Post Capitulation Trinidad (1797-1947) – The Review

This book will appeal greatly to law academics, lawyers, historians, and those with a keen interest in the interplay between history, jurisprudence, and government. I read this book partly as a physician understanding the benefits of an adequate handover by the most experienced member of the medical team after a busy weekend on call, but also partly as a daughter of the Caribbean – in terms of this book, Trinidad specifically.

With respect to the former, an adequate handover encompasses two very important ingredients: 1) the team to which you are handing back patients admitted under your care has an opportunity to entertain a fresh perspective within which to appraise their past care and rationalize current and future care; and 2) the team doing the handing over has an obligation to administer care to the best of their ability up until the mutually agreed time of handover and to expedite a thorough exchange of facts, motivations, and intentions involved in that care. This handing-over process should necessarily be seen as a change of governance. The overriding philosophy on which the best possible outcome is anchored is to do no harm, to make the patient far better off than he was shortly before admission, and to restore health as best as one can, all things considered – revisions, reinstatements, referrals. There are two main things that may scupper this process – hubris, especially as it relates to stubbornly hanging on to what one deems ‘right’, and miscommunication, which may be a result of human error, misrepresentation or misinterpretation of information. The former, hubris, has a way of propagating the latter, miscommunication, by whichever means.

Can we make an analogy when reading the ‘handover’ of colonial Spanish rule to British rule in colonial Trinidad in 1797? In some ways, yes. If we equate governance with a certain semblance of power – that is, the power to make decisions (laws) which will affect patients (the populace at large). In others, not quite. There is no seizing of power of one medical team over another, whether by war or capitulation. The binding entity here, in one word, would indeed be power, in all its many guises. More specifically, whoever ‘seizes’ power (handover) controls the ‘laws’ – their creation, institution, maintenance, and adaptations. If that power is by its very nature overweening, one has the capacity to manipulate laws to one’s own advantage without robust challenge or opposition. The opposition becomes an internal one, within one’s own ranks, with its own pitfalls, as we see throughout the book – plantocracy to plutocracy, an interchangeable historical phenomenon, particularly in Caribbean colonial rule.

I will use broad strokes throughout this review. For more salient details and the book’s conclusion, one would have to read it, naturally.

As the book Post-Capitulation Trinidad (1797- 1947) by retired Supreme Court Justice Ivol Blackman would attest, this period in time was not necessarily a handover of information per se, but a handover of power within which information was transported by proxy. When Great Britain became the leading colonial power in Trinidad in 1797, it had seized power from Spain, which had already established jurisprudence on the island for over four centuries. How much of that was benign, I will leave the reader to decide. However, what is clear is that once Great Britain had that power unequivocally, their laws demonstrated that power to full effect. This is not unique to Great Britain as a colonial power though. Several of the peculiarities which I will list for comprehensiveness were pervasive in the colonial Caribbean:

  1. The at best paternalistic qualities of the laws that governed ‘free coloureds’ and the enslaved; that is, the laws were already differentiated by caste.
  2. The at worst discriminatory aspect inbuilt in said laws, favouring the wealthy, i.e. the British Planter Class and their descendants, thus maintaining the power dynamic in Trinidad. Less harsh laws for the ‘free coloureds’, and draconian laws for the underclass – the enslaved population. It would be important to note here that Trinidad is still recovering from the disparity in wealth accumulation between the former and the latter, as some of these laws included the right to land ownership and its subsequent utilization. Other discriminatory elements included (by no means an exhaustive list):
  3. The leniency and laissez-faire attitude towards crimes committed by the monied vs the draconian sentences for petty crimes committed by the enslaved.
  4. The right to appeal cases for those who could pay the fee for an appeal. Most fees were out of the reach of the enslaved. Also, the enslaved were not permitted to give evidence in court, especially against their owners.

If this sounds akin to the Black Codes of 1865/1866 in North America or even Jim Crow-esque in nature, one would not be mistaken, though there were no overt signs of segregation such as segregated water fountains and restaurants.

What may have compounded these irregularities in the administering of justice was the high degree of leadership change during British Rule (its governors and those under them) in Trinidad, the interpretation of Spanish laws existing prior to 1797, and the seat of ultimate power of law reform not inhabiting Trinidad, but lying firmly on British soil with the British Crown. In essence, it was a long-distance affair with a dearth of intimate hands-on experiential wisdom. This is almost akin to a consultant physician giving medical advice over the phone about a complicated patient he’s never met. There is some risk involved. Certainly part of that risk could be measured by any fixed beliefs the consultant physician or his less experienced colleague at the other end of the line may or may not hold for the patient in question. It shouldn’t, but sadly, these prejudicial mindsets do exist at times.

The British administration and the planter class which the laws favoured had one other advantage beside social privilege in the colony of Trinidad. It would appear that their degree of power also lent itself to ‘experimentation’ with jurisprudence – that is, not obeying any agreements with other colonial powers. Some of this perhaps led unwittingly to the revision, clarification, and refinement of British law in Great Britain itself, consolidating its position as the leading imperial power of its time. The colony, therefore, served as a laboratory for the effect of certain laws on a disadvantaged majority population as well as the containment of criminality and/or insurrection. Here one sees jurisprudence beyond the maintenance of order, but also as a tool of behavioural modification to maintain ‘order’. A meaningful exercise would be to examine the ramifications of this ‘order’ and where Trinidad presently stands as a past territory of colonial and neocolonial rule.

In closing, I would say this is a very worthy read as it demonstrates the power of law to entrench class or caste, consolidate wealth, and maintain a certain power dynamic. For colonial rule specifically, whoever held the power possessed it absolutely. As a result it had the human condition in its scales to balance or not, could wield the sword to wage war or demonstrate authority, and could choose whether or not to wear a blindfold.

Post Capitulation Trinidad (1797-1947) by Justice Ivol Blackman is available on all Amazon platforms, XLibris, Barnes and Noble, and at Waterstones.