SHEDDING LIGHT ON THE HISTORY OF ARIMA: THE CHALLENGES AND MISSED OPPORTUNITIES OF THE ORAL TRADITION
Francis Morean @ 6th November 2018.
(This is the ninth in a series of articles being published here by Francis Morean with the focus upon the history of Arima.)
Today being Divali I was planning to publish interviews I conducted in 2010 with Ramragee Ramcharan who was born at Verdant Vale in March 1920 and in 2011 with Ramsewak Doon Pundit, the son of the celebrated pundit and healer Doon Pundit . In the interview with Ramragee she spoke about the celebration of Divali in Vedant Vale during her childhood. Ramsewak had spoken with me about his father’s involvement in Divali celebrations in Arima and Verdant Vale. That plan has however been unfortunately postponed.
Sometimes, I metaphorically, become almost like the shepherd who leaves the flock in the field to go find the lost sheep.
An issue arose this morning, which I felt should be addressed to members of the group for some consideration and discussion before I continue the publication of any more articles here. Before I go into the issue however, I wish to shed some light on a few matters and to place a few things into context. ( Please see fact check at the very end.)
I should caution that this post is longer than all the others I have shared so far. So please do not let the food in your pot or on your tawa burn while you are mulling over this.
Almost 2 decades ago, Mr. Reginald Clarke, a West African on the staff of the U.W.I. library extolled the significance of the oral tradition. He cited the oral tradition as being “the quintessential historical text” and chided the public for overlooking this “most substantiative form of communication”.
Many researchers in Trinidad and Tobago would have emphasized the importance of this over the years. I can cite Dr. J.D. Elder, Andrew Pearse, Dr. Sylvia Moodie-Kublalsingh, Prof Bridgit Brereton, Errol Hill, Andrew Carr, just to name a few.
Clarke’s words stuck in my head for a variety of reasons. I often hear laments like “The old people dead and gone and they did not tell us anything.” or “My grandmother did know all those things you know, but I never had the chance to write them down.”
I spend many hours out there in communities across Trinidad and Tobago and beyond, in the company of elders. Very often over the years I have wished that I did not have to earn an income so that I could spend more time out there. I have met amazing men and women out there with life stories that are literally begging to be told.
Over 20 years ago when I wrote a tribute to a traditional healer from Maracas – St. Joseph who had passed away, I noted:
“Quite surprisingly, Placid’s passing did not evoke any tremendous emotional impact upon me. Yet his passing affected me in a different manner, for it seemed that in the drama of my own life, this passing sunset was like a curtain call on the one hand and a wake-up call on the other.
His passing had stimulated much reflection and introspection about my own life and mission. Two years before, in considering the passing of another old cocoa panyol herbalist Dorotheo “Yombe” Diaz, I wrote:
“He was a master herbalist and for awhile I was his student. It is often said that the old people do not want to share their knowledge with the younger generations. I have never accepted that statement because of men like Yombe. He was always willing to teach me as much as he knew. He did it with love and a sense of style and theatrics. It seemed as if I never could spend as much time as I would like to be with him. Sometimes I feel as if I have done the nation a disservice by not having been as thorough as I would have liked to have been in documenting the wealth of knowledge which he embodied.
“Yombe’s passing, like the passing of Papa Goon, Regino Noreiga and the like represents the passing of an era which has been little researched and documented. It represents the decline not just of the panyol culture in Trinidad but also the decline of cocoa production in Trinidad. It marks the passing of an era which was rich in folklore and mysticism as it was in joi de vivre.”
I could have removed the name “Yombe” and replaced it with the name “Placid” and could have asked myself the same question that I have often asked: “Am I doing enough?” I had done a fair amount; yet there was so much more that could have been done that I guess it would have been very difficult to say that I was satisfied. When I heard that Placid had died, a sense of guilt descended upon me about the fact that it had been over a year since I had last gone to see him. A whole year. “Time does fly.” (“El Tiempo Pasar,”) as my grandmother used to say in Spanish. I had known that he had been ailing for awhile. On the last occasion that we spoke he had told me that he wanted to share as much as possible with me because he did not think he had much longer to live.”
I can share many other examples.
Out there can be found hundreds if not thousands of stories of perseverance and overcoming; of love and forgiveness; stories of challenging times and the power of the human spirit to overcome them. Stories that embody the very conquest of light over darkness that we sometimes speak about in an almost clichéd manner each year when we celebrate Divali.
At a very personal level I find great inspiration from those stories.
On a day like today for example, try to imagine Sewdass Sadhu lighting his deyas in the temple in the sea at Waterloo in Central Trinidad. To me, narratives like these play a very critical part in our nation building process.
When I speak to elders and I hear their stories of overcoming, I often wish that some of the young gunmen can be there with me to hear them. I often express the view that part of the ruthlessness, which characterizes some of our youths and helps to fuel our crime problem, has been their rootlessness and their disconnection from the struggles of their ancestors.
Since at least 1993 I have publicly published suggestions that our schools should be used as an avenue for documenting our rich oral traditions.
Others have made similar claims. Cultural activist Rubadiri Victor for one has been always lamenting the loss of what I think he calls our “Golden Generation”.
