Wed | Aug 16, 2017

The Amerindian identity of Trinidad and Tobago

Published:Sunday | April 10, 2016 | 4:00 AM
Book cover of Narratives of Amerindians in Trinidad & Tobago

Narratives of Amerindians in Trinidad and Tobago;

or, Becoming Trinibagonian

Editor: Selwyn R. Cudjoe

Selwyn Cudjoe's exhaustive research on a people vanquished by invaders strikes an all too familiar tone. It's a cross-continental narrative that has blighted just about every indigenous culture. Cudjoe's speculative and metaphysical additives shift the genre of this work away from pure history; and its ontological focus becomes more apparent as we peer deeper into the transformational battle of cultures.

"Narratives of Amerindians" offers a compelling blend of prose and poetry; romanticism and reality; and past and present all wove into a common existential theme. At the outset, Cudjoe rightly stakes a claim to the uniqueness of his undertaking: ".... these selections of poetry, prose, drama, and a smidgen of Amerindian language offer a view of Amerindian life in Trinidad that can be found nowhere else."

His is a work of historical drama lessons in colonialism, acculturation, migration, geopolitics, and the Jekyll and Hyde elements of religion. Edward Henry Columbine's General Account of the Survey and Dimensions on Trinidad (1803) exemplifies the island's strategic importance to colonial powers and, in literary terms, offers topographic and demographic detail of a pristine land.

ENCHANTING LIFE

Lionel Bernard Tronchin's Inez, or the Last of the Aroucas (1885) delves into the warmth, enchanting life of a Carib Princess, and in the same year, The First Two Martyrs of Trinidad (A Tragedy in Four Acts, A.D, 1513), art is ably used to imitate life.

And later, Sieges and Fortunes of a Trinidadian in Search of a Doctor's Diploma (1909), reveals the impact of class and race on Amerindian identity long strained by miscegenation. This is a gripping a human interest story that underscores the tortuous path towards psychological and economic freedom.

Overall, Narratives is a study in rhetoric, ever persuasive as it manages to present a Platonistic view of an Amerindian world that brims with rich artistic value. We leave convinced that an evil had befallen a peace loving people beholden to the very ethics that elude us today. Their existence was clothed in nobility and their naturalistic religion (deism) and political structure are still instructive. And so, too, is their spiritual and cosmological identity that continues to enthral archaeologists.

Cudjoe delivers first-hand accounts that buttress the legend of the Amerindians and dismisses unfounded anecdotes that paint them with a deleterious brush.

The reflections of Edward Henry Columbine bear witness to such distortions, describing a people in Cumana and Toco best left to the vagaries of Providence: "Their habits are so incapable of civilisation, and their innate aversion to labour so unconquerable, that their loss would be little felt or regretted ... These savages seem to be far above the paltry emotions of joy or sorrow; they never smile on any occasions and seldom speak, except when animated with Vico, a strong mixture of rum, banana juice, coconut water, etc"

A letter from James Hamilton to Colonial Administrator Lewis Grant confronts this slander, extolling the character and industry of a people whose "considerable tinge of pride in his comportment which hardly ever leave him even under the most trying circumstances." And the hagiographic portrayal of Amerindian women in the writings of Frank Kims (1871) and Lionel Bernard Tronchin (1885) strips away at the long standing images of savagery.

BEFUDDLED

For sure, the native people believed in justice, unafraid to hit back if attacked, but were never incorrigibly feral as we were led to believe. They resisted forced, violent conversions. The name Sangre Grande (Big Blood) speaks volumes. Thus, we are befuddled, cautious to accept a compelling tale reproduced by Elma Reyes: "In Arima, the men were reluctant to join this new religion. The men were converted when, while hunting in the forest south of Arima, they encountered on three occasions a mysterious woman ... On their fourth trip to the area they met a crown of roses .... near a spring since called 'Agua Santa'. The Padre determined that they had met was the manifested spirit of ROSA the first canonised saint of the Americas. Converts were encouraged to bring stones and gravel on their heads to help construct the church which was dedicated to SANTA ROSA DE LIMA IN 1759. The festival, held annually in her name since then, is the oldest continuous, regional celebration in Trinidad and takes place every last Sunday in August."

The history of the Caribs in Trinidad has never been so convincingly presented. They have left an indelible, ubiquitous mark deserving of further study. Narratives takes that all important plunge proving an encomium that lends handsomely to an island's ethos and identity. Truly, among many, one people have emerged. Trinbagonians, they are called.

Like an imposing conductor of a complex production, Cudjoe never misses a beat, deliberate, omitting all extraneity to deliver an imaginative, vivid, and emotionally charged work that resonates beyond the shores of Trinidad and Tobago. The roots of culture are buried deep, in the very navel of a nation. We are sometimes oblivious of its impact as we focus on what meets the eyes. But how misguided we are. The indigenous people of every land have never stopped speaking. Today, they speak through us, more than ever before.

Rating: Highly recommended

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