14 October 2019

Indigenous Survival Day: Forgetting Myths of Extinction

The Lucayan: The Indigenous people Christopher Columbus could not annihilate

October 14, 2019

The Lucayan did not know it was Oct. 12, 1492. They did not know that their island, in what would become the Bahamas, had been spotted by Spanish explorers led by a Genoese man named Christopher Columbus. And they did not know that in less than 30 years, their island would be empty from the coming genocide. As Columbus and his men approached, the Lucayans greeted them warmly, offering food and water, and “we understood that they had asked us if we had come from heaven,” he wrote in his journal. Then he added, “With 50 men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.”
As the article progresses, it makes the observation that the previously dominant histories of Indigenous extinction in the Caribbean have now completely fallen apart, citing some of the latest research on the prevalence of Indigenous DNA in the contemporary Caribbean. The article takes us to the following reports:

February 20, 2019

The tooth-derived genome is the first concrete genetic evidence that Taíno ancestry survives to this day. Scientists compared the ancient Bahamian genome to those of contemporary Puerto Ricans and discovered they were more closely related to the Taíno than to any other indigenous group in the Americas. This is likely to also be true of other Caribbean communities, the researchers said. 
Lead author Eske Willerslev, who has posts at both the University of Cambridge, U.K., and the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement: "It has always been clear that people in the Caribbean have Native American ancestry, but because the region has such a complex history of migration, it was difficult to prove whether this was specifically indigenous to the Caribbean, until now."
The study's other lead author, Hannes Schroeder from the University of Copenhagen, called the finding fascinating. 
"Many history books will tell you that the indigenous population of the Caribbean was all but wiped out, but people who self-identify as Taíno have always argued for continuity," he said in a statement. "Now we know they were right all along: there has been some form of genetic continuity in the Caribbean." 
Jorge Estevez, a Taíno descendent working at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, assisted the project team. "I wish my grandmother were alive today so that I could confirm to her what she already knew," he said. "It shows that the true story is one of assimilation, certainly, but not total extinction."

Study identifies traces of indigenous 'Taino' in present-day Caribbean populations
February 19, 2018

A thousand-year-old tooth has provided genetic evidence that the so-called "Taíno", the first indigenous Americans to feel the full impact of European colonisation after Columbus arrived in the New World, still have living descendants in the Caribbean today. 
Researchers were able to use the tooth of a woman found in a cave on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas to sequence the first complete ancient human genome from the Caribbean. The woman lived at some point between the 8th and 10th centuries, at least 500 years before Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas. 
The results provide unprecedented insights into the genetic makeup of the Taíno - a label commonly used to describe the indigenous people of that region. This includes the first clear evidence that there has been some degree of continuity between the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and contemporary communities living in the region today. 
Such a link had previously been suggested by other studies based on modern DNA. None of these, however, was able to draw on an ancient genome. The new research finally provides concrete proof that indigenous ancestry in the region has survived to the present day.

Origins and genetic legacies of the Caribbean Taino
March 6, 2018

The Caribbean was one of the last parts of the Americas to be settled by humans, but how and when the islands were first occupied remains a matter of debate. Ancient DNA can help answering these questions, but the work has been hampered by poor DNA preservation. We report the genome sequence of a 1,000-year-old Lucayan Taino individual recovered from the site of Preacher’s Cave in the Bahamas. We sequenced her genome to 12.4-fold coverage and show that she is genetically most closely related to present-day Arawakan speakers from northern South America, suggesting that the ancestors of the Lucayans originated there. Further, we find no evidence for recent inbreeding or isolation in the ancient genome, suggesting that the Lucayans had a relatively large effective population size. Finally, we show that the native American components in some present-day Caribbean genomes are closely related to the ancient Taino, demonstrating an element of continuity between precontact populations and present-day Latino populations in the Caribbean.

13 October 2019

Pearls, Grenada: Histories of Resistance by an Old Runway

A view out toward the sea, from the beach at the end of the runway in Pearls, Grenada
Pearls, in the Parish of St. Andrew’s, Grenada, just up the road from the main town of Grenville, is a unique place that sits at the intersection of two of the main themes of my research career: the cultures and histories of Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean, and the political economy of US imperialist interventions. Both of these strands come together, in one specific spot: the old runway—still very much intact—at what was once Pearls Airport. The airport is the subject of the short photo essay contained in the article titled, "Pearls before Swine," from which the following sections were extracted.

