Neither Luisa Calderon nor Maria Jones, the subjects two previous posts, wrote about themselves, as far as we know: our knowledge of them is based on surviving documents produced by others. But Emilie Maresse-Paul was a writer; we know about her mainly through her own published writings. This short account of her is based on research by Dr. W.A. Smith, my former doctoral student (and Emilie’s descendant).
Emilie Maresse was born in Trinidad in 1838, the year of emancipation. She was from a well respected family of “French free coloureds”, meaning people of mixed race (African and European), free and often well-off, French in their cultural orientation. (Michel Jean Cazabon, the famous artist, belonged to the same group.)
She was educated by tutors at home; she spoke and wrote both French and English, and was well read in the European literatures of the day. In general her education was oriented to France more than to Britain, and she subscribed to the values of the 18th-century French Enlightenment—the supremacy of reason, opposition to authoritarian government, hostility to organized religion, especially the Roman Catholic Church.
Emilie married Alexander Smith at the age of 18. In a highly unusual move for a woman of the mid-19th century, she retained her maiden name, and ensured that her children carried both their parents’ surnames. Her son, Edgar Maresse-Smith, was an important figure in Trinidad’s radical politics in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Emilie’s first husband died young, she remarried P.A. Paul, and used the surname Maresse-Paul.
To support her family during her widowhood, and even after her re-marriage, Emilie tutored children at home, as well as teaching her own two. But this wasn’t enough for her. She longed to carve a place in the public arena, the world of politics, journalism and activism—a world from which women were conventionally banned in Emilie’s time, in Trinidad and everywhere else.
And so Emilie began to write letters and articles for the Trinidad and Grenada newspapers, in the 1880s and 1890s, right up to her death in 1900—virtually unprecedented for a woman in a Victorian colony. She often wrote in French, a deliberate protest against the colonial government’s attempts to eliminate French influences in Trinidad, and against British imperialism generally.
Whether she was writing in French or in English, the range of subjects and issues that she chose to take up was wide, and she was always fearless in her criticisms of the colonial officials, the elites, the Church—whoever she felt was oppressing people.
Clearly Emilie held feminist views. She wrote in favour of women having some voice in political life—nearly 40 years before any woman in Trinidad & Tobago got the vote. In another article, she wrote:
I vastly admire the courageous young girl who…understands that it is her duty to go forth into the world, enter the arena with strong men, and fight bravely the battle of life—the girl who elects to labour—the orphan who is reliant enough to conquer her independence by earning a decent livelihood by the sweat of her brow…
Her political views were radical for the time; she wanted an end to crown colony government and the grant of elected members in the colony’s legislature. She supported the men who campaigned for this goal in the 1880s and 1890s, but didn’t hesitate to criticise them when she felt their aims and strategies were too timid and limited—even though her own son was a prominent leader of the campaign.
Even more controversial, she was firmly anticlerical: she objected to the way the clergy, especially of the Catholic Church, dominated education in the colony and (in her view) oppressed their flock. Emilie returned to this theme in many articles. In 1895 she wrote:
It is an open secret that since the Government committed the blunder of allowing the establishment of assisted schools [in 1870], the Roman Catholic Clergy are doing their best to oust the Government ones. The vendetta has been explicitly declared against all who, belonging to their persuasion, should dare have a voice in the selection of a school for their offspring.
And when she felt it necessary, Emilie raised questions of ethnicity, colour and class. She always defended the interests, as she saw them, of the poor, the non-whites, the women. As she wrote, it was her “bounden duty, as one of the much abused race [African], to protest against…the dangerous question of colour and origin”. In a 1892 article, she attacked all those “who, in this enlightened age, and notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary, still believe in the superiority of colour”. She ended this article with the following:
Thinking men have always discarded prejudices, which eventually must be done away with, willingly or not. It is only the narrow-minded who attempt to lord it over those whom Nature has often made their superiors and the laws of the country their equals.
A woman way ahead of her time, a feminist, a political radical, a humanist and a campaigner for equality, Emile Maresse-Paul was perhaps Trinidad & Tobago’s first female intellectual and activist.
In a previous post, I made the point that rescuing long dead persons from the “oblivion” of history depends on the survival of sources about them—usually written documents, once they lived too long ago for anyone now alive to remember them.
The reason that we know about Maria Jones is that the Baptist Mission in Trinidad published in 1851 a short account of her life and her conversion. This brief but precious document, preserved in the archives of the Baptist Missionary Society in Oxford, England, has been fleshed out in a paper by my colleague, Brinsley Samaroo.
The account, of course, was published in order to celebrate the achievements of the Baptist Mission—Maria was one of their success stories. But there is enough to reconstruct the story of a rebellious spirit, who accepted Christianity at least in part in order to claim her full humanity.
