24 October 2019

Arima mission a ‘slave colony’

Author explores records of First Peoples

First Peoples visits San Fernando last week. - Marvin Hamilton


Originally published in NEWSDAY, October 22, 2019.

In December, Maximilian C Forte returns with an exciting new text which deals specifically with the history of Trinidad’s indigenous population, titled Arima Born.

Forte has continued his research in the Carib/First Peoples' Community, which began in 1995, and has already contributed to the documentation of TT history with Ruins of Absence, Presence of Caribs, which was published in 2005. Forte’s other work on the Amerindians of Trinidad is titled Indigenous Resurgence in the Contemporary Caribbean: Amerindian Survival and Revival.

The new, self-published text (Forte’s Alert Press) is invaluable to any Caribbean history collection. Forte has based this new work on his study of the baptismal registers of the RC church in Arima for 1820-1916.

He is the first to admit that his work is incomplete, as huge chunks of the records were missing, illegible, and systems of record-keeping were flawed. He has included re-productions of the records he studied, bringing the page count to just over 300.

In the preface of the book he reveals that the registers he had the opportunity to examine were sent to the archives of the Archbishop’s residence and are now difficult to access.

Forte is a professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. He first learned of the Carib Community in the early 90s through a newspaper article. He committed to sharing the results of his research with members of the Santa Rosa Carib/First Peoples Community, some of whom believe the very proof of their indignity lies in these records, but Forte says: “Identity is ultimately an idea.”

At Concordia University he teaches courses on indigenous resurgence, media and visual anthropology, political anthropology, Caribbean history and political economy, among other subjects.

He makes the point that the registers are “not only material evidence concerning the history of the Amerindians in the Arima Mission, they are also a detailed repository of data on African slaves in Arima and environs.”

This is so, he notes, “in a period when reparations are being studied and proposed at the highest political levels across the Caribbean.”

In Arima Born, readers learn that Arima was never actually a mission just for Amerindians. In fact, Forte describes it as a “slave colony.” Even though missions were initially conceived to “pacify” the Amerindian population, toward the end of the 1700s the Amerindians were, as ever, “caught between shifts of value.” The mission to “pacify” and Christianise failed. Then Don Miguel Sorzano, a Spanish slave owner who was the first corregidor, established the mission in 1784. There were other slave owners in Arima and at that time, the mission’s indigenous inhabitants included tribes forcibly displaced from their lands in Tacarigua, Caura and Arouca.

According to Forte: “Between field work, public works and armed security one cannot interpret the founding of the Mission as anything less than a form of state patronage in the service of landed capital and the existing oligarchy.” Amerindians even built homes for the disbanded 3rd West India Regiment.

Even when the British came, the Amerindians were only valued as long as their labour was valued. British authorities “imported” Amerindian/mestizo labourers from Venezuela, and they got to work shoulder to shoulder with the Amerindians of Trinidad: “Amerindian labour was utilised to create value in land, by clearing it for cultivation. Once that land was cleared, its value would have increased while the labour that produced that value would then become disposable.”

When the priests in the mission kept careful accounting through racial/ethnic registry, it was because real legal obligations and rights were attached to members of different groups. Forte concludes: “The Amerindians of Arima went extinct but in a political-economic sense only, rather in than either ethnic/cultural or biological terms.”

Arima Born shares more information about the socio-political structures which orchestrated this “paper genocide.” Two priests of interest who appear in Forte’s text are Fr Pedro Josef Reyes Bravo (1786-1818), who gave testimony in the trial of Luisa Calderon, and Msgr Charles de Martini (1895-1916), whose family came to own substantial cocoa estates during his tenure.

Forte also reveals that the position of Carib Queen did not exist before the 1800s and the first queen may even have come from Venezuela. In exploring the roots of the Santa Rosa Festival, which is essentially why a queen was appointed, he examines the similarities between the Santa Rosa Festival and the Cross Wake (Veloria de la Cruz). He also offers more information about the existence of Amerindians outside the missions, those who choose to live in the forests of the Northern Range. Add this to the fact that we have no way of knowing how many baptised children were not included in the register and how many were not baptised, or the numbers contained in the records which have been lost.

