Conflict between East-Indian and Blacks in Trinidad and Guyana
Socially, Economically and Politically

by Gabrielle Hookumchand
Professor Moses Seenarine
May 18, 2000
Intro to Caribbean History

September 2000

Caribbean history comprises of a long and tumultuous colonial past. Guyana and Trinidad both have a rich
cultural past, however, it is a history tat has been marred by it’s own people its adopted natives. Much of both
countries’ history has been soiled: First by the race issues created by the Europeans ten secondly by petty
jealousies each race, East Indian and African, had towards each other. But let my point about the ethnic divide
be put with more focus: the two races are the two main groups in these two countries are East Indian and
Blacks. My country Guyana’s motto is "One People, One Nation, One Destiny" and likewise Trinidad’s motto
is "Together we Aspire Together we Achieve" it is indeed ironic that this is far from true.

Trinidad’s makeup is 39.6% African and 40.3% East Indian vis-A-vis Guyana’s ethnic make-up 51% East Indian and 43% AfroGuyanese.’ While Guyana and Trinidad are not located in the similar geographic location sharing a similar ethnic makeup has resulted in a similar past and most likely a future where racial conflict will continue undoubtedly to affect their society. This racial divide has detrimentally affected both countries; the effects can be noticed socially, economically and politically. It will continue unless there is more regard for this fragile coexistence between East Indian and African.

One might ask how are these two countries are easily comparable since they are not located in similar
geographic settings, one an island the other a mainland country, however there are many characteristics
common to both countries. Guyana and Trinidad have experienced major similarities in development of their
societies. Both were British colonies. Africans were enslaved in both countries and Indians brought to be
indentured to replace them. Both Indian and African are the two major ethnic groups. Both are characterized
by a high degree of conflict between the two major ethic groups, and the organization of their political system
along virtually rigid etimic lines.

The need for cheap labor landed both groups, Indian and African by chance in the Caribbean. Africans were
brought to these two countries and were enslaved on sugar and cotton plantations from the 17th century until
the early 19th century when the slave trade ended. Slavery was abolished in both colonies in 1833.
(Hintzen 1989) East Indians were imported into the two colonies as indentured laborers to replace Africans on
the plantations. Racial stereotypes developed early in the two colonies. British planters characterized Africans
as physically strong but lazy and irresponsible. East Indians were stereotyped as industrious but clannish and
greedy. Views that are still present today. To feel sleepy after eating is referred to in and around the Caribbean
as having "niggeritis", a direct allusion to the lazinessof Africans. To some extent, these stereotypes were
accepted by the immigrant groups themselves, each giving truths to positive stereotypes of itself and negative
stereotypes of other groups. They believed what was said of the other group but none of what was said of them.
The stereotypes provided a useable explanation of behavior and justified competition among groups. Africans
were described as indolent when they refused to work for low wages or make long-term contracts with the
plantations as the Indians had. East Indians were considered selfish when they minimized their expenses to
acquire wealth.

In modem Guyana, the connection of behavior with ethnicity is less rigid than it was in colonial days. Where
once there was a sharp and uniform distinction between behavior considered "British" and behavior
considered "coolie,’ now there is a range of situations that can receive different ethnic labels in different
situations. Acting "coolie" in a situation would be something as simple as wearing an uncoordinated colorful
outfit. Or typifying "British" behavior would be refusing from using the local Creole and speaking the Queens
English. What is considered ‘British" in a rural village might be considered "coolie" in the towns. In addition to
stereotyping, the colonial value system that favored European beliefs, specifically British, ideals, has been
encouraged. Euro centric beliefs were promoted by the colonial education system, which idealized British
customs. The ex-slaves, who perceived their Christianity, as proof that they too were as civilized as the British
accepted the superiority of British culture. Since the late 19th century, the emerging middle class of urban
AfroGuyanese and Indo-Guyanese developed a nationalist ideology based largely on British values. They
claimed a place in society because they met standards that had been set by the British.

