide and thuggee, made Englishmen associate Indians with violence and massacre and Africans echoed that view. The famous "coolie wife murders" during indentureship in Trinidad also became an essential part of the African view of Indians - the idea took root that Indians held their women in contempt and that "chopping" was their national way of resolving differences.

Brereton suggests that the indenture system, through its construction of "coolie" labourer, provided Africans, once at the bottom of the social scale, with an easily recognisable class to whom they could feel superior. Africans regarded Indians as slave coolies because they had accepted the contract labour shunned by Africans, and lived in situations little removed from slavery.

It is widely held that the infrastructure of the indentureship system provided little opportunity for Indians and Africans to reconsider the stereotypes they held about each other because they were segregated from each other for much of the indentureship period. Relations with the rest of the society outside the plantation were not a part of the original conception behind Indian immigration and that the system operated within a legal framework that minimised the possibilities of social contacts with groups outside the plantation.

While there is no reason to contest these views, it is also true that Indians and Africans would have encountered each other during work, if not during leisure, and the social adjustments that this encounter would have required have not been investigated.

The stereotypes each group held about the other were considerably aggravated by the political economy of colonial society. Indians were introduced to the Caribbean to replace African labour and as indentureship progressed, there was no doubt that the Indians did indeed cause unemployment and depress rural wages. In Guyana Indian/African tension was aggravated by severe competition for the limited arable lands on the coasts and the decision of the planter-dominated legislature to pay up to one-third of the total cost of Indian immigration from public revenues. The last incensed Africans who felt they were subsidising importation of labourers who were being deliberately brought to depress wages.

The Trinidad Dougla

Trinidad is the most heterogenous of the Anglophone Caribbean territories. And unlike the populations of Jamaica, St Lucia, Grenada, and St Vincent where Indians are a definite minority, Trinidad's population is approximately 40 per cent Indian-descended and 39.8 per cent African-descended. Further, unlike Guyana and Jamaica where there have been violent confrontations between the two groups, Trinidad has experienced skirmishes and periods of heightened tension but relations have never deteriorated into violence. Indeed, Trinidad's history boasts moments of intense Indian-African solidarity in both the pre-and post-independence periods.

It is in this Trinidad context that the provocative figure of the dougla, the mixed offspring of Indian and African parents, finds its most expansive and progressive expression. The dougla exists in Trinidad between two poles of cultural value. Within the logic of conservative racialist ideology, the dougla is repudiated as a racial/ethnic dilution and impurity; is abhorred as racially and culturally impure; is a mutant, mongrel species that will occasion the extinction of the pure race. In the logic of nation-building discourses, the dougla is the panacea for problems associated with a history of troubled relations between Indians and Africans; is regarded as a symbol of 'real' unity and, as such, the population is advised to "Be Wise: Douglarise." While dougla identity has, in many ways, remained moored to its biological origins, it has been additionally invested with significant metaphorical and cultural value. Dougla identity and aesthetics are encoded in Trinidad's literature, music, and art, encouraging its ethical potential.

Trinidad literature supplies the earliest elaborations of the progressive political potential of the dougla. In the writings of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s - a period of early West Indian nationalism - the dougla appears as constitutive of the enriching ethnic diversity of the Trinidad population. This period of anti-colonial intellectualism elaborated a cultural and political renaissance in which Indian/African solidarity was a prominent feature. This political focus enabled creative interrogations of dougla identity. In works by CLR James, Ralph De Boissiere, Alfred Mendes, C A Thomasos and Eric Roach, the dougla is variously acknowledged. Fetishised in some instances, abhorred in others, the dougla is also the basis of dialectic and circulates as a symbol of Indian-African relations. In many representations the dougla is furthered as an effective symbol of Indian-African solidarity and participates in a politics of progressive nationalism.

As Trinidad literature evolved, expressions of dougla identity also evolved. Newer representations have emerged in which the biological dougla person is absent and is replaced with a political view of inter-ethnic solidarity and harmony. One way in which this is executed is through thorough and generous writing about the other. The works of Samuel Selvon and the early Trinidad writings of V S Naipaul are among the Indian-authored texts that represent Africans with outstanding magnanimity. The works of Earl Lovelace occupy a special place in Trinidad literature partly because of Lovelace's philosophy of ethnic solidarity and Indian-African neighbourliness.


A further literary evolution is the emergent writings of Trinidad women, both Indian and African, who attend to the sexual politics of dougla identity and extrapolate from the dougla figure opportunities for feminist inter-ethnic liberation - a dougla feminism as it were.

It is in Trinidad music, by far the most consistent and popular of the artistic forms here, that the politics of the dougla is repeatedly interrogated and exampled. Dougla music is generally described as any musical product that fuses Indian and African rhythms, instruments, English and Hindi vocabularies, or the act of an Indian being involved in activities perceived as African and vice versa. Journalist Kim Johnson's definition of dougla music includes Indian musicians who have experimented with African forms such as the Mootoo Brothers who backed up calypsonians in the 1950s; Bobby Mohammed and Jit Samaroo who have been central to the development of steelband music; and Indian Prince who is a calypsonian. It also includes African musicians Johnson Blackwell and Roy Cooper who were involved in Indian classical singing.

A Trinidadian radio deejay, after playing Rhoma Spencer's 'Maladay' during the 1999 Carnival season, described the song as dougla music. 'Maladay' is a rapso chant about Muslim Hosay celebrations in St James, the venue of the largest Hosay celebrations in Trinidad, and its chorus refers to chutney and Orisha, Yoruba and jahaaji bhai as symbols of an African-Indian rhythmic connection.

In 1961 a calypsonian calling himself the Mighty Douglas won the prestigious National Calypso Monarch Competition with a song called "Split Me in Two" which articulated the anxieties of mixed Indian/African ancestry: There was no label applied to this type of expression. Now calypso and its derivatives - soca and chutney soca - routinely utilize Indian-African musical fusions which are just as routinely welcomed by Caribbean populations as part of the Trinidad cultural matrix.

Dougla identity remains hotly contested in Trinidad and is a recurring subject of provocative and divisive political discourse. But orthodox disavowals of the by conservative elements of the Indian and African populations are increasingly regarded as anachronistic and examples of the disconnection between those charged with governance and the majority who create and participate in cultural realities.

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