Dr. Irving W. André’s Strangers in Suffisant: British West Indians in Curacao 1943-1963

On August 16, 2017, at 6:00 p.m. at the Fort Young Hotel, Roseau, Dominica, Dr. Irving W. André will launch Strangers in Suffisant: British West Indians in Curacao 1943-1963. In rendering this masterful account of the Dominica/British West Indian Diaspora in the development process, André pays worthy tribute to the heroic toil of those who left our shores and contributed to the survival of our island, by the skills, networks and resources they returned to their land of birth.  In salute to the 25th anniversary of Pont Casse Press this book sheds light on the role of the overseas communities, or Diaspora, in our affairs.  It is my hope that this effort will serve as a spur to all, to show more respect and appreciation for our Diaspora as a worthy development partner and not rely on that community as a mere platform for nefarious political gimmickry which can only sow ruin and cruel division.

In the 1960s when we visited our grandfather Aaron John Baptist in St. Joseph we heard that an area within the village was called Otrobando.[1] It was a strange name; not English or French. Until I peeled back the layers of history related to the Dominicans who made their fortunes in Curaçao in Dr. Irving W. André’s Strangers in Suffisant: British West Indians in Curacao, I did not know that it was named after a section of Willemstad, the capital of the petroleum-processing Dutch colony of Curacao.

Once again, André has unearthed that which tells us more about who we are, and from whence came many of those who have embellished our culture or aided our rise as a nation.

A son of St. Joseph, Boysie John, had built his home in that area of the village during the 1940s and the area was christened with that name which spoke to the island on which he had made his fortune. Such are the gems found in Strangers in Suffisant, an unparalleled unveiling of the impact of the Dominicans who had ventured to leave their thickly wooded isle, in search of fortune in the war-time oil industry on the Dutch ruled islands of Aruba and Curacao.  For the most part the Dominicans and others did find their El Dorado – that mythical land of gold – in that they were able to accumulate savings and/or master technology and other skills which enabled them to return to their islands much improved in socio-economic standing than when they left. The work also details the lives of those whose experiences in Curaçao later enhanced their skills sufficient to aid their successes in the United Kingdom and Canada.

The genesis of André’s interest in the story resides in the fact that his father was part of that trek by Dominicans to Curaçao.  André’s father, Ernest André, was one of those Dominicans who had sought to leave behind the limited economic opportunities of Dominica’s agriculture based economy to form part of the labour force which animated the cogs of Curaçao’s oil-run industry.  Accompanied by other British West Indians from St. Lucia, Grenada, St. Kitts and Antigua, they were divided into grades: Low Grade – those who lacked any skill and had not made it through primary school; Middle Grade – those with a primary school education and a trade; High Grade – those with a high school education who had taken Senior Cambridge Exams or had worked in the British colonial bureaucracy.

The author’s father was in the High Grade category. He had attended the Dominica Grammar School and had taken the Senior Cambridge Exam; he came from a distinguished family with roots in the colonial bureaucracy and commerce. His mother Margaret, who followed his father to Curaçao, worked as a baby-sitter with the Teitelbaum family, while her husband served as a laboratory technician at the Shell Oil refinery.

The author of Strangers in Suffisant, Dr. Irving André, was himself born in Curaçao and returned to Dominica in 1961 with his family. In the early 1970s, the André family moved from Portsmouth to the residential area of Goodwill, a section of Dominica’s capital which represented the most advanced example in urban planning on the island at that time. Like other returnees such as landowners Robert B. Douglas and Froebel Laville; shopkeepers and restaurateurs Symbert Mondesire, Terrance Royer, Faustina Charter, Perry Alcid, Gabriel Mitchell and Emile Talbert and Garner Charles, they boosted the local economy, and imparted a certain gloss of modernity to the living quarters they built for themselves. The savings of returnees boosted the local economy, and their insertion of elements of modernity into the local arena made Dominicans proud of their own; those who had gone overseas and dared to succeed. Such pride and self-confidence followed those who would now go on to Canada or England, assured that they could succeed there also.

