By C. ben-David
The myriad of strategies for coping with or subverted the brutal system of bondage that sustained the slaves of the Caribbean from the early 16thto the mid-19thcentury, albeit at a very low level of living, now haunts the region like the angel of death. Whether the roots of contemporary Caribbean criminality lie in forms of behaviour like a flexible conjugal system based on a loose attachment between partners and indifferent fatherhood or a preoccupation with lying, cheating, and stealing, actions and beliefs that were life-enhancing two centuries ago are clearly dysfunctional today.
Though much of the foundation of our current law-breaking culture and associated social organization lie in the slavery era, this sub-structure, instructive as it may be, is neither uni-causal nor determinative.
This is not only because the particulars of slavery differed between the region’s territories or because too much time and too many generations have passed since abolition, or because millions of Caribbean people have been able to overcome the worst features of its legacy but because social, economic, political, and legal conditions are very different today. Moreover, certain crimes, particularly murder, have begun to increase only in the past 30 years.
Despite these qualifications, it is difficult to deny that many features of behaviour that are now defined and punished as criminal, criminal-like, or criminal-enhancing eerily resemble their historical antecedents.
The most obvious of these is theft, a crime so common as to be expected, even tolerated, or easily forgiven. As during slavery, its most frequent occurrence is at the family level with household residents routinely pilfering the personal items of other members or those owned collectively. The most typical item stolen is food, followed by private possessions, including money, causing many poor or working-class families to embrace the well-established practice of purchasing refrigerators with built-in locks. This is also why many poorer people still shop on a daily basis and keep all cash secured on their person for fear that any food or money left unattended will be appropriated by other family members or visitors to the home.
There is hardly an adult in our still untamed “Caribbean civilization” who has not been a victim of theft of some sort, even including laundry stolen from clothes lines left unattended overnight, an assertion that does not apply to several societies in West Africa, the ancestral homeland of most slave descendants. That official figures do not easily show this is only because Caribbean petty theft is so part of our way of life that its occurrence is almost never reported to the authorities.
As in the days of slavery, when accused of thievery, either at the household or other level, obfuscation, denial, or casting blame on others is nearly always the response.
The slavery literature clearly shows that lying and deceit were necessary survival strategies, motives that no longer apply to the upper middle-income ex-slave societies of the region, including St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), where chronic hunger and acute poverty have all but disappeared.
So why has such behaviour survived in nearly its exact form and content despite its current destructive features?
One reason is that theft has become so embedded in our hodge-podge “Caribbean civilization,” that it is considered a natural and normal, albeit unhealthy and maladaptive, part of everyday life, testimony to the fact that it may be far easier to obliterate the economicsof poverty than the culture of poverty. This is partly because stealing, even plundering, was not considered a crime among slaves, at least if it was directed against their owners, as the two previous opinion pieces have shown. The same can be said for other forms of slave inter-personal behaviour, actions which were only formally criminalized in the post-slavery era, some only in the last couple of decades.
Activities and beliefs that aid and abet crime are easily seen in Caribbean daily life. Incompetent and indifferent parenting is a well-known recipe for criminal behaviour as will be documented in a following piece; a chronic predilection for lying and other forms of deceit — including slander among all sectors of society, from high to low — may lead to their use in hiding violent criminal behaviour; mercilessly beating young children would only make them bitter and hostile, prerequisites for certain types of unlawful activity, while potentially causing enough injury to cross the threshold to criminal assault; learning to pilfer small quantities of food and money at home amounts to training for how to do so on a much large scale in the outside world; gladly accepting food, money, and other items from relatives and friends or purchased the same for below market price from acquaintances or strangers while turning a blind eye to their questionable source only encourages more stealing and burglary.
Contemporary physical assault also seems to be rooted in slave society. The physical abuse of women by their partners and young children by their mothers are good examples of this but with two notable differences.
First, such behaviour during slavery was a near automatic response to the brutality and indignity of human bondage. Men literally lashed out at their women while mothers did so at their children as a release for the internalized rage and frustration their oppression produced. They sometime lashed out at their masters in the same way but with different consequences, namely severe corporal punishment, even execution.
Second, there is far less psychological motive for lashing out today, reinforced by increased legal recognition and punishment of such abuse in recent years, yet the practice continues unabated, especially among the poorer classes, who continue to mercilessly beat their children for minor infractions, and spousal abuse among all classes for female infidelity and other acts of “disobedience.”
Slave-society antecedents of other forms of everyday behaviour that were not criminal either then or now strengthen the argument of the slave society origin of many crimes. As noted in the previous piece, Mrs. Carmichael opined that “Employment is their abhorrence – idleness their delight … to overwork a negro [slave]is impossible” (1834, p. 96), ignorant of the fact that a hard-working slave would face an early death, something the slaves themselves surely recognized. Yet this same aversion to work is still widespread today despite the end of forced labour for adults and children and despite labour laws and other legislation ensuring the fair treatment of workers.
This is not to deny that millions of our Caribbean people are industrious and diligent workers whatever their vocation, income, or education level. But this qualification does not contradict the observation that there are far too many people who shun hard work, feign working when they are idle, and take sick leave when they are healthy, features well documented especially as they apply to the public service. In short, compared to other parts of the world, Caribbean people have a relatively poor worth ethic, a cultural trait that is central to our low level of economic and other productivity, as pointed out by knowledgeable authorities like Lloyd Small, Head of the SVG Wages Council, and SVG’s Prime Minster, Dr. Ralph E. Gonsalves.
The study of slave society suggests that this poor work ethic, a trait widely shared among New World Black people, as critical as it was for the survival of our ancestors, must have been unconsciously passed on from generation to generation despite its contemporary negative consequences.
None of these observations should be taken to suggest that they apply exclusively or even mainly to the most socially and economically disadvantaged members of our Caribbean societies, as Dr. Godwin Friday, leader of the main opposition New Democratic Party has repeatedly impliedat least as far as the relation between crime, on the one hand, and unemployment and poverty, on the other, are concerned, unfairly stigmatizing our disadvantaged people in the process.
On the contrary, many forms of criminal behaviour are all too common among the most privileged members of our societies, as the next opinion piece in this series shows.
This is the eighth in a series of opinions on crime and the economy in SVG. Find the rest here.
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