Paul Sutton – Nationalism in the Caribbean: Symbol and Substance in the Long-View

This blog piece will provide a summary of the POCO Group meeting on 4 March 2014, when Paul Sutton delivered a stimulating lecture on ‘Nationalism in the Caribbean: Symbol and Substance in the Long-View’.

Paul Sutton

Paul Sutton

Described as a ‘legend of Caribbean Studies’ by Graham Campbell of the African Caribbean Network, Professor Paul Sutton has recently retired after a pre-eminent forty year academic career and the group were keen to hear his views. The lecture began with two excerpts that related to Jamaican and Scottish independence which Paul used to outline the interchangeability and similarities between both movements. According to this view, nationalism was a central feature of both. Paul quoted Benedict Anderson’s influential book Imagined Communities which suggested that nationalism brings people together in one country yet also divides them from each other [1].  Two concepts were deployed to outline parallels with nationalism in the Caribbean which was then compared with Scotland. ‘Symbol’ referred to rhetoric and vision that drove nationalism and promoted independence movements (examples included national mottos such as Jamaica’s
‘Out of many, one people’) whilst ‘substance’ described to the practical effects and consequences for post-colonial states.

Caribbean nationalism had several common characteristics (although individual islands retained very distinctive identities), including a shared history of indenture and chattel slavery. In the twentieth century, this fostered the desire to regain control from the colonial master, Great Britain. In order to reinforce this point, an influential speech of March 1961 by Dr Eric Williams – one of the founding fathers of the modern Caribbean – was quoted:

Massa Day Done everywhere. How can anyone in his senses expect Massa Day to survive in Trinidad and Tobago? For Massa Day Done in Trinidad and Tobago, too, since the advent of the PNM [People’s National Movement] in 1956. Let us assess the position in Trinidad today. [2]

Dr Eric Eustace Williams

Dr Eric Eustace Williams

Paul Sutton met Eric Williams in 1980 and compiled a list of his speeches the next year. Williams was the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago and retained this position up to his death in March 1981. Preceding his political career, he was an academic historian and author of Capitalism & Slavery, a wonderful text which continues to influence researchers today. In both politics and academic writing, Williams was critical of colonialism yet  he also sought to retain aspects of Government and administration. Whilst the ‘Massa’ stood for racial hierarchy and exploitation as well as the degradation of West India labour and expropriation of wealth, it was also recognised that the British implemented successful modes of governance – the Westminster model – that could be applied in independent Caribbean states.

However, Williams and others were described by more radical proponents of nationalism – such as the Black Power Revolution in T&T – as ‘Afro-Saxons’ as they did not fully reject the values of ‘Massa’. TrinidadSimilarly, there are parallels with the vision for Scottish independence as the sterling will be retained as well as the Queen as head of state. Nonetheless, national heroes in respective Caribbean states are mainly leaders of rebellions or working class leaders and several have airports named after them. Will there be an Alex Salmond Airport in Glasgow or Edinburgh post-September 2014? Will George Square in Glasgow be reclaimed? The issues for any newly independent state with regards to the assimilation or authenticity of shared heritage was discussed and the example of modern Trinidad illustrated any view of the national past varied amongst a ethnically diverse population.

In terms of the substance for post-colonial states, Paul argued that West Indian nationalism legitimated the movement for independence and led to the creation of a separate post-colonial state. This state was marked by a real difference to the colonial predecessor, especially in economics. Importantly, increased state power was assumed to be the key to economic and social progress. White PaperThis drew comparisons with the vision for post-Union Scotland and it was noted that much of the debate surrounding the referendum has centred on economics and the vision that Government intervention will lead to a more equitable society. In order to elucidate his views, Paul drew on the experience of Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana and outlined three periods when the state implemented change in the respective nations.

The period 1950-1970 saw gradual change and was marked by the transition from agriculture to industry, which was termed ‘industrialisation by invitation’. JamaicanIndependenceThe state was reformed to prioritise education, for example, which was deemed to be in the national interest. In terms of Foreign Policy, links with both the U.S. and Great Britain were maintained. Radical change marked the years 1970 to 1980, especially in Guyana where the state cut all ties with the British Monarchy and became a Republic. Paul argued that the radical nature of these years was based on the failure of the gradualism in the previous decades. Yes, there was a national flag and airline but did this initiate real change? The new international economic order arguably led to calls for Caribbean integration whilst there was political opposition on the international stage from America as well as internally from the middle classes. The 1980s saw the gradual adoption of neo-liberal capital economics as integration – not separation – with the global economy was viewed as the way forward, a process that accelerated in the 1990s. There was a return to privatisation and foreign management and Paul discussed the emigration of the educated elites (‘the brain drain’ or ‘human capital flight’), especially from Guyana. In recent times, there has been a desire to look back on the period before independence as the halcyon times, demonstrated by one opinion poll in 2011 which suggested 60 per cent of Jamaicans felt the nation would be better off under British rule. Is this a caveat for pro-independence Scots?

bolt_jamaica_630_gettyPaul Sutton finished by pointing out that there was national pride in respective countries and regional pride in sporting achievement but the vision that state power would unlock economic and social progress was now over. He contrasted this with British Overseas territory in the Caribbean:  Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat and Turks and Caicos Islands. All have significant political autonomy and also a higher per capita income than Great Britain. ‘Contingent Liability’ means the U.K. Government control finance. Thus, for Paul Sutton, they had the ‘best of both worlds’ and he concluded:  ‘Symbols of independence are attractive but the substance of independence is elusive. There are no guarantees – so be careful what you wish for!’.

This provocative and stimulating lecture promoted a lively discussion amongst attendees that mainly focused on the political and historical differences between Scotland the Caribbean. From a historical perspective, it was pointed out that Scotland was never officially colonised. Indeed, the political elites agreed to the Incorporating Union of 1707 and effectively voted the Scottish Parliament out of existence. Article IV of the Union allowed for free trade with the English colonies in the New World and access to colonial commodities that dominated the global economy – tobacco, sugar and eventually cotton. In fact, Eric Williams described the impact of slavery on Scotland in his seminal text Capitalism & Slavery. Thus, many Scots were also ‘Massa’ in the West Indies and the nation reaped the economic benefits of colonialism for over two centuries. The legacy of slavery on Scotland is still under debate but another commentator pointed out the nation has a well advanced economy and financial system and, according to one report, would be a ‘rich and diversified country’ after independence. By contrast, the recent CARICOM press release for reparations outline the case is being pursued on the basis that the colonies suffered through the slave trade and slavery. Reparations are sought for ‘six broad aspects of the Caribbean condition that are the direct  result of these crimes’, which are cultural deprivation, education, public health, cultural institutions, psychological trauma and scientific and technological  backwardness. In short, Scotland is in a far better economic position to cope with the transition to independence than any of the former colonies of the British West Indies. Ironically, it was the expropriation of labour and sugar coated wealth in the colonial period that fuelled Scotland’s rise to a leading industrial nation.

[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (Verso, 1991).

[2] Excerpt from Forged From the Love of Liberty: Selected Speeches of Dr. Eric Williams, compiled by Paul K. Sutton (Trinidad: Longman Caribbean, 1981).


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