For my part, I have been doing whatever I could and with whatever I could over the years to document our oral traditions. For this I have suffered at times even from public abuse. It is for that reason that I cited recently the statement about Homer and the nine wealthy towns in which he lived.
In Tobago in 2002 I was once aggressively told “Morean, pack you things and go back Trinidad!”
Even in the village of Palo Seco where I grew up, I have heard sarcastic comments like “Whah Boyo doing down here?”
In the pages of the Express Newspaper I have seen supposedly intelligent East Indian commentators making remarks to the effect that it is the Indian and the Indian alone who must document the East Indian experience.
As I have mentioned earlier
I have even been subjected to vile racist attacks by the Express Newspaper.
Right here in Arima I have also had to deal with more than my fair share of criticism.
In a presentation which I made to some young members of the First Peoples community in Arima back on April 8th 2006 along the bank of the Arima River I had addressed some of those criticisms and attempted to educate them about the life and legacy of the warrior Hyarima.
Divali symbolizes the victory of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance. In the light of an experience this Divali morning, I have decided that it would be useful at this point to address a few matters. I have also decided to suspend the publication here of any more articles until further notice.
Whereas the response to the interviews with Mr. Boiselle and Mr. Beautaudier has been overwhelmingly positive, it seems that I need to place certain things in perspective. I have therefore decided to share a very long extract from the presentation which I made to the young people back in 2006. It was a very long and detailed presentation and I am sharing today a fairly long excerpt from it. I have deleted a few parts from the excerpt and at such points I have typed (>>>>) as I did in the last 2 interviews, which were published here.
“Please allow me to say how happy I am to be here again in Arima today. I have spent many happy April days in this town. Many of you who are familiar with the shop which I operated in this town for some ten years and more would have probably wondered what became of me. How did I just seem to disappear from Arima after more than a decade of really hard work. I should say first of all that I never left Arima. I may not have been here in the flesh very often but Arima has always been in my heart. Let me say as well that I have unfinished work. I have always intimated that H.E.R.B.S. was not solely a business activity. It was a dream. In many respects the dispensation of H.E.R.B.S. as it was once known, is over. The dream however lives on. In some respects the dream has also grown stronger. I believe as well that Hierreima (Hyarima)’s dream is also growing. When I consider the statement made last October by the President of the Santa Rosa Carib Community and the Deputy Mayor of this town that the descendants of the indigenous peoples intend to obtain their lands this year it becomes very clear to me that the dream is growing. When I consider discussions I have held about the indigenous peoples with many people outside of the Santa Rosa Carib Community in the past year, it becomes even clearer to me that the dream is growing. When I consider the circumstances under which the books which I have recently completed or which are nearing completion, were prepared, I have no doubt whatsoever that his dream is alive.
When I first came to live in the Arima Valley in December 1984 I had very few friends in this town. I was “Un extrangero”. Hierreima (Hyarima) meant nothing to me. I do not think that I had even heard the name before. Yet, as I walked the hills and trails of the Arima Valley, I, unknowingly, was walking in the footsteps of Hierreima (Hyarima). When I say walking, I mean walking. Those of you who knew me before I came to Arima would know of what I speak. I have touched upon it in some parts of the manuscript for the book Under The Chaconia Tree which will also be launched some day soon.
By the time I came to live in the town of Arima in December 1989 I had a few more friends in this town. These were Carol Guerra who had worked at Simla during my initial tenure there; her family; the Dalipsinghs who were my neighbours of sort at Simla; Miguel Perreira, who lived on the banks of the river by the One Mile and who helped the American zoologist, Professor John Endler in collecting fishes for his evolutionary studies. The majority were taxi drivers, people like Chris Hollingsworth, Herman Montoute and that fine gentleman, John Houillier who was murdered along the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road while plying his trade about two years ago; farmers like “Plaits”, Mr Shirley, Mr Boiselle and Mr Sorzano from La Laja; farmers from Cangrejal and Paria and young people from Calvary Hill like Monica Malchan (This morning on my way here, I learnt that she recently passed away. May God bless her soul), Carol, Perry Durant, the Fermins and others.
The majority were also descendants of our indigenous peoples. I also had three very special friends in the persons of Elma Lathuillerie Reyes, Javien Dixon Caprietta and Cindy Walcott. It was only recently, as I looked back at it, that it dawned on me that these three friends were all descendants of our first peoples.
Some of you gathered here would have known Javien “Dixon” Caprietta, the old “Carib” snakebite healer, medicine man and shaman who lived (in Jonestown) and who passed away in December 2004. Some of you would also have known Elma who passed away on 25th August 2000 at the age of 65. Most of you may not know Cindy. Cindy, however is one of thousands of citizens of this land who is of first people lineage but who are not a part of and who are not closely associated with any organized grouping of people of indigenous roots.
