The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not represent the opinions or editorial position of I-Witness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected]
In a recent article, which appeared in The Vincentian newspaper, entitled “Debating European Genocide and Slavery” and, in celebration of the resolution that was debated in the National Assembly, Mr. Jomo Thomas stated: (See more at http://thevincentian.com/debating-european-genocide-and-slavery-p5665-110.htm)
On this historic day, I had the signalled honour of paying homage to our ancestors against whom the European Colonialists committed genocide, captured and transported from Africa into what became known as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, enslaved and made into property.
It is very frustrating to accept that an educated individual such as Mr. Thomas, who is a practicing lawyer and a member of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines National Assembly, would allow a sentence such as the one being criticised here to be published under his name. The sentence exists in two parts, separated one from the other by a comma between the words ‘genocide’ and ‘captured’. The first part deals specifically with the Garifuna. Historically and textually, the second part is unrelated to the first in that it obviously deals with the slaves that were brought to St. Vincent and the Grenadines before and after the Second Carib War. Logic and respect for his readers dictate that these two subjects should not be presented in one very truncated sentence.
To begin, I have difficulty with Mr. Thomas’s use of the term ‘our ancestors’ in the above sentence. My Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language defines the term as “a person who was in someone’s family in past times: one of the people from whom a person is descended.” The dictionary also suggests that evidence of direct descent is necessary in order to prove one’s ancestry. Without such proof one cannot claim to be (or accuse anyone of being) a descendant of another person. If one is allowed to abuse such a freedom, we would run into ridiculous situations where the likes of Mr. Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minster of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, is being publicly hounded locally and on the international fora (based solely on his coincidental surname) and smeared with the accusation of being a ‘direct’ descendant of the early fifteenth century slave trader, Antonio Gonsalves. As an historian, I am cognizant of the probability that such may be the case but, until incontrovertible proof is presented to substantiate that claim, I advise caution. Similarly, until Mr. Thomas can present proof that he is biologically linked to the Garifuna, he has no right to claim them as part of his ancestry. I will admit that there is a probability that Garifuna blood is part of his DNA and that it may be a part of the DNA of, more than likely, a considerable percentage of the Vincentian population but, his not presented and unproven, direct ancestry, does not apply to ALL Vincentians. Therefore, he cannot categorically claim that the Garifuna is part of ALL our ancestry in the way that he presented. For similar and related reasons, Mr. Thomas cannot claim that “all (approximately 600,000) Garifuna people in exile recognize St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Yurumein) as their ancestral homeland.”
Nevertheless, empowered by this type of ‘folk history’, Mr. Thomas moves on to accuse “the European Colonialists” of committing “genocide” with regard to the Garifuna people and black slaves. There are several problems with regard to procedure as presented by Mr. Thomas.
1. The Committee on Reparations, headed by Mr. Thomas, was supposed to be presenting for debate (not only in the National Assembly) the factual details in support of a legal reparations claim by the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It was anticipated generally that that claim would be anchored in the historical facts pertaining to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Instead, Mr. Thomas confronts us with what amounts to a capsulated version of a holistic approach to Caribbean history, best exemplified in the work of Dr. Hilary Beckles. The latter’s Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide is, in my opinion, an extremely polemic work and, as a result, can be conveniently used for political purposes; it certainly seems to be assuming almost ‘biblical’ proportions in the minds of those individuals who are clamouring for a massive amount of mulct from the governments of Britain, France, and Holland. Although it is well written and is based on effective research, it consists mostly of synthesized details pertaining to the history, not of St. Vincent and the Grenadines but, more appropriately, to that of the older sugar plantation colonies – Barbados, Antigua, St. Kitts, and Jamaica primarily. Such a broad approach should not play a primary role in the legal case which St. Vincent and the Grenadines should have been preparing.
