a number of commentators have had their say about the absence of black
business in T&T. Interestingly, the recent interest arose as a result
of a quite successful non-African-Trinidadian businessman calling on
the powers that be to ensure that the obvious connection between ethnicity
and occupation be severed once and for all.
It is important that the historic perspective to the issue be explored
Marion OCallaghan in her column on May 19 quite correctly intoned
both Indians and Africans are convinced that blacks
are not good at business. Given Colonial Life or the number
of black businesses in the 30s, there is no reason to believe this
One can quite readily add that this was not only the view of Indians
and Africans but moreso the view of every single ethnic grouping existing
here: French Creoles, Chinese, Syrian/ Lebanese tout bagai.
It is a view that had been held-over and virtually institutionalised
since the days immediately after emancipation, largely because of the
dominant, racist ideology of white suprem-acy, coupled with what, in
their interest, was the necessity to pigeon-hole the ex-slaves to the
plantations and dissuade the birth of an independent free peasantry or
any form of a business elite by every possible mechanism, legal and/or
extra-legal, overt and covert.
W Sewell in his book The Ordeal of Free Labour in the British West Indies,
published in 1860, made it abundantly clear when he described it as follows:
many ( ex-slaves) took to trade, and, setting up as petty
shopkeepers in the town, pursued a calling more congenital with their
tastes and inclinations. The planters vainly endeavoured to remedy the
evil, in vain they adopted most stringent measures to prevent the increase
of small proprietors, and keep up, by such unnatural means, a sufficient
labouring force for the estates
It is essential to recall that the planters were the ones compensated
after emancipation to the tune of some 20 million pounds, not the ex-slaves,
and, to add to the injury, were blocked every which way from establishing
a widespread artesian, proprietor social grouping. Whats more,
I have shown elsewhere how the lack of official State support and facilitating
of an independent free peasantry, ie ex-slaves planting commercially
crops other than sugar, minimised the economic development of Caribbean
In fact if the independent free African peasantry and small African proprietorship
had been enhanced and encouraged rather than hindered by the Crown colony
State, the entire Caribbean landscape would be different today.
Yet despite all this, by the 1930s, significant African businesses had
emerged. There were a few large African-owned commercial houses like
Stephen and Todd, JT Johnson and Glendinnings. Not many of us today were
aware that these houses carried the names of black businessmen until
Anthony Sabga said in his interviews that he learned business
from these black men.
Colonial Life Insurance Company was built up to be probably the most
successful business in the English speaking Caribbean by two Afro-Trinidadians,
Duprey and Monsanto, who rode bicycles around the city doing their business.
They introduced the black population to insurance and were the first
to provide them with mortgages to purchase their homes; they initiated
the Penny Bank in order to provide soft loans and seed money to the poor
and the needy.
By the early 1930s the city of Port-of-Spain had become covered with
black businesses from Henry Street to Nelson Street and from Marine Square
to Park Street. In fact the Downtown Businessmen Association of the 1930s
was comprised only of blacks. Note well, it was the Downtown Businessmen
Association, not the Downtown Black Businessmen Association
there was not yet any necessity to qualify themselves.
But it was not only about commercial business activity, over 75 per cent
of all the local professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc) were then Afro-Trinidadians.
So what happened? What happened then that created an environment that
militated against black business? There were a number of variables. The
Shop Closing Ordinance that was piloted by the French Creole Chamber
of Commerce in 1936 and proclaimed law in 1938, curtailed after 4 pm,
half day on Thursdays and late night transactions that were crucial to
the survival of the average small business since at that time most workers
received wages after hours.
This forced all businesses to operate during the same specific time duration,
removing the competitive edge of the small proprietors who often lived
and operated business at the same location.
At the same time the differentials on tax rates for properties around
Port-of-Spain were removed, creating untold hardship for the small businesses
which suddenly had to pay taxes equivalent to that of big businesses,
despite the greater difference in square footage of space occupied.
These two factors forced many small proprietors to close doors, particularly
those in the area between Marine Square and Park Street and Henry and
Nelson. Syrian/Lebanese people running from the worsening situation in
Europe and North Africa then were the ones who gained most from this
demise of the urban black small proprietors.
The experiences on the estates as slaves and later as contract labourers
had forced most of the African population to remove themselves from any
attachment to land. This aversion led to the failure of this
section of the population to establish and maintain a land bank
of their own, so to speak.
The stories in this society of how black people either sold their holdings
cheaply or abandoned land or simply gave it away are numerous and should
be set aside for specific study. The black Tobagonian experience is somewhat
different until recent times and also requires study.
The point nevertheless is that land is crucial as the fundamental basis
in the process of wealth generation and accumulation. And land does not
spoil. If anything it over time it keeps appreciating in value. Without
landas a basic factor of production, ones welfare in
business engagement remains precarious and easily subject to the buffets
Other factors hinted to by Marion OCallaghan, such as credit
facilities, methods of capital formation, patterns of inheritance, etc
are all subject to ones relationship or non-relationship to land
as the key factor of wealth production and reproduction.
Another major factor in the demise of black small business was the tenfold
increase in direct foreign investment after Independence. The penetration
into the market of many large international manufacturing concerns, most
times in partnership with local French Creoles, served to choke off what
little was left of the small black commercial enterprises and the black
craft-artisans who were still holding their own.
As I put it in a previous column, the small shoe-maker could not compete
with Bata, neither could the small grocer stand up to the likes of Hi-Lo
and other businesses of similar ilk. At the same time the local bankers
began to encourage local entrepreneurs to import and sell rather than
to manufacture. No growing indigenous skill was required to import and
Many former skilled black proprietors found themselves having to sell
their labour for wages. The wage limits ones perspective of life.
It is a trap. It has served to be the black mans death knell.
Then of course there are the cultural factors to this demise of black
businesses. The fact, for example, that the black bakers who survived
successfully were the ones that opted to operate under Chinese names
Chee Mooke, Wee-Lee and so on. But that
again is another story.
In the meanwhile the present government has clearly indicated that 10
per cent of all Government contracts will be set aside for small business.
That is quite laudable. But who among the black population will take
the bull by the horns.