Posts Tagged ‘Town Party’

After Slavery, the West Indies Had Black Politicians

June 19, 2020

Following the Black Lives Matter protests in Britain has come the debate about the teaching of Black history in schools. There was an item about this on BBC news earlier this week. Some schools already teach it, including the Black British experience but also the Black kingdoms in Africa, which is taught before going on to slavery. There were comments from Black students, who said that it had boosted their self-esteem. However, not all schools teach it and there have been calls from Black politicos to make it compulsory.

But Caribbean history may also provide useful role models and inspiration for Black Britons. What isn’t really appreciated is that shortly after the abolition of slavery in 1837, Black West Indians elected Black and biracial ‘coloured’ politicians to protect them from the planters’ attempts to force them back into servitude. Gad Heuvelmans mentions this development in The Caribbean: A Brief History, 2nd edition (London: Bloomsbury 2014). He writes

Strikes and riots were one form of response of the ex-slaves to emancipation; another was challenging the political domination of the planters. This took the form of electing black and brown representatives to the local Assemblies. Although not forming a single political bloc, black and brown Assemblymen generally supported government policies. Moreover, they could be significant: in Dominica, for example, coloured representatives formed a majority in the Assembly. Their presence prevented the passage of harsh legislation against the ex-slaves which characterized many other West Indian colonies.

In Jamaica, the coloured and black members of the Assembly united to form the Town Party, a faction which opposed the predominately planters’ Country Party. The coloureds favoured funds being spent on education, resisted expensive immigration schemes, and sought to counter planter attempts to restrict the franchise. Moreover, the coloureds also voted against measures to shift the burden of taxation almost entirely onto small settlers. Brown and black representatives did remain a minority in the Jamaican House of Assembly, but as tehir numbers increased, the planters became increasingly alarmed about the possibility of being outnumbered. (p.113).

I’ve known Black educators and historians get frustrated about the lack of awareness of this aspect of West Indian history. One of the experts, who also worked at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum was a Black historian from the West Indies. He used to give talks regularly to Bristol’s Black community was active in several Black improvement programmes. I remember him telling me how exasperated he got when he was talking to a young man, who blamed the problems of the Black community on slavery. He told the young man that that was no explanation as they had Black politicians immediately after slavery.

I think this is right. You can’t put all of the problems of the western Black communities down to slavery. Some of it is also due general racism, and the oppressive measures the planter elites imposed to try and force Black West Indians back onto the plantation under their control. But just as they had strongly resisted slavery, so the newly emancipated Black population turned to politics and got themselves and their representatives elected to resist attempts to disenfranchise them. No small achievement! I don’t want to be accused of telling Black people what they should or shouldn’t do to improve their condition, but perhaps it would give more Black Britons hope and inspiration if they knew more about this.

Another nation that might also provide useful role models might be Ghana. As the former Gold Coast, in the 1920s this had a remarkably enlightened governor for the time. It was the first British colony to appoint indigenous people as members of its governing council. I think its governor also wrote a book on racism in the 1940s, with the title of ‘Colour Prejudice’ or ‘Colour Issue’ or something like it. This included not only examples of White racism, but also Blacks against Whites. He quotes the 14th century Arab traveler ibn Battuta on the racism towards Whites of the people of the Black African kingdom of Mali.  This was something like ‘They would be great Muslims, if they didn’t treat Whites with such contempt’.

And regardless of skin colour, I wish there was more of the spirit of the Town Party today. We need more spent on education, just as we need more spent on welfare and the NHS. We need to stop the Tories shifting the tax burden onto the poor instead of the rich.

And the Tories are doing what they can to disenfranchise and force into servitude Britain’s working people, all while trying to preserve a facade of freedom.