2. The colonial history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is radically different from that of those four older sugar and rum colonies. By subjugating our past experience (history) to that of Barbados or any other Caribbean country, by being incapable (so it seems) of presenting our pieces of our own ‘story,’ as Vincentians, we are, in effect, acknowledging that we have now become (mentally) a colony of a specie of new-fangled colonialists whose deliberations are chaired by “the Prime Minister of Barbados, the right Honourable Freundel Stuart.” In other words, colonialism is not something that was or is practiced by Europeans only; we have our own home-grown versions of it in the Caribbean but, perhaps because we have not yet completely shed the older colonial way of thinking from under our mental ‘skin’, we do not recognize it in another guise and we fall, just as easily, into the grasp of the new-fangled monster. I recognize that it is possible to advance an argument in favour of regional solidarity but, that does not preclude the necessity of St. Vincent and the Grenadines presenting its own unique circumstances. St. Vincent’s colonial mind set is more suggestively symbolized by the fact that, as far as I can tell, none of the individuals appointed to the St. Vincent and the Grenadines reparations committee has a background in an historical discipline. One historian who is present in St. Vincent and who could have played a more educative, pertinent, and constructive role, Dr. Adrian Fraser, for some unknown reason, was not included in the ‘illustrious roster’ which was ‘signalled’ to research and, supposedly, prepare for a disseminated debate on the issue.
3. In addition, there is the matter of linking the terms ‘colonialists’ with ‘genocide’. My dictionary defines the word genocide as “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.” By colonialists, Mr. Thomas is obviously not referring to the French inhabitants who were struggling (along with one or two black slaves per household), on the Leeward side of St. Vincent and on a few of the Grenadine islands, to make a living in their small (non-sugarcane) plantations; they were doing their work with the full approval and assistance of the Garifuna. He is not likely referring (heaven forbid) to the native Garifuna leaders, Joseph Chatoyer and Duvallé, who ironically, both contributed to aspects of colonialism by being plantation and slave owners themselves, who returned runaway slaves to the British (not French) plantation owners, and who considered the Garifuna to be at a higher level in the evolving hierarchical social structure than the hardworking slaves. He also cannot be referring to the French armed forces whose only contribution was to fight occasional battles beside the Garifuna. He seems to be referring to the British ‘colonists’ who were, at that time, living through a nasty process of sorting out their ownership portions of their large plantations from the land which the distant, British, colonial power had purloined. These latter ‘colonists’, apart from providing necessary material and limited armed assistance to a dilapidated British armed forces, did certainly play a part in the Second Carib War but, they did not ‘deliberately’ and ‘systematically’ ‘exterminate’ the Garifuna. Why then, does Mr. Thomas not come to the point and say that he is specifically referring to the British armed forces and the local militia of the time?
If we accept that the really colonial power was in the hands of the British governor, James Seton, and his almost useless armed forces at the beginning of the conflict, we must also accept that, until the later arrival of British reinforcements, the Garifuna and their French allied forces, who were preparing their campaign for many months, had a strong military advantage. Simply put, and acknowledging the role of imperial French and British manoeuvrings between 1795 and 1797, the British and the French (assisted by the Garifuna on this occasion) fought another of their interminable wars and the Garifuna/French lost that particular war. After having read several different accounts of the battles, I am still not certain if any of those accounts inform us of what actually happened with regard to the death of the largely historically and socially misrepresented Joseph Chatoyer. Unlike Mr. Thomas, I am fairly certain, given the connotation of the words, that the first National Hero of St. Vincent and the Grenadines was likely ‘killed’ (in a probable duel) but not ‘assassinated’ by a British member of the armed forces. That the British governor chose, after the end of the battles, to remove the bulk of the Garifuna population to Baliceaux is, for me and for almost every Vincentian, an unpalatable fact but, the Garifuna were not ‘exiled’ (they could not have been exiled if they were exterminated) to that location and totally abandoned there; after all, the British did assemble the fleet of ships which transported them to Roatán. This much is clear to me: a war was fought, the victors (as they almost always do) committed a disgusting atrocity but, based on the above definition, there was no genocide by ‘colonialists’ living on St. Vincent and the Grenadines, (especially when we consider that the descendants of this exterminated people now exceed the entire population of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, including our entire, largely unknown and disjointed, diaspora).
