Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Indies, Indians, Trinidad, Spain

Bridget Brereton logo

Donstan Bonn

Ron Ramdin is a Trinidad-born writer, based since the early 1960s in London, who has published a remarkable range of books: biographies of Paul Robeson and Mary Seacole; historical studies of labour in Trinidad and Tobago, the black British working class and the Indo-Caribbean people (among other topics); and two novels on local themes, Rama’s Voyage and The Griot’s Tale.

His latest book, Isabella’s Legacy My Discovery of Spain (2011), tells the story of his visits to Spain in 1989, 1991 and 1992. It’s part travel book, part a highly personal memoir, and part a meditation on what the idea of Spain meant to him when he was growing up in southern Trinidad in the 1940s and 1950s. And it’s this last dimension that I found especially interesting.

Ramdin grew up in Trinidad and has lived in Britain since 1962; he can’t speak Spanish and his first visit to Spain was not until 1989. Yet, he writes, he didn’t feel alien there, “for there were too many reminders of my childhood”. After all, he’d been born in Marabella, close to San Fernando, the island’s capital was called Port of Spain, and in school he’d learnt about Columbus, the three ships and the “discovery” of Trinidad.

So Ramdin turned his visits to Spain, undertaken partly to give lectures and partly as holidays, into a personal “discovery” of the country whose history was so closely linked to that of his native island.

He was a “Black British” person, a Trinidadian, a West Indian—and it was thanks to Columbus that he could claim that last identity. As everyone knows, Columbus believed that he’d found the “Indies”—the East—when he stumbled on the islands of the Caribbean, and the term “West Indies” was coined as a result.

Yet there was a further layer of irony: Ramdin was a Trinidad “East Indian”. His grandfather, Abraham Rattan, had been born in Madras and had come to Trinidad as an indentured labourer sometime in the 1890s or early 1900s. In Trinidad, he (and Ramdin) “had been known officially as an ‘Indian’ or ‘East Indian’ and, at times, less respectfully as a ‘Coolie’!”

So Ramdin was an “Indian”: but not an “Amerindian”, not one of the people Columbus met on his voyages, took back to Spain to display to Isabella and Ferdinand, and believed were from the “Indies”, the East. His ancestors were, indeed, from the East, from India, brought to the Caribbean as a result—taking a long historical perspective—of the sequence of events triggered off by that fateful arrival of Columbus and his men.

As Ramdin puts it: “Ironically, 346 years since his first landfall, those Indians from India that he had been expecting to meet were recruited by one of Spain’s competing European neighbours, Britain, to labour in her colonial ‘possessions’ in the former slave plantations, especially in the West Indies... So here I was in Spain, a direct descendant of those Indians, who had over the years imbibed the history and culture of the West Indies.”

Part of that history which he’d “imbibed”, of course, included Columbus, the “Discovery”, Ferdinand and Isabella, de Berrio and Chacon, San José and so on. “The Spanish legacy had been deeply etched in my mind,” Ramdin writes, “but the connection with Spain remained submerged, the accumulation of layers of impositions by another imperialist power.”

By the time he came to Britain to live—in the year of Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence—“the British had established unrivalled dominance for almost 150 years”. And so he couldn’t speak Spanish, and his Spanish connection had become “like a vague mist that enshrouded an historical boundary”. He saw his presence in Spain as “a commingling of the histories I’d read and all that was before me, which altogether, provided the context for this visit”.

These “meditations” on history and identity shaped the three visits to Spain, but especially the one in 1991. An obsession with Columbus and the “Discovery” led him to explore the places, buildings and museums linked to him and his men, such as Palos, the La Rabida monastery, Seville and Granada.

He also visited while in Seville the famous Archivo General de las Indias, the archive where the records of the Spanish American empire (including those of Trinidad between 1498 and 1797) are stored. The great Andalusian city of Seville especially fascinated him, because it was the administrative and commercial heart of that empire.

Ironically, Ramdin’s “exotic” appearance—a dark skin, “Indian” features and long black hair—led to him often being mistaken for a Gypsy, or Roma (“Gitano” in Spanish) in southern Spain—a further irony, of course, since the Roma descend from people who left India hundreds of years ago and their language is derived from Hindi. He became very interested in Roma culture in Spain, especially flamenco, the famous dance and music which may be partly of Roma origin.

Ramdin’s book is repetitive at times, and often rather wordy; it would have gained from a fierce editorial red pen. But his meditations about Trinidadian, Indian, Spanish history, culture and identity make it an interesting read.

• Bridget Brereton is Emerita Professor of History at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of Trinidad and Tobago, and the Caribbean, for many decades.