Ethnic perception among these separate groups has emerged from the divisions of color, religion, place of
residence, and occupation. Problems started with the white colonists and were further perpetuated by early
leaders. In these two countries the policies of ethnic rule changed from politics based on ethnic preference to
politics based on ethnic dominance. Both groups became envious of each other’s successes. In both countries
there existed a high degree of racial exclusivity in residential concentration of the population in villages,
communities, and in villages, communities, and in broader geographic areas. (Hintzen, 1989) [A phenomenon
which emphasized economic separation.] Simply put, the two groups hardly mingled. Communities are either
solely African or solely Indian; it is only in the more urban areas that they are more integrated communities.
This is a problem that still affects these countries, the lack of intermingling.

Politics in Trinidad followed a similar pattern with Guyana where there was a period of brief cooperation
followed by an increased separation along racial lines. In Trinidad before the Second World War a small white
elite dominated politics, in the absence of class mobilization, political leaders used race to mobilize the support
of large, voting blocs. As independence from British colonial rale seemed to becoming to an end in Trinidad,
the white population was centered on a single party the Political Progress Group (PPG). After the Second War,
adult voting was introduced to the colony. Blacks formed the West Indian National Party (WINP), succeeded by
the Caribbean Socialist Party. An African Urial Butler formed the Butler Party, which in the first elections in
1950 carried a huge Indian vote. It was here racial issues first played a role in the political circle. Butler was
unable to retain his familiarity with his East Indian supporters and they broke away and formed the Peoples
Democratic Party (PDP). Prior to this event there was no unified black political organization. The African
intellectuals of Trinidad fearful of what could result from the formation of the PDP and thus reacted defensively
at the impending threat of a unified Indian party. (Hintzen, 1989) In 1956, a former history professor Eric
Williams formed the People’s National Movement (PNM), the AfroTrinidadian Party. By independence in
1962, Eric Williams headed the country. The Trinidadian PNM regime that came to power in 1956 lasted
until 1986, continuing even after Eric William’s death in 1981.

Racial issues had destroyed any possibility of lower class solidarity, where ideological viewpoints would
replace racial identification. Ideological appeals to class during the early phase of the nationalist movement
served more as an adhesive holding these racially diversified groups together, rather than as a basis for the
compression of a confederated mass movement. Race became the preeminent ingredient in the organization
of popular political participation. (Hintzen 1989)

The shift to racial politics first became noticeable in Trinidad upon the introduction of adult voting rights. In
Trinidad, "The 1956 elections established the pattern of politics for some three decades: ethnic affiliation
determined party preference, and a bifurcated Creole-Indian policy thus emerged, lacking unity and surviving
on sectional legitimacy." (Hintzen, 1989) To galn support of the masses, one of the tactics used in developing
racial politics was that leaders made use of patterns of social groups which was worthwhile considering the
existing racial make-up.

The 1957 elections in Guyana held under a new constitution gave light to the growing ethnic division within the
Guyanese electorate. The People’s Progressive Party (PPP) had two wings, one headed by Linden Forbes
Sampson Buniham, the other by Jagan. The 1957 elections were won by Japan’s PPP faction. The party’s
main supporters were increasingly identified as Indo-Guyanese: more rice land improved union representation
in the sugar industry, and improved business opportunities and more government jobs for lndo-Guyanese. The
PPP soon stopped being a multiracial party; it was an Indo-Guyanese party. Another important element was
soon added to the developing tension.

Burnham had not forgotten the lesson he learned from the 1957 elections. He could not win if supported only
by the lower class, urban Afro-Guyanese . He needed middle-class allies, especially those AfroGuyanese who
backed the moderate United Democratic Party (a party sympathetic with Jagan) Burnham began to work to
create a balance between maintaining the support of the more radical Afro-Guyanese lower classes and
gaining the support of the more capitalist middle class. He would now need a common uniting force to keep
these two groups together and himself in power. The answer was something very simple to manipulate--race.

Burnham’s appeals to race proved highly successful in bridging the rift that divided the Afro-Guyanese along
class lines. This strategy convinced the powerful Afro-Guyanese middle class to accept a leader who was
more of a radical than they would have preferred to support. Burnham’s and Jagan’ s conflicting economic
policy views led to their split in the PPP. Burnham snatched the United Democratic Party from under Jagan’s
feet and broke away from the PPP altogether and formed the People’s National Congress (PNC). Burnham
was a socialist. He saw the immediate goal to be the gaining of political independence after which the
country would sustain itself by producing everything it would need. Jagan on the other hand was a Marxist;
he saw economic exploitation as the main problem. This made Jagan disliked by the United States and thus
he lost his position as leader. British troops landed and suspended the constitution of Guyana and threw the
PPP out of office. This was the obvious action; what wasn’t known was the covert operation being sponsored
by the United States. The United States had supported this intervention. Most Guyanese were not aware of
was taking place which was a maj or anti- communist offensive by the United States in Guyana and the
Caribbean and to me, it was worse that the United States had significant local support.

