Trinidadian Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley has intervened in a nasty race row between a cabinet minister and the country’s main opposition leader after she publicly attacked the minister for not having her own African ancestral name but rather that of her British slave master.
Former Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar is being flayed throughout the country for telling Minister of Planning, Camille Robinson-Regis at the weekend that Robinson, unlike, her, cannot boast of still bearing the name of her continental ancestors because the slave masters took it away and gave her their own.
In her own defense, Persad-Bissessar said she was responding to constant campaign platform attacks from Robinson-Regis where her name was called incessantly but many who have criticized the former PM are adamant that platform name calling are political par for course and normal in the slow but steady preparation for general elections in 2025. Others have said that Persad-Bissessar is deliberately race baiting and playing to Indo Trinidadian supporters in a country where distrust between Africans and Indians, the two main racial groups in a population of 1.3 million people, dates back decades.
Like in neighboring Guyana and Suriname with large Asian Indian populations, lingering and sometimes, bitter tensions between the two race groups date back decades to the immediate post slavery-emancipation period when the British brought Indian indentured servants from the continent, treated them better than freed slaves and did all in their power to stir animosity between them.
“What problem you have with my name? What’s wrong with my name? Camille, at least I have the name of my ancestors. Where you got yours from? Your name is that of a slave-master,” she said to dropped jaws.
Many who listened to the former PM’s remarks seem to think that she deliberately made the point to both strengthen her position in the party and to rally her base ahead of internal party elections in the coming weeks. Some influential Indians have even started an online petition to have her removed as the UNC leader, aware of the damage that she could have done to race relations and the party’s chances in the next election. They also think these remarks will come back to haunt her going forward.
The opposition United National Congress’ women’s arm rallied behind their leader calling on the minister to apologize to Kamla, while the African Emancipation Committee said it is at a loss to make the link between simple political attacks on the campaign trail and an open reference to race at the most basal level.
“In an environment of racial division and sensitivities forged in the cauldron of colonial divide and rule, it is advisable that highly sensitive cultural issues not be reduced to political jabs by persons who are seen as leaders, and more so when they are seen as leaders of ethnic groups,” Guardian Media quoted the body as saying. In fact, the minority whites who colonized and exploited us both saw the process that forced us to abandon our names, languages, spiritual beliefs and even our positive emotional connection to the African continent are still with us.”
Late Monday, Prime Minister Keith Rowley from his base in California attending this week’s Summit of the Americas intervened in the row by posting a clip from the 1970s Roots movie showing a slave being severely beaten and brutalized to give up his African name, basically saying that is how Africans got their English names.
Local media noted that Rowley’s post was apparently deliberately made just minutes before the weekly UNC public meeting. Guardian Media quoted opposition lawmaker Anil Roberts as suggesting that the PM would have thrown more fuel on the issue “instead of being a statement, calming the flames. Why would Keith Christopher Rowley do that?” he asked. Incidentally, the former PM made no reference to the situation during remarks on Monday night.