Aerial view of the runway at the old airport in Pearls.
....The old runway at Pearls is a place that is barely frequented by tourists; there were only two young American ladies doing a self-guided tour when we were there, but then again we were there during low season. On local tourist maps the image of the runway is accompanied by a label boasting of “Amerindian Sites,” except there is no museum in the vicinity, nor any tours or tour guides to take one to see these “sites”. The two American women we met were totally mystified by this apparent absence, and they had asked everyone they encountered, as we had, about where they were to go to see the Amerindian artifacts. None of the locals could (or would) give an answer.

What we did not realize, at least not at first, is that we were standing right on top of the artifacts: they were spread all around the borders of the runway, and in the heaps of soil piled up at the end of the runway by the beach, where British bulldozers pushed the soil when clearing land for the tarmac.

That then is the other, older history of Pearls: it was once a major Amerindian port, possibly the largest of its kind, connecting Indigenous communities spread across the Lesser Antilles. Some historians have described it as “the most important archaeological site in the Caribbean”. Pearls had been occupied for at least seven centuries, from 300 BC to 400 AD. Trinidad, just 80 miles to the south, and much larger, has nothing like Pearls in terms of the broad expanse of Amerindian artifacts covering such a large area, with always more artifacts being uncovered at Pearls. I am not aware of the remnants of any “Amerindian port” in all of Trinidad, or Tobago for that matter.

The runway ends just feet from a long and wild beach, not the kind which would normally attract swimmers. The waters are pretty rough, with waves coming in fast and furious, from all angles. The humid air is thick with sea salt. The beach is “littered” with gorgeous pieces of sun-bleached driftwood. The beach shows a few signs of being used by locals for liming purposes: a small amount of discarded soft drink bottles, for example....

....what is also buried in Pearls is the Amerindian side of what could have been. Amerindian Grenada was a proud place, which for over 150 years—think of that astounding number—successfully drove off colonizing efforts by the British and French, and preserved Grenada as a Caribbean bastion of Indigenous freedom. It is a history that is both awesome and inspiring. In those encounters with the military superpowers of the time, Grenada was utterly victorious. This is one of the reasons I call the Caribs the original anti-imperialists of the modern world-system.

Amerindian Grenada was a green place of beauty, of people who knew how to live the good life and enjoy the free bounties of nature. Grenada is of course still ultra green, and Grenadians show all signs of knowing how to enjoy the good life regardless of any strife or troubles. Yet Amerindian Grenada was something different: their society was one without schools, prisons, offices, army bases, plantations, slavery, or money. Theirs was the peace to which we all claim to strive, but pretend to be unable to achieve, buried under mountains of corruption, addictions to all manner of artifice, and constrained by the daily authoritarianism that dominates our lives.

In terms of preserving or at least acknowledging the Amerindian past, it is true that the Grenada National Museum (the subject of essays to come), has made some efforts to advance local knowledge of Pearls’ Indigenous heritage, with special archaeological field trips for local schoolchildren, assisted by the incredible Michael John. Michael John, himself from Pearls, is a self-made archaeologist, with an apparently natural talent for spotting Amerindian artifacts. He is a man who is very likely of Carib descent and who also makes a living carving stone objects that look much like those one normally finds buried in the ground, those carved by his likely ancestors.

On the whole, however, what is being done to preserve and protect the memory of the Amerindians is far too little. Amerindian history is sometimes looted by tourists, some of whom possibly do not know that it is against the law to remove artifacts—but then again, nobody is enforcing the law. Suitcases and other travel items are not checked by the authorities when one flies out of Grenada, as they ought to be in all cases. Locals who claim to know nothing about “Amerindian sites” in the vicinity of the Pearls runway may be performing a very valuable service.

Colonial Myth-Making and the Mission of Santa Rosa de Arima, Trinidad

Was the Arima Mission an “Indian Mission”? For what purposes, and in whose interests, was the Arima Mission established? How many Indigenous people lived in the Arima Mission, and in Trinidad as a whole? Who counted them? How were they counted, and why? Why did Arima come to be seen as a centre of Indigenous culture in Trinidad? Exactly how did the Amerindians “vanish” from the Mission? What “secrets” are revealed by the Baptismal Registers about the nature and impact of the Christian “civilizing mission”?

