In the spaces of an amnesia engineered through the education system has sprung the myth that there is no lineage of heroism in our march to freedom, that our independence was the gift of a benign sovereign and that our political and economic victories were not won by rebellious and rioting masses but by a benevolent State.
We sing no hallelujahs of shared pride in the heroic stories of our Caribbean ancestors of the First Nations or of the Haitian Revolution, that most improbable of victories that gave the world the template for universal human rights so conveniently ignored by both the American and French revolutions.
Here in Trinidad and Tobago, loss of memory has broken the straight line that should be drawn between the Belmanna Labour Riots of 1876 in Tobago, the Canboulay and Hosay Riots of the 1880s, the Water Riots of 1903, the Dock Workers’ Strike of 1919/20, the Labour Riots of 1937 and the Black Power Revolution of 1970. These are but some of the headline events in the story of our ongoing and unfinished revolution compelled by an insistent longing for peace, bread and justice in political systems that refuse to yield to the cry for representation until forced to do so.
It took rebellion and rioting, not a sense of justice, to restore our humanity from enslaved property and to inch us forward from people without rights to full citizenship, even if only in name for too many in Morvant, Laventille, Beetham and Sea Lots, to name a few.
Scrubbed from all memory is the ferocious take-no-prisoners, yield-no-quarter stand of heroes beginning with our first freedom fighter, Baucunar, Chief of the Carinepagoto people, who successfully repelled Spain’s first attempt to settle Trinidad at Mucurapo in 1531. It was a mighty battle that would launch over 200 years of unrelenting indigenous resistance against land capture, enslavement and, ultimately, the genocide of the civilisation that owned and nurtured this Caribbean for thousands of years before we inherited it.
In the pantheon of that first civilisation of Caribbean leaders were men and women of extraordinary courage, intelligence and deep love and understanding of this land. Their heroic stand against European invasion is the first volume of the Caribbean’s epic story of travail and triumph. It remains to be told on the grand scale that has shaped the identity of Europe and the United States through movies, music, literature, art and drama.
As the world comes to grips with the concept of reparation, it should be our collective responsibility as their cultural if not necessarily biological descendants, to place our first Caribbean ancestors at the head of the list that must include other big ticket items like the repayment of France’s extortion of “reparations” from Haiti, now valued at roughly US$21 billion.
On the agenda must be the mandate to resurrect the civilisation that first baptised this place. Among them the Tainos of Haiti who were the first to feel the fires of European greed for gold; the military strategists of the Kalinago chiefs who successfully thwarted Dutch, Courlander, French and British ambitions to settle Tobago; the Garifuna of St Vincent who waged war against Britain until the European powerhouse was forced into signing its first treaty with non-white persons in the Caribbean; and the Realpolitik of Goanagoanare, Chief of the Carinepagoto, and military brilliance of the Nepoyo warrior-leader Hyarima, who destabilised the Spanish occupation of Trinidad a whole century beyond Baucunar’s stand at Mucurapo.
In addition to all that must be done for our Caribbean ancestors, the Caricom Reparations Committee now led by Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados must secure the return of the island of Baliceaux to the Garifuna people.
This 320-acre island in the Grenadines is sacred to the Garifuna, descendants of the people known as the Black Caribs of St Vincent who were decimated in one of the most brutal episodes of British adventurism in the Caribbean. It occurred in 1796 when a British expedition led by General Ralph Abercromby, immortalised in Trinidad through Abercromby Street, breached Britain’s treaty with the Black Caribs, captured St Vincent, killed their leader Chatoyer, rounded up the estimated 4,600 Black Caribs and shipped them by the Royal Navy to Baliceaux to await banishment to Roatan Island, just off Honduras. By the time they were shipped to Roatan Island more than half of them had died from hunger and disease.
In recent years, this internment camp of St Vincent’s Black Caribs has been listed for sale by its private owner at prices ranging from US$25 million to US$35 million and promoted for its “huge potential for touristic development.”
The offering of this gaping wound as a luxury item for sale is only possible because the starvation of memory leaves no spark for the raging at the past that is needed in the present to change the trajectory of our future. As history has repeatedly taught us, what happened in the past does not stay in the past. In 2020 the American Revolution of 1776 has sprung to life as Black Lives Matter, as African-Americans stake their claim to the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
No matter the scrubbing of memory or re-writing of stories, the past does not die. It lies ahead around the corner, waiting to trip us up one cool morning, when the sun is shining and the birds are singing and the air is suddenly rent by the sound of bullets and the scent of blood.