Fri | Feb 28, 2020

Carolyn Cooper | Sir Roy Augier – History in the making

Published:Sunday | January 26, 2020 | 12:35 AM

Two Fridays ago, Sir Roy Augier was awarded the highest honour that is conferred by The University of the West Indies: the Chancellor’s medal for distinguished service to the Caribbean region. Established in 1998 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the university, the medal signifies stellar accomplishments.

Sir Roy joins a select group of awardees: Sir Philip Sherlock (1998); The Hon Sir Alister McIntyre (1998); The Most Hon Percival Patterson (2006); The Hon Rex Nettleford (2009); Sir Shridath Ramphal (2011) and the Hon Elsa Leo-Rhynie (2017), the sole female recipient. Someone must have belatedly noticed that the club was exclusively male. Hopefully, other distinguished women will be honoured in the not too distant future. The award could be easily made alternately to men and women. Equal opportunity!

Sir Roy’s entertaining response to the many tributes began on a philosophical note, which is what you would expect from a man of 95 years: “So I should warn you that what follows from here – I am a historian, is very important for you to know, there is memory (I hope there is less memory than anything else) but there is memory and there is evidence. I have tried to make sure that I say nothing that I do not have evidence for.

“But, unfortunately, in an unplanned life, which has been a happy life, it is difficult to be sure of what you say – unless your wife is standing beside you, ‘No, no, Roy, that isn’t how it went!’ But I’ll try to keep fiction to a minimum. But there is one word that has really – looking back on the ninety-five years – really marked my life and the word is: concurrence. Anything that I have no evidence for because of movement in that life, but I say here, is based on concurrence – what is not accurately memory – and I can’t avoid that.”

ATTENTION TO EVIDENCE

As a historian, Sir Roy Augier was a scholar who paid meticulous attention to evidence. His most well-known publication is The Making of the West Indies, co-authored with Douglas Hall, Robert S.C. Gordon and M. Reckord. Generations of Caribbean students have used this textbook in secondary school. Unfortunately, Caribbean history is not a compulsory subject. As a result, some of us have a strangely romantic view of the past. We identify with the white witch, not with her victims.

Last week, I got an irritating ad from a realtor: “Plantation-era house for sale offering pieces of Jamaican history. Among St Ann’s storied estates, and one of St Ann’s Bay’s properties, the compound … is steeped in history and pedigree with a superior location mere minutes from the town of St Ann. The rare, sprawling compound spanning nearly 3 acres+/- of hillside views”.

I sent this response: “I’d like to know more about this listing, including the age of the property. Of course, another important issue is the asking price. And, by the way, some of us who are the descendants of the victims of plantation slavery want to subvert – not celebrate – that legacy. So you should look again at how you are marketing the property and who is your potential buyer”.

So far, I haven’t got a response. Clearly, I’m not a serious prospect for a sale. I don’t have the right history or pedigree.

MUSIC TO MY EARS

One of the very current issues Sir Roy addressed was bilingual education. It was music to my ears. He told the story of how he learned English grammar in primary school and, to this day, remembers those early lessons taught by his headmaster, Mr Belizaire. He also recalled “the distinctions that were made between Patois and English”. As he put it, “So I learned in primary school in St Lucia not to despise Patois. That was the first thing. Me and a lot of others. But secondly, that this was a language!

“And how did we learn the language? Because he [our teacher] made us learn that there were two languages.” And he taught students to translate from Patois to English: “So he gave us an example that sticks with me to this day. In English we say, you throw a stone. In Patois you say, you fire! You don’t throw.”

Sir Roy concluded, “One can mix teaching Patois and English together. Particularly to those who do not know it. You need not be made to despise it. You can claim correctly it is its own language.”

As chairman of the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) from 1986 to 1996, Sir Roy certainly applied the lessons learned in primary school in St Lucia. One of the aims of the CXC English syllabus is to “promote an understanding and appreciation of the place and value of the varieties of English and of the dialects and creoles of the Caribbean and other regions in different social and cultural contexts”.

If only our Ministry of Education could acknowledge that the classroom is one of the appropriate places for use of the Jamaican language. That would be making history. A real revolution!

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.