Of the three, Elma was the only one who was directly involved with the work of the Santa Rosa Carib Community. At the time when I came to Arima to live, she was the research officer of the Santa Rosa Carib Community. Our relationship had gone back to 1984 when she was a writer with the Express newspaper and I had responded to some queries she had made in an issue of the newspaper. To her credit, Elma would ask questions if she was not sure about something. In this way both she and the community benefited. This is one of the things about her life which young journalists may emulate. The levels of falsehoods and errors which are presented as the truth in some local daily news are frustrating. It speaks volumes about the nature of the leadership of those organisations. I had always indicated to Elma that I was at the disposal of the community if they ever needed my assistance. For whatever reasons, my assistance was seldom ever sought however whenever it was sought I always willingly obliged.
On at least two occasions I would have sought the direct assistance of the Carib community as an organization. On both occasions I had received the assistance that I had sought. The first was in the early 1990s when I was undertaking some detailed assessments of our handicraft resources. The second occasion was in April of 1999. I would speak more about this later.
I was however always of the opinion that I had been on good terms with members of both the wider Carib community in Arima and with the members of the Santa Rosa Carib Community.
Unfortunately, in 2002, nearing the end of my suddenly interrupted stay in Arima, a university student had sought an interview from me and had provided me with a list of questions she wanted answered
One of the questions related to a perception that I had “used” elder members of the Carib community in my activities as a healer and the community did not benefit from my work. The tone of the comment suggested quite strongly that I had exploited members of the community to my personal benefit and to their detriment. If it is that there has been such a belief within Arima, I plead not guilty to that charge.
To the extent that the perception exists I hope that what I have to say today would change that. In fact if I may be guilty at all in any way, I hope that today’s event may also help to correct that. Today, I would be bringing to the public attention information about the life of Hierreima (Hyarima) which has never previously found general circulation in this land.
The funny and paradoxical thing however is that I probably run the risk of being accused of the same thing because of the books that I plan to publish within the coming months. Such however are the ironies of our existence. I have therefore made a number of decisions. I would just announce two at present. One is that I have decided to publish the text of this presentation as a book. The second is that all the profits from the sale of the proposed book would be used to further the cause of the descendants of the indigenous people of Trinidad and Tobago.
I must say however, that the question which the student had posed, did lead me to some introspection. I thought for awhile that the view may have been based upon my relationship with Javien Dixon Caprietta who in many ways has inspired the writing which has led to today’s event. I also thought for a while that the insinuation may have been based upon a television programme which I had done back in 1991 with the traditional healer Doroteo “Yombe” Diaz and which has been regularly featured on television since then. I did not think that the view would have come from members of the families of any of these two men. I must admit however that I felt quite hurt by the suggestion and insinuation.
Probably the shortest and simplest response I could give to my critics would be four simple questions. The first question is whether they would have been happier if some of the elders who I interviewed had passed away before I got an opportunity to document some of their experiences?
The second question is whether they have been unhappy because of the general perception that my business made a lot of money?
The third question is what has prevented them from documenting the experiences of the elders of their community? Why have they had to depend so much upon the expertise of others who do not belong to their community? All that is really needed most to start the process is just pen and paper. By K. Chang and Su’s Marketplace have plenty of that.
The final question is what has prevented them from going into business activity in the same way that I did?
One would not be very far from the truth if one were to say that when I first came to live in Arima in 1989 I was almost homeless and penniless. I have written about some aspects of the early days in the pages of the H.E.R.B.S. STAR. I was living in a place that some of my friends called “The Rathole” for reasons that were obvious. That was what I could have afforded at the time. It did not stop me from interviewing Capriata or Yombay or from growing to the extent that I did.
In the years since then, there are some things of course which I would have liked to do, which were not done. I have written about some of these in the H.E.R.B.S. STAR, which I began to publish in April 1999, and elsewhere. There were also some things which were done which, I would have liked to have done differently. I however always had to work with the available resources.
One thing is clear however. I had not done anything that could not have been done by individuals or collectives within the Carib community. Although from what I have gathered, some would disagree with what I have to say, I have always been willing to assist anyone who needed my assistance. In fact if anyone here is familiar with the H.E.R.B.S STAR newspaper supplements, they may have noticed that it was produced to address the failure of the local media to highlight many of the issues which were featured within the pages of the H.E.R.B.S STAR.
The production of the H.E.R.B.S STAR had been on the drawing board for at least 18 months before the first edition was published. It was conceptualized during one of those periods, when to a much lesser extent than today, I had been experiencing a significant amount of difficulties.
It was initially planned as a magazine and I had even paid a young lady to prepare a sample or mock magazine of what I had planned as the first edition but which was never used. I just did not have the funds at the time to complete the project.
Over the Independence weekend of 1998 I had hosted an herbal workshop at Spring Hill at which a small group including Ken Reyes, Aisha Mawasi, a gentleman called Mr. Gonzales from Point-a Pierre, Ricardo Cruz and his then fiancé Jennifer Alkins, Halycyon Rouse, Peter Hanoomansingh, Kelly Warren (an American student at the time) and John Stollmeyer were present. It was called Rain Forest Remedies: The Healing Herbs of the Arima Valley. I had hired Jalaludin Khan to assist me in its production.
