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That Tobago 4.5%

Published: 
Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Not unlike her book of the same name, if you get your Tobago facts wrong, author/public communication expert/historian Constance McTair can and will take you on a publicly-exhibited trip between the (Trinidad) Bocas and the Bulldog (reef off Scarborough).

For more, read The Bocas and the Bulldog: The Story of Sea Communication Between Trinidad and Tobago published in 2006 by McTair.

And so it was I was wrong in asserting in last week’s column—as have several historians throughout the many years and, according to McTair, Prime Minister Keith Rowley in his book From Mason Hall to Whitehall—that in 1889 the colony of Tobago had become a ward of the colony of Trinidad.

I confessed to her via Facebook, following her personalised post, that I had in fact long come across accurate reportage on what the Order in Council of 1888 had actually dictated and that it was, in fact, a move to create a “unitary state” comprising “the Colony of Tobago” and “the Colony of Trinidad”—I am quoting the Order here—by 1889.

In fact, I recall making mention of the subsequent 1898 Order, which made Tobago a “Ward of the Colony of Trinidad and Tobago” on January 1, 1899 in a column many years ago. I did this at the time to make the same essential point about Trinidad’s imperialist posture when it comes to Tobago while discussing the quality of the responses from Tobago and Trinidad respectively. So, my bad. I actually knew better and this was sloppy of me.

As penance, I condemned myself to yet another reading of the appropriate sections of Eric Williams’ History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (I have an original 1962 copy) and portions of Lennie Nimblett’s far less dispassionate and more provocative Tobago: The Union with Trinidad 1889–1899: Myth and Reality.

As someone who once (unsuccessfully) conspired with an artist to produce an illustrated history of T&T, I have always had more than a routine interest in these matters. Williams therefore resides alongside CLR James, Donald Wood and Michael Anthony et al in cluttering my work area.

There is also an old QRC text, written by West Indian history luminaries, which talks about the administrations of Trinidad and Tobago being “fused” in much the same way as was done in St Kitts and Nevis. People passed or failed O-Level History based on such an understanding of our stories.

Then, as if on cue, came DOMA President Gregory Aboud and his claim of Tobagonian “underperformance” last week along with language that sounded as if he had been commenting on relations between two separate countries—the story of the 4.5% disproportionately reliant on the rest.

Soon after came THA Chief Secretary, Kelvin Charles’ response, complete with the well-travelled assertion that “the powers of the Assembly are limited in the current governance structure” together with the case for “seeking greater autonomy … to allow Tobago to have greater decision-making authority over the island’s development.”

This debate is anything but peripheral to the ferry fiasco, as I contended last week. And it is instructive that the Trinidad-based UNC has not extended its focus on the imbroglio beyond the immediate case of clear incompetence, if not blatant corruption.

For example, in party chairman David Lee’s press dispatch on the matter, he seamlessly segued into a discussion on the Couva Children’s Hospital as if to make a broader case for territorial discrimination.

The sea ferry issue is more than just a Scarborough-specific pain in the neck, however.

There are very big questions to be engaged about the nature of the unitary state that can benefit from more substantial and enlightened engagement of the process of constitution reform.

And, for starters, we need to embark on such an exercise by negotiating the psychological hurdle so promptly highlighted by Ms McTair in her admonition on the precise terms of the 1889 and 1898 colonial orders. Understanding these things is entirely relevant to what is before us at this time.

There has been a combination of political improvisation and loosely-observed convention to express the terms of engagement of twin-island statehood. This is not the same as negotiating arrangements under local government reform in Trinidad, as often flagged during public consultations on the subject last year.

All of this calls for a level of political sophistication we have not always seen on display. And, now that our Spanish-speaking neighbour has offered the worst possible version of a national constituent assembly, we may well also have to find another name for the kind of civic intervention needed to settle these issues.

For the moment, we are not staying the course exceedingly well.

And, for starters, we need to embark on such an exercise by negotiating the psychological hurdle so promptly highlighted by Ms McTair in her admonition on the precise terms of the 1889 and 1898 colonial orders. Understanding these things is entirely relevant to what is before us at this time.