04 February 2020

ARIMA BORN: Land, Labour, Power, and Colonial Mythology in Trinidad

Focusing on the history of the Arima Mission in the Island of Trinidad, ostensibly a mission for Indigenous people, the documentary below features what was learned from the baptismal registers of the Mission of Santa Rosa de Arima—in conjunction with historical texts, government documents, and official memoranda and reports of the time. What we encounter are four main “myths,” or working fictions: 1) the myth that the Mission was for Indians alone; 2) the myth of “Christian protection”; 3) the myth of assimilation; and, 4) the myth of extinction. The film, and the book on which it is based, argues that a proper understanding of the history of the rise and demise of the Mission has to be in relation to the slave plantation economy. Broadly speaking, we are dealing with a story at the intersection of land, labour, and power under conditions of oligarchic domination and the creation of poverty out of plenty.

Research that went into the book, Arima Born, on which the documentary below was based, became part of my “knowledge repatriation” strategy. This was accompanied by a series of events that, for some, would be examples of “public anthropology”.

First, copies of the book were deposited for free in various key access points: in Canada, copies were deposited with Libraries & Archives Canada, along with an e-book; in Trinidad, copies were deposited in the Heritage Collection of the National Library (NALIS), the Arima Public Library, and the West Indian Collection of the Alma Jordan Library of the University of the West Indies.

Second, free copies of the book were delivered to the Santa Rosa First People’s Community, in addition to providing copies to select members of the Arima community more broadly, including the Santa Rosa Roman Catholic Church.

Third, an offer was made to the leadership of the Santa Rosa First People’s Community to republish and print the book locally in Trinidad, under an imprint of its choice, with the majority of revenues going to the SRFPC.

Fourth, public presentations based on the book were made at the community centre of the Santa Rosa First People’s Community on December 10, 2019, and at the Arima Public Library on January 8, 2020. The slides below accompanied those public presentations, and are being made available for download:

Fifth, awareness of the issues presented in the book, and in the public presentations, was heightened by the publication of three separate articles by different authors in the national media in Trinidad & Tobago:

  1. Arima mission a ‘slave colony’,” in Newsday (Oct. 22, 2019), also available here.
  2. First Peoples want HDC house for Carib Queen,” in Newsday (Dec. 12, 2019), also available here.
  3. Counting ‘Indios’,” review by Bridget Brereton in the Daily Express (Jan. 29, 2020), full text available here.

Sixth, the documentary below is the latest form of public presentation of the knowledge gained from this research. The film is available both on YouTube and Vimeo.

01 February 2020

“Counting ‘Indios’”: Review by Bridget Brereton

Originally published in the Daily Express
by Dr. Bridget Brereton
January 29, 2020

Dr. Bridget Brereton, Trinidad Historian
The history of Trinidad’s First Peoples before the coming of the Europeans has been researched by archaeologists like John Bullbrook, Irving Rouse and (more recently) Arie Boomert. After European contact (from 1498) written records are available to reconstruct what happened to these people, and the Arima based Santa Rosa First Peoples Community (SRFPC) has worked hard over several decades to remind us that their descendants today form an important part of the national population.

Maximilian Forte, a Canadian anthropologist at Concordia University in Montreal, has researched the history of Trinidad’s First Peoples, especially those associated with the Arima Mission, for many years. He published an important book in 2005, with the (typically academic!) title Ruins of Absence, Presence of Caribs: (Post)Colonial Representations of Aboriginality in Trinidad and Tobago, and is a long-standing collaborator with the SRFPC.

Last month, I was lucky to attend the launch of Forte’s new book, Arima Born, held at the SRFPC Centre in Arima. Introducing him, Chief Ricardo Bharath Hernandez described him as a friend and “documentalist” of the SRFPC for over 20 years, a counsellor and teacher “with the characteristics of the eagle”.

In a fascinating presentation, Forte explained that his new book was based on the baptism registers of the Arima (Roman Catholic) Mission Church, covering the period 1820 to 1916, plus various other documents of the same period. In Trinidad, as in many other places, surviving church registers (baptisms, marriages, burials) are a key source for historians, especially when we remember that government or “civil” registration of births, marriages and deaths typically began only in the 1800s (1847 in Trinidad).

Forte said that his research for Arima Born has led him to expose what he called four “myths” about the Arima Mission, which was the main Catholic-run centre for surviving First Peoples (whom Spanish priests called “Indios” or Indians) in Trinidad from 1786. (Overall, 630 “Indios” appear in the Mission’s baptism registers.)