When under Spanish colonial rule the authorities approved the Catholic Church’s plans for building mission towns in Trinidad, it was as part of dual commercial and counterinsurgency strategy. Mission towns were established in the early to mid-1700s, in an effort to “pacify” the Amerindian population, and to incorporate Amerindians into profitable, market-oriented activities. Missions were multi-pronged: they combined religious, political, economic, and military objectives. While cocoa production increased under the direction of missionaries, and would eventually become a lucrative commodity destined for export, the missions had limited or mixed results on the other fronts. The missions were subject to attacks from Amerindians outside of the missions, and were subject to internal resistance, outright rebellions, and flight of the Indigenous population.


Among the many things that we learned from studying the primary sources and the baptismal records of the Arima Mission are that certain myths (working fictions) have been in operation and, like all good myths, they are contradicted by documentary evidence. The primary myths include the following:

  1. The myth of the Mission as a form of racial segregation and exclusion;
  2. The myth of protection of the Amerindians by the authorities;
  3. The myth of the vanishing Amerindians; and,
  4. The myth of successful assimilation and Christian indoctrination.
Let's start by looking at myth #3, one of the most popular, influential, and enduring because it has been institutionalized.

Extinction via Miscegenation

Extinction via miscegenation was the dominant and thus standard mode of rhetorically displacing Arima’s Amerindians (see Forte, 2013). This idea, that Amerindians became “extinct” by virtue of forming unions with members of other racial/ethnic groups, amounted to the most common and thus most taken for granted “explanation” that was widely reproduced in the literature on Trinidad in the 19th and even the 20th centuries. Writers of local histories, memoirs, and travel books reflected what was ultimately state policy: the Mission was only for those persons who were “pure” Indians. Any mixed offspring would lose the right (and the obligation) to reside in the Mission. This policy was succinctly explained by the corregidor of the Mission, Martin Sorzano, in testimony before the Burnley Commission on July 16, 1841. In response to the commissioner’s question, “To what, then, do you ascribe the gradual and rapid diminution in their number?” Sorzano replied:
“Chiefly to the gradual mixture of the races. As pure Indians they were compelled to remain at the mission, and conform to the regulations; but the children born of Spanish and Creole fathers could not be so classed, and would not submit to the restraint of remaining there”. (Burnley, 1842, p. 109)
As a fundamentally racial narrative, the idea of extinction via miscegenation found favour with colonial élites who has busied themselves with formulating and then disseminating—even legislating—the racial ordering of the working class in Trinidad, especially as material questions of rights to property and free labour were determined by such an ordering. Governor Woodford instructed Captain William Wright, on the latter taking charge of the Mission, to do as follows with the Indian residents: “You will then proceed to make a return of them by families, shewing their lineage or descent as well as their trades, and if intermixed with other than Indian blood” (quoted in Fraser, 1971[1896], p. 104). Dating from the earliest years of British colonization in Trinidad, an English writer described Mission Indians in one of the earliest recorded instances of the racial extinctionist theme: 
“Some of the Peons are Indians of South America,—others are the mongrel offspring of the white Spaniard and Indian, the Indian and Negro, or the progeny of any of them, united in such varieties of shade, as almost to have effaced the traits of the aboriginees [sic]. But there are many of the true Indians to be seen, at the different Indian villages, or missions”. (Letter to the Duke of Portland, 1807, p. 60)
One of the first and most prominent local history volumes was that authored by E.L. Joseph in 1838, which is a valuable source of insights into élite thinking of the time, and a source of tremendous misinformation as well. In one notable passage on this topic of race and indigenous identity, Joseph wrote the following:
“This indolent harmless race is here fast merging on extinction – from no fault of the local government, nor from any disease: the births amongst the Indian women exceed the deaths in the usual ratio; the fact is, that the Indian men, since they are obliged to live in society, choose mates of other races, and the women do the same (Mr. Coleridge was misinformed when he stated that the Indians will not intermarry with other races), hence out of every seven children born of an Indian mother during the last 30 years, there are scarcely two of pure blood, as I have been informed; this will of course decrease their population; for those of the mixed race, whether they be Samboes (between Negroes and Indians), or Mustees (between Europeans and Indians), or the countless castes that the admixture between the African, European, and Indian tribes produce, they are not the real aboriginal race, and leave the inactive community of Indians as soon as they reach the age of discretion”. (1970[1838], pp. 102–103)
As if to concretely prove Joseph’s adherence to plainly racial paradigms, he cited in one passage the argument that the Amerindian cranium “is uniformly superior to the cranium of a negro, whose powers of mind are as much inferior to those of the Indian, as those of the latter to the powers of the European” (1970[1838], p. 121).

