01 May 2011

Carib Identity, Racial Politics, & the Problem of Belonging

Carib Identity, Racial Politics, and the Problem of Belonging

by Maximilian C. Forte
Department of Sociology & Anthropology
Concordia University
April 2011

[For presentation at the conference, “Our Legacy: Indigenous-African Relations Across the Americas,” organized by the Race, Ethnicity and Indigeneity Program and the Centre for Feminist Research, York University, Toronto, Canada, 29 April-01 May 2011. The version that follows was intended for oral presentation.]

The resilience of Carib identity, in places such as Trinidad & Tobago, is something remarkable, not to mention the renewal, resurgence, and social revalidation of this identity. This resilience is remarkable not only when one considers a consistent pattern of European colonial military onslaughts, enslavement, expropriation of lands, and social marginalization, but also the cultural stigma historically attached to Caribness, such that even surviving Caribs, and persons with indigenous ancestry, often sought refuge in other identities, and some still do. Even if left at this the situation is clearly a historically complex one. What renders matters even more complex is the pattern of racial thinking imposed by European colonizers through all sorts of residential and labour segregations and legislation, that would control and delimit who was deemed to be indigenous. The introduction of foreign labour from Africa, the French Caribbean, and Asia, added to the administration of identities and the “rights” which the colonial administrations would allot to them, added to administrators' calculations of different racial valuations, with the aim of shoring up colonial dominance. Afterward, the rise of nationalism, independence, and the emergence of party politics organized along an ethnic divide between Trinidadians of East Indian and African descent, further cemented racial thinking. Then the recent, positive validation of Carib identity and history by leading elements of the wider society has taken place while leaving unresolved the question of where Caribs fit in within the large scheme of racialized divisions between the country’s two leading groups, East Indians and Africans. Thus “belonging” becomes a problematic issue, and here I will focus on the racialization of Caribness in order to highlight how Caribs “belong” to “the nation,” as well as the problem of who gets to be defined as Carib.

Race: A Non-Indigenous System of Categorization

In thinking about race and Caribness, I should probably start by talking about how racial thinking about Caribness emerged in the first place, since such thinking is not itself rooted in the indigenous cultures of the Caribbean. Ethnohistorians have already indicated the tendency of island Caribs to acquire European and African captives from Puerto Rico and other territories, and amalgamating them into their society, culturally adopting and assimilating them. By some accounts, the Caribs of early sixteenth-century Dominica were already to some extent a cosmopolitan mixture of peoples, yet all assembled under the label of Carib and all engaged in the lifeways associated with island aboriginals. From this early point, in other words, there is no evidence to suggest that race, and racial purity, were either indigenous concerns or part of a philosophy rooted in indigenous culture. This is not suggest that Caribs could or would not find various ways to exclude others; rather, it is that they did not exclude others on a basis that we could in any way identify as racial. In the case of Trinidad specifically (Tobago largely lies beyond the scope of my work, and remained a separate colony until the late 1800s), we see a similar pattern of intercultural and interethnic amalgamation, between long-time Spanish settlers and indigenous inhabitants, in an underdeveloped colony long neglected by Spain. While there is no doubt that the indigenous population acquired some of the cultural practices and beliefs of their Spanish cohabitants, what is most often remarked upon is the housing, dress, and material sustenance of the Spanish settlers, as barely distinguishable from that of the aboriginals. This Spanish-indigenous fusion became formed to the extent that even today, many of those who could be called Carib, and who in different situations identify themselves as Carib, go by the ethnic label of “Spanish” or “Payol” (from EspaƱol). By the end of the Spanish colonial regime at the end of the 1700s, with Britain's occupation of Trinidad, and the arrival of French Caribbean planters and their slaves, ideas of racial hierarchy, exclusion, and concerns with purity then came to the fore. 

