The Jefferson Cumberbatch Column – A Caribbean Tragedy
In 1960s Barbados, many looked forward on Friday afternoon to a publication called the “Calypso”. My late mother and I were among them. It was a newspaper that, according to my best recollection, consisted of stories of entertainment and the lighter stuff much like the traditional Friday afternoon newspapers in some regional jurisdictions such as Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago.
As the Hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged some of the regional islands a week or two ago, my mind reverted to a character in the Calypso newspaper that had his own eponymous cartoon, the impressively witty, fashionably dressed (stingy brim, continental pants and all) and unapologetically chauvinist, gap-toothed “Kalypso Kat” and one panel in particular that we read with perhaps more enjoyment than we should have.
“Why,” queries one lady of Kalypso Kat, do they name hurricanes after women only? “Simple”, responds Kat, “that’s because dey dangerous like wunna”
Of course we have progressed to a more equitable distribution of the names of hurricanes since those days and nowadays for every Anna there is a Bernard and, for every Jacques, a Jillian. However, Kat’s mansplaining in that strip of long ago would have seemingly been borne out by the havoc wrought in some of our neighbouring islands by Irma and Maria while Jose eventually dissipated and harmed no one.
I have chosen to title this piece “A Caribbean tragedy” for obvious reasons. After all, the lives lost and the severe and probably irreparable dislocation caused to some in Anguilla, Barbuda, Tortola, Dominica and, for geographical comity, Puerto Rico, by these hurricanes are, indeed a tragedy of significant proportion.
But two other events are also tragic in nature even though neither might have displaced a single roof or directly caused a loss of life or livelihood. These are first, the niggardly and negative response of some individuals in Trinidad & Tobago to the selfless appeal by Dr Keith Rowley, the Prime Minister, for some Dominicans to be accommodated in that country where it was practicable to do so.This negativity was a clear display of selfishness by those responders, but it may go even deeper than it appears at first sight.
Since most of the Dominicans would be presumed to be mainly of one ethnicity and given the similar ethnic identity of the administration extending to them a helping hand in their hour of need, it might have possibly been perceived that some electoral advantage would most likely inure to the Rowley administration if those relocated individuals were ever granted the franchise in Trinidad & Tobago.
This might appear a fantastic deduction to my readers, but one of the cases that we treat in the law of defamation is that of a successful defence of qualified privilege on the basis of self defense of reputation on the part of a Trinidadian Senator who, stung by an imputation of dishonesty applied to members of his own party by a talkshow host, sought to respond in kind and suggested that the publisher of that accusation was himself part of an electoral strategy by Dr Eric Williams to permit the entry of Grenadians such as the publisher himself into Trinidad so that they would vote for Dr Williams party and thus perpetuate his hold on power. The defence of qualified privilege succeeded in the subsequent action for defamation by the talk show host against the Senator. The ratio was that the defendant was entitled to defend himself by a response of similar kind against defamatory imputations made about him. The significance of ethnicity in the Trinidad & Tobago partisan political environment is not to be taken lightly.
The second incident relates also to political partisanship and demonstrates the extent to which this phenomenon dominates the regional discourse in that it might assume eminence in a conversation as to relief for victims of this catastrophic act of nature.I refer to the accusation leveled a couple of days ago against the Prime Minister of Dominica by opposition political forces that the distribution of received aid was being effected along partisan lines.
Perhaps someday one of our political scientists with time on his or her hands will seek to explore the nature if the connection between the gain of political capital and material assistance to victims in times of natural disaster.
Indeed, it seemed for a brief while last week that the identical discussion might even enter our neck of the woods with the accusation that there had been a less than commendable national attempt only to offer relief to those in the ravaged islands, an imputation that would now have been displaced by the sterling work of the nation’s security forces and the use of Barbadian craft to transport both supplies to the islands and some individuals to safety.
The connection is indeed intriguing; an administration that is adjudged to be delinquent in its efforts at rescue and assistance is unlikely to gain favor with an electorate sympathetic to the victims, while one that is liberal with its assistance is more likely to find electoral advantage.One apt title for such a study would be “The Politics of Natural Disasters,” but then, what do I know?
Indeed, to conclude, there are more than a few commentators who credit anecdotally the 1986 entry of former Prime Minister, Owen Arthur, into the Lower House as the representative for St Peter to the flood relief accorded to the constituency by the then governing administration during that period.
One issue that concerns me in all this is the seeming helplessness of the region in the face of these hurricanes. I am not aware of any research studies that are being conducted regionally to avert the destruction wrought by them and even the suggestions as to how best to avoid losing the roof of one’s dwelling to the winds of the hurricane, while laudable and important, are still accepting of the theory that the hurricanes will and must come. We speak glibly in the region of the need for research…to isolate the effects of decriminalizing marijuana…to discover the most effective means of gaining reparation for slavery. Doubtless impotent issues. Is there none interested in avoiding or mitigating the incidence of hurricanes and their consequent destruction?