Born in West Africa around 1780, she was enslaved and transported to St Vincent at the age of 7—one of the many children caught up in the transatlantic slave trade. Even in the stilted language of the missionary we can sense her vibrancy:
“She had a very high spirit, which was not easily subdued; and indeed, was never entirely tamed, till it was humbled by the grace of God. All through her life of slavery she showed much strength & independence of mind, and would often utter sentiments and feelings which proved that she did not willingly submit to the yoke imposed upon her.”
Enslaved persons were worth much more in rapidly developing Trinidad than in St Vincent in the early 1800s, especially after the abolition of the transatlantic trade in 1806-07. This is almost certainly why she was sold to a Trinidad planter, though the account says it was because she was an “unprofitable slave”. She laboured as a field worker on two estates in different parts of Trinidad.
When full emancipation came in 1838, Maria was attached to an estate near Arima. The Mico Charity, an English foundation which ran schools in several Caribbean colonies around this time, opened a school in Arima. Maria, nearly 60—really old in a slave society—insisted on going, not just to the evening and Sunday classes meant for adults, but also to the day school for the children.
She learned to read, and came under the influence of the teacher, who was a member of the Scottish Presbyterian church which had just been established in Port of Spain (Greyfriars Church). Maria joined this church, and was married to the man “with whom for years she had lived as wife, according to the Negro, or rather, slave custom”. That these were empowering events for her is suggested by this passage:
“She soon informed [the minister] of the change that had recently taken place in her condition, remarking at the same time, with evident pride, that now “she called Mrs Jones, and not Maria, as before time”. This she said, purposely, in the hearing of several other females present…She seemed to move among them like a queen, as though conscious of some superiority over them in point of character”.
Next, Maria met George Cowen, the pioneer English Baptist missionary to Trinidad—the Cowen-Hamilton secondary school in Princes Town is named for him, and for Hamilton, a “Meriken” Baptist leader. She joined his church and received baptism by total immersion, the custom of the Baptists. According to the missionary account, after the ceremony she declared:
“I batize four times now, but only one time right! ‘Fore dem tief me in Africa, dem priests dere do somtin for batize; when me come to buckra [white man’s]country, dem catholic priests do what dem call batism; dem put oil on me head, salt in me mout, and make cross on me face; but now me read bible for me own self, me no find dis dere. When me join Cotch [Presbyterian] church, dem take me ‘gain and prinkle water in me face for batist, but neder dis right, when me come for know better; no more one way, same fashion blessed Saviour he self do”.
This assertion of faith, and of loyalty to English Baptist Christianity, marked the triumphant end of the missionary account of Maria’s life—it was after all a “conversion narrative”, a common type of literature in the nineteenth century, celebrating the conversion of the heathen (or, in Maria’s actual case, her move from one variant of Christianity to another).
But Maria entered the archival record one more time. At the age of around 80, she met E.B.Underhill, the noted English Baptist leader, during his visit to Trinidad in 1860, and he recorded this meeting in his book, The West Indies.
That Maria was a missionary success story is clear enough. But there is another story: of a rebellious and strong-minded woman who survived enslavement as a child, the Middle Passage, and decades of field labour in St Vincent and Trinidad; lived to a very old age despite the hardships of such a life; and appropriated Christianity in its rival forms as a source of empowerment and strength.
The preceding article also appeared in Trinidad and Tobago’s daily newspaper Daily Express
Carnival in Trinidad—and elsewhere–has always been a site for conflict: conflicts between different class and ethnic groups about how the festival should be celebrated and what it meant, socially, culturally and even spiritually.
This was especially true in the later 1800s, when conflict between the colonial authorities and the African-Trinidadian masses often focused on Carnival and other aspects of popular culture. Most people have heard of the 1881 riots when Captain Baker, head of the local police force, was soundly thrashed along with his men when they tried to stop the Canboulay. In recent years scripted re-enactments of this event have taken place, organised mainly by Eintou Springer.
The Canboulay (now often spelled Kambule/Kanbule because it’s been suggested it may derive from a Koongo (Congo) word, rather than from the French “cannes brulées”, burnt canes) was a torchlight procession which took place from midnight on Carnival Sunday. Though it apparently happened in several towns and villages, it was most visible in Port of Spain. By the 1870s hundreds of men, carrying lighted flambeau and sticks, some drunk, most of them masked, marched around the streets of the capital. There was drumming, hooting, singing, shouting, and fights between rival bands.
Of course the authorities didn’t like this at all. It seemed too wild, too disorderly, too out of control. The drumming, singing and stick fighting were altogether too “African”. The bands of working-class men and women (“jamettes”) who came out at Carnival time were threatening to the respectable folk. The lighted torches, in a town with largely wooden buildings, was a fire hazard—at least that was a good justification for closing it down.