First, Arima’s population in the early 1800s was predominantly African not “Indian”: most baptisms recorded in the Mission registers for the 1820s were of enslaved (African) children. Arima was a small settlement surrounded by plantations, many owned by French Creole families, and worked by enslaved Africans, who outnumbered the First Peoples (“Indios”) in the “Indian Mission”.

Second, what Forte called the “myth of Christian protection”: in fact, the Church could and did sell or grant the lands of the Mission (in theory vested in the resident “Indios”) to others for plantation development, such as the Farfan family. And the Mission ran its own rum shop and allowed the “Indios” to run up debts to the shop, a way of controlling their labour and maybe forcing them to sell their lands.

Third, the myth of “assimilation”, the idea that the First Peoples of the Mission adopted Christianity and its associated lifestyles with little resistance. In fact, many fled from the Mission; disobeyed church teachings; buried their dead in the hills not in the Mission cemetery; and rejected Christian marriage (53 per cent of the baptisms of “Indio” children were “illegitimate” between 1820 and 1852).

Finally, the myth of “extinction”, the “vanishing Indian”: the “Indios” didn’t vanish, of course, but the Mission was disbanded when slavery ended in the 1830s. Now, their labour was no longer needed and their lands in Arima were wanted for plantation development. And so they were no longer counted; in the baptism registers, they were no longer identified as “Indios” from the 1840s, but given a new ethnic identity, such as “mestizo”.

Sadly, Arima Born was not available for purchase at the launch, but Forte’s new book—from his presentation clearly a major contribution—can be ordered online from Alert Press.

The Peopling of the Caribbean: New Research Findings

From the Daily Express, where it was published with the headline: "Tech proves Columbus’ claims: Hundreds-year-old beliefs debunked," republished from scitechdaily.
Jan 27, 2020

Christopher Columbus’ accounts of the Caribbean include harrowing descriptions of fierce raiders who abducted women and cannibalised men—stories long dismissed as myths.

But a new study published on January 10 in Scientific Reports suggests Columbus may have been telling the truth.

Using the equivalent of facial recognition technology, researchers analysed the skulls of early Caribbean inhabitants, uncovering relationships between people groups and upending long-standing hypotheses about how the islands were first colonised.

One surprising finding was that the Caribs, marauders from South America and rumoured cannibals, invaded Jamaica, Hispaniola and the Bahamas, overturning half a century of assumptions that they never made it further north than Guadeloupe.

“I’ve spent years trying to prove Columbus wrong when he was right: There were Caribs in the northern Caribbean when he arrived,” said William Keegan, Florida Museum of Natural History curator of Caribbean archaeology. “We’re going to have to reinterpret everything we thought we knew.”

Columbus had recounted how peaceful Arawaks in modern-day Bahamas were terrorised by pillagers he mistakenly described as “Caniba,” the Asiatic subjects of the Grand Khan. His Spanish successors corrected the name to “Caribe” a few decades later, but the similar-sounding names led most archaeologists to chalk up the references to a mix-up: How could Caribs have been in the Bahamas when their closest outpost was nearly 1,000 miles to the south?

But skulls reveal the Carib presence in the Caribbean was far more prominent than previously thought, giving credence to Columbus’ claims.

Face to face with the Caribbean’s earliest inhabitants

Previous studies relied on artefacts such as tools and pottery to trace the geographical origin and movement of people through the Caribbean over time. Adding a biological component brings the region’s history into sharper focus, said Ann Ross, a professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University and the study’s lead author.

Ross used 3D facial “landmarks,” such as the size of an eye socket or length of a nose, to analyse more than 100 skulls dating from about A.D. 800 to 1542. These landmarks can act as a genetic proxy for determining how closely people are related to one another.

The analysis not only revealed three distinct Caribbean people groups, but also their migration routes, which was “really stunning,” Ross said.

Looking at ancient faces shows the Caribbean’s earliest settlers came from the Yucatan, moving into Cuba and the Northern Antilles, which supports a previous hypothesis based on similarities in stone tools. Arawak speakers from coastal Colombia and Venezuela migrated to Puerto Rico between 800 and 200 BC, a journey also documented in pottery.

The earliest inhabitants of the Bahamas and Hispaniola, however, were not from Cuba as commonly thought, but the North-west Amazon—the Caribs. Around AD 800, they pushed north into Hispaniola and Jamaica and then the Bahamas where they were well established by the time Columbus arrived.