In André’s thinly veiled autobiographical work, A Passage to Anywhere (Pont Casse Press, 1997) it is related that his father had a library thickly seeded with the classics of world literature. He also brought with him from Curaçao a significant jazz collection, and a well-appointed record player with which to play his record collection.  During the 1940s, Curaçao was the capital of petroleum processing in the Caribbean – a key element in the western allies arsenal with which to win World War II. Curaçao needed labour to operate its massive oil refinery and that was where well skilled English speaking West Indians came into play. In Strangers in Suffisant there are photos of Dominicans and other British West Indians at work and play: workers before a refinery control panel, with dials, knobs and other controls that would not look out of place at the most advanced control room for a power plant anywhere in the world; workers attired in their lawn tennis athletic ware, racquets in hand; oil workers nattily attired in suits and ties at a dance; and workers browsing at a bookstore which could be anywhere in London, Paris or New York.  The book is sown throughout with period photos.

In reading Strangers in Suffisant, one gets the distinct impression that these workers were, despite the racial discrimination they may have suffered, now at a level of consumption and living akin to that enjoyed by western European industrial workers.

Indeed, the work of these islanders on Aruba and Curaçao helped Western Europe shake off fascist tyranny and occupation. During the World War II Battle of the Caribbean, German U-Boats roamed the Southern Caribbean sinking oil tankers which were bound from the Aruba and Curaçao refineries with supplies for US and British Forces.   As is well documented in For King and Country: The Service and Sacrifice of the British West Indian Military (Irving W. André and Gabriel J. Christian, Pont Casse Press, 2009) 100% of the fuel used by American forces in the Invasion of North Africa, and 75% of the fuel used by the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain came from those refineries. The British West Indian workers, Dominicans prominent among them, therefore played a critical role in the success of the Allied war effort.

The role of the British West Indian proletariat in the advance of Western industrialization and mercantile expansion was nothing new. In the 18th and 19th centuries, West Indian sugar had provided the financial capital which powered Britain’s Industrial Revolution; and the use of the railway in agriculture was pioneered in Jamaica’s sugar industry when railroad cars took cane to the grinding houses to produce sugar. In that period sugar was a product considered as lucrative as oil is considered today.  After the decline of the sugar industry in the British West Indies, the huge labor force of freed Africans became a restless proletariat; ever in need of new opportunity they migrated in search of work whenever the occasion arose.

Many islanders travelled to the South American mainland in search of gold in Cayenne and British Guiana. In the US-run Venezuelan oil industry, English speaking British West Indians were able to use their facility with the language of the refinery owners, and familiarity with technology, to climb the income ladder. And when the United States  decided to build the Panama Canal, it was the same British West Indian working class which again provided a certain degree of skilled man power – coupled with US capital and technology – to cut through the isthmus and so link the Atlantic (via the Caribbean Sea) and Pacific Oceans.  It was that British West Indian working class, with its mastery of the English language, ability to work in hot, humid conditions relatively unaffected, and century’s old seasoning in the industrial arts derived from the sugar mills, which was crucial to the successful construction of the Panama Canal.

My own grandfather, Antiguan-born William Mathew Christian, worked on the Panama Canal with many other Dominicans and British West Indians.   William Christian, like Ernest André, was still warmed by the self-improvement ethic of the Victorian era, and learning was to be revered. Like André’s father Ernest, Christian bought many books – familiarity with which imparted a degree of literacy to his progeny. He also bought musical instruments and a Victrola gramophone with savings from his work as a clerk in Panama. Those accoutrements of success afforded the returnee a self-confidence – alongside the financial means with which to enter the world of commerce or the professions – so enhancing the quality of life in the communities to which they returned.  The returnees, though often misunderstood and mishandled by some of their own kindred upon return, have been unsung heroes of an important Caribbean survival mechanism: the overseas community as economic life-line. That the British West Indian islanders have been able to survive the harsh downturns attendant to the destruction of their sugar  and then banana – based economies, is a testament to the pivotal role of the Caribbean Diaspora in bringing forth the financial and other means which have buttressed the survival of the island communities from which they came.