So by the end of the 1870s, Baker was ready to confront the Canboulay. Various laws enacted between 1868 and 1879 gave him the legal authority to move against the marchers. At the 1880 Canboulay, he called on them to surrender their sticks, drums and torches. Probably taken by surprise—Baker hadn’t announced his plan–they did so without resistance, and the Carnival passed off quietly.
But they were more than ready for him at the Canboulay of 1881, which marked the climax of the hostilities between the police and the city maskers. A full-scale fight ensued—involving sticks, batons, stones and fists, NOT guns—in which 38 out of the 150 policemen present were injured. The Borough Council, fearing civil disorder, persuaded the governor to confine the police to barracks for the rest of Carnival Monday and all Tuesday. An effigy of Baker was burnt outside the police barracks but otherwise the two days passed peacefully.
Of course this was a big, though temporary, defeat for Baker and the anti-Canboulay, anti-Carnival section of the local elites. Interestingly, though, not all of the upper and middle classes sided with Baker. The editors of all four of the local newspapers condemned his actions as high-handed and provocative, and commended the governor for his concessions to the maskers.
Though the editors, and the people they spoke for, generally disliked many features of the “jamette carnival”, including Canboulay, they strongly resented any attempt by the colonial government to interfere by force. This was especially the view of the French Creole elite and the mixed-race Creoles, who recognised that Carnival, with all its perceived objectionable elements, was a core expression of Trinidad’s “creoleness”.
After the events of 1881, the next two Carnivals were the cause of much official anxiety. Canboulay was not prohibited in 1882—in fact it was specifically authorized by a proclamation. British naval ships, however, were stationed in the harbor; the troops, volunteers and fire brigade were on full alert; a steam launch was poised to evacuate the governor; government officials armed themselves; and surgeons were ready to cope with the wounded. In the event, all passed peacefully. The band leaders and maskers had determined to be on their best behavior, to justify the confidence the governor had shown in them in 1881.
But the Carnival of 1883 was quite as disorderly as before the 1881 riots, with large-scale band fights, stoning of private houses, and brawls between individual maskers. This of course strengthened the hand of the anti-Canboulay group within the government, led by Baker. The decision was made to put down the Canboulay once and for all, through the “Peace Preservation Ordinance”, enacted just before the 1884 Carnival, which authorized the banning of torchlight processions and large street bands.
Surprisingly, Port of Spain was quiet during the 1884 Carnival, and no attempt was made to stage the Canboulay. But there was a riot in San Fernando on the Monday morning, an “affray” in Couva, and resistance by over 500 persons to the attempt to prevent the Canboulay in Princes Town led to police firing and two deaths. One newspaper speculated that “ringleaders of some of the most desperate bands” from town had gone south to try to stage their Canboulay.
Despite the bloodshed in the south, the colonial authorities had succeeded in ending the Canboulay, which was not revived after 1884, and the large stick bands and the inter-band fighting were brought under police control in the following years. (Only to reappear, of course, with the steelbands in the 1940s).
The preceding article was also published in the Daily Express
As we know, Trinidad was a Spanish colony until 1797. It was never a French colony—yet France has greatly influenced its history and culture.
This happened, of course, because of the influx of French immigrants in the late 1700s, as a result of the Cedula of Population (1783) inviting foreign Catholics to settle in Trinidad. These immigrants, coming mainly from the French Caribbean colonies, especially Martinique, and also from Grenada (British since 1763 but with a significant French population)—and including many “free coloureds” as well as whites—brought with them their enslaved labourers, who were given no choice in the matter.
Together they ensured that a fused African-French culture would be dominant in Trinidad for many years to come—in language (French, and Créole or Patois), religion (French forms of Roman Catholicism), the expressive arts (dance, music, song), folklore, festivals and so on. Spanish influences were largely—though not entirely—eclipsed.
The sister island was a formal French colony for two periods, 1781-93, and again 1802-03. Yet French influences there were minimal, except for a few place names.
Why the difference? During the two periods when France ruled, hardly any French people, other than a few officials, came to live in Tobago. The landowners, the holders of the enslaved labourers, continued to be British—the persons who’d been given land grants when Tobago was formally ceded to Britain in 1763 and others who’d acquired land subsequently.
They and their slaves, mostly people kidnapped in Africa and brought on the infamous Middle Passage, and their descendants, ensured that Tobago’s culture would continue to be an African-British fusion—in language (English, and Tobago English Creole), religion (various Protestant faiths, especially the Anglicans, Methodists and Moravians), the expressive arts (African-British traditions of music, dance and song). The two periods of rule by France, which didn’t involve any significant French immigration, made little impact on Tobago’s culture.