Unknown to the participants, when I hosted that herbal retreat, I was faced with critical choices as to whether I should stay in business or whether I should close up shop until such time that an appropriate regulatory environment existed for the marketing of herbal products in Trinidad and Tobago. At the end of the workshop I made a decision that I would not wind up the operation of the herbal aspect of my business. I also made a decision that I would publicly take up the fight on the issue and that I would use a portion of my earnings to produce the H.E.R.B.S STAR and to educate the public more than I had been doing before, about our local herbs and other matters. I spent the money that I earned to do the things which I thought the media, among others, had failed to do and which they now pay people to do as a result of my advocacy, and the example I have set.
On the first page of the very first issue of the H.E.R.B.S STAR which was published on April 22nd 1999, I had written about the failure of the local media houses to properly educate the public about the local flora. (>>>)
Readers of the H.E.R.B.S STAR would have also noted among other things a full page feature which was published in Volume 5 of the H.E.R.B.S STAR in November 1999 to commemorate the tri-centennial of the Arena uprising.
My concerns have always been about our culture and heritage and about the legacy that we should leave for the nation’s children.
In Volume 27of the H.E.R.B.S STAR which was a Special Caribbean Issue published in April 2001, and in two subsequent issues I published the text of a presentation which I had made at a workshop conducted over the Independence weekend of 1999. In the wide-ranging presentation I had indicated :
“….some people think that I am a millionaire right now because I am doing these things. (publishing the H.E.R.B.S STAR supplements). I don’t have to be doing it. It is a sacrifice on the one hand and it is an attempt to let people know that we have something here and if we don’t value it, in 10 ten years time, 20 years time there will be nothing for our children to inherit.”(Vol 33)
In the same presentation I had remarked:
“You need to exploit your resources to your benefit. You need to find out what exploit means. If we are so foolish that we don’t want to use what we have then “crapaud smoke we pipe.”…… “but the time has come when we need to get on with things and I essentially have taken a decision to get on with things and I have also taken a decision to support whoever may have the desire to get on with things. I am willing to assist anyone who may wish to harness their resources. There are a lot of technical resources which they can obtain from me. The average person does not appreciate that.”
As I have already mentioned, the publication of the H.E.R.B.S STAR was part of a decision I made to among other things, educate the public about our local herbs and to share whatever information I had gathered over the years from older traditional healers. Altogether, I spent at least close to five hundred thousand dollars in advertising in the publication of the H.E.R.B.S STAR. I also ordered no less than seventy five thousand extra copies of the H.E.R.B.S STAR from the newspapers. The majority of these have been distributed freely to members of the public.
This decision to order and purchase extra copies of the H.E.R.B.S STAR had been taken after the production of the third issue. (>>>>) In fact, this issue lies at the heart of a number of High Court Actions which I have been forced to take against the Express newspaper and other media houses. The Express newspaper however has been the worst. The conduct of their management and their lawyers has been what I consider to be despicable and shameless. In spite of all the evidence here in my hand and in spite of the thousand of copies which I have given to the public, they have the gall to claim that the arrangements by which I secured the thousands of extra copies never existed and that the thousands of copies just never existed. All these photographs, including some with their employee Ancil Lopez sitting and grinning in my office in Port of Spain next to a pile of the supplements) are in my possession and yet they are still prepared to tell what I consider to be, and what I believe any reasonable person would also consider to be, shameless and unadulterated lies in their court documents in their defense to my actions.
I have found it necessary to digress because people often meet me in the streets and often ask me why I do not produce the H.E.R.B.S STAR any more. The fact is that the production of the H.E.R.B.S STAR required a lot of money and the money had to come from somewhere. It came from my business. It came from my exploitation of our natural resources.
I have exploited our resources according to my own perspective on the word exploit. I have also “exploited” and “valued” our elders, but not in the negative way that was portrayed in the question. In fact we need to “value” and “exploit” our elders.
We need to also exploit our culture. Television personality Josanne Leonard has enunciated a similar viewpoint in a conference which was recently held in Jamaica. She also expressed the same views in an interview with a Sunday newspaper on March 19th 2006. In fact we need to see herbs as part of our culture. Not just song, music and dance are culture. I do not mean it in a negative sense when I say that we need to exploit our resources and our elders. Neither do I mean it in a financial sense, but they are gold mines whose veins are filled with more gems than all the gold of El Dorado.
All too often, our elders are neglected. Sometimes they are left to live by themselves. Sometimes we rather leave them in geriatric homes. They have nobody to speak with and nobody with whom to share their experiences. They languish in agony as they look on almost helplessly at the problems of the nation. They long for someone to speak with. After a while, a television does not provide much company. After a while, the cobwebs begin to entangle their minds. Their memories begin to fade. In the same way that we forget them, they begin to forget about the past.
Our youngsters, as a result grow up disconnected from the past. They grow up without a history and without heroes. Or their heroes are individuals with distorted characters and values, who they see on the television screen or on the DVD’s nowadays.
From a tender age these old folks have however been my heroes. They have connected me with the past and helped me to establish my vision in the same way that Ricardo Hernandez-Bharath, the chief of the Santa Rosa Carib Community here in Arima, finds strength in the example of Hierreima (Hyarima).
From my days as a young man I have spent many hours in the company of our elders and I have always tried to impress upon the nation that they are valuable treasures and that our traditional healers in particular should truly be treated as VIPs.
