Friday, December 15, 2017

Grave matters

Those who study history have always known that cemeteries and tombs are valuable sources of information about the past. Tombstones can be “read” like documents to yield information about people who lived and died long ago, and about their ideas and faiths.

Cemeteries are also heritage sites, to be cherished and preserved both for the sake of the families and descendants of the dead, and for the wider national patrimony or heritage.

Now one of the keenest (and youngest) students of our past, Angelo Bissessarsingh, has published a well-researched and beautifully illustrated book about Trinidad’s historic cemeteries, titled Walking with the Ancestors. Bissessarsingh is well known for his Virtual Museum of T&T, an on-line resource about the nation’s past.

Historians know that there is a “bias in the archives”, meaning that until fairly recently, the documents we can use as sources about the past are mainly about the well-off and the powerful. This is just as true of our cemeteries. As Bissessarsingh writes, the poor could rarely afford tombstones or any kind of funerary monuments. The enslaved and the indentured, and most of their descendants well into the 1900s, were generally buried on the plantations, or in public cemeteries, in unmarked graves.

And so most of the stories which he can tell, about the people whose graves he’s studied and photographed, have to do with members of the white elite of Trinidad in the 1800s and early 1900s. But he believes that these stories are worth telling.

Trinidad’s oldest tombs (the book doesn’t deal with Tobago, which merits a separate volume) are those of the island’s elite Spanish families, some of whom lived here since the 1600s. Most are in the cemetery of the St Joseph RC Church, where Christian worship was first held in the island. The tomb of Dońa Isabella Fermin y Prado, enclosed in a handsome brick structure, is dated 1682, and is the oldest known in Trinidad.

After the Spanish settlers came the more numerous French, attracted by the Cedula of Population in 1783. Lapeyrouse Cemetery, the island’s oldest, has several impressive tombs and burial vaults belonging to the French Creole landowning families. Some of these (and tombstones in other places) are inscribed in French.

Of course, English families became important in the 1800s as sugar planters, colonial officials and professional men. In the small cemetery in the middle of the Botanic Gardens, Charles Warner and John Scott Bushe—two powerful locally born colonial officials—lie in graves marked with handsome monuments.

Scottish families came in the 1800s, as estate owners and managers, and as merchants and store-owners. Quite a few are buried in Paradise Cemetery in San Fernando, such as WS Robertson, a successful businessman, sportsman and mayor of the town. He died in 1909 and his grave is marked by a fine Celtic cross in honour of his Scots heritage.

Most of the men (and a few women) whose stories Bissessarsingh can tell from their graves were white. But he also notes a few graves of mixed-race (“coloured”) planters, such as Louis Phillippe, the son of well-known doctor and legislator St Luce Phillippe, who died in 1857 and is buried in the graveyard of St Clement’s Church. And there is Louis Bicaise, slave-owner and planter, who died just as slavery finally ended in September 1838 and is buried on the grounds of his estate, La Ressource. It is said that his slaves lie in unmarked graves near his.

And there are a few graves of Christian Indo-Trinidadians, notably the lavish Teelucksingh family enclosure in the graveyard of St Andrew’s Church Couva, which boasts a magnificent marble mourning angel on a 1914 tomb.