Ethnic-class cleavage and closure

By Prem Misir
Final part
Guyana Chronicle
September 23, 2001

Was Indentureship slavery?
INDENTURESHIP was really slavery in disguise, as evidenced by the following:
Take a large factory in Manchester, or Birmingham, or Belfast, build a wall around it, shut in its people from all intercourse, save at rare intervals, with the

outside world, keep them in absolute heathen ignorance, and get all the work you can out of them, treat them not unkindly, leave their social habits and relations to themselves, as matters not concerning you who make the money from their labour, and you would have constituted a little community resembling, in no small degree, a sugar estate village in British Guiana (Jenkins 1871:95).

Indentured East Indians had to answer a daily muster call, and any failure to attend resulted in punishment not exceeding five days of imprisonment coupled with hard labour for one month. Failure to do five tasks per week resulted in a forfeiture of one month’s wages, or to serve jail term not exceeding 14 days. East Indians had to carry passes and certificates of exemption from work at all times, in order for the White planters to stop desertion and idling. Any East Indian worker found more than two miles from home during work hours, was arrested without warrant. Punishment was extremely severe, as illustrated by Elizabeth Caesar, thus,

“The Coolies were locked up in the sick house, and next morning they were flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails; the manager was in the house, and they flogged the people under his house; they were tied to the post of the gallery of the manager’s house; I cannot tell how many licks; he gave them enough. I saw blood. When they were flogged at the manager’s house, they rubbed salt pickle on their backs” (Scoble 1840:16).

The harshness and similarity of social and economic conditions for both African slaves and East Indian indentureds on the sugar plantations force the conclusion that slavery and indentureship were the same phenomenon (Cross 1980:4; Rodney 1979:36-39).

Indentureds living in a total institution
As with Africans under slavery, East Indians lived on the sugar estates within a framework that could very well be referred to as a total institution. Generally, a total institution pertains to environments such as prisons or mental hospitals, in which the participants are physically and socially isolated from the outside world (Tischler 1999:127). It’s remarkable that the East Indian way of life was not significantly impacted by a total institutional framework that invariably produces resocialisation, intended to eliminating a person’s culture.

Cultural similarity, especially in language and religion, among East Indian indentureds, could explain the minimal impact on their lives in a total institution.

Keep in mind that by the beginning of the 20th century, about three-quarters of East Indians in Guyana (then British Guiana) came from Uttar Pradesh in India. This ‘total institution’ lifestyle experienced by East Indians during indentureship, induced a forced type of ethnic cleavage whereby there was minimal social interaction between Africans and East Indians.

Multiethnic solidarity
The years after indentureship from 1917 through the 1950s, however, witnessed significant associations between the major ethnic groups (Africans and East Indians), not only at the marketplace, but also in the political domain. It was during this period that many interest groups were formed, including the People’s Progressive Party, and the trade union movement in Guyana, among others; in Trinidad and Tobago, Captain A.A. Cipriani took over the leadership of the Working Men’s Association to promote social and constitutional reform for the working class of all ethnic groups; in T&T, again, note the workers’ hunger march led by Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler from Fyzabad to Port of Spain in 1935. Adrian Cola Rienzi founded and was President of two powerful unions - Oilfield Workers Trade Union, and the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers Trade Union. These were really serious attempts in T&T to unite the working class across ethnic lines.

In this era, some multiethnic mobilisation to stave off colonial hegemony, occurred, first, between Africans and Creoles, to be joined subsequently by East Indians. Ethnic cleavage while then still a latent characteristic in the societal framework, was not a major driving force in institutional development, at least from 1917 through the early 1950s. The pursuit of multiethnic solidarity as a common goal to destabilising colonial hegemony, may have contributed to reducing any serious manifestations and consequences of ethnic cleavage in this period.