After 1803, Tobago remained a separate British colony until unification with Trinidad in the new (British) Colony of Trinidad & Tobago, which came into being in 1889. No other European power had a significant influence on Tobago’s modern (post-1763) development.
Trinidad passed from the Spanish to the British Empire in 1797, by force of arms during wartime, and then by formal treaty agreement in 1802. It was a separate British colony until 1889, when the Colony of Trinidad & Tobago was created. The formal end of British colonialism, of course, came on 31 August 1962—next year will mark the Golden Jubilee of Independence.
For much of the nineteenth century, British influence on Trinidad’s culture was fairly limited, outside the realm of law and governance. Patois remained the majority language into the start of the twentieth century. French was the first language for the French Creole group up to the turn of the century, and nineteenth-century Trinidad newspapers often had sections in that language.
Despite efforts by the colonial government to push the Anglican faith, the great majority of the people (except for the Indian immigrants) remained at least nominally Roman Catholics, even if they often combined this faith with African belief systems such as the Orisha or Shango movement.
But gradually, the colonial government, the churches and the schools managed to spread the English language and British culture in the society. By the 1920s or 1930s English Creole had replaced Patois as the majority language. The use of Patois (and Spanish) declined.
Though Anglicanism remained a minority faith, it did gain some ground, especially with the immigration of thousands of people from places like Barbados, Tobago or St Vincent, who had often been Anglicans in their home islands.
Of course, the colony’s legal system, which had been Spanish, was gradually overhauled until by the mid-nineteenth century, it was essentially English. Our laws and legal procedures are still basically British (and the Privy Council is still our highest court of appeal).
The system of publicly funded schools, first set up in the post-emancipation years, was modeled on the English and Irish schools; the prestige secondary schools, like Queen’s Royal College, were imitations of English “public” (that is, private!) schools and taught entirely British curricula well into the last century. Even today, our education system has more in common with that of Britain than (say) the USA.
British influences on our popular culture were fairly strong, especially in sports. Both football and cricket were invented by the Brits and spread throughout the world wherever they went.
Of course, British literature exerted a strong pull on the colony’s writers, and the first generation of Trinidad & Tobago, and Caribbean, creative writers gravitated almost naturally to London. The BBC played a significant role in nurturing the talents of this generation, including Naipaul and Anthony, especially in the 1950s.
And as everywhere in the Empire, the British organized a system of government in Trinidad & Tobago which was based, even if loosely, on their own. The “Westminster System” is also an inheritance of British colonialism.
So like it or not, European influences derived from the colonial powers, Spain, France and Britain, have played a key role in the evolution of Trinidad & Tobago’s culture and history.
The preceding article was also published in the Daily Express
In his column in the Sunday Express on 30 October 2011, Raffique Shah wrote about the death of two of his comrades who were “lions of ‘70”—the Black Power Movement of that era—but whose contributions to society were little known outside a small circle. “They pass on and the wider society that benefitted from their struggles hardly knew them”, he wrote; “they depart without song, trumpets”.
This made me think about the many men and women of the past who led interesting lives, who contributed in different ways to Trinidad & Tobago, but who have been largely forgotten. One of the historian’s responsibilities is to make such individuals better known to people of the present day, to rescue them from the “oblivion” or forgetfulness of history.
But we can only do that if there are surviving sources about them, whether these are documents, or oral traditions, or the memories of people still alive. As we go further back in time, it is usually documents (written sources) that we need to find.
In this and those to follow, I’ll introduce readers to three interesting women who lived in nineteenth-century Trinidad. In each case, we know something about them because (for different reasons) documents have survived about them, or written by them—what historians call a paper trail.
I’ll start with Luisa Calderon, because she lived in the very early 1800s. She was what was known as a “free coloured”: a mixed-race person, daughter of a freed “mulatto” woman of Venezuelan origin. She wasn’t enslaved; she lived with another mixed-race person, Pedro Ruiz, a Port of Spain merchant.
In 1801, when she was about 14, or maybe even younger, she was accused of stealing money from Ruiz’s shop. Ruiz himself accused her, and claimed she was acting in collusion with the man he thought was her new lover, Carlos Gonzalez.
Luisa was first examined by the governor, Thomas Picton, and then handed over to the chief magistrate of the town, St Hilaire Begorrat, Picton’s close ally. After she spent some days in the town jail, Begorrat tried and failed to get a “confession” from her. He recommended that Luisa should be tortured, and Picton authorized it.
