07 December 2018

Book Review: The Indigenous Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago from the First Settlers until Today, by Arie Boomert

Arie Boomert
The Indigenous Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago from the First Settlers until Today.
Leiden, Netherlands: Sidestone Press, 2016. xv + 197. (Paper US$ 45.00)

Trinidad and Tobago are the oldest settled islands of the Caribbean archipelago, and as Arie Boomert demonstrates, Trinidad’s geography is not only still marked by hundreds of Amerindian toponyms (unlike any other Caribbean island), but the Indigenous Peoples’ cultural heritage was implanted in the rural and domestic traditions of a peasantry that fused Amerindians, Africans, and Spanish people and lives on to this day. Arie Boomert’s synthesis of archaeological, ethnohistoric, and ethnographic research on the Indigenous Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago is more than just a capstone to his many years of research in this field. It is also more than a book written for the general public (students, history teachers, and adult citizens of the twin-island republic). It is the only existing, up-to-date text on this long-neglected subject that is both comprehensive and yet highly informative on very specific points. Both specialists in the subject, and those with a general interest in the cultural history of the Caribbean, or even the history of the Spanish Caribbean alone, will find great value in this work which should form a part of every serious library collection on the Caribbean.

The structure of the volume is chronologically sound, divided into eight distinct time periods covering roughly ten thousand years, without any one period occupying more space than the others. As an archaeologist himself, Boomert was well equipped to provide the layperson with a good overview of archaeological research conducted in Trinidad, dating back to the 1800s, with roughly 300 sites studied. The strength of the volume lies in its archaeological and ethnohistoric dimensions, with roughly the past century and the present confined to the final chapter. In that sense, the volume tends to reinforce the established tendency to speak of Trinidad indigeneity in the past tense. Yet Boomert’s book also shows how indigeneity in Trinidad is constantly returning from the margins, and is partly due to the island’s close proximity to neighbouring Indigenous populations on the mainland, whose presence figures prominently throughout the book.

Many will appreciate the thick detail in this book, systematically organized as it is. Boomert draws from a wide variety of sources, including his own archaeological work, the offerings of diverse museum collections across Europe, and insights from very rare texts. There is a minimum of speculation in this book, and a maximum emphasis on information. It is also very well illustrated throughout, with attractive photographs, diagrams, and maps. Tobago is not an afterthought either: a significant amount of information about Tobago is presented throughout, with a dense chapter devoted to the Indigenous People of Tobago which in itself is a significant contribution to knowledge. Just to give the reader a sense of the coverage contained in this book, it typically focuses on trade, subsistence, material culture (pottery especially, and weaponry), ritual (burial), warfare, social structure, the division of labour, house construction, political organization, chiefs (many are named) and shamans, and an expertly synthesized and engaging presentation of colonial ethnohistory. The description of the emergence of a rural peasantry, with syncretic religious, ecological and domestic agricultural traditions founded on Indigenous knowledge and practices, is impressive. The book thus also covers issues pertaining to ecology, folklore, health and healing, and food production. Politically, Boomert also devotes considerable attention to slavery (which first emerged in the Caribbean with the Spanish enslavement of Indigenous Peoples); resistance, in the form of revolts; and, collaboration between Indigenous communities and foreign invaders. Boomert’s overview of the Catholic missions among Trinidad’s Amerindians is comprehensive, and not confined to Arima alone, one of the longest standing and more recent missions that is the current home of the revitalized Santa Rosa First Peoples’ Community.

Among the very few shortcomings of the book, there was insufficient effort made to transform archaeologists’ writing into material genuinely intended for a broad public (few would call a bowl a “serving vessel”), and some of the names of vegetables and ground provisions do not appear to be Trinidadian but are imported by the author from elsewhere (such as “coontie [zamia]”). There was actually very little on the figure of the Nepuyo warrior, Hyarima, a treasured part of Arima’s history, with only a few lines offering no new information, yet a subsection of a chapter was seemingly devoted to him. Most importantly, however, is the consistent lack of citations in the text, thus not allowing readers to track down the original sources of information. Instead, Boomert opts for a select bibliography, organized into not very helpful sections. One could also quibble about other specific historical and interpretive points, but none of this is meant to detract from the fact that this book stands as a highly detailed, comprehensive synthesis, that will likely stand unrivalled for many years as a central, go-to resource on the Indigenous Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago.

Maximilian C. Forte
Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Concordia University