In the Dominica of my childhood it was easy to spot the home of someone who had returned from Curaçao; the terrazzo flooring on the porch area, the glass blocks recessed in the walls; the tastefully painted bungalow; the flower pots; the lamp shades atop side tables; and the iron wrought gates all spoke to the comparative wealth of those who had gone to Curaçao or Aruba and done well. On the inside of the homes of these Diaspora Dominicans, next to stuffed settees, would be the ubiquitous record player/radio combination set encased within highly varnished, intricately carved woodwork.  Simply called a “gram,” these were the forerunners to today’s more plain-looking, less intricately designed, stereo systems.

There was a routine, sufficient to stir the envy of a local, when one visited the home of someone who had come back home from Curaçao in those days. Everything had this sheen akin to that seen in the magazines or in the movies. When the returnee would turn the black lacquered knobs on the new-fangled machine, the red dial behind the glass case would move along the station settings from which emitted the velvety voice of a Jim Reeves, Nat King Cole or Elvis Presley. On occasion, the returnee would also have a television set; its small screen set within a finely crafted wooden case. Without a television station on Dominica in the 1960s, the screen would nonetheless be turned on from time to time, to show that television did exist. If one lived in the far north of the island near Guadeloupe, or far south, near to Martinique, one could get a faint signal from the television stations on the French run islands. Such was the impact on the island by the returnees that Dominicans who now desired a new home wanted it built like those who came from Curaçao; and the interior decorations would now be in similar style.

Beyond simple remittances to needy relatives, be it in dress, industry, agriculture, shop keeping or the arts, the returnees provided a social leavening to Dominica which added color to the lives of those who had not gone across the sea to seek fortune. The pool of economic opportunity on Dominica has, for at least a century or more, been replenished by its fortune seeking Diaspora.

Strangers in Suffisant provides raw material on the Dominican/British West Indian contributions to Aruba and Curaçao; their role in war in the oil industry which enhanced the survivability of these two Dutch islands and aided the Allied war effort in World War II; and the imperishable memories left behind in the continued contributions of their off-spring.  For instance, Dominica’s famous Lady of Song, Ophelia Olivacee-Marie was born in Curaçao.  Another proud descendant of Dominicans, who went to Curacao, is attorney Karyl Bertrand who has distinguished herself in the legal profession on that island. She has done so in a manner similar to another Curaçao-born Dominican who has made notable contributions in the legal field: Judge Irving W. André, of the Superior Court of Brampton, Ontario; the author of this work.

By penning this  seminal work on the role of the Dominican/British West Indian Diaspora in Aruba and Curaçao, André has peeled back layers  which had – for too long – concealed the precious story of those intrepid Dominicans who, like his parents, had gone in search of their fortune. And when they did find fortune, they returned to better the lot of an emerging nation.  In a surge to get ahead, they had risked U-Boat infested, or tempest driven, Caribbean waters to ascend the ladder of success. For Dr. André’s sterling effort in making this story known, may those yet unborn be similarly cultivated to strike out across the uncharted plains of life.

Dr.  André is a man of civic virtue and patriotic ardor.  In Canada he has distinguished himself in the legal community, co-founded Pont Casse Press to promote Dominica/Caribbean history and literature, in addition to volunteering his time with many organizations in the Diaspora.  His effort in penning this work was no idle stroll amidst a maze of self-indulgent nostalgia.  The scholarship which underpins Strangers in Suffisant in a way provides a road map to success.  It speaks to the vision of people from modest island homes who dared to dream big, work hard, act wisely, and so escape the thralldom of poverty and ignorance.  The gallant Strangers in Suffisant had the pluck to seek knowledge and successfully compete alongside others who considered themselves superior.

   André is seized of a hope which is palpable throughout the work; a hope which is that those who leave Dominica’s shores today conform to the virtues of their ancestors who left their island in years past to seek a better life.  It is a sincere hope that those who leave Caribbean shores in the 21st Century escape unsavory temptations and diligently engage in honest labour. When they do so, they will command the respect of their new neighbors, while enhancing the chances for survival of our island homes.

Strangers in Suffisant is the third volume in a trilogy of books that focus on the contributions of Dominicans to Europe in the mid-twentieth century. The first, the 2009 book For King and Country, was co-authored by attorney Gabriel Christian. The second, How Dominica saved Guadeloupe and Martinique during World War Two, was published in 2010

[1] Its counterpart in Curaçao is called Otrabando.