Experts and the development of the British Caribbean, 1940–62

This book produces a major rethinking of the history of development after 1940 through an exploration of Britain’s ambitions for industrialisation in its Caribbean colonies. Industrial development is a neglected topic in histories of the British Colonial Empire, and we know very little of plans for Britain’s Caribbean colonies in general in the late colonial period, despite the role played by riots in the region in prompting an increase in development spending. This account shows the importance of knowledge and expertise in the promotion of a model of Caribbean development that is best described as liberal rather than state-centred and authoritarian. It explores how the post-war period saw an attempt by the Colonial Office to revive Caribbean economies by transforming cane sugar from a low-value foodstuff into a lucrative starting compound for making fuels, plastics and medical products. In addition, it shows that as Caribbean territories moved towards independence and America sought to shape the future of the region, scientific and economic advice became a key strategy for the maintenance of British control of the West Indian colonies. Britain needed to counter attempts by American-backed experts to promote a very different approach to industrial development after 1945 informed by the priorities of US foreign policy.

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Widespread riots occurred across the British Caribbean during the 1930s. The cause was very poor economic conditions during the Depression that resulted, in part, from the collapse of the price of cane sugar. In response, the Colonial Office formulated a solution to Caribbean problems in which sugar would be transformed from a foodstuff in oversupply to a raw material for manufacturing synthetics and fuels. Inspired by the interest shown by major chemical firms such as ICI into the use of sugar and molasses as starting compounds for making polythene and other new materials, the CO initiated a programme of scientific research into the chemistry of sugar. The goal was to find a permanent solution to the persistent problems that affected the Caribbean. In making a commitment to this scheme, officials took a different path from that embodied in the proposals of the recent Moyne Commission that historians have often said provided the blueprint for policies for the Caribbean after 1945.

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Sugar research was only one of a large number of new projects created with the passing of the 1940 Colonial Development and Welfare Act. The Act included a Research Fund that made the Colonial Office the second largest sponsor of civil scientific research in Britain. Scientists and officials spoke of the need to use the Research Fund to support more ‘fundamental research’. The key value that informed the new arrangements intended to expand fundamental research was ‘freedom’. Scientists at the Colonial Office claimed that for the highest quality research to occur, scientists had to be free to choose their own research problems. When it came to sponsoring sugar research as the basis for new industry, freedom was also key. The Colonial Office formed a Colonial Products Research Council to fund research into the basic reactions of sugar, avoiding narrowly defined problems that directly related to the work of any individual firm. Researchers would pursue research of the broadest possible nature, leaving individual companies to apply the results according to their interests. In this way, state-sponsored research would not contravene the principles of liberal political economy.

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Scholars have repeatedly said that the Colonial Office actively frustrated any hopes for Caribbean industrialisation. In fact, officials saw the development of secondary manufacturing as essential after the Second World War, in order to raise living standards and contain political dissent. Officials in London were occupied in the 1940s with the question of what constituted acceptable modes of intervention by government to facilitate diversification, consulting a number of experts, including W. A. Lewis. The challenge was to reconcile the need to demonstrate a more constructive approach with some long-standing laissez-faire principles. Two wider issues made Colonial Office attempts to persuade the colonies to follow its preferred route to industrialisation difficult, however. The increasing political autonomy of governments in the Caribbean meant that Britain could not merely instruct its possessions to follow its edicts. In addition, it became clear that the US sought to expand its influence in the Caribbean, and the promotion of models of industrialisation derived from the experience of Puerto Rico became part of American strategy. In the face of these challenges, the dissemination of economic advice by the Colonial Office assumed unprecedented importance.

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The Colonial Products Research Council at the Colonial Office created a Sugar Technology Laboratory and Colonial Microbiological Research Institute in Trinidad during the late 1940s. The STL was partly funded by West Indian sugar manufacturers and explored the industrial uses of sugar cane and its by-products. The CMRI studied fermentation methods, sought ways to control fungal diseases of crops and man, and had a reference collection of useful microbes. The two laboratories in Trinidad were intended to be a tangible, visible, intervention in the British Caribbean at a point when the Colonial Office mostly offered advice on industrial development. Their function in conveying Britain’s commitment to modernising the colonies was derived from their status as world centres for science. The STL and CMRI were described as places of fundamental research into general scientific phenomena, and the prosecution of this type of work was said to allow Trinidad to participate in the international advance of science. This ability to contribute to the global circulation of knowledge was intended to be demonstration of Britain’s commitment to modernising its colonies.

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It is practically a cliché to state that the British government did nothing to foster the growth of secondary industry in the British West Indies and that the first phase in the pursuit of industrial development after 1950 was inspired by the work of W. A. Lewis. This chapter revises this narrative by showing that Pioneer Industries legislation to encourage industrialisation in Trinidad was in place before the intervention of Lewis, and was in more accord with the concessions for new industry advocated by the Colonial Office in London. This is unsurprising when we consider that one of the authors of the Pioneer Industries legislation was an Economic Advisor seconded to Trinidad by the Colonial Office. This advisor was Arthur Shenfield, an advocate of minimal state intervention in economic affairs (in contrast to Lewis), and later in life, President of the Mont Pelerin Society. Altogether, the Colonial Office was successful in steering policy for industry along lines it saw as desirable until the 1956 elections that brought Eric Williams to power. This success was achieved not by direct instruction by London but through the judicious use of expert advisors.

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By the early 1950s, the Colonial Office was concerned that the work overseen by the CPRC was not making a tangible contribution to the economic development of the colonies. Officials complained that very few products developed through research were in commercial production. This chapter considers the factors that limited the success of the CPRC programmes, including the prospect of independence in Britain’s colonies and the shift towards oil as a raw material for making synthetics. It also explores why Colonial Office administrators had a change of heart when it came to the promotion of undirected, long-term programmes of fundamental research. The original vision of scientific research and colonial development did not place emphasis on rapid results, and the question of how the findings of research would be translated into practice was largely left unaddressed. While originally described as necessary conditions to cultivate fundamental research and attract high-calibre scientists, by the 1950s these arrangements had come to be seen as a problem. This chapter considers the external and internal factors that contributed to the demise of the agreement at the Colonial Office that undirected fundamental research had an important role to play in economic development.

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Science and industrial development: lessons from Britain’s imperial past
in Science at the end of empire