In fact, it seems clear enough that there was no robbery, that Luisa and Gonzalez had been framed by a jealous Ruiz. But the decision to torture the young girl embroiled Picton in a scandal which nearly ruined his career, and made Luisa famous.
The torture applied, an old Spanish military punishment, involved suspending Luisa by her left wrist from a rope, while her left foot was tied to her right hand, and her right foot rested on a pointed stake. It was called “the piquet”. She was subjected to this agonizing pain on two occasions, each time for anywhere between twenty minutes and an hour (the witnesses disagreed).
Not surprisingly, Luisa did “confess”: she said Gonzalez had done it. She was held in the jail, in “irons”, for another eight months and then freed; her wrists were marked for life. Gonzalez was fined and deported from Trinidad.
It was not long after this brutal and illegal torture had been inflicted on her that Luisa became famous, because the act was the most important item in formal charges brought against Picton, for which he was tried in England. If this hadn’t happened, we might never have known about Luisa’s ordeal.
Picton’s enemies, in Trinidad and Britain, saw that the charge of illegally authorizing such an inhumane torture on a very young girl could ruin him. Drawings of Luisa being tortured in the Port of Spain jail were published and widely circulated.
She was taken up by Picton’s main opponent, William Fullarton, and his wife. They brought Luisa to Britain in 1803, and supported her there for several years—the court case involving her took a long time and of course her testimony was needed.
People’s love for scandal being as great two hundred years ago as today, Picton’s allies spread rumours that Luisa gave birth to Fullarton’s child when she was in Scotland. (Fullarton sued, and the case was going on when he died; Mrs Fullarton continued to look after Luisa in Britain). More generally, the rumour was that she was a prostitute whom the Fullartons introduced into “polite society” in Britain.
Luisa did give evidence at Picton’s trial in the Court of the King’s Bench in 1806; he was found guilty. But a retrial was ordered, and he was eventually acquitted in 1808. Both trials were extensively reported in the British newspapers and the published reports of “celebrity trials”. Luisa was famous even if the eventual verdict got Picton off. The picture of her torture was widely published.
As far as we know, Luisa returned to Trinidad after the final trial in 1808. And then she disappeared from the record; we don’t know what became of her. But we do know that she survived her ordeal and became perhaps the first Trinidadian woman to be visible as an individual in the archive, the first to play a part (even if forced on her) in public affairs.
This article was republished with permission from the author.
In a newspaper article a few years ago, the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) claimed: “In actuality, there was little—if any—difference between slavery and indentureship. There were the same inhumane conditions…the East Indian labourer experienced the same kind of physical brutality as the slaves”.
We can perhaps understand these statements as a well intentioned effort to stress the common sufferings and therefore the “equality” of the nation’s two largest ethnic groups. As Brother Marvin sang, “the indentureship and the slavery bind together two races in unity, Brotherhood of the Boat, Jahaji Bhai”.
But all the historical evidence points to huge differences between the two and therefore in the experience of their victims. Both were harshly oppressive systems to control labour in the interests of plantation owners; but they were not the same.
There was an element of choice for the Indian immigrants; a hard choice certainly, but most left India hoping to make a better life for themselves and their families. Enslaved Africans were victims of the largest forced labour migration in human history. Conditions on the voyage from Africa to the Caribbean were far worse, far more deadly, than for the indentured Indians on their admittedly difficult crossing of the kala pani.
Once the African enslaved person arrived, it was for life—only very small numbers were freed or bought their freedom or succeeded in escaping. Children were born enslaved, even if their father was a free man. (Slave status depended on the mother’s, not the father’s status, for obvious reasons). There was virtually no possibility of returning to Africa.
The indentured Indian was under indenture (labour contract) for five years—at first the period was shorter but the five-year initial contract was soon settled on. During this period he was not free, and was bound by law, backed up by possible jail terms, to his employer. The ex-indentured Indian, however, was legally free. Young children arriving from India with their mother or with both parents were not indentured, and neither were locally born children of indentured immigrants. There was no hereditary element.
After ten years in the colony, the ex-indentured Indian had the right to return to India. Until the last twenty years of the system, the costs of repatriation were met by the local government; then the returning immigrant had to contribute some of the money. But the right to repatriation was never taken away, and between 20 to 25 per cent of the Trinidad immigrants did opt to return.
Perhaps the most oppressive feature of indenture was the “penal sanctions”, meaning that the indentured labourers could be prosecuted for labour offences like staying away from work, and might be sentenced to jail terms if convicted. And this feature was not pointed out to the intending immigrants in Kolkata when the contract was explained to them.
Thousands of immigrants did, in fact, go to jail for these kinds of offences, which is why Eric Williams called indenture “slavery with the jail substituted for the whip”. This was indeed harsh and oppressive. But it had an end: the ex-indentured Indian was not subject to the penal sanctions.