I valued our elders in almost the same manner that you revere Hierreima (Hyarima). On almost every occasion that a television company or a regional or international magazine sought to interview me, I made it my duty to ensure that the contribution of the descendants of the indigenous peoples should be acknowledged. I will like to give four examples.
In 1991 when Walt Lovelace, ”Bunny” Diefenthaller and Georgia Popplewell from Earth TV, the producers of Ecowatch wished to do a television documentary with me I made it my duty to bring the presence of “Yombe” Diaz to the nation’s attention.
In 1994 when the Islands Magazine of California interviewed me for an article which was published in their issue of 1995 I ensured that they also prominently featured Eduardo “Placid” Manson from Luengo in the Maracas Valley.
In December 1998 when I was visited and interviewed by Dr Ann Walker of the University of Reading in England, I ensured that they also visited Felicia Lopez from Calvary Hill and Carlton Lewis from Morne La Croix. They were both prominently featured with me in a ten page article which was later published in an issue of the European Journal of Herbal Medicine in 2000.
In 1998 and 1999 when the Caribbean Beat interviewed me for an article which was published in their issue of July/August 1999, I ensured that they also prominently featured Javien Dixon Caprietta from Jonestown here in Arima.
In many issues of the H.E.R.B.S STAR I featured indigenous healers and traditions from other parts of the wider Caribbean region. In Volume 27 of the H.E.R.B.S STAR which was based upon the theme “Taking Our Place In The World”, no less than seven of the articles touched upon or dealt directly with the herbal traditions of indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, South and Central America. One of the articles was headlined, “Surviving the millennium, can tribal knowledge make it?”
Articles featuring the descendants of our first people or my acknowledgement of the herbal traditions of the indigenous peoples within the Arima Valley and environs have been published in almost every issue of the 35 editions of the H.E.R.B.S STAR which have been published to date.
If there is anything which I may be guilty of it has been the fact that in my writings I have always posited Amerindian history and presence as being the foundation of not only our herbal traditions but also of our attempt to create a modern nation state. In the very first book which I have written, the very first chapter dealt with our Amerindian heritage in the use of medicinal plants.
Likewise, when in 1998, plans were being made to host in Trinidad the First International Workshop on Herbal Medicine in the Caribbean I was quite prepared to dip into my library and my pockets to fund some of the promotional material for the workshop. The theme of the material I had published was our multicultural inheritance. I began, as usual, with our Amerindian heritage.
When in April 1998, a number of Caribbean people as well as a few from Africa and India had gathered at the Holiday Inn in Port of Spain to participate in the workshop and a decision was taken to establish a Caribbean organization, I could not think of a better name for the organization than one which was rooted in our indigenous experience but which was also encompassing and could serve as an umbrella for our various islands and our various cultures. I proposed the name CARAPA, the Caribbean Association of Researchers and Herbal Practitioners.
Subconsciously I had been guided by our Amerindian heritage. Carapa guianensis is a large indigenous hardwood species which has long played an important role in the herbal and other traditions in the region. At the time of the arrival of Columbus in the region, the Carapa tree grew in the Guyanas and in almost all the islands. It can still be found growing naturally in Trinidad, Tobago, and many other Caribbean islands.
The name CARAPA, the Caribbean Association of Researchers and Herbal Practitioners had been accepted by the majority of the people who were present and voting on the last day of the workshop. Interestingly, today, there are people who do not understand that sense of vision and who have attempted to deny me participation within CARAPA although I am legally recognized as a Director of the organization.
Similarly, in late 2001-early 2002 when I began to conduct a series of lectures nationwide which dealt with the use of herbal medicines in Trinidad and Tobago, I chose the theme “HERBS for the healing of the Nation. 1,000 years of Bush Medicine in Trinidad and Tobago.” In selecting that theme I sought to present a case for the establishment of appropriate legislation to govern the development and use of herbal products, that was built, not around the notion of a history that dates back to the arrival of Columbus and the presence of a chain of firstly Spanish and then British Governors who ruled over the land and who, like for example, Chacon and Woodford, told citizens in effect that they can not use bush medicines, but one which was responsive to and related to our indigenous presence and experiences and our multi-cultural inheritance.
The lectures were planned for fourteen venues across Trinidad and Tobago. The venues selected and the titles of the presentations were almost all related to the history of our first peoples and to the discussion on our multi-ethnic inheritance. Interestingly, I had chosen the topic, “Walking in the Footsteps of Hyarima” for the third in the series, which was scheduled for Arima.
The final lecture in the series was “A Taino’s Pot of Gold. In Search of a Solution” which, was scheduled for Canaan/ Bon Accord, in Tobago. Little could I imagine that some of the greatest problems I would experience in my life would actually begin in Canaan/ Bon Accord. At Four Roads in Tobago, I would run into serious problems with a true savage who came to these shores from Australia, who had her eyes on my pot of gold, who would cause me great losses and with whom I can find no accord.
The existence of a history that pre-dates the arrival of Columbus has been an integral aspect of my work over the years. In a poem about Cocoa in Trinidad and Tobago which I wrote in 1990 , I began with the words:
So you would like to know about Cocoa
In lovely Trinidad and Tobago.