“I had been stumped for years because I didn’t have this Bahamian component,” Ross said. “Those remains were so key. This will change the perspective on the people and peopling of the Caribbean.”

For Keegan, the discovery lays to rest a puzzle that pestered him for years: why a type of pottery known as Meillacoid appears in Hispaniola by AD 800, Jamaica around 900 and the Bahamas around 1000.

“Why was this pottery so different from everything else we see? That had bothered me,” he said. “It makes sense that Meillacoid pottery is associated with the Carib expansion.”

The sudden appearance of Meillacoid pottery also corresponds with a general reshuffling of people in the Caribbean after a 1,000-year period of tranquillity, further evidence that “Carib invaders were on the move,” Keegan said.

Raiders of the lost Arawaks

So, was there any substance to the tales of cannibalism?

Possibly, Keegan said.

Arawaks and Caribs were enemies, but they often lived side by side with occasional intermarriage before blood feuds erupted, he said.

“It’s almost a ‘Hatfields and McCoys’ kind of situation,” Keegan said. “Maybe there was some cannibalism involved. If you need to frighten your enemies, that’s a really good way to do it.”

Whether or not it was accurate, the European perception that Caribs were cannibals had a tremendous impact on the region’s history, he said. The Spanish monarchy initially insisted that indigenous people be paid for work and treated with respect, but reversed its position after receiving reports that they refused to convert to Christianity and ate human flesh.

“The crown said, ‘Well, if they’re going to behave that way, they can be enslaved,’” Keegan said. “All of a sudden, every native person in the entire Caribbean became a Carib as far as the colonists were concerned.”

Community centre on ancient burial ground?

Originally published in the Daily Express,
by Kimoy Leon Sing,
June 14, 2019

Community centre: The newly opened San Fernando North Community Centre.

Flickering lights and power failure marked the official opening of the San Fernando North Community Centre on Wednesday.

Minister of Community Development, Culture and the Arts Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly and mayor of San Fernando Junia Regrello were at the site to open the multi-storey facility, which has had several unexplained occurrences since 2009.

It was reported during the initial phase of construction that these incidences were believed to be the work of spirits.

Some of these unexplained occurrences included falling tools and various accidents, after members of Amerindian tribes visited the site in 2009, claiming it as a First Peoples burial ground.

However, these claims were never confirmed.

According to Gadsby-Dolly, the centre sits on one acre of land along St Vincent Street, San Fernando and has taken 11 years to build to the tune of $16.8 million.

The multi-million dollar facility is a four-storey structure which consists of an auditorium with a capacity to hold 275 people along with changing rooms and washrooms, all located on the top two floors of the facility.

On the ground floor, the centre is comprised of an audio-visual room, computer room, a gymnasium, administrative office, kitchen, and multipurpose room.

There is parking in the basement and outside the building. There is also an elevator and ramps for the differently abled.

Speaking to media following the unveiling of the commemorative plaque and ribbon cutting ceremony, Gadsby-Dolly chuckled when asked about the supernatural occurrences at the centre.

She said, the country is steeped in folklore, but the flickering lights and power failure at the start of the opening ceremony was not any foreboding of evil and doom, but there was a reasonable explanation.

“We are a country rich in folklore and heritage and that’s good too. Burial sites are revered by T&T’s first people and were happy to have done the right kind of ceremony, which had the blessings of the Amerindian descendants,” she said.

“We feel that we are honoured to be on this site. We feel that it is a good addition to the foundation and it means that the whole centre is steeped in the good values of our ancestors and we look forward to that continuing,” Gadsby-Dolly said.

She noted with the change of government in 2010, work at the center halted, but with PNM returning to office in 2015, work at the center resumed in 2017.

At the opening ceremony, residents of Spring Vale, San Fernando, and environs said the center was a great addition to the community.

Regrello said the centre will now be used for various events and outreach programmes spanning education campaigns, health activities, and many cultural items.

It will also act as a safe haven and be a central pillar in the community, he said.

“These activities are simply some of the everyday initiatives that community centres such as this can host. However, one of the most critical factors that we all must pay heed is ensuring that all those who utilise this facility take responsibility for it. Treat it as your own. The long-term sustainability of this building, as well as many of the other upcoming projects in San Fernando, hinge on our citizens accepting responsibility for the general upkeep of these buildings,” he said.

Project manager of UDeCOTT, Terrence Beepath attributed the flickering lights and loss of power during the opening ceremony as power failure.

He said, “UDeCOTT is going to be here one year after, on this project to improve all aspects.”