Until the last ten years of slavery, there were virtually no restraints on how an owner or overseer could punish his enslaved workers, including women and children. Physical punishment was routine, often administered in brutal and sadistic ways.
By contrast, this kind of punishment was forbidden for the indentureds. Certainly some were kicked, beaten, slapped or even worse; but this was never allowed by the law, and laws and regulations attempted to shield them from abusive or neglectful employers. They weren’t always well enforced, especially in the early years of indenture, but the workers had some legal protection from abuse.
Enslaved girls and women were routinely raped, or forced to consent to sexual relations, by owners, overseers, and virtually any men with some sort of power (including some black men). These victims had no chance of protection, or redress. While some indentured women were abused in this way by plantation staff, it was much less likely to happen, and efforts were made to prevent it, both by plantation managers, and by the colonial authorities.
Above all, though, we have to remember that the enslaved people were legally “chattels”, meaning they were seen by the law as just property, no different from livestock, furniture, plates and pictures. (And in the plantation lists or inventories, they are listed along with the cattle and horses, with their money values—some being less valuable than prime livestock). Human beings reduced to things.
The indentured Indians were never reduced to chattel status, their period of unfreedom was limited, there was a government department and officials (the Protector of Immigrants and his staff) who were supposed to look after their interests—even if this didn’t always work very well.
Two harsh systems—but not the same. And it’s not helpful to pretend otherwise, even with good intentions.
The preceding article was also published in Trinidad and Tobago’s daily newspaper, The Daily Express.
There’s a fairly new sign—in English and Spanish, if you please—at the left turn off the Eastern Main Road up to St Joseph, just past WASA. It says ‘Welcome to St Joseph, first capital of Trinidad and Tobago’.
I’m all for historical signs and wish we had more in the country. But please let them be accurate. St Joseph was never the capital of Trinidad and Tobago; it was, for nearly two centuries, the capital of Trinidad under Spanish rule.
So is this just a quibble, does this matter to anyone other than academic pedants like me? (There’s an old saying: you’re a pedant, I’m a scholar).
It matters because it reflects a definite national tendency to ignore or distort the history of Tobago and its historical relationship to Trinidad. The sign is wrong because it ignores the fact that Tobago was a separate colony during the time that St Joseph was the capital of Spanish Trinidad, and for long after.
The colony of Trinidad and Tobago didn’t exist until 1889. On January 1 of that year, a law issued by Britain in 1888 came into effect, uniting the two previously separate colonies into one. This was over a century after St Joseph ceased to be the capital of Trinidad. (The capital was moved to Port of Spain in 1784, when the last Spanish Governor, Chacon, took the Cabildo, the main governing body, to that town—the governors themselves had moved there ever since 1757).
After a few years, the status of Tobago, within the newly united British colony, was changed. By another British law issued in 1898, and effective from January 1, 1899, it was made a Ward of the Colony of Trinidad and Tobago.
And that last provision has been endlessly misstated, in countless official documents, speeches, articles and books, as Tobago becoming a ward (small ‘w’) of Trinidad. This despite the efforts of eminent persons like Mr A.N.R.Robinson—after whom the former Crown Point Airport has been recently renamed—and scholars of Tobago history like Susan Craig-James and Learie Luke.
Does the error really matter? To say that Tobago became a ‘ward’ of Trinidad could be taken as implying that the smaller island became a humble, childlike dependent under the charge of the larger one. (My dictionary defines ‘ward’ as a minor under the care of a guardian).
But a ‘Ward’ (capital ‘w’) is something completely different. Ever since the 1840s, Trinidad had been divided into administrative districts called Wards. Older folk will remember the Wardens—the civil servants in charge of groups of Wards—and the Wardens’ Offices all over the country. In January 1899, Tobago was made a Ward, along with the several Wards in the larger island, of the united colony.
And not a Ward of Trinidad, but a Ward of the Colony of Trinidad and Tobago, first created in 1889. Of course that is also the name of the present-day nation state. But how many people, other than Tobagonians, really remember that? How many people write ‘Citizen of Trinidad’—a country that doesn’t exist—on the forms you get when arriving at Piarco Airport? In fact the forms don’t even have room for the proper name of the nation! No wonder people have been informally using ‘Trinbago’ for the longest time.
The union was like a shot-gun marriage: neither island wanted it, but the British Government, like a tyrant parent, imposed it through Imperial legislation despite the objections of both colonies’ legislatures. But we must remember that in the 1880s, with Crown Colony Government in both colonies, those legislatures only spoke for the elites of the islands. There’s no doubt that the small group of planters and merchants in Tobago feared that they would lose out economically, politically and perhaps socially.
