By Oliver Mills
Local historians in the Turks and Caicos contend that these islands were the first to be discovered in the Caribbean region, although this is contested by others. However, Caribbean historians have maintained that the real value to Europeans of the West Indies was their mineral wealth, agricultural products, employment for Europeans, and as a training ground for their navies. Nothing is mentioned about the value of the islands to their own people, the local inhabitants.
Indeed, the local inhabitants were highly civilised, particularly the Mayans and Aztecs, while the Caribs and Arawaks on the other hand, who lived communally under a system of governance that suited their needs and circumstances at the time, were regarded by the Europeans as primitive. The latter sought to use the tribal chiefs against each other to maintain a divide and rule policy. This meant that, instead of confronting a common threat, the local inhabitants fought against themselves, urged on by outsiders, who benefitted from this local rivalry which they initiated.
The Turks and Caicos were important for their salt product, cotton, as a training area for sailors and their warships and, initially because of our many islands and cays, as a hide out for pirates, buccaneers, and smugglers. Later in this century we became military bases to maintain surveillance of Castro’s Cuba, and to listen to and track Russian submarines.
A prominent historian of Caribbean affairs describes the background to the contemporary challenges the Caribbean faces today. He states that the society was based on masters and slaves, and this made impossible any spirit of mutual trust between the two sides. The phrase that emerged from this situation was, ‘the worse you behave to a Negro, the better he behaves to you.’ Even now, we still say this about each other.
This perception of these two categories of master and slave later translated into divisions between those with money and resources, and those who had only their labour to offer. From here, developed the antagonistic relationship between labour and capital. And although later, as Caribbean society became more sophisticated through the development of science and technology, a managerial versus a technologically skilled class developed, with knowledge replacing capital as the important factor in workplace relationships.
This historian further states that a further characteristic of Caribbean society was the parochialism of its governing climate of opinion. Any opinions that differed from, or contested the way things were being done, were discouraged. The idea behind this was to maintain the political and social dominance of one group of persons who differed from the local inhabitants in social status, colour and interest.
The type of governance that existed, particularly in those islands with British influence, was Crown Colony government, or direct rule, where a governor and officials from the metropole were the main players, assisted by selected locals regarded as prominent members of the community. This same type of governance exists in the Turks and Caicos today. In the early colonial period, it was based on the contrived assumption that people who were culturally different had no real conception of how to govern themselves, or conduct their affairs in a civilised way. They therefore needed persons of a different and superior cultural orientation to ‘help’ them to become more civilised. To hold their hand and gently lead them, until they were deemed ready and fit to govern themselves.`
This historian rounds out his description of Caribbean society’s background by noting that the European mind failed to apply the idea of equality to subject Caribbean people. The fact is that, in many instances, this perception still remains of people of other races. In the Caribbean, we have absorbed these prejudices, and use them against our own to determine class and social status. People with a fair complexion are still preferred to those with darker skins, and the many races we have still discriminate against each other in various subtle and open ways. We have not as yet, in our Caribbean, despite chatter at various conferences, come to accept each other, trust each other, or see each other in an open-minded way, without race, class, island of origin, or even religion, playing a significant part with respect to how we perceive each other.
In the Caribbean’s quest for ever increasing control over its political affairs, leading to independence for some islands, again, the dominant power insisted that certain steps or stages be gone through, as if locals had to take examinations at different levels of difficulty. Crown Colony government was followed by more political representation through the extension of the vote. Through agitation, internal self-government came about with either a Chief Minister or Premier, based on the intensity of the agitation. This was then followed by independence. But at each stage, it was the colonial power that responded to challenges made on it. It was the local leaders who formed political organisations that over time contested the existing system, and got it to be changed to a more democratic system, representative of the majority.
This is where the Turks and Caicos is today, with demands for the reinstatement of the 2006 constitution, that many insist has nothing wrong with it. Some feel the newly considered constitution is meant to restrict the power of the elected representatives, and the newly proposed electoral system is designed to emasculate the political parties, and give further authority to the function of Governor as an institution.
What is often forgotten, or not realised, is the fact that the 2006 constitution can in many ways be regarded as really an independence constitution. The office of Premier had enormous power, and many international missions were undertaken by the elected government, although it was the UK government that was responsible for foreign affairs. The then Premier gave audience to many heads of state, and a minister of government had some responsibilities for national security. The UK government on a whole, allowed the Turks and Caicos to exercise authority in many areas, which could only be seen in an independent territory. Under the 2006 constitution, therefore, the islands could be described as really being independent where governance in the strict sense is concerned. Ministers exercised certain levels of authority to negotiate abroad on behalf of the country, met with their counterparts abroad, and entered into agreements after the proposals had gone through the cabinet process.
The independent Caribbean territories basically followed this same process. It appears, though, that the Turks and Caicos, although coming a little late on the scene, caught up quickly with these countries, even surpassing them in economic development, and becoming their equal in the level of political awareness and consciousness. As a matter of fact, our first Premier was even invited to an economic event in Jamaica to share ideas on how his country was able to achieve the level of economic growth it did. One of our Chief Ministers under the PDM government even attended important functions abroad, on an equal footing with other heads of state. Although not formally an independent country, the Turks and Caicos enjoyed equality of status with the other independent Caribbean countries. No other Caribbean country received this recognition when they were at the political stage the Turks and Caicos was at.
We all know the political story of what happened to the Turks and Caicos political system, and the accompanying economic challenges we now face. Many feel that the introduction of current revenue measures, and those impending, will result in further economic decline, and a further lowering of the standard of living in the islands, as well as discouraging foreign investment. Some feel that our economic progress began with the introduction of political parties that took various initiatives that secured agreements for growth and development to take place. Others feel that jealousy is responsible for the state the country is in now, and that there is no independent objective means of knowing what the real state of the economy is.
There is a segment of the population that also feels that whatever resources we have are not being used in a way significantly beneficial to the inhabitants, and that a new class of ‘others’ is calling the shots, and enjoying a certain lifestyle, while local people are mere spectators in their own country. If this is so, is this moral? Others feel that it is the Turks and Caicos political class and their associates that are responsible for the developments that led to where we currently are.
But there is also a view which is convinced that the profile of the Turks and Caicos as a country with people of colour who developed and managed a successful economy, and brought advantages not previously enjoyed to almost every island and its inhabitants, went against the previously held view of people of colour being unable to manage their political and economic institutions successfully, being always dependent on handouts from others, because they were lazy, carefree, and a bunch of freeloaders, incapable of anything serious or worthy of note. Certain activities therefore had to be initiated to restore the islands to the status it was felt they should really have, as a territory with people of colour as its majority, with a selected few of ‘others’ who feel themselves entitled, by virtue of their alleged cultural sophistication, to lead these people of colour into the light.
In the context of the wider Caribbean, then, it can be seen, that basically, the Turks and Caicos followed the same political and economic course, had the same historical elites that exercised power and authority over their destiny, and experienced the same condescending attitudes exhibited by these elites. The demonstrations for the restoration of democracy here were also carried out by other Caribbean territories in their quest for autonomy, and our politicians, although living in a more enlightened age, still behave in a way reminiscent of those Caribbean politicians at our stage of political development.
The independent countries got their way. Will the Turks and Caicos, through its party system, and other political groups achieve its objectives and soon join these territories as a fully sovereign and independent country?
March 16, 2011