Ethnic competition & conflict
However, at the threshold of the White colonialists’ departure from the Colonies, that is, from the 1950s to the present, saw intense ethnic competition and conflict, resulting in racial antagonism, between the major ethnic groups to fill the power vacuum and secure the legal-political stage. The ethnic cleavage arising out of this racial antagonism, remains intentional, and acts as a subterfuge by politicians to secure political advantage along ethnic lines. That is, it is racial antagonism not rooted in racial and ethnic hatred, but political deceit.

Inter and intra-ethnic class cleavage
Ethnic cleavage and closure are presented by the plural theory as producing dysfunctional consequences. Smith (1965:82), a plural theorist, saw each ethnic group in society as self-sustaining ethnic enclaves for its members. This plural society, Smith contended, had no common value system. The absence of a common belief system demonstrated the need for controlling the overall social order; order, therefore, was maintained by the dominant cultural community. However, Smith believed that the subordinate cultural segments did not wholly depend on the dominant ethnic group, since they developed their own social structure imbued with a culture that was invariably in conflict with the dominant group.

Smith, nevertheless, may have overestimated the role of different cultural communities, by excluding class in the analysis. Excluding class enabled Smith to show practically no meaningful social interaction among and within the ethnic communities. But each community had a stratification system based not only on race and ethnicity, but on class, too.

Both African and East Indian communities comprised upper, middle, and lower classes. A lower-class East Indian was more inclined to interact with a lower-class African as well as with other lower-class East Indians than with Africans and East Indians of the upper classes, and vice versa. Interaction only occurring within a particular class is a manifestation of class cleavage which is highly characteristic of the following two situations: The situation where East Indians only interacted with other East Indians of the same class, is referred to as intra-ethnic class cleavage. The situation where East Indians and Africans of the same class only interacted with other East Indians and Africans of the same class, can be called inter-ethnic class cleavage.

Inter-ethnic class cleavage, involving interactions between Africans and East Indians of the same class, a significant form of social relationship in the Colonial era, has persisted into the post-Independence period. Societies with a pronounced racist system, as in the Colonial America South, Hitler’s Germany, and Apartheid South Africa, showed predominantly intra-ethnic interactions and intra-ethnic class cleavage. Multiethnic societies in the Caribbean, as Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, and Suriname, are not fully consumed by racist intensity, as found in the aforementioned countries. In Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, and Suriname, one dominant ethnic group does not wholly sustain the status subordination and discrimination of other ethnic groups. These Caribbean countries do display some meaningful inter-ethnic relations, grounded in both inter and intra-ethnic class cleavage.

East Indians embracing ethnic-class cleavage
In the Colonial era, despite the fact that each ethnic group had its own structure of internal order and status, thereby displaying ethnic and class cleavage, the total political system was still in the hands of the dominant group that exerted enormous control over subordinate cultural communities in the society. Intra- ethnic and intra-class cleavage as manifested by East Indians, were not solely internalised and applied to seek political control over society, but primarily to protect their culture from Creolisation. The major ethnic groups, Africans and East Indians in Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, and Suriname, characteristically embracing this ethnic and class cleavage, have been constantly locked in struggles to fill the political vacuum left by the departure of the White colonialists. The pronounced political manipulation and utilisation of ethnic and class cleavage in political struggles have invoked a misperception of ‘race’ problems in these societies. However, a better understanding of the goal of ethnic and class cleavage will create a multiethnic culture of trust relations, mutually benefiting all ethnic communities.

What I try to show in this five-part series is that identifying and measuring race prejudice, and discrimination, will have to be addressed through inter and intra-ethnic class cleavage and closure. Allegations of racism constitute one of the significant themes in political commentaries in the multiethnic Caribbean. Undoubtedly, racism is alive and well in these societies, as it is in most multiracial societies.

In this context, social policies have to particularly address racial and ethnic discrimination wherever it is found. In the pursuit of eliminating racism, however, a key indicator is discrimination. Discrimination has to be identified and measured, in order to demonstrate the extent of racism. But such task requires, first, the unveiling of inter and intra-ethnic class cleavage and closure.