This story started a long time ago
‘Fore Columbus found Santo Domingo
And Cortez conquered Aztec’s Mexico.
Then in these isles cocoa began to grow.
As this new taste Europeans came to know.
In those days we only had Criollo
Which may have come from near to Mexico.
They tasted fine with large white beans for so.
Is it not so?
These are but a few aspects of the efforts which I have made to acknowledge the presence of our indigenous peoples and to make myself accessible to the descendants of our first peoples and to the nation as a whole. If I had been accused with acknowledging the contributions, traditions and presence of the indigenous peoples I would have quickly pleaded guilty.
As an ethno-botanist, I would have failed my calling if I had not appreciated that there was a history of the region before Columbus, and that this included our natural history and ethno-botany. I have always insisted that our indigenous history is our foundation. In that respect I am definitely guilty. Of the other charges I repeat my innocence. In fact what most people would not know is that after a while, my relationship with many of the traditional healers transcended my interest in herbs and became one of friendship and mentorship.
Most people would not appreciate that by the time I arrived in this town I had already been blessed with a wealth of information, not only from my ancestors and parents but also from some of the older healers in other parts of Trinidad. Of course I have learnt from healers like Caprietta and “Yombe” and we had special relationships but what I may add is that even if everyone present here were to receive all the information about all the plants which these guys knew, it would not make each person a healer. I should also add that one day soon, I intend to publish the details of my several interviews with Caprietta and it would probably surprise many as to the depth of the man and the issues we discussed.
There are a number of other public and private things I would have done and which I do not think I need to mention publicly but which would have directly benefited a significant number of both old and young people within the Carib community during the twenty years or so that I have spent within Arima and environs. I do not think it is necessary that I mention these in public. Those who have benefited would know what I have done even with the very scarce financial resources that I sometimes operated with. (>>>>>)
I have sometimes been subjected to fierce attacks even from persons who were of first people origins and who were benefiting directly from my efforts. I would like to give one example to demonstrate how cruel these criticisms can be. I would like to quote from an article which I had written after the passing of Eduardo “Placid” Manson and his wife Victoria who had died within a day of each other at their Maracas hillside residence in 1996.
An edited version of the article was published in the Trinidad and Tobago Review of early 1998. (>>>>>) In the original unedited article I had written:
“Then in the midst of a most trying week at the workplace I was to open one of the dailies and surprisingly learn of Placid’s passing.
His death may probably have passed unnoticed to me and the national community were it not for the fact that his wife’s death was to so quickly follow his own.
I mounted a small display of photographs, news clippings, samples etc. in tribute to him. In drawing his death to the attention of my staff, I tried to underscore the important part which men and women such as Placid had played in the development of the organization with which they were now employed. After all, the oral tradition had been part of the foundation upon which the business had been based. In doing so, I sought to juxtapose his passing with other national and international issues which were affecting the herbal industry and the environment.
From hindsight I reckon that I was sowing seeds on rocky soil for what was intended to be an exercise in staff enlightenment quickly degenerated into a Trojan horse attack upon management and upon local herbalists. One employee who actually had previously been my client and whom I had supplied with loads of information about her particular health problem attacked local herbalists for their secrecy. She lamented the fact that one can find lots of books of foreign herbs but hardly anything is ever written on local herbs. She blamed the local herbalists for this situation. Yet she refused to acknowledge that local herbalists have not traditionally come from the moneyed classes in our society nor even for that matter from the educated classes – and that it takes various technical and financial resources to publish a book
She failed to acknowledge that until quite recently there has generally been a dearth of information on most aspects of our local life. (It is very unfortunate but the local population would more quickly spend money on having a good time than on local publications). Even more ironically, she failed to acknowledge that her employer, operating within much smaller confines of physical and financial resources, time and social contacts had prepared or published a whole lot more detailed information on local herbs than the majority of work that had been coming out of the local University community and other local organizations and institutions which have access to public and private sector funding.
The same employee also indicated to me that she had been told that anybody who takes the God-given herbs and make products and sell these to people in order to make a living, was destined to ‘ketch their tail in life’. She virulently emphasized this viewpoint yet she also expected to be paid a salary by someone who was actually selling products. This was an irony or ironies.
I drew it to her attention that while I was indeed doing that among other things for a living, that money making was not the raison d’être for the business activity. In fact in the beginning of the business operation, I myself had to come to terms with this very issue. I had never liked the matter of selling the herbal products to the public.
In fact, contrary to the advice that had been given to me by many people I used to terribly under-price the products that I used to manufacture. Then one day in January 1992, the force of circumstance clearly altered my perspective on the entire matter. I had gone to the Arima Market place to sell and my entire day’s effort had yielded a measly six dollars or so. On getting home it was very clear to me that if I did not place a proper value on the goods that I was plying then I could not realistically expect people to buy them.”