But thanks to the research of Craig-James and Luke, we know that most ordinary Tobagonians, the labourers, share-croppers or metayers, and small farmers, had a different view. They hoped that union with the richer island would help lift Tobago out of the crippling poverty they suffered from in the 1880s and 1890s.
For decades they had been going to Trinidad to work and live, and exporting foodstuffs and animals to the larger island was the mainstay of their livelihoods by the 1890s. So ordinary Tobagonians were generally optimistic about the union. They had little to lose, unlike the merchants and planters, and much to hope for, in terms of free movement of people and goods between the islands, and perhaps better public services and infrastructure once Tobago became linked to the much more prosperous Trinidad.
Their hopes were not realised in the outcome. But it is an error to say that Tobagonians in general objected to the union when it was carried out between 1889 and 1899. And it is definitely wrong to say that Tobago became a ward of Trinidad, or that St Joseph was the first capital of Trinidad and Tobago.
The preceding article was also published in Trinidad and Tobago’s daily newspaper, The Daily Express.
On CCN’s Morning Edition programme some time ago, Mr Khafra Kambon, long-serving chairman of the Emancipation Support Committee, complained that the study of history, including Caribbean history, was being de-emphasised in the nation’s schools. Mr Kambon–who was recently recognised as one of 50 Distinguished Alumni of UWI, St Augustine, graduating over the last 50 years—said that as a result, fewer students at the University were opting to take history courses.
When the presenter suggested that we shouldn’t be “enslaved by our history”, he agreed, but said that it was when “someone else tells you your history”, when you don’t know your own history, that you could be “enslaved” by the past. “We need to know the truth”, he concluded.
At UWI, members of the Department of History are continually surprised at how little our new students know about the nation’s history. And remember, these are students who all have passes in history at C-SEC, and the majority also at CAPE. Most of our new students have the vaguest of notions about the evolution of Trinidad and Tobago, and have never heard of very important figures and episodes in our national story.
To make matters worse, only a minority of secondary school children take C-SEC history; the social studies syllabus, in which little bits of history, geography, political science and sociology are combined, is the more popular option in most schools.
The C-SEC history syllabus is a good one, but it takes in the whole Caribbean, and is generally dominated by material on Jamaica, the biggest and the most thoroughly researched of the English-speaking islands, and on Cuba and Haiti. There really isn’t much specifically on Trinidad and Tobago in the syllabus. The CAPE syllabus is even broader, taking in the whole “Atlantic World”.
As a result, even students who have passed history at C-SEC and CAPE may have absorbed relatively little about the nation’s past. Some secondary schools do a bit of local history in Forms 1 to 3, but this is not the case across the board. The result is that the national history seems to fall between the cracks, even for those relatively few students who opt for history at C-SEC and CAPE.
When Mr Kambon spoke about someone else telling us our history, he was thinking perhaps of an earlier time, when Caribbean history—if it was studied at all—was written from the point of view of outsiders, as a minor sideshow to British or European history. As he noted, those days are long over. Over the last 50 years or so, a huge amount of research has been done on our region’s history, which takes it for granted that the people who lived, worked and died there should be the centre of the story, not the explorers, pirates, conquistadors, governors, enslavers, naval heroes, who came, wrought havoc, and left.
And to be fair, the C-SEC and CAPE history syllabi—designed and examined by historians mostly from the regional University—do reflect this body of scholarship and this “history from the inside” perspective. Textbooks have dramatically improved over the 30-plus years of the CXC, and new ones are appearing all the time.
It’s the national history which, it seems, is not being adequately taught in our schools. Yet virtually every nation on the globe does insist on its children being exposed to its history, in the schools, and often through other means also.
It’s not that we should be teaching children that their nation is better than anyone else’s, or spinning all kinds of myths about the glorious past or heroic Fathers or Mothers of the Nation. As Mr Kambon said, we need to know the truth about our past.
“Truth” in history is notoriously tricky, and most historians think that we can never know the absolute, final, true-for-all-time facts about the past. Or achieve history that is one hundred percent objective or free of bias—since the documents on which we base our history are always biased, and we ourselves, the researchers and writers, are human beings with our own particular baggage in our heads.
But historians certainly must try to produce history that is as accurate, objective and “true” as possible, meaning that everything we write must be solidly based on evidence (sources). And it is part of our duty to expose myths, legends and popular misconceptions about the past. Even if they are cherished myths about the nation and its traditions, or about National Heroes. Even—or especially—if they are misconceptions which may help to promote divisions, whether these divisions are ethnic, regional, gender or class-based.
