Footprints of Africa in the Caribbean: Part One


THE novel The Dragon Can’t Dance has posed many challenges to students and possibly teachers as well.
I make this observation from my experience with colleagues, students and fellow examiners.
For that reason I feel that it has to be treated in some detail for the benefit of our dear clients, students and candidates.
To this end there will be four submissions on this novel beginning with this Part One which provides the historical background to the text.
Historical Background
To understand the cultural implosion which comes as a result of colonial ‘modernity’ in The Dragon can’t Dance, one has to trace the whole history of the Caribbean all the way from beyond the mid-15th century when Christopher Columbus invaded the Caribbean and the Americas.
Trinidad which is the physical setting of this novel was, prior to European occupation, inhabited by Amerindian peoples of the Arawak group.
They had lived there for time immemorial.
These were later joined by Caribs well before 1498.
The newcomers had established settlements by the end of the 16th century.
After its invasion by Columbus the Spanish also began to settle on the island and started the production of tobacco and cocoa during the 17th century. However, because they lacked the skills for economic development and shipping, their capacity to develop a productive base was crippled.
Spain which was the colonial authority failed to develop the productive industrial and commercial base necessary to maintain an empire hence by 1783 the Spanish government ceded Trinidad to the French planters who used slave labour to develop a capital base for a plantation colony.
The principal incentive for the French slave owners was a free grant of land on two main conditions: first, that they wereRoman Catholic and, second, that they were loyal citizens of countries friendly to Spain.
This meant that the settlers would be almost exclusively French for only French planters could fulfill the requirements of Roman Catholicism and alliance with Spain.
These newcomers surpassed the early Spaniards and with slave labour the economy of Colonial Trinidad began to flourish.
Sugar quickly became Trinidad’s most important crop, and as the sugar industry boomed, so did the British slave trade, who brought with them many African slaves to the island.
This greatly affected the dominant culture of Trinidad.
Creole culture became the norm of the black community as they mixed and mingled with these local and European invaders (the French and the Spaniards). On the other hand, French influence could be seen in dress and the rhythms of music and dance while British influence was seen in the incipient and incicive infiltration of the English Language.
Note, however, that as more and diverse immigrants with their variegated cultural backgrounds flocked to the island, came more stratified social hierarchies.
Those who occupied the top were without exception wealthy white land-owners and slave-holders whose politics were royalist and conservative, men committed to the preservation of slavery and white ascendancy.
They literally became the ruling elite class of Trinidad.
One observer makes the point that by the 1790s British merchants had conducted a flourishing trade with Trinidad taking advantage of Trinidad’s favourable geographical position which made it safe from the fiery British Navy.
This idyllic safety was soon to be exposed when in 1795 Spain and Francesigned a peace agreement, making Spain (and by extension the colony of Trinidad) strong allies of France.
This pact was followed by France inviting Spain to join it in its campaign against Britain in 1796, and this meant that Trinidad was now exposed to the British navy.
Consequently, with an ill-equipped army, Spain surrendered Trinidad on 18 February 1797, making the island a colony of Britain.
Britain continued to import slaves to work the sugar plantations into the 1800s although anti-slavery campaigns were beginning to gain popularity in England. In 1807, Britain accepted the abolition of the British slave trade, but the colony continued to use slave labour to work the plantations.
It was not until 1833 that the ‘Act of Emancipation’ became law on August 1 1834.
After the abolition of slavery, the British found new recruits in East Indians to work the plantations.
They flocked to Trinidad to work as indentured labourers (contract workers). The system was established in such a way that male Indians who had lived in Trinidad for 10 years could be granted 10 acres of Crown lands in commutation of all claims to a free return passage to India for which many Indians opted.
This influx of Indians to Trinidad marked a new element to the already stratified society.
Planters, upper-class whites, educated coloured and black Creoles and the Blacks all reacted unsympathetically to the new immigrants.
Interaction between the races was at an all-time low hence the Indians were quickly condemned to the lowest level of the socio-economic order.
Their religion Hinduism was equally castigated.
One observer described the new arrivals as, “considered to be deceitful, prone to perjury, and abnormally fond of litigation.”
Meanwhile, the black community who were still experiencing discrimination had begun to form their own sub-cultural alliance apart from the dominant British and Christian ideals.
The nuclear group consisted of Creole ex-slaves and their descendants.
They had developed a common set of cultural characteristics, which combined to form the mainstream of the cultural pattern of Trinidad, though many Europeans still refused to accept African religious practices as genuine forms of worship and treated the devotees of African religions with utter contempt. Nonetheless, the Africans continued to revere their African whom they equated to Catholic saints.
Hostility and contempt were so predominant that artistic forms of African or slave derivation were subject to legal restrictions all through the 19th century. The instrument that was hated most was the ‘African drum’.
This is the context in which carnival should be understood – as an alternative fusion of African rhythms into ceremonies acceptable to the upper class whites.
Before emancipation, Carnival had been an elegant social affair of the upper-class Creole whites.
It was introduced by the French as a series of masquerade balls, but after 1838 the ex-slaves and the lower orders generally participated. By the 1860’s Carnival was taken over almost entirely by the majority of urban slums and organised into yard bands who challenged rival bands to show off prowess in song, dance, and stick-fighting.
This background is essential to understand The Dragon Can’t Dance.


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