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A Bishop amongst Bananas

By the Right Rev. Herbert Bury, D.D.
Lately Bishop of British Honduras and Central America

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd., [1911]

Chapter XIV. White and Black

I APPROACH this chapter with great diffidence and hesitation, and doubted whether it was wise to include it in such a book at all; but I don't see how I can leave it out, as it is impossible to spend even a short time in the United States, and especially in the Southern ones, much less to fulfil even a brief episcopate in such a Diocese as mine, without forming some ideas of one's own about Colour.

The Colour Line was the title of a book put into my hands by one of the most respected and efficient of the clergy in New Orleans when I was leaving that city for the first time, and it was a revelation to me of what White could feel towards Black, although I had had the following experience just before.

A clergyman who had formerly been working in the West Indies and thought he would like to return to it, had sought work in my Diocese, and I asked him to come up from San Francisco where he was and meet me in a certain Southern city for an interview.

I had given him the name of one of the rectors there who had offered to be of any use that he could to me, in case he arrived before me. He did arrive before me, and went straight to this rector, who found him comfortable quarters, and told me on his arrival that he was soon coming on to see me.

"I have asked him to luncheon with us at the ------"naming a well-known restaurant, "and you will be able to talk to him at leisure," he added.

As soon as he had said this I seemed to remember at once that I had heard something about the man who was coming to meet me having a little colour, and so I said:

"You know he has some colour, of course?"

"Oh, no, he hasn't. I've seen him, and he's as white and English as you and me," was his reply.

"Well, that may be so, but I don't think I can possibly be mistaken, and as soon as he arrives I'll ask him," I answered.

I did so, and found that his grandfather or his grandmother had been coloured, though he did not show the least trace of it himself. My host had to withdraw his invitation, which he did without hurting the other man's feelings; for if he hadn't, and it had transpired that he had taken into that restaurant a man who had even the least trace of colour in him, he wouldn't have been allowed to go there himself again, and it would have affected him in other social ways as well.

Knowing all this I was in honour bound, in introducing the clergyman to him and asking his good offices on his behalf, to let him know the truth. But this incident, and The Colour Line which I was asked to read in New Orleans, gave me much to think of before I ever set foot in my Diocese. Then at Panama and in Jamaica I again found much material for thought, and I suppose one will go on thinking of it all one's life, but, if it is not presumptuous to say so, I am firmly convinced already that the colour line is not a rational line nor a religious one.

This is what Sir Sydney Olivier says in his most interesting and instructive book on White Capital and Coloured Labour: "The colour line is not a rational line, the logic neither of words nor facts will uphold it. If adopted it infallibly aggravates the virus of the colour problem, and the more it is ignored the more is that virus accentuated"; and again: "The civilization and morality of the Jamaican negro are not high, but he is on a markedly different level from his grandfather the plantation slave, and his greatgrandfather the African savage. The negro of Jamaica has been so far raised, so much freedom of a civic nature between the races has been made tolerable, by the continuous application to the race of the theory of humanity and equality; equality, that is, in the essential sense of endowment in the Infinite, a share, however obscure and undeveloped, in the inheritance of what we call the soul. Evangelical Christianity, most democratic of doctrines, and educational effort, inspired and sustained by a personal conviction and recognition that, whatever the superficial distinctions, there was fundamental community and an equal claim in the Black with the White to share, according to personal capacity and development, in all the inheritance of humanity--these chiefly have created the conditions that have done what has been done for the negro in the land of his exile. Emancipation, education, identical justice, perfect equality in the Law Courts and under the Constitution, whatever the law of the Constitution might be, these take away the sting of race difference, and if there is race inferiority it is not burdened with an artificial handicap. Negroes are now indisputably the equals of the white men in categories in which one hundred years ago their masters would have confidently argued that they were naturally incapable of attaining equality."

I commend these weighty words of Sir Sydney Olivier, who has had a very wide experience of the subject of which he writes, is now Governor of Jamaica, after being Colonial Secretary there years ago, and came to England this year to attend the Coronation as a representative of the whole province of the West Indies.

We have our colour problem already looming up, and threatening to be a very serious one, in South Africa, and it is well for us all to see what the colour line has done for the United States in producing what is admittedly their most grave social peril to-day, and what the careful avoiding of it has done for the West Indian Islands, and especially for the prosperous, beautiful, and contented island of Jamaica, where Coronation Day was kept this year by white and black together with a loyalty, enthusiasm, and sincerity such as were exceeded, even if equalled, in no other part of the British Empire!

What constitutes race inferiority? I submit that it is an evident absence of the power to persist in contact with other races, and an inability to assimilate what is best in them and work out one's own development.