The Colonial Administration of Race

Under British domination in the nineteenth century, and administering a territory remade into one that was predominantly an African slave colony, quickly followed by emancipation and the importation of indentured labourers primarily from India, we clearly see in government records, and in the writings of the local elites that produced the first historical and social commentaries on the island, a definite concern with assigning particular “kinds” of people—racial kinds—to particular commercial crops, in particular zones of the island, and under very different labour regimes. By this time, most of the surviving indigenous communities had been relocated and confined to missions run by the Catholic Church. Africans and then Indians were assigned to the production of sugar, while aboriginals were engaged in the cultivation of cocoa, coffee, and root crops (primarily for local consumption). For the first four decades of British rule, Africans were enslaved. Amerindians on the other hand were free labour. Both were confined populations: Africans confined on sugar estates, and Amerindians confined to missions. After the late 1830s, Africans moved off the plantations and formed the basis for an urban work force. East Indians who replaced Africans were also assigned to sugar estates in south and central Trinidad, and as indentured labourers their labour was coerced—until the end of their indenture contracts, when most opted to remain in Trinidad and acquired plots of land as part of their contract. Yet another group of free labourers came with a large influx of Venezuelan mestizo and Amerindians from the 1870s to the 1920s, who blended in with local Amerindians, and local mestizos (the so-called Spanish people of northwestern Trinidad)--and who by that time had been divested of their collectively-owned mission lands.

There were thus specific colonial conditions under which “Carib” was allowed to exist, for a time: to Caribness were attached rights to collective, inalienable land; nominally free labour; residential exclusivity; and, of course, the prospect of Christian redemption. Under colonial administration, these rights were relatively unique, and second only to those of the small white population. In this crucible, where the British ranked and scaled peoples according to their material rights and economic obligations, race became the favourite way to normalize and naturalize, and to ideologize identity.

Colonial Exclusions: Purity and Liberty, Land and Labour

Under the colonial regime, who got what was determined according to a finely graded scale of racial identity. Those who were white, and closest to being white, could expect property rights and ownership of their own labour, unlike African slaves, and unlike indentured East Indians. The “inferior peoples” were lower—as in subjugated and subordinated—in material terms, and kept that way for as long as practical, with the added injury of ideologizing their condition as one inherent to their natural biological properties. Keeping the races “pure,” thereby more effectively and efficiently administering who got what, was a paramount concern among the white ruling class. With white purity came white liberty. Obscurity (i.e. “mixture”) meant a decline into increasing “inferiority,” until a perverse new “purity” was designated: blackness and utter dispossession. No wonder then women, as gatekeepers to the next generations of offspring, became so critical to racial theorists and colonial legislators.

When it became desirable to dispossess the Amerindians of lands that were theirs, and were inalienable, the colonial project became one of defining them out of existence, so that their lands could be put up for sale. No purity meant no Amerindians which meant no Amerindian lands. Residence in the Mission of Santa Rosa in Arima was determined by race: mixed-race offspring were no longer bound to the mission and could not in the future lay any claim to the mission lands. It mattered not that they were raised by Amerindian mothers, and may have identified themselves as Amerindian, what mattered was their “racial mixture.”

From this point, writers began to produce various theories/myths of Amerindian extinction in Trinidad, that worked to bolster and justify the dominant order based on expropriating collective lands, further private property ownership, and realigning northwestern Trinidad with the increased demand in the world market for cocoa. As their land became more valued by private interests supported by the state, and with increased labour competition from new influxes of immigrant labour, smudging the Amerindian out of existence became opportune.

One of the dominant myths of extinction, wrapped in terms of the then dominant evolutionism, had to do with extinction via miscegenation, a purely racial argument. No “pure” Amerindian equals no Amerindian. One of my favourite quotes in this regard comes from an historiographic text published in 1858 with a lot of material about Trinidad’s aboriginal population (specifically: De Verteuil, L. A. A. 1858. Trinidad: Its Geography, Natural Resources, Administration, Present Condition, and Prospects. London: Ward & Lock, p. 172):
“At present there cannot be above 200 or 300 Indians in the colony, so that the aborigines may be said to be almost extinct….finally sunk under the ascendancy of a more intelligent race….but I also coincide in opinion with some judicious observers, who trace the approximate extinction of those tribes to the marked presence manifested by the Indian women towards the negroes and the whites, by whome they were kindly treated, whilst they were regarded by their husbands, of kindred race, more as slaves and beasts of burden, than as equals or companions. As a consequence of those connections, there exists at present, in the colony, a certain number of individuals of Indian descent, but of mixed blood.”
Mixed blood. Approximate extinction. The liberation of their women. The preference for men of other races. There it is, neat and simple, all in one mythological package.

