The men who shaped the 20th century in
Trinidad and Tobago

The generation who grew up between the wars produced significant personalities and locally-grown entrepreneurs. Amongst them were men like Ray Dieffenthaler and Cyril Duprey, who pioneered the oilfield supply business and the insurance industry respectively. Earlier successful entrepreneurs were for example Mikey Hamel-Smith, who established a significant law firm in 1909, E.P. Gibbs, who operated a trading establishment, J. Haynes-Clark, the owner of a livery stable, medical doctor Samuel Haynes, M.A. Maillard, the owner of a retail store at the corner of Frederick Street and Marine Square, and G.J. McCarthy, the mayor of Port-of-Spain.

Looking back, those personalities came out of what historian and writer Dr. Arnold Toynbee calls the 'dominant creative minority'. They had their roots in the non-white people of pre-emancipation days. Buttressed by the ex-slaves and their descendants, who after emancipation became highly motivated and increasingly vocal, a newly emerging coloured middle class was seeking to take advantage of education for their children and a respectable life style. The assimilation of European - or rather, English Victorian - values, and the acculturisation formalised by religious principles, made them, as Vidia Naipaul remarked "not white but very polite and respectable". Increasingly supported by the cocoa economy's trickle-down effect, they were not by and large wealthy people.

However, amongst their ranks appeared increasingly individuals who could afford to educate their sons, who became often scholarship winners at the best universities in England and Scotland. The products of excellent schoolmasters, they were the finest that the island had produced in 100 years of British rule. True to their roots, they spoke up against the pressure of Crown Colony rule, with its prejudice, nepotism and the ongoing deprivation of opportunities for the locals. Many were professionals, lawyers and doctors, schoolteachers and civil servants. This class of thinking, aware and upright citizens produced several institutions, such as the Workingman's Association, the Cooperative Bank and the Building and Loan Association. They were at the core of the Friendly Societies and the various masonic orders and quasi-masonic organisations, all in pursuit of consensus and anti-colonial sentiment.

Some of them agitated for the recognition of Emancipation Day. They republished Jean Baptiste Philippe's 'Free Mulatto', an account of the landmark civil rights case that had been upheld by the House of Lords in London.

Amongst their champions were remarkable lawyers like Sir Henry Alcazar, Maxwell Phillip, Vincent Brown, Scipio Pollard, the McShines, L.P. Pierre, the Hudson Philips, the Woodings and the Hannays. The Farrell, Archibald, Crichlow, Burket, Nurse, Comma and Punch families, to name just a few, all produced professionals who were the flowers of this generation.

Many rose to eminence, most of them, however, were humble. The real heros were the schoolteachers, like for example J.J. Thomas. "Most of the island's primary-school teachers in the second half of the century were educated in the government or assisted primary schools and trained in the Normal School at Woodbrook," writes Dr. Bridget Brereton in her book 'Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad'. "They were nearly all coloured or black. Writing in 1869, the Chronicle thought that their ability 'would have been deemed incredible, and - if admitted possible - dangerous in the 'good old days' before emancipation'. They were men 'whose acquisitions put to shame the efforts of many young men of the more fortunate and more favoured races'. Another paper called them 'the great pioneers of Education ... Under circumstances the most adverse ... with a stipend barely adequate to preserve them from starvation, they toiled on ... and through their efforts, popular education assumes a position today which it never before obtained'."

'The New Era', a paper owned by the Lewis family, gave them a voice. The 'San Fernando Gazette' also took up their causes. Joseph Lewis, William Herbert and Samuel Carter owned printing presses. Others, like L.O. Inniss, owned pharmacies. Many simply became clerks in government offices. Essentially, the groundwork in terms of education and upstanding moral values was firmly put into place and it was principally based on those ethics that the generation born in the turn of the century was to shape their lives.

Whilst the barriers of ethnicity and skin colour were slowly dismantled in colonial Trinidad, the gender barriers remained firmly in place. Women generally were not allowed to partake in the opportunities that education and professionalism opened up for the black and coloured intelligentsia.

The reason for this is in part the structure of the professions, which were inherently competitive and did not require for people to 'unite in order to be strong'. Also, scholarships to universities were only available for boys. Girls were generally barred even from secondary education.

The professions and the accompanying clubs and societies were men-only-institutions, because it would have been unthinkable for a man to have a female superior in those days. Women only became leaders in organisations whose success was based on unity, not exclusivity. One of those leaders was Elma Francois, who rose in the workers' movement.

"Her comrades 'looked up' to her for leadership", writes Earlene Horne in the preface to Rhoda Reddock's book 'Elma Francois'. "The organisation reguired that men and women co-operate in developing their collective political consciousness - instituting a dynamic relationship between the sexes."

Mirroring the world at large, Trinidad and Tobago's 'dominant creative minority' made great strides in terms of breaking down barriers of ethnicity and gender in the 20th century, adapting legislation and institutions to create a more just society and a more fulfilling life for everybody.

© Paria Publishing Company Limited 2000


| The Immortal 45 | The History of banking | History of Aviation | The Lost Portraits |
| Nothing has changed in 200 years | The Antique Saints of Trinidad | The men who shaped the 20th century in T & T |
| The Missions | The History of Sugar Cane and Rum | Comfortable with cocoa |
| Religious diversity in the Indian-Trinidadian community | Gouverneur Chapeau Paille - Sir Ralph Woodford |