What becomes clear is that the assertion that Amerindians “died out” or “lost their heritage through miscegenation” is a myth. And, Forte wrote: “Far from offering the Amerindians ‘protection,’ the mission was an engine of their socio-economic demise."

17 October 2019

Trinidad Caribs Inaugurate New Queen

Republished from:
NEWSDAY, October 13, 2019

Caribs crown queen Nona
First Peoples conduct ceremony in Arima

by Janelle De Souza, with photos from Ayanna Kinsale

Carib royalty: Nona López Calderón Galera Moreno Aquan is regal, during her inauguration as the new Carib Queen in the Carib Centre on Paul Mitchell Street, Arima.

It was a very emotional moment for 63-year-old Nona Aquan when she was inaugurated as the new Carib Queen.

The indigenous ceremony took place yesterday at the Carib Centre, Arima, in the presence of First Peoples and political dignitaries alike.

Aquan, full name Nona Lopez Calderon Galera Moreno Aquan, shook, cried and smiled in her seat as she was surrounded and blessed by pyai (shamans or religious leaders) from TT, Suriname, Guyana, Guatemala, and Guyana. She, along with First Peoples chief Ricardo Bharath-Hernandez, will work together for the leadership and upliftment of TT’s indigenous people.

The ceremony started with Aquan cleansing her face and hands with consecrated water before seating herself on a chair at the centre of a large carat shed as Bharath-Hernandez explained the history of the institution of the Carib Queen.

He said the mission of Santa Rosa was established for the First Peoples but some Spanish people, and eventually others, settled and ‘mixed’ with them. He said while the chiefs had the authority there was always a female elder who would be their Keeper of Traditions. However, in the 1800s there was a crisis in the male leadership and so the Carib Queen was sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church.

Carib Queen Nona Lopez Calderon Galera Moreno Aquan receives her blessings from 100-year-old-Moruga Chief Paul Navarro during her inauguration at the Carib Centre, Paul Mitchell Street, Arima

Aquan was then blessed by the pyai. The smoke of incense and tobacco filled the air as the pyai, including 100-year-old Moruga Chief, Paul Navarro, prayed to the great spirits in their native languages, and blessed her by wafting and blowing the smoke in her face and on her body.

During the blessing by the Suriname contingent, the queen’s headdress was placed upon her head. She was then invested with special beads and a cape before several First People’s women held sacred palm branches over her head and sang spiritual songs in tribute to the queen.

Explaining the symbolism of the branches, Bharath-Hernandez said when Jesus was born and King Herod pursued the family as they fled, palm branches fell on Mary to hide her from her attackers. Therefore the branches was a symbol of protection.

For the last part of the ceremony, Aquan knelt in front of her mother to receive her blessing – a kiss on the forehead.

With tears in her eyes, Aquan told members of the media she was touched and overwhelmed to see and feel her connection to all the indigenous people in TT and abroad. In between numerous hugs, congratulations, and well-wishing, she thanked her relatives, friends and all other supporters for being at the ceremony.

Asked what she planned to work on as queen she said, 

“I want to see more things for the youth... get them more involved with the community because we are stronger in numbers. I think they should have a daycare for young mothers. There are a lot of aunties at home, providing (care) so the younger ones can go out and be comfortable.”

Carib Queen Nona Lopez Calderon Galera Moreno Aquan, right, dances with guests at her inauguration held at the Carib Centre, Paul Mitchell Street, Arima on October 12.

Arima Mayor Lisa Morris-Julian attended the ceremony. She said, 

“I am extremely proud. I love how the First Peoples took something so colonial and made it so much theirs. The queen of the First Peoples is not just a title. She’s going to be responsible for so many things in our community, keeping the children of the community alive, so I am very happy.”
There to witness the event were Permanent Representative to the UN, Pennelope Beckles; former culture minister Joan Yuille-Williams; Toco/Sangre Grande Regional Corporation chairman Terry Rondon; PNM PRO, Laurel Lezama-Lee Sing; and former minister of national diversity and social integration, Dr Roger Samuel. Also in attendance were visitors from the US, Belize, Dominica, and Japan.

The indigenous ceremony was followed by an inauguration mass at Santa Rosa RC Church, Arima.

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.