I agree with Mr Kambon. We need history to be given more prominence as a subject in its own right in the nation’s primary and secondary schools. We need more national history to be taught, in addition to regional (Caribbean and Atlantic) and world history. We need for citizens of all ages to be exposed to the facts of the nation’s past, not only young persons in schools and universities, but everyone through all the media available to us.
The preceding article was also published in Trinidad and Tobago’s daily newspaper, The Daily Express.
Back in 2006 and 2007, there was a lively public debate about replacing the Trinity Cross as the nation’s highest award. Because both words referred to Christian symbols—the Holy Trinity and the Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified—the name of the award, and the shape of the medal, were seen as discriminating against the very large body of citizens who were not Christians.
In the event, as we know, the nation’s highest award was renamed the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, and the medal was redesigned in a circular shape featuring appropriate national symbols on its face. Interestingly, last year it was awarded (posthumously) to one person who refused to accept the Trinity Cross because he saw it as a Christian symbol (Pundit Krishna Maharaj) and to another (Dr Wahid Ali) who accepted it reluctantly when the then Prime Minister, Eric Williams, promised to change its name—a promise he didn’t keep.
But some people argued back in 2006 that if we were going to get rid of the Trinity Cross, then logically, we should also get rid of the name of Trinidad, since the island was, of course, named after that same Holy Trinity by Columbus. The argument was made by people who opposed any change in the award and was, perhaps, not meant to be taken very seriously. But it might make us think about how Caribbean islands, including Trinidad and Tobago, got their names and what they mean.
Most of the Caribbean islands were named by the first Europeans to turn up in the region, the Spaniards, who ignored the names used by the native inhabitants. Of course this is typical of colonial powers, and the act of giving a new name to a place which already has one was a vital part of the colonial enterprise. By so doing, you wipe out the indigenous identity of a place and, by extension, deny the native peoples’ right to occupy it.
So we have the Christian Saints—Lucia, Thomas, Christopher (St Kitts for short), John, Vincent, Martin. Puerto Rico was originally San Juan (Saint John) and its capital was Puerto Rico (rich port), but somehow the names for the island and the city got switched.
We have islands named for places in Spain (Montserrat, Grenada); we have islands given Spanish names because of some physical feature which struck them (Anguilla—little eel, because of its skinny shape); we have Hispaniola (little Spain).
And we have Trinidad, so named because Columbus had promised to call the first land he saw on his third voyage in 1498 after the Holy Trinity—whether or not he thought he saw three peaks on the southern coast of the island where he first sighted it..
But some islands did retain their indigenous names. One example is Jamaica, a Taino (Arawakan) word recorded by Columbus as ‘Yamaye’ or ‘Xamaye’ and made more Spanish sounding as ‘Jamaica’. It simply means the place where the Jamai (or Yamaye) people lived, although it is often translated more poetically as ‘land of springs or water’.
One of the problems with the Trinity Cross was that its name related only to Trinidad, not to Tobago. And Tobago is one of the few islands which, like Jamaica, retained in a modified form its indigenous name. It derives from a Kalinago or Carib word meaning either a cigar-like roll of tobacco leaf, or a long-stemmed pipe used to smoke it, and was used for the island presumably because of its long, skinny shape. What the Caribs probably called ‘Tavaco’ became ‘Tobago’, related to the modern English word ‘tobacco’.
So Tobago has its original name, more or less. Should Trinidad be renamed, as some of the defenders of the Trinity Cross argued was only logical if we were abandoning the ‘Trinity’ symbol? There is one Caribbean country which took the bold step, on gaining its independence, to abandon its colonial name and adopt a ‘native’ one instead.
The rich French colony of Saint Domingue (the western part of Hispaniola) became an independent, Black-ruled state in January 1804 after a long and bloody revolution. In a remarkable move, the leaders of the new state threw out the French colonial name—associated with enslavement and brutal colonial rule—and took instead a Taino word, ‘Ayiti’, meaning ‘mountainous’. So the new state became Haiti. The new name symbolised a total rejection of enslavement and European rule, and looked back to the first inhabitants of the land.
Trinidad’s indigenous name was Cairi or Kairi (sometimes written Iere). This is an Arawakan term. Sadly, it doesn’t mean ‘Land of the Humming Bird’, as so many have thought. It simply means ‘the island’.
But not just any island. In a recent article, the archaeologist Arie Boomert (who worked at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, in the 1980s) shows that for the Arawakan and Warao people of the adjacent mainland, Trinidad was THE island: the first island they encountered as they moved out from the Orinoco Delta region into the Caribbean, the island which had a mythical importance for them, their sacred island.
So: if ever we wanted to revert to our original name, we would end up with ‘Kairi and Tavaco’. What’s in a name?
The following article was also published in Trinidad and Tobago’s daily newspaper, The Daily Express.