Extinction via miscegenation as a narrative was as enduring as it was influential. The “approximate extinction” of the Amerindians, through the process of inter-marriage, was a concept used by De Verteuil (1858, p. 172). One travel writer asserted, presumably on the basis of what he was told by his hosts, that by 1797, “probably many of them [Indians] had been absorbed by intermarriage with the invaders. At present, there is hardly an Indian of certainly pure blood in the island, and that only in the northern mountains” (Kingsley, 1877, p. 74). Several decades after Joseph, Fr. Cothonay wrote, “The inhabitants of this earthly paradise are not in effect Indians….they are descendants of the Spaniards, more or less mixed with the Indians [Amerindians] and the blacks” (1893, pp. 241–242).

However, much is missed if we take sources at face value. On the one hand we are told that the Arima Mission was something of an exclusive racial zone designed to preserve Indian purity: thus Harricharan (1983, p. 22) asserts that priests “prohibited ‘mission’ Indians from contact with ‘bush’ Indians, Negro slaves, mestizos or other Spaniards and kept them confined to the missions”; Noel argued that one of the successes of the Capuchins “seems to have been the partial preservation of the Indigenous race as agricultural workers under the external guise of living a Catholic life” (1972, p. 18). How contact with other groups could have been prevented, when these other groups also formed the population of the Mission, would be something that strains credulity. Indeed, what if the opposite were true? What if, in a colony ordered by a racial hierarchy, the Mission Indians had been deliberately made to cohabit with members of other ethnic groups, knowing that the result would be miscegenation, and thus eventual removal from the Mission?

Ethnic Substitution

With the displacement of Indigenous residents of the Mission, which accompanied the rise of the cocoa industry, a new wave of migrants from Venezuela entered the area and furnished the workforce for the expanded industry. To get a sense of the magnitude of the immigration, Brereton (1979, p. 12) indicated that Trinidad’s population increased from 84,438 in 1861 to 200,028 in 1891. Some of the major cocoa estates in the Arima Ward Union included the Santa Rosa estate owned by C.G. Scheult; Buena Vista, owned by Jules Cipriani; and El Retiro, held by the De Martini family (Collens, 1896). Given that many of the migrants were of a similar cultural, religious, and ethnic background as the former Indian and Mestizo residents of the Mission, what transpired was a process of ethnic substitution and what then appeared to be a revitalization or resurgence of a number of key traditions and ritual practices, when viewed from a certain angle (Brereton, 1979, pp. 131–132, 152; Moodie-Kublalsingh, 1994, pp. 2–3, 4, 33, 41). In some areas, there was a fusion of the two groups, that is, the Indians already present in Trinidad and the Venezuelan migrants. The baptismal registers reflect all of these developments and transformations, except for the process of fusion.

30 September 2019

The Real History of the Mission of Santa Rosa de Arima: From ARIMA BORN

The real history of the Arima Mission in Trinidad is one of exploitation, and even abuse. The Arima Mission is revealed to have been primarily a slave colony, dominated by the presence of Black slaves. The mission itself was under the authority of Don Manuel Sorzano, a prominent official in the outgoing Spanish regime, a major estate owner in Arima, and an owner of slaves. Rather than just an Amerindian history, the baptismal registers reveal a masked and obscured African history of Arima. The baptismal registers, coupled with other documentary sources, also reveal a history of Amerindian resistance to assimilation promoted by the “civilizing mission” of Christianization. Assimilation was largely a failure—a fact that was embarrassing to colonial élites—and rather than confront their failures they airbrushed Amerindians out of history altogether. We also witness how colonial authorities, priests included, went about the business of deliberately under-counting the Amerindian population, when it became convenient. The fabricated “vanishing” of Amerindians also reveals a complex political economy of land, labour, and power.

Amerindians were valued while their labour had value, and their labour had value only for as long as they cultivated cassava to feed slaves, cleared lands for cultivation, built roads to speed the products of estates to market, and staffed the armed militia used to put down slave revolts. When the cocoa-producing lands occupied by the Mission’s Amerindians soared in value, and when slaves were emancipated, plus an influx of new labourers from abroad came in, the value of Amerindian labour plunged. It is no accident that the Arima Mission was dissolved a few short years after slaves were fully emancipated at the end of apprenticeship in 1838. Amerindian labour, and Amerindians as such, became disposable.

By a change in labelling practices, they were made to disappear from the baptismal registers. Rather than help perpetuate a community of Amerindians, the mission promoted its breakdown. This book tells that story for the first time.