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The demise of black business

Recently 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 openly.

Marion O’Callaghan in her column on May 19 quite correctly intoned that “…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. What’s 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 civilisation.

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 “land”as a basic factor of production, one’s welfare in business engagement remains precarious and easily subject to the buffets of time.

Other factors hinted to by Marion O’Callaghan, such as “credit facilities, methods of capital formation, patterns of inheritance, etc…”, are all subject to one’s 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 sell.

Many former skilled black proprietors found themselves having to sell their labour for wages. The wage limits one’s perspective of life. It is a trap. It has served to be the black man’s 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.

©2003-2004 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

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