Later in the same article I had written:
“I indicated to her that being free of encumbrances of familial responsibilities, [………..] and as the sole owner of the business I was amenable to making any decisions about the organization as I saw fit. Having explained to her the reasons why I had to sell the products, I indicated to that that if she felt so strongly about the matter as she was proclaiming then there could be a very simple solution. Instead of paying her a salary she can come to work daily. I would stop selling foreign herbs and other products which have been imported, and I would go back to the founding principles of the organization – viz a vis, the development of products from local herbs. Instead of selling the products, I would simply make them available to the public. The public in turn can pay for these products whatever they think is fair and whatever they can afford. From the cash received, I would pay the rent, pay the men who collect the herbs, pay the phone and electricity bills; purchase bottles, pay taxes etc. and then all the surplus cash if any would be divided equally between the management and staff. Of course she wanted no part of this arrangements which inevitably would have affected her earnings in ways which she was unable to determine and definitely unwilling to risk. That had put paid to her arguments but definitely not to her attitude.”
At the end of the day her responses indicated quite clearly that talk is cheap. It also indicated that there was no real merit to the attacks which she made upon me. It was a mere diversion to cover up her shortcomings.
Elders like Caprietta were my mentors in many ways. When faced with situations like the one just described, they were the ones I could turn to for asvice. It was an experience in his home and garden on Red Day 1989 which provided the initial stimulus for two of the books which I have recently written. Most of us over the age of twenty would probably remember that day. It was a morning during which Dixon was quite annoyed. In the first chapter of the book, CHACONIA’S SCARLET BLOSSOMS. THE PRIDE OF TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO.VOLUME ONE. A GARLAND OF RED FOR THE WARRIORS IN RED, I described his mood on a particular occasion in the following words:
“Caprietta was now almost completely annoyed. His diminutive figure had often belied the force of his power and determination. In his moments of annoyance I often visualised the seventeenth century Nepuyo Chief, Hyarima who is considered by some to be our nation’s first National Hero. As Caprietta ranted and raved I could again discern in him the spirit of the warrior.”
Men like Caprietta contributed immeasurably to the fact that for many years Arima was my home. They inspired me notwithstanding the debates and disagreements we would have had from time to time. In everything that I had done I was governed by my dream. In many ways I also shared their dreams. I had also set out “to put Arima on the map” so to speak. In the end people saw me as “the bush doctor from Arima” more than anything else.
In fact the contents of these books would demonstrate quite clearly that H.E.R.B.S. was not solely a business activity. It was a dream. In the eyes of many I changed the way that herbs are viewed in the nation. In the eyes of many I made a lot of money. In the end I was no longer a stranger.”
But it has not yet changed the fact that my motives could be easily misunderstood. In a sense I have grown accustomed to a certain degree of negativity and I have learnt to take it in stride. When faced with negativity I have learnt from experience that it is useful to pause.
So this is the situation. Sometime around 2am (TT Time) I posted the article about Lenny Boiselle. I went to bed about an hour after. I turned around in my bed this morning and on looking at my phone I saw a number of pleasant comments and messages about the articles I have been publishing.
I also saw one where a reader had corrected me on the spelling of the name of a family member. Well, I was very happy about that.
I am sure there must be errors in those interviews. After all, I was born in 1961 and I could only learn about earlier events from elders, books, magazines, old newspapers and so on. And even those could be very unreliable. If there was ever any doubt about that, my recent experience with the New York Times and the pack of lies they published in their #morugahillrice story in February 2018 has only cemented my skepticism about what I read.
In fact, about 16 years ago, one of my mentors advised me to never trust the spoken word, never trust the written word and worst of all, never trust the word that is cast in stone.
I have learnt the value of such skepticism. Time and time again I have seen tombstones with obviously incorrect information unless the newspaper publishers were magically able to publish details of the deaths and funerals of persons before the events actually happened.
I am also mindful that the dead cannot rise from the grave to correct anything that anyone may say.
I am also extremely mindful that land matters can be very contentious matters.
I am not always sure of the spelling of names of persons. As an example, I am not even sure that the spelling of Beautaudier was correct. I usually ask people the spellings of their names. But even there, or in the process of typing, errors could be made.
I going through the archives I have even seen official and quasi-official documents where 2 sisters had differences in the spellings of their surnames although there were from the Beautaudier lineage. In fact over the years in going through old documents I must have seen about 10 variations of the spelling of that family’s surname although they are believed to be all related. I have attached one simple example as a picture here and I can show many other examples.
For that reason, in the seventh episode in this series I noted “I am sharing two interviews today, which I conducted with the Grand Old Man of La Laja. He passed away a few years ago. I have conducted a significant amount of interviews with other Arimian elders who had estates at La Laja. I may publish a few more of those interviews if there is sufficient interest in them.
This first interview with Mr Beautaudier was conducted on Monday May 16th 2005 at his home on Prince Street in Arima. I have excised the questions which I had presented to him, so in some parts it may seem disjointed. I also cannot vouch for the spellings of all of the names that are mentioned, so corrections are welcome.”
The interviews clearly generated much interest. And I must repeat that I was grateful for the correction. In fact I would be grateful for all corrections.
But the reader went on to say:
READER : ((>>>>>>) and i do hope the publisher has ALL the facts corrected before printing.