Let anyone consider the negro's physical strength and his power to live and work in any climate in the world except that of extreme cold; the marvellous way in which he has assimilated our British civilization in our colonies, not putting it on as a kind of veneer but making it his own. Let them consider especially the way in which he has taken our Christianity and given it that fervour and mystical sense which our own so often lacks; and let them take the best samples of all this, and not the worst, which one ought to do in all cases where one wants to form anything worth calling a reliable opinion, and then look forward and think whether there is not a real future for such a race.

I believe in choosing the best specimens when I want to sample and judge!

At a very early service one day amongst the bananas in Guatemala, when looking over the congregation at those parts of the service where one faces them, my eyes rested from time to time upon as perfect a specimen of young manhood as I have ever seen. He was kneeling straight up, a young man of about twenty-six, of such superb physique and symmetry that even his rough working clothes couldn't conceal them. There were two or three other young men near him, and all were deeply and reverently attentive to the service. Afterwards I stood outside saying good-bye to them all as they came out of the little shack where our Celebration had been held, for I had to be away on my journey before seven o'clock. Amongst others, the young fellow I have mentioned came out and waited for his few words.

"You're a fine fellow!" I said, laying my hand on his shoulder.

'"Yes," he said, smiling back with a boyish kind of acceptance of what he felt to be a friendly remark.

"Yes, you certainly are," I continued, "and I can't help wondering whether you are as strong in spirit and character, as I see you are in body?"

He looked at me steadily for a moment or two with the same frank and youthful expression, and then said confidently:

"I think I am, Bishop."

It was not a reply that one had expected, and yet it struck me as quite sincere, so after asking his name, with a word or two of good will I let him and his friends go off to work.

While at coffee with the manager of the division I took the opportunity to ask for information.

"What sort of man is B------?" I asked, naming my friend.

"B------?" he said. "Do you know him? Have you just seen him? I can only say, Bishop, that he is a white man through and through, black as he is. Why, he's one of my best foremen, though the other three, friends of his and good men too, are of much the same calibre. You should see them at their work, axe in hand; it does one good to see such strength as theirs. And then they are so reliable, straight, and industrious, I can trust them all the time when good work has to be done, and responsible men are wanted for it."

And so he ran on, warmly and enthusiastically giving honour to whom honour is due, and, American as he was, determined to let his judgment and sense of just appreciation speak, and not that race prejudice from which so many of his countrymen, if they have to work amongst the negro race, find it difficult to keep themselves free.

A race which can produce such specimens as B------and his friends, and send them into church at half-past four in the morning for religious duties, earnest and devout, and then to do a day's work which earns unstinted and yet discriminating praise, cannot but have a real place in the progress of humanity.

The question for us to answer, and a very responsible one it is too, is whether we will help or hinder them in attaining it. To go back to my "Foreword" at the beginning of the book, they are "looking up" to us for inspiration, example, leadership, bracing, strong but very real sympathy, and my hope and prayer is that we of the British Empire are not going to disappoint that wistful upward look.

I do not know a really competent and experienced authority who does not write in the same spirit of appreciation as I have sought to show all through this book, and especially in this chapter. There are many things, such as education, political power, and especially inter-marriage, one would like to speak of, but of course space does not admit of it; but if I refer those who are already interested in these subjects to Sir Sydney Olivier's little book, published for a shilling by the Independent Labour Party at 32, Bride Lane, Fleet Street, E.G., and ask them to read, especially carefully, the chapter on "Short Views and Long Views on White and Black," I am sure that they will consider that I have done them a very real service.

And now I will do as he has done, and take a very lengthy extract with which to fitly end this chapter. It is from an article on "Race Questions and Prejudices," by Professor Josiah Royce, of Harvard University, in the International Journal of Ethics for April, 1906. There can be little question in impartial minds of the real significance and value of such explicit testimony, coming as it does from such a source:--

"How can the white man and the negro, once forced, as they are in our South, to live side by side, best learn to live with a minimum of friction, with a maximum of co-operation? I have long learned from my Southern friends that this end can only be attained by a firm, and by a very constant and explicit, insistence upon keeping the negro in his proper place, as a social inferior--who, then, as an inferior, should, of course, be treated humanely, but who must first be clearly and unmistakably taught where he belongs. I have observed that the pedagogical methods which my Southern friends of late years have found it their duty to use, to this end, are methods such as still keep awake a good deal of very lively and intense irritation, in the minds not only of the pupils but also of the teachers.