After this, Jagan strengthened his hold on the Indo-Guyanese Community. Though he openly expressed his
admiration for Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and, later, Fidel Castro Ruz. Jagan felt that his Marxist ideals could
be applied uniquely to Guyana. In the late 1 950s, the British Caribbean colonies had been actively negotiating
establishment of a West Indies Federation. There was a growing agreement among nonIndian politicians that
federation with the rest of the British West Indies offered the best post-colonial political solution for the colonies.
The issue, however, inflamed the passions of the East Indian population and its political representatives who
were already worried of the possibility of black political domination. The Indo-Guyanese, were apprehensive of
becoming part of a federation in which they felt people of African descent would outnumber them.

Even more so than in Trinidad, the East Indian population in Guyana were strongly opposed to any such
political union on the grounds that it was a plot to deprive them of their electoral majority. East Indian leaders
were strong in the belief that it’s ratification would have had the effect of decreasing the East Indian population
to an insignificant minority by initiating mass migration of Africans into the two colonies from other lesser
developed West Indian countries. East Indians in Trinidad leaders and their supporters felt that "Indians had
worked to build the country, and blacks wanted to get the better of Indians." (Hintzen, 1989) The East Indian
population was led by its leaders to believe that a West Indian federation would erase any possibility Indians
had of any representation in future governments. Jagan was the chief voice of East Indian opposition to
Federation, in Guyana. By contrast Burnham, the Afro- Guyanese leader fully supported the federation. Jagan’s
veto of the federation caused his party to lose all significant Afro-Guyanese support.

In the early 1900’s Garveyism and other black intellectuals began to preach "Africa for Africans" which spurred
a great resurgence in Afro-centricity and black pride, which furthered the divide between Indian and black.
Almost simultaneously there was resurgence in regaining ties with India. Indo Guyanese and Indo Trinidadian
women began wearing Indian garb. These factors all compounded to widening the divide between these two
races. In Trinidad, the black pride resurgence led to the February Revolt, which at first was a labor dispute then
incorporated racial overtones. An IndoTrinidadian said this in regards to the resurgence of Black Pride and

The Black Power leaders underestimated the importance of these divisions, and failed to provide the
necessary groundwork within the Indian community. The term "black" moreover, generally referred to persons
of predominantly African descent. Most Indians did not regard themselves as being black. In a letter to the
editor, for example an Indian writer responded negatively to having been categorized as such by the Black
Power Movement:

"I object to being black.. Indian belong to the Caucasian or "white" race... why then call Indians black?"
... You the Black Power members are asking us to join you in your march for power.. Your sudden
interest in the East Indian sugar worker is viewed with suspicion... We are not prepared to support you."

A statement only proving that there ill feelings towards each other are still present. Black Power or even Indian
Power has no place in Guyana and Trinidad, although it advances both peoples, it ignores the existence, of
each other. A concept that will only destroy the slow integration process that already exists here: an integration,
which is anxiously anticipated by both groups.

Since independence in 1963, two characteristics have dominated Guyanese society and politics; the presence
of strong political personalities (Cheddi Jagan, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham and Desmond Hoyte) and
ethnic and racial divisions based on mutual suspicion and manipulation by these strong personalities. At the
same time, the struggle for political ascendancy between Burnham, the "Man on horseback" the hero of the
Afro-Guyanese, and Jagan, the hero of the Indo-Guyanese masses, left a legacy of racially polarized politics
that remained in place in the 1990’s. (Merrill, 1993) The race politics practiced in Guyana, where political
majoritanism aligned one group against another was extremely harmful to the country.

