Bridget Brereton

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 all 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.

— Bridget Brereton is Professor Emerita of History at The UWI, St Augustine.

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