The Rule of Race: National Independence and Party Politics

With Trinidad's achievement of self-rule in 1956, and eventual independence in 1962, the country witnessed the organization of political support along ethnic lines, with two parties traditionally vying for power, one dominated by urban African-descended Trinidadians, and the other by more rural, East Indian-descended Trinidadians, locked for decades now in a virtual Cold War.

Long in power, the African dominated People's National Movement (PNM) cultivated patron-client relationships to ensure electoral support, and one of its clients was the Santa Rosa Carib Community in Arima, which it pushed toward formal incorporation and official recognition beginning in the mid-1970s. Members of the Carib community not only live in close proximity with Afro-Trinidadians, with Arima long a bastion of support for the PNM, but have also intermarried with them. This does not mean to say that one can never hear stigmatizing statements against Africans from members of the community, but then that would be true in an Afro-Trinidadian community as well. Those that seem most alien to members of the Carib community, especially the older generation, are East Indians—one going as far as scornfully referring to East Indians as “that other nation,” a strong statement which I had not before encountered in my time in Trinidad. Nonetheless, members of the Carib community have also intermarried with persons of East Indian descent.

To some extent, at least for some members of the older generation of Caribs (those over 50 years of age), “racial mixture” is a problem when it comes to asserting an identity as Carib. Commonly, they are forced to answer what is virtually an accusation, that they are not “pure.” For some, they take on the problem and accept its terms, repeating what are now the official rules of the society—the propaganda about racial purity—even while their everyday customary practice runs counter to the rules. What remains unsettled is Carib as a cultural identity, not a racial one, and it is extremely difficult to convince a Trinidadian audience that culture is not something that is “in the blood” and can be seen on one's face.

What Makes a Carib?

For most members of the older generation, a Carib is someone with proven ancestry to the Amerindians of Arima. Kinship matters foremost. Caribs are those you know as Carib, have always known to be Carib, and who were referred to by others as Carib. This seems relatively simple and unproblematic, except that it covers over the routine exclusions of those who were “too dark” to be considered “real” Caribs. It is still not uncommon to hear members of the community refer to someone, casually and informally, as a “true” or “pure” Carib, based entirely on that person's appearance. The concept of a “Black Carib” is a novel innovation for Trinidad, even if in St. Vincent it dates to the 1700s, and even though some members have Vincentian Carib ancestry.

One of the challenges of identity and belonging, taken up with greater vigor by the Carib community, is to realign Caribness with the practice, beliefs, and lifeways that mark indigenous belonging. This is a big challenge to the dominant way of understanding identity, one that may contribute to efforts elsewhere in the society to overcome race by transcending it. While some members of the community told me that a Carib is someone with a specific genealogy, others also held that Carib is something one feels, a sense of being rooted here, or being totally at home in the nation's forests, mountains, rivers, and beaches—where there is no other place that beckons. 

Everyone Has Some Carib in Them

Rather than simply leave things at “Caribs are mixed with,” say, Africans, spokespersons for the Carib community have tried to take their discourse further, by flipping the direction of the narrative of mixture. Capitalizing on an institutionalized discourse of national identity, national belonging, and official depictions of Trinidad as a mixed, cosmopolitan, or creolized society, Carib spokespersons will not deny that they are an amalgam of the wider society's multiethnic influences—instead, they will assert that there is, as a result, “some Carib blood” in everyone else. The late Elma Reyes, a research and public relations officer for the Santa Rosa Carib Community wrote an extensive newspaper article that argued this very point. Carib Breweries, which appropriated the name of the people, and for a while even funded the Carib community, subsequently used this phrase as a marketing slogan. Culture is still objectified as race, as a biological essence, but at least the diminishing zone of exclusion around Carib identity is disrupted. Rather than argue in terms of “decline,” now the argument is about diffusion and dissemination, about the rural lifeways of many Trinidadians, East Indians and Africans, having been shaped and influenced by those of the Caribs, and thus perpetuated. Rather than extinction via miscegenation, this is survival via miscegenation. The problem remains one of arresting common, everyday, and taken for granted practices, and reassigning a Carib label to them.


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