4. I would like to know how Mr. Thomas arrived at his statement, later in the published document, that “before the advent of European colonialism, our indigenous population lived a very dignified and cultured existence with their own governance.” Given that we know very little about the actual life experiences of the indigenous population of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and that what we do know comes from the few culturally tainted observations left by a few early ‘colonialist’ Europeans (abetted by the surmises of anthropologists), I find this statement to be rather hyperbolic and somewhat resembling the twisted ‘noble savage’ theme so often presented by Europeans of earlier times in their descriptions of non-European peoples. Interestingly, when one combines all the other themes, related to the Garifuna, that follow this statement, Mr. Thomas accomplishes a sort of cultural reversal whereby all of the white Europeans are made to be ‘savage’ and the existing (solely) ‘black’ population is seen to be ‘noble’.
5. As he puts it, “the intrusion into our region by colonial powers, especially Britain, led to the conquest, subjugation and genocide of our people.” This statement is compounded by one that is even more rambunctious: “the conquest and genocide of our Garifuna ancestors were the precursor of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery in St. Vincent and the Grenadines which brought unspeakable pain and suffering to our people, not to mention the loss of our culture, history and religion.” On closer examination, it becomes clear that with these two historically convoluted statements, Mr. Thomas succeeds in combining the Black Caribs (Garifuna), who (falsely) he claims to be ‘our ancestors’ with the then existing and later arriving ‘black African slaves’ into one entity which he then refers to, not as ‘our ancestors’ but as ‘our people’. But historically, with the removal of an overwhelming majority of the Garifuna from St. Vincent, there is only one thing that binds these two people together – skin colour.
‘Our people’, in Mr. Thomas’s Vincentian world-view is entirely ‘black’; he leaves no room in his resolution for the inclusion of the Yellow Caribs (the Kalinago) and possibly some mixed-race Vincentian descendants. Neither does he include white plantation owners (French, British, other European, and American) or poor white settlers who were present in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in considerable numbers from about 1719 onward to our days. This is a totally unnecessary distortion of history. Unless there is a preamble to this resolution that includes those excluded members of the society in ‘our people’, I would have to conclude that there is an unacceptable amount of racialism in his resolution. That racialism, which is being fed by an uninformed folk history, is easily translated by the uninformed in Vincentian society into reverse racism (which now permeates Vincentian society and politics); that abominable way of thinking should not be given more breeding space by enshrining this resolution in the annals of the National Assembly of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Thus far, I have presented a critique of the first half of his truncated sentence and the falsehoods that inform it. His second subject, slaves and slavery, is much more involved, difficult and, in my opinion, more heroic than that dealing with the Garifuna. The reader will, I hope, bear with me while I prepare that critique of Mr. Thomas’s take on the much more demanding and exciting portion of the history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. In ending, I should like to apologize, in advance, for the anger and hurt which my unconventional, historical ‘truth’ may generate in the minds of many Vincentians. But!! I am (as Mr. Gonsalves himself proclaimed recently) a CARIBBEAN MAN, coincidentally (born DUTCH [Aruba], of a FRENCH mother [St. Martin], and a BRITISH [St. Vincent] father). My broad colonial ‘ancestry’ and my chosen discipline of studies, history, do not allow me the privilege of a myopic view of the Caribbean past. I cannot and will not discard or distort any part of my colonial background. By imbibing it all, questioning its parts, and rejecting its insularities, I remain free, no matter where I roam, to think my own thoughts and to look beyond the evil ‘veil’ that keeps so many people in the Caribbean trapped in an imprisoning past.
Anatol Leopold Scott
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].