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  • Massa Day Done (Public Lecture at Woodford Square, 22 March 1961) *
  • Eric Williams

On 4 December 1960 the Trinidad Guardian announced that Sir Gerald Wight had joined the Democratic Labour Party. The announcement was presented in such a way as to suggest that this was a feather in the cap of the Democratic Labour Party [DLP], and therefore the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago should follow the lead of Sir Gerald Wight. Consequently, in my address here in the University on 22 December, in which I reported to the people the outcome of the Chaguaramas discussions in Tobago, I poured scorn on the Guardian reminding them that our population of today was far too alert and sophisticated to fall for any such claptrap. I told the Guardian emphatically: Massa Day Done.

What was Massa Day, the Massa Day that is done? Who is Massa? Massa was more often than not an absentee European planter exploiting West Indian resources, both human and economic. I had particularly referred in my address in the University before Christmas to a book well known to students of West Indian history written by an absentee English landlord who visited his plantations in Jamaica for the first time around 1815. The author’s name was Matthew Lewis. He has written a journal of his visits to Jamaica, and in my address I referred to one passage in the journal when, as he went around the plantation, the slaves ran up to him with all sorts of complaints, saying “Massa this, Massa that, Massa the other.” Massa lived in England off the profits of West Indian labour. He became a big shot and ostentatiously flaunted his wealth before the eyes of the people of England. He was a big noise in the House of Commons in the British Parliament. He could become a Lord Mayor of London. A famous play entitled “The West Indian,” presented in Drury Lane in London in 1776, portrayed Massa as a very wealthy man who had enough sugar and rum to turn all the water of the Thames into rum punch. Massa’s children were educated in England at the best schools and at the best universities, and it was openly and frequently claimed in the long period of the British controversy over the abolition of the slave trade and abolition of slavery that Oxford and Cambridge were filled with the sons of West Indian Massas. When things got bad and sugar ceased to be king in the West Indies, Massa simply pulled out of the West Indies, in much the same way as the descendants of Massa’s slaves today pull out from the West Indies and migrate to the United Kingdom. [End Page 725]

We have a record of one such Massa in the small poverty stricken island of Nevis. He arrived in Nevis about 1680 with ten pounds, a quart of wine and a Bible. He developed into a big shot, became planter, merchant and legislator, and when things turned sour in the nineteenth century, he invested all his wealth derived from the West Indian soil and the West Indian people in railways and canals and harbors in Canada, India and Australia. He went back to live in the old County of Dorset in England from which his ancestors had migrated to the West Indies, and his biographer tells us that today the same family occupies the same pew in the same church in the same village. What he does not tell us is that it was as if Massa had never emigrated to the West Indies. Massa left behind Nevis as underdeveloped as he had found it. The wealth that should have been ploughed back into Nevis to save it from its present disgrace of being a grant aided colony, went to fertilize industrial development everywhere in the world except in the West Indies. Today only a beach which bears his name survives to remind us that this particular Massa had ever existed in Nevis. His English biographer tells us that it was as if he had never left his English county. We tell him it is as if Massa had never been in the West Indian island.


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