"Must such increase of race-hatred first come, in order that later, whenever the negro has fully learned his lesson, and aspires no more beyond his station, peace may later come? Well, concerning just this matter I lately learned what was to me, in my experience, a new lesson. I have had occasion three times, in recent summers, to visit British West Indies, Jamaica, and Trinidad, at a time when few tourists were there. Upon visiting Jamaica I first went round the coast of the island, visiting its various ports. I then went inland, and walked for miles over its admirable country roads. I discussed its condition with men of various occupations. I read some of its official literature. I then consulted with a new interest its history. I watched its negroes in various places, and talked with some of them, too. I have since collected such further information as I had time to collect regarding its life, as various authorities have discussed the topic, and this is the result:--

"Jamaica has a population of surely not more than 14,000 or 15,000 whites, mostly English. Its black population considerably exceeds 600,000. Its mulatto population, of various shades, numbers, at the very least, some 40,000 or 50,000. Its plantation life, in the days before emancipation, was much sadder and severer, by common account, than ours in the South ever was. Both the period of emancipation and the immediately following period were of a very discouraging type. In the sixties of the last century there was one very unfortunate insurrection. The economic history of the island has also been in many ways unlucky even to the present day. Here, then, are certainly conditions which in some respects are decidedly such as would seem to tend towards a lasting state of general irritation, such as would make, you might suppose, race-questions acute. Moreover, the population, being a tropical one, has serious moral burdens to contend with of the sort that result from the known influences of such climates upon human character in the men of all races.

"And yet, despite all these disadvantages, to-day, whatever the problems of Jamaica, whatever its defects, our own present Southern race-problem in the forms which we know best, simply does not exist. There is no public controversy about social race equality or superiority. Neither a white man nor a white woman feels insecure in moving about freely amongst the black population anywhere on the island.

"The negro is, on the whole, neither painfully obtrusive in his public manners, nor in need of being sharply kept in his place. Within the circles of the black population itself there is meanwhile a decidedly rich social differentiation. There are negroes in Government service, negroes in the professions, negroes who are fairly prosperous peasant proprietors, and there are also the poor peasants; there are the thriftless, the poor in the towns--yes, as in any tropical country, the beggars. In Kingston and in some other towns there is a small class of negroes who are distinctly criminal. On the whole, however, the negro and coloured population, taken in the mass, are orderly, law-abiding, contented, still backward in their education, but apparently advancing. They are generally loyal to the Government. The best of them are aspiring, in their own way, and wholesomely self-conscious. Yet there is no doubt whatever that English white men are the essential controllers of the destiny of the country. But these English whites, few as they are, control the country at present with extraordinarily little friction, and wholly without those painful emotions, those insistent complaints and anxieties, which at present are so prominent in the minds of many of our own Southern brethren. Life in Jamaica is not ideal. . . . But the negro race-question, in our present American sense of that term, seems to be substantially solved.

"And how is this brought about?

"I answer, by the simplest means in the world--the simplest, that is, for Englishmen--viz.: by English administration, and by English reticence. When once the sad period of emancipation and of subsequent occasional disorder was passed, the Englishman did in Jamaica what he had so often and so well done elsewhere. He organized his colony; he established good local courts, which gained by square treatment the confidence of the blacks. The judges of such courts were Englishmen. The English ruler also provided a good country constabulary, in which native blacks also found service, and in which they could exercise authority over other blacks. Black men, in other words, were trained, under English management, of course, to police black men. A sound civil service was also organized; and, in that, educated negroes found in due time their place, while the chief of each branch of the service were or are, in the main, Englishmen. The excise and the health services, both of which are very highly developed, have brought the law near to the life of the humblest negro, in ways which he sometimes finds, of course, restraining, but which he also frequently finds beneficent. Hence he is accustomed to the law; he sees its ministers often, and often, too, as men of his own race; and in the main, he is fond of order, and so is respectful towards the established ways of society. The Jamaica negro is described by those who know him as especially fond of bringing his petty quarrels and personal grievances into court. He is litigious just as he is vivacious. But this confidence in the law is just what the courts have encouraged. That is one way, in fact, to deal with the too forward and strident negro. Encourage him to air his grievances in court, listen to him patiently, and fine him when he deserves fines. That is a truly English type of social pedagogy. It works in the direction of making the negro a conscious helper toward good social order.

"Administration, I say, has done the larger half of the work of solving Jamaica's race-problem. Administration has filled the island with good roads, has reduced to a minimum the tropical diseases by means of an excellent health-service, has taught the population loyalty and order, has led them some steps already on the long road 'up from slavery,' has given them, in many cases, the true self-respect of those who themselves officially co-operate in the work of the law, and it has done this without any such result as our Southern friends nowadays conceive when they think of what is called 'negro domination.' Administration has allayed ancient irritations. It has gone far to offset the serious economic and tropical troubles from which Jamaica meanwhile suffers.

"Yes, the work has been done by administration--and by reticence. You well know that in dealing, as an individual, with other individuals, trouble is seldom made by the fact that you are actually the superior of another man in any respect. The trouble comes when you tell the other man too stridently that you are his superior. Be my superior quietly, simply showing your superiority in your deeds, and very likely I shall love you for the very fact of your superiority. For we all love our leaders. But tell me that I am your inferior, and then perhaps I may grow boyish, and may throw stones. Well, it is so with races. Grant then that yours is the superior race. Then you can afford to say little about that subject in your public dealings with the backward race. Superiority is best shown by good deeds and by few boasts."

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