The result of the enactment policy in Guyana caused an almost civil war, where blacks burnt the businesses of
Indo-Guyanese, and during the ensuing melee, hundreds of Africans and East Indians lost their lives. More
recently in Guyana, there was an increase in racial tensions, where they were looting and ransacking of homes
and businesses by both sides. Many similarities as can be found between these two countries there is one
difference. Racial conflicts in Trinidad had never reached the serious levels it did in Guyana where Guyana
was almost propelled into Civil War. However, ethnic conflicts have in fact been increasing in recent years,
and have tended to increase as greater contact and communication is made between the two groups as it is
in Guyana and Trinidad.

Socially, taboos regarding intermarrying led to the preferences for straight hair vs. what is considered "nappy"
hair. The cultural development of the East Indian populations in Guyana and Trinidad took on a character that
was quite distinctive. Unlike the rest of the racial groups in both colonies, East Indians have remained attached
to their religion. Hinduism and Islam and to the broader cultural tapping associated with these religions.

However, some things have changed:

The traditional caste relationship among the East Indians has lost most of its religious Sanction and the Brabmin, who is not a religious leader, is not given any special deference. Money, position and
education are the new cultural values which the East Indian now use or social ranking within the ethnic group. Marriage does not often take place between the East Indian and other groups, not so much on account of that group’s status but because of the persistence of a marriage patterns from India. The marriage patterns of this group are changing with acculturation, and increasing incidence of marriage results. (Horowitz, 1971)

I can recall while at school watching children both Afro- and Indo playing in the schoolyard and at the same time would say things like:

Coolie Water Rice, Pork and Spice
Wash yuh baffle with dal and rice


Coolie Man Eat Rhaggi fit get scrawly
Black Man Eat Flour fit get Power


Black Man black man Neva Lie
Wid broad face and Chinee Eyes
Wid turn up nose and jigga toes
On his bead black pepper grows.

In Trinidad, according to a friend of mine school aged children, would say:

Coolie man come 6 roti,
Roti Dun, Mash potato, Mash potato
Half past One.

Black come fi Roti,
Roti Dun, Mash Potato, Mash potato
Half past One.


When di nigga pull di trigger
Ole’ man coolie run.

Where does this all this come from, viewpoints such as this one given by an AfroTrinidadian as to why the East
Indians are more socially mobile are reasons why little children think up of these cruel songs to sing to each

"Black man is falling. When the Black Man used to wear feathers in his cap, the coolie was eating
water-rice. Black man used to say, "Go way, you water-rice coolie!" Today the coolie think they are big people. After one time will be a next. Today is time for coolie. I don’t mind cause the Lord say, "In the last days, race will rise against race, and nation will rise against nation, and there will be wars and rumors of wars." (Horowitz 1971)

In Guyana and Trinidad class can be divided as such:

An upper class of large businessmen and large planters. An upper middle class of professionals, owners of
medium-sized businesses, college levels educators, corporate managers, and senior bureaucrats in the public
sector and leaders of voluntary organizations. A lower middle class of small businessmen, primary and
secondary school teachers, white collar workers (in private business, in civil administration, and in the
parastatals), skilled workers, and owners of medium-sized farms. A rural lower class of small peasants,
agricultural laborers, seasonal and short-term migrant laborers and the rural unemployed. An urban lower
class of unskilled and semi-skilled urban laborers and the substantial number of urban unemployed. Few
Whites, Mulattos and the majority, East Indians make up the more successful upper half The lower shared by
blacks. (Hintzen 1989)

Guyana and Trinidad are countries small in size and population and thus their economies are mostly based on
exports and producing a small amount of products. This results in a limitation on the efforts of economic control.
What make them differ from the more industrialized nations? The answer to this question explains much of their
current economic woes. All countries, small and big are subject to the effects of outside economic fluctuations.
The difference is that the larger more industrialized countries have the ability to manage or attempt to manage
any economic fluctuations.

Small countries like Guyana and Trinidad are dependent on limited exports, mostly agricultural and small
products. In Guyana and Trinidad the existence race based politics and poor economic policies led to the
breakdown of economic system. Guyana is just after Haiti on the list of poorest countries in the Caribbean,
with high levels of unemployment, and double-digit inflation. Trinidad is by no means a wealthy country but it
has faired better than Guyana due to its oil deposits, tourism appeal and it’s automobile manufacturing. In
Trinidad under the PNM government the beneficiaries ofjobs, services, facilities, loans and housing were the
African masses who supported the party, the same policy the PNC practiced in Guyana.

