Friday, December 15, 2017

Secrets of the graveyard

Dead 'speak' in historian's new book...

The gravesite of Rev Thomas Harrison Walker

Historian and author Angelo Bissessarsingh

An except from Angelo Bissessarsingh's book - Walking with the Ancestors

LONG IN THE MAKING: Angelo Bissessarsingh's book Walking With The Ancestors

THERE is a gravesite on the grounds of the St Stephen's Anglican Church, Princes Town, the history of which has long befuddled priests and parishioners.

The tomb, more than 100 years old and considered the most ornate there, is anchored by cast-iron posts and cross, bearing the birth and death dates and the name of the man buried there—Thomas Harrison Walker. That's all.

Yet the man must have been important. But with no indication of his station in life, and no church record to consult, Walker's life story was considered lost to the ages. Then Angelo Bissessarsingh came along and unravelled the mystery in about a minute.

And if you yet don't know that name Bissessarsingh, you soon will. For while no one was paying much attention, Bissessarsingh began researching and unearthing Trinidad and Tobago's history, poking around in old buildings and preserving items of historical value, reaching back to the islands' first citizens here for 7,000 years, finding evidence of their settlements, acquiring rare books detailing Trinidad's colourful colonial past, interviewing those with the history locked in the memory, reading a mountain of records kept at the National Archives in Port of Spain and checking them against what still existed around us.

The information he found, original and incredible, didn't end up as a history paper penned in the language of the intelligentsia. The man wrote for the masses. What other researchers might have hoarded, he shared freely with anyone interested in logging on to his Facebook page Virtual Museum Of Trinidad and Tobago to read about the history of people and places, and what was left behind, information and images no one had ever seen in any school history book.

He is one of those rare persons who can process an encyclopaedia of historical information (name, dates, time), link it all together and distil it in a way that interests and engages everyone.

Bissessarsingh's work has also challenged some of what was long considered the final record, and other historians have taken note.

Having used social media to take history out of the library and into our homes, he has the most unlikely of people hooked on the past, people who have become part of a community on Bissessarsingh's Facebook page.

It is a following bigger than some local political parties, which follows posts on his latest discoveries, his thoughts on Trinidad and Tobago's continuing disrespect and destruction of all things old, and his musings on anything else that might be on his mind. It's this very irreverence and accessibility that drew the group, which had been telling him for years that there was a book to be written here.

Last month, he delivered. With an acknowledgement to the great ones before him who worked to record and preserve (Fr Anthony De Verteuil, Gerard Besson, Michael Anthony, Prof Bridget Brereton and others) Bissessarsingh has published Walking with the Ancestors – The Historical Cemeteries of Trinidad—which deals with colonial-era graveyards, a project long in the making.

It would surprise no one who knows him that Bissessarsingh had for years been drifting through graveyards, noting the names and epitaphs of people interred as a far back as the 19th century, researching and finding the stories of the forgotten. He would not have had much company or competition.

As Bissessarisngh noted in his book, “In Trinidad, cemeteries are treated with fear and scorn mainly because folklore superstition clothes them in a pall of darkness further exacerbated by the longstanding association with obeah (black magic) practitioners. Yet for all the taboo association with bereavement and resultant wanton disregard shown to our cemeteries, they are remarkably fascinating”.

In this book, Bissessarsingh has given voice to the dead and buried at the Lapeyrouse Cemetery and the Colonial Cemetery within the Botanical Gardens in Port of Spain, Paradise Cemetery, San Fernando, those buried at the St Mary's, St Andrews and St Clement's Anglican churches, the St Joseph Roman Catholic Church, and the Elder's Cemetery in Tunapuna.

The stories tell of how they came to be here, their personal lives and families, business and political dealings, whom they loved or feuded with, the diseases that took them, and how they influenced the course of events on the island. The book will change your understanding of how Trinidad's society was shaped. And you will never look at a cemetery the same again.

About that tomb at the St Stephen's Anglican Church graveyard. It turns out that Walker was a clergyman who died shortly after arriving in Trinidad to assume duties.

According to an extract from the obituaries section of the San Fernando Gazette (which existed between 1850-1896): Rev Thomas Harrison Walker died 17th August 1894 at Princes Town Rectory. Aged 26 years. Native of Worcestershire, England. He died 17 days after arriving in the island to assume to the post of Rector of St Stephen's Church in the District of Savannah Grande.

The grave next to Walker's contains the remains of Rev Thomas Luckman, who died in 1894 from yellow fever and whose death was the reason for Rev Walker coming to the island. In that same grave, not marked by any stone, are the bodies of three children of Rev CJ Gillet who died within a couple days of each other from typhoid fever in 1869. Mystery solved.

More books are planned. Bissessarsingh is only 31 years old.

A love for history

Angelo Bissessarsingh has been researching the history of Trinidad and Tobago for the past 20 years. An alumnus of Naparima College and UWI, he has written widely on his pet subject and has been a contributor to several magazines and pens a weekly column in the Sunday Guardian newspaper called "Back in Times". He is the founder and curator of the popular online heritage resource Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago on Facebook. He is also a regular guest on several local television programmes.

He has also contributed entries to the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography published by Oxford University Press. A vocal advocate for the conservation of local heritage, Angelo has contributed articles and papers on various issues related to these subjects at conferences and to magazines. His work has appeared in Caribbean Beat Magazine and he has written for the Bocas magazine (a periodical aimed at the yachting community) for several years. In 2009 he was a researcher and contributor to the inaugural publication of the UTT Press, “Golconda, Our Voices Our Lives” which was a well-received example of oral history edited by prize-winning novelist Lawrence Scott. One of the writers invited to the 2013 Bocas Lit Fest, he will again be a panellist at a discussion at the event in 2014. He was the host of the inaugural 2013 Bocas Lit Fest South-Central. His work was recognised that year by the Rotary Club of Penal, who bestowed upon him an award for his works in education.

NOTE - "Walking with the Ancestors" is available at Paper Based Bookshop, Hotel Normandie, and all branches of Nigel R Khan Bookseller and RIK Services Ltd.