By LENNOX FARRELL
Around 1960, with scores of other high-school students also seated in a Port-of-Spain fish-market – still smelly though disinfected for the occasion – I took the London General Certificate of Education Examination (London GCE).
On that same day, at that same time, other students across the length and breadth of Trinidad, in similar circumstances in markets, community centres, church halls, etc., also sat their GCE. This was the same Math, Religious Studies, English, History, Biology taken at General or Advanced levels.
Even on a country-wide basis, this was a marvellous example of organization at its most precise and predictable. We were different students at high schools all over the country. Most of these schools were private.
They were also run by religious bodies, for example, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus, etc. Others, though also private but not explicitly religious, included Mr. Murray’s Osmond High School, and Mr. Holder’s Progressive Educational Institute. These were Black educators without whom, in a colour-conscious colony, we would not have had high schooling opportunities.
We were tutored under the curricula of Rule Brittania. And as marvellous as was the organizing for these exams in Trinidad, it is stunning to think that on the same day on which we sat our examinations, so too, had other students, in every time zone, language and hemisphere where other British-controlled colonies were: South Africa; Australia; India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Fiji…
It was an empire, the British boast ran, “On which the sun never set”. Or, maybe, as one Irish wit also put it, “Because even God could not trust them in the dark”.
These students’ exams would, as ours, be thereby notarized with officially administered ochre-red wax seals stamped on manila envelopes. Inside would be our photographs, exam answers, names, etc. Certifying all this locally would be an invigilator (not as today’s mere supervisor). This official guaranteed that the person sitting that subject was who he/she was supposed to be, etc.
These exams, held locally under the foreign auspices of the University of London, England, would then be shipped to the Mother Country (motherhood a synonym for perfidy?) and there graded. The results, returned about three months later, would list those who had passed; for what subject; grade level…and these details, published in some official paper, like The Gazette.
I can recall of what those days tasted: exhilaration and terror. These exams were not cheap, nor free. Each subject was paid for by our parents, other familial adults, or by ourselves if we were working. Each subject taken was priced at one pound, sterling – a British pound was worth $4.80 in local currencies back then. Factoring that weekly wages could be five pounds or less, one can see the significant investment these exams represented in costs, including private lessons and future expectations of being able to help one’s parents.
The dates for publishing these results were as unpredictable as geldings racing for stakes in the Grand Savannah, or the winning numbers of the prized Irish lotteries. What was memorable is that GCE exams and results were, for their apocalyptic possibilities, good enough reasons for many of us, believers or not, to behold Judgement Day!
For example, one could tell on any street, and in which home, students had passed – hallelujah! And, by comparison, the wailings, screams and imprecations where ones had failed – licks like peas, passing from leather belts, or much worse, those plastic: ribbed, transparent and yellow!
To pass or fail GCE was life-changing in terms of possibilities available or denied. Therefore, long before we as mortals could meet the Messiah as Advocate or Judge, Britain had spawned cosmic dress-rehearsals, regardless of Greenwich Mean Time, and tea and crumpets across the then British Empire.
All of this organizing, done for one exam – think of all the multitude of other activities – gives pause to what the British Empire represented as Rome’s foremost prodigy. Even more astonishing is that this planning, co-ordinating and execution occurred when there was no internet, email, cell-phones, etc. Back then, communication was conducted by memos and letters hand-written, or typed on a typewriter, its keyboard of metallic alphabet pounded by secretarial fingers against ribbons of inks, red and black.
Electronically – this word probably too out of sync for that era – information was sent by Morse code along telegraph wires running along cables sunk in the depths of the oceans, and despite which, ships’ anchors could cut, and wave action entangle. There were telephones, more decorous than definitive.
It was therefore, within this British Empire – one already in decline after the drubbing of World War II – that included dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. This empire that had originated with what were coyly called, “overseas possessions, and trading posts”; established between the late 16th and early 18th centuries.
At its height, it was the largest empire in history. For over a century, the foremost global power. By 1922 it held sway over about 458 million people, or one-fifth of the world’s population then. It controlled more than 13,012,000 sq. mi.; almost a quarter of the Earth’s total land area. And the primary goal of controlling these peoples and lands, while ostensibly to “civilize these lesser breeds of humanity”, was to seize by force their wealth and impoverish them into servitude.
Ironically, such “declining of empire” is more mirage than reality. Yes, some “independence” has been granted to some – fig leaf contradictions in self-determination. However, unlike past empires: European, Japanese, Mayan, those today morph and merge into transnational corporations – primarily European and North American – which control more than three-quarters of the known mineral resources of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Even more condemnatory is that, in most of its former colonies, Britain from its inception, by “divide and rule tactics”, had set about crafting futures of possible conflict. Or as one Caribbean writer put it, crafting subject nations “out of people, insecure and racially intolerant from contending interests and uneven circumstances”. It is from these circumstances and contentions that in Nigeria there was the Biafra War; it is between India and Pakistan, that nuclear weapons now mutually threaten each other.
But all is not degenerate nor neo-colonial. It is from these former colonies, too, that a Jamaican, Roy Gilchrist, out-paced and reshaped the boundaries of the most cricket of British pastimes. It is, too, from the Queen’s own English that a Trini, C.L.R. James, first person plural, born mere generations away from enslaved and indentured subjects, conjugated from past tensions, the future tenses of morality.
Because, while the practice of empire is an abuse of power by all means iniquitous, empire knows only the uses of, but not the limitations on, power; limitations always set by issues of morality.