Colonialism: We took what we wanted

Barely a month passes in the English-speaking Caribbean without a reference on some stage or in some letter or political speech to the deleterious effects of colonialism upon us. The reference may go from an insinuation to a mild assertion to a screaming shout, but the basis of the moan is always the same: our failure, in whatever area is being discussed, is a consequence of the various traumas inflicted upon us during our time as part of the British Empire.  I heard it again last week – the colonialism-crippled-us lament.

While the moan may have some merit, the degree is essentially overblown.  In every one of such historical incursions, with one culture exerting pressure on another, the indigenous group invariably makes its own decisions as to what kind of transformation, or even alteration it approves.  To look at the present state of Caribbean life is to see clearly that in almost every sense, as we came through the crucible, we took from colonialism what we wanted.  We were exposed to traumas, yes, and deprivations – in the case of slavery, horrors – but we came through that ordeal, and along the way we were accepting what was attractive to us in the incursive culture and rejecting what was not.

Britain did not arrive here like some glacial moraine and inundate us.  Certainly it was a powerful tide and some vestiges of it may remain, but they are only vestiges. Our general response, in every territory where the British, if I can borrow a British construction, displayed themselves, was to gradually turn our backs on some things while embracing others.  Early on, for example, we decided that the dish known as bangers and mash, held in thrall by the British, had no appeal to us whatsoever, so that today, while you will notice English tea on Caribbean menus, bangers and mash are nowhere to be found – even the name itself is unknown to most of us.  Some years ago, in Grand Cayman, where there is a small British population, a supermarket began offering imported bangers and mash for sale – the experiment died a-borning.  Indeed, English food generally is not what Caribbean people want to sit down to; even in our tourism restaurants, it is rarely on the menu.  We have also not joined the British inclination for warm beer, although climate may be a factor in that rejection.

so it goBermuda shorts are relatively popular in Bermuda with its large British population, and it is useful there as a tourism image device, but for the rest of the Caribbean it is a dead item.  I haven’t checked the stores, but I’m confident you can comb Regent Street from one end to the other and not find one pair of this garment that we find almost comical.  In the arts, as well, the theatre tradition known as English music hall has never taken root here, and it’s interesting to note that even the British pop bands, popular in the Caribbean, are singing with American accents and using established American popular music styles, both vocally and instrumentally. Certainly, we’ve embraced things: we extol the value of the British judicial system (even as we allow the apparatus to malfunction), and across the region we have accepted the Westminster political model (although we continually see it as needing modification).  We’ve also been drawn to proportional representation in elections; mind you, we’ve gone back and forth on the latter as political conditions shift.

In sport, although we have ideal grass conditions, English lawn bowling does not exist here, and neither does fox hunting, but we have opened our arms in the widest embrace to cricket; we have become bat and ball fanatics.  In the annual comedy show I used to write in Cayman, I recall creating a skit with a West Indian trying to explain cricket to an American.  Completely befuddled by the complicated rules and interpretations, the American burst out, “This is insane. How could you like such a wacko game?”  To which the response was, “Like it? We love it.” The cricket devotion is a good example of something from the colonialists that now lives vividly in this culture; eyes in line at the banks are fixed on the TV screen when cricket is being shown. It’s our game.  If you’re dubious, go to Providence next time West Indies play.

Finally, to put away another canard, colonialism did not bring racial division to Trinidad and Guyana.  Our ancestors from India and Africa came here with those strongly held ethnic positions, and while the British overlords may have strategically employed and even sought to aggravate the split, the creature was already alive and well when they sought to grow it.  It is instructive that when the Indian and African groups migrate to countries where they are completely free to decide their company, they consistently choose their own kind as social or business partners.

In the aftermath of colonization, the performances of our people in this region in every field of involvement indicate that we have indeed carved our own path, to suit ourselves, and have done it extremely well.  In sport, in literature, in music and the other arts, in academia, in science, we have excelled with original creations.  Perhaps the assertions of our wounding by colonialism will continue – it’s a particularly juicy topic for sociologists – but that raises a tangential but more important point.  If indeed damage was visited upon us 50 years ago, why are we still using it as an excuse for our malaises now?  How long will the caviling continue? Shortly after they came out of slavery in Guyana, our ancestors were banding together and buying villages; they had overcome their “damage” in a few years.  In our time, it’s been 50 years; how many more do we want?  Another 50? As my evangelist hero Bishop T D Jakes puts it to blacks in America, “I hear what you went through under the white man, I understand that, but what are you doing for your problems now?”

Colonialism descended on us with a plethora of influences, some very traumatic, some enlightening. Caribbean people should recognize that experience now as one where we accepted certain things, rejected others, and ultimately chose our own path. When we stumble now, as any people anywhere stumble, we should be man and woman enough to lay the blame for such things at our own feet, not at something some other people did 50 years ago. The British are long gone; fixing any damage done by them is not their problem; it’s ours.

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