Monday, January 22, 2018

Birthplace of the bele

Belle Garden...


Mark Fraser


Mark Fraser

ALONG Tobago's Windward Road, between the villages of Pembroke and Roxborough is the a settlement with a quaint name – Belle Garden”.

It got tis name from a cultural product, the bele dance, which has graced the national stage to the popular tune “Leh we dance the bele.”

The French planters were the ones who gave Belle Garden the bele, and in turn the village gave the country the Prime Minister's Best Village competition.

The Windward coast village was named after Belle, a French planter's wife who ended her reign as queen of the village with the emancipation of the slaves on the estate.

The historians record that, amid the ringing of bells, beating of drums and dancing in the streets, in celebration of emancipation, the planter called his wife aside and told her, "Oh God, Belle, drum ah roll ah quelbay, dem slaves get freedom."

Unable to face the future without slave labour, he committed suicide.

After emancipation, estate owners feared their estates would be abandoned, as slaves no longer wanted to work on the plantations.

The dance we now know as the bele, known to the French then as the Bel Air, was performed by women during social events in the planters' great houses.

The slaves who worked in or around these houses quickly copied the style and dress, and later added the African Congo influence to reflect strong Congo overtones.

Vilma Richards, 77, resident of Belle Garden and professional bele dancer, said, "Bele reflects strong Congo overtones that are capable of invoking the spirits."

Richards added, "In time it became more popular when a villager by the name of Papa Bower decreed in his will that he should be remembered, not by dancing bongo at his wake, but with a bele festival."

Bongo, at the time, was the traditional way of celebrating the departure of the dead.

The effects of slavery and African culture still abound in Belle Garden.

Richards said, "Beliefs in obeah were prevalent among Africans and it flourished even after emancipation."

A good example of obeah was an incident involving one of her uncles. She said he was coming from his garden when suddenly he was afflicted with a lash (touch of obeah).

"It was so strong that he could not walk after that. We took him to Glamorgan by an obeah man and after he anointed him in a latrine, the spirit disappeared and he walked again," said Richards.

"Now it doesn’t have any more obeah in the village and all the good obeah men dead," she said.

Apart from obeah, superstition and bele, Belle Garden is a productive agricultural village with farmers producing vegetables on the lowlands, and meat from sheep living on the hillsides.

The area is also famous for wild fowl that live in the wetlands, close to the coast.

Finding these birds has become a great tourist attraction.

Bird watching is also a favourite pastime, especially in Grenada Hill and Zion Hill, two small areas on the outskirts of Belle Garden.

Richmond House, located within walking distance from the village centre, is also a tourist attraction. It is a stately old plantation home built in the 18th century and renovated from time to time. It is occupied by descendants of the original family who owned it for over 200 years.

Hurricane Flora caused extensive damage to the house, but it has been restored, and retains the beautiful wooden floors, high ceilings, and antique furniture.

The owner, a retired history professor, is always on hand to explain the origin of his vast African collection of artefacts that adorn the house.

Belle Garden Great House still exists. It has been refurbished by the Tobago House of Assembly and is used by youth groups in the village.

The residents are proud of their rich history, whether it is obeah, garden superstition, slavery or dance.

Their culture and traditions come alive every year when they present the culture and folklore of the village at the Tobago Heritage Festival.

Richards is among those who believe that the best place to witness the most authentic presentation of the bele dance in at Belle Garden.