Sunday, December 17, 2017

Africans leave their mark on Trinidad

Trinidad’s rich African history, its culture and historical landmarks will be showcased at the upcoming Travel Professionals of Colour (TPOC) conference scheduled for July.

The conference, together with field visits to African sites, will be the first in Trinidad, and second to take place by TPOC outside the United States.

Supporting TPOC’s travel initiative will be the Trinidad and Tobago Convention Bureau (TTCB) and the Tourism Development Co Ltd (TDC).

Visits to African heritage sites will include those created during the period of slavery as well as those that emerged after Emancipation.

African culture and traditions in Trinidad peaked after the island’s takeover by Britain in 1797. At that time the population was 17,462, which included 10,000 enslaved Africans brought to Trinidad from West Africa, to work on various estates owned by French Creole planters.

During the post-Emancipation period, Trinidad witnessed an influx of “liberated Africans” freed by the British from slave ships of other European nations. During the period 1841 to 1861, almost 7,000 Africans arrived in Trinidad. Their religious and cultural practices impacted significantly on Trinidad’s lifestyle.

Almost every part of Trinidad was peopled by freed Africans. Port of Spain and its surrounding areas had a large number of those who had settled before and after Emancipation.

The numbers of sites and areas in which they settled were numerous. In the heart of Port of Spain there is George V Park, commonly referred to as Pompey-eye. Named after a British monarch, legend has it that many African slaves were buried on that site. Some were victims of murder, while others died from the effects of the harsh treatment meted out to them while working on estates owned by French Creole planters who had acquired lands during the 1783 Cedula of Population.

Many African nationals who came to Trinidad from West Africa were master craftsmen in many trades. To their credit is the construction of the main building on Nelson Island by the “King’s Negroes” in 1802.

From 1866 the island was used as an immigration depot, but was converted in the 20th century to a detention centre. Labour leader Tubal Uriah Butler, trade unionist George Weekes, Black Power advocate Makandal Daaga and others were incarcerated on the island for actions deemed by the administration to be seditious.

Still in Port of Spain there is Belmont, originally a slave settlement known as Freetown. It was the ancestral home to leading figures including Sylvester Williams, Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael at Oxford Street), and Maycock, the first African to own lands in Belmont.

It was also home to notable stickfighters Pringay and Pantop. Their stickfighting career started at St Francois Valley Road, Belmont, and the art moved later to other parts of Trinidad.

Belmont Valley Road was also home to the Rada community (Orishas) led by Robert Antoine. He was formerly called Papa Nanee, a native of Dahomey, (renamed Benin). Antoine had acquired lands in Belmont Circular Road, where he built a vodunkwe (chapel) and dedicated it to Papa Legba and Ogun.

One of Antoine’s brothers was convicted for practising obeah, an offence that warranted 20 strokes with the cat o’ nine tails. He appealed the magistrate’s decision and his lawyer, Charles Warner, had the sentence reversed. Antoine was also charged with practising obeah but was acquitted on a submission by attorney Vincent Brown QC.

Antoine, as leader of the Rada community, held annual thanksgiving ceremonies which attracted wide audiences. He lived to be 101 years and had fathered 19 children. He was buried in the cemetery at Belmont Circular Road, which he had created for his followers.

There are many historical sites in central Port of Spain, especially in the East Dry River area, then called Yaruba village. The Treasury building on Independence Square has been singled out for mention because it was on the verandah Governor George Hill stood and announced the date for Emancipation. This, amidst booing and jeering from slaves who had gathered there to learn about the impending freedom.

Diego Martin and the road leading to Paramin village also featured prominently during the period when runaway slaves climbed the steep mountain on the way to Paramin to hide in caves to escape their masters.

Cameron, a village which is on the way to Paramin, was called Camp Marron. It was a hideout for slaves. Later, Camp Marron became Cameron village. At Paramin village overlooking Las Cuevas Bay there are several caves in an area known as Negre Marron, a famous place for escaped slaves.

Travelling along the Eastern Main Road is the ancient town of St Joseph, where there is the women’s prison built originally by the Spaniards to imprison slaves. Not far from that site there is Barracks Square (renamed the First Square) in the town centre of St Joseph. It is the site where Daaga and three others were executed for an armed uprising in 1837. Daaga (Donald Stewart) had offered the most spectacular resistance during his execution by refusing to cover his face before being shot.

A native of Guinea, he was brought to the Caribbean as a slave. When he arrived in Trinidad he joined the military and later led an armed uprising at the barracks.

Central and South Trinidad have their own African history outlining the part played by Africans in the struggle for freedom.

In 1832, two years before the announcement of a date set for Emancipation, slaves working on Plein Palais Estate, Pointe-a-Pierre, had marched to the estate demanding from the manager the date set for their freedom. After the manager failed to give them a satisfactory answer, the slaves set the estate on fire.

By the time the militia arrived at the estate, they had already fled to nearby Caratal and Gasparillo. In the melee several were killed. The oil refinery at Pointe-a-Pierre is located on the same estate that was destroyed by fire.

The rural villages of Mayo and Tortuga were used as hideouts for runaway slaves from Central Trinidad. At Tortuga RC Church there is a statue of a black virgin prominently displayed among 19 other statues mounted on the walls of the church.

Many parts of rural Trinidad were developed by the Africans. These areas include Manzanilla, Quare, La Seiva and Turure, all places in eastern Trinidad.

Governor Ralph James Woodford had settled a number of black soldiers in Manzanilla. They were former members of the WI Regiment and were largely responsible for constructing the road from Arima to Mayaro.

The villages along Moruga Road have great significance pertaining to African history. It was there in 1815 a number of ex-colonial marines settled after the 1812 war between Britain and the US. The settlers from the US were called Merikins, and because they arrived in companies, there are six areas in Moruga that still bear the names company villages.

Coming out of the Merikins was Papa Neeza, an outstanding African, herbal doctor and patriot. Also, it was home to Pastor Robert Andrews, one of Trinidad’s early advocates for independence.

The places and events mentioned are but a snippet of the colourful African history of Trinidad. In more recent time there are places worth visiting. These include the burial sites of CLR James (Tunapuna,) Baron Learie Constantine (Arouca), Lord Kitchener (Arima), Elton George Griffith (Woodbrook), TUB Butler (Fyzabad ), Pastor Clive Griffith (St Clements), Sir Ellis Clarke (Lapeyrouse) and the site where Dr Eric Williams, father of the nation, was cremated at the hangar at Chaguaramas.