Nevertheless, the masses still suffer in both countries. This is a reason for the mass exodus of immigrants from
both countries to the United States and Europe. Here one again effects the other; this has lead to the lack of
manpower and brainpower to facilitate any kind of resurgence in the economies of two countries. A survey
conducted by a graduate student of Black and Indian school teachers and other educational personnel in
Guyana and Trinidad produced the following conclusion:

Most Indians want a state in which cultural pluralism will be an accepted norm, in which they can be
both Guyanese or Triidadian and Indian. Africans tend to acknowledge only one cultural standard as
congruent with Guyanese or Triidadian. Identity, and also do not accept the legitimacy of a continued uniquely Indian identity. The two groups share the same state, but have very different conceptions of the nation. (Baksh, 1999)

This can only give a poor outcast for the future of the two countries; solidarity is a far away dream. When I look
in the mirror I ask myself, Guyanese, Indian what am I? I landed in Guyana by accident. Thinking of the question
you posed to me in my outline, am I ethnocentric? I think my view is warped because of my life experiences in
the United States, where it is no longer important what race I am, but essentially that I am not Caucasian. In
comparison to others while most see themselves by race first, I see myself as simply, Guyanese. People both
Indian and black in Guyana and Trinidad fail to acknowledge how similar they truly are and only focus on their
differences and that is said. They share similar cultures, celebration of Carnival, foods, and customs.

In these young countries there is a great fear of cultural domination: each group wants to assert the benefits
of their own culture. When public figures and public policy proceed to shape the national identity the result is
who will control who and who the nation will belong to. While the historical struggle for political power is seen
as the primary cause for the bad race relations, another cause should be examined, the lack of economic

The eternal conflict over whom has everything and who doesn’t have anything. It would seem that if the economies of these countries could be rejuvenated and enough resources could be available so that all
groups could be satisfied without favoring one group over the other, this ethnic conflict could possibly be
improved. Groups should be left to intermingle and develop their own solutions to their own problems. Although
the cultural structure of the Indian and African people might appear to be distinctive, there are more common
values held between the two than appears at first sight. For instance, the both accept the British social system
and most of its values, sadly they accept it as being superior to their own national cultural values. Race and
ethnicity will infinitely continue to be central to the Caribbean definition of self. Ironically, nearly all the leaders
of the new nations of the Caribbean came to power on platforms of social justice and condemnation of any
form of racial discrimination.

Works Cited

Baksh, Ahamad. (1999). Education and Some National Goals in Guyana. Unpublished M.A. Thesis,
Department of Sociology. University of Essex.

Benn, Denis. (1987). The Growth and DeveloDment of Political Ideas in the Caribbean: 1974—1983.
Institute of Social and Economic Studies University of the West Indies.

Gomes, Albert. (1974). Through a Maze of Colour. Port-of-Spain, Trinidad: Key Caribbean Publications Limited.

Hintzen, Percy C. (1989). The Costs of Regime Survival. Racial Mobilization. Elite Domination and
Control of the State in Guyana and Trinidad
. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.

Horowitz. Michael, M. (Ed.). (1971). Peoles and Cultures of the Caribbean. Michael, M. Horowitz.

Knight, Franklin W., and Palmer, Cohn A. (1989). The Modern Caribbean. North Carolina, USA: The
University of North Carolina Press.

Maurer, Bill. (2000). Recharting the Caribbean: Land, Law and Citizenship in the British Virgin Islands.
Ann Arbor, Ml: The University of Michigan Press.

Merrill, Tim. (Ed). (1993). Guyana and Belize: Country Studies. 2nd ed. Baltimore, MD: First Printing.

Moore, L. (1987). Race, Power and Social Segmentation in Colonial Society: Guyana After Slavery.
Pennsylvania, USA: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers.

Payne, Anthony and Sutton, Paul. (1993). Modern Caribbean Politics. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins
University Press.

Szule, Tad. (Ed). (1971). United States and the Caribbean. New York, NY: The American Assembly,
Columbia University.

The Crisis of National Unity.(1999) UMI Dissertation Service, A. Ben & Howell Company.


This page is part of Guyana News and Information.
Copyright 1995-2003