Well, in this case, I am the publisher. I hold myself responsible for whatever I share here on Facebook. There is no question about that. I cannot blame any elder responsible for anything incorrect that they may have shared with me. At the same time however, I do not have the resources to establish the veracity of every minutae in these interviews. So I responded to the reader as follows.
FRANCIS :“there is no way I could know that. Hence the reason I have placed certain disclaimers and removed parts of some of the interviews before posting. Corrections are appreciated.”
That is the simple truth. Even if I had a ten million dollar budget and the most competent team of research assistants, I still cannot prove the veracity of all the information. So a large part of it lies in trusting the integrity of the informants, conducting multiple interviews with them for the purpose of establishing consistency and thirdly, independently cross checking information derived from interviews with other persons.
It is a well-established fact that the evidence of eye-witnesses may not always be reliable. Their perspectives may be distorted by a variety of factors including actual defects of vision.
So oral interviews provide a general picture and some details from the elders could be wrong. That is the simple reality. And I was of the view that the person would have appreciated that.
But then I saw another response from the person:
READER “But your publishing the article, are you now saying your publishing your article based on your opinion and heesay and NOT researched print documented FACTS am quite disappointed if it so hence the reason for my but only ONE correction to your article that am see fit to correct…. am in no fight with you but i do take offence if my families names are being used for your gain and not corrected, i advise you to go back to the drawing board. Thank you and good bye.”
Well, of course it is hearsay. I was not there. It is what I have heard the elders say. I am just documenting the memories of the elders without any malice. Does that make it invalid or useless or not worthy of publishing?
In the case of the interview with Mr. Boiselle, I included the following disclaimer “I cannot vouch for all of the genealogical information he provided me and I have removed some from both interviews. There are inherent risks in publishing this sort of information from elders. Some people may be happy to learn more about their ancestors. Some may experience shock, disbelief and other related emotions. Those are always challenging judgment calls for persons conducting this sort of research. Whatever the case may be, my desire is to inform rather than offend.”
I think I have said it as plain as I could.
I am very concerned however by the part of the person’s statement where she said “i do take offence if my families names are being used for your gain and not corrected”.
Now, it seems as if she blocked me thereafter so I could not engage her further in any dialogue. What gain is she speaking about?
All I have done is to try to give expression to the voice of many people, in their own words.
I wish to again quote from the speech I made to the group of young people back in April 2006.
“The early history of the indigenous peoples (like that of the other predominantly labouring classes in this society) have been written not by people within these groups, but by glimpses “as seen through the eyes of others, mainly European writers and missionaries, as they functioned in nineteenth century West Indian society” with their generally in-built Euro-centric positions, world views and prejudices.
Prejudice is one thing. That is bad enough. We live in a land and a world where strong prejudices have existed from time to time and may yet continue. Veracity and reliability of recorded information is however another matter. As an example, Abbe Masse, whom I have quoted a few times, demonstrated strong prejudices in his diaries. Yet, his attention to details and to correctly recording events was quite phenomenal. His diaries are an invaluable historical tool.”
Oral research is also an invaluable historical tool. An even more critical one, in my opinion.
Unless somebody has been in the field conducting this kind of research, they may be shocked to discover the amount it takes in terms of time, effort, energy, costs for transportation, accommodation, transcribing, printing, proofreading and so on. It all adds up. So, quite to the contrary, imo the country should be grateful for the effort I have put out in these activities.
In fact, there is a particular letter I wrote in 2005 to a former Member of Parliament for Arima who was the Minister responsible for the Environment at the time. I was faced with some overwhelming challenges at the time. It was the first time in my life that I had sought any sort of assistance from any Government official. The indifference was palpable. But I do not wish to go into any of those details here.
There have never been any profit motives for me in the compilation of these interviews. In fact, I have often been engaged with residents in patching up the bad roads of La Laja and I have always intimated that whenever my book about La Laja is published I would donate the profits towards road improvements there. In fact, the title of the book is “On De Road To La Laja.”
I have lived my First Peoples’ heritage without wearing it on my sleeve. There have been a few occasions however when I have chosen to say it loud and clear when faced with situations where some persons try to claim some sort of exclusionary right to indigeneity.
I am also comfortable celebrating what I consider to be the positive aspects of persons of all other ethnic origins in this land.
In the meanwhile I would suspend the publication of any more articles here that involve interviews. That however includes almost all the pieces that I planned to post between today and November 18th.
On November 19th I plan to resume the series with a very important piece that was inspired by Red Friday, November 19th 1989. Sometime before that I plan to do a piece about “The Dial” in order to correct some inaccuracies that are being popularly peddled online.
In the meanwhile I am also going to seek some open consensus among members of the group as to whether or not I should continue with the publication of any of the interviews, given all that I have said above. That period should also give readers an opportunity to better digest what has been posted so far. Thank you very much and Shubh Divali. Let your light shine.
(Post script: The reader was chiding me about the spelling of a name. In the script of the interviews with Lenny Boiselle I had spelt a man’s name as Toree based upon how I have heard him being called. The reader said I was wrong because it should be spelt Tory. Most interestingly however, when I interviewed the man himself some years ago, he told me that his name was Toribus. I was just able to access some of my notes, which I could not access yesterday. Sometimes I am really left to wonder.)