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Looking Back to Look Forward

By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: March 23, 2016

[A lecture delivered at SOAS, University of London, at the launching of Narratives of Amerindians in Trinidad and Tobago, or Becoming Trinbagonian, March 17, 2016]

I want to thank Louisa, Nathan, and Josh for making this function possible. I also want to thank Tracey, my niece, and John Metivier, my former pastor from Tacarigua, and my God-brother Tookey, for coming in the cold to support my literary efforts. I also want to thank Riccardo Bharath Hernandez and the Santa Rosa Community of Arima for the assistance they rendered in making this publication possible, even to the point of securing a grant from the Trinidad and Tobago government. I also want to thank Ceri Dingle Worldwrite, producers of "Every Cook Can Govern: The Life, Work, and Impact of C. L. R. James," the soon to be released documentary on James, for agreeing to film this event for wider circulation. It's good to see all of you here this evening to welcome my most recent book, Narratives of Amerindians of Trinidad and Tobago, into the world of ideas as yet another manifestation of the tremendous gifts that those of us from our part of the globe have offered in terms of literary reflections on the world. It has been a long time coming but it is here. In this context, I would be remiss if I did not draw your attention to Glenn Roopchand's grippingly beautiful art that adorns the front cover of this book.

Over the past week I have been grappling with what I should say this evening, and I offer my apologies to Louisa and Josh, respondents to this paper, for not having provided them with any meaningful guidance about how they should have prepared to respond to my opening remarks. The truth is this: I didn't even know what I wanted to say on this occasion or how to proceed. I hope that my presentation makes up for such uncertainty.

On reflection, it seems appropriate to talk about the origin of this work, to offer some comments about its contents, and how it was produced.

The events that led up to this work are almost accidental. Although I had been writing about Caribbean literature since the early 1970s when I completed my dissertation, Resistance and the Caribbean Novel, at Cornell University in 1976 (it was expanded to Resistance and Caribbean Literature and published by Ohio University Press in 1980) and V. S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading (published in 1988 by the University of Massachusetts Press), it was not until the early 1990s that I began to pay special attention to the literature of Trinidad and Tobago and its intellectual origin. The first result of such an exploration was the publication of Beyond Boundaries: Trinidad and Tobago Intellectual Thought in the Nineteenth Century published by Calaloux Publications in 2003 and distributed by the University of Massachusetts Press.

The impetus of Narratives began in the early 1990s. It happened in the following manner. As I researched the historical development of Trinidad and Tobago intellectual thought, I came across a lot of wonderful material on our literature that was buried in long-forgotten newspapers or hidden in various archives. For example, I discovered Lionel Bernard Tronchin's Inez: The Last of the Aroucas at the Trinidad and Tobago Archives sometime in the 1990s only to be told recently by someone in the archive that she was unable to locate the only copy of the book that the archive had. It is entirely possible, therefore, that this is the only version of Inez: The Last of the Aroucas that is now available.

I picked up the other pieces for this collection as I went along.

The first challenge I faced was that many of the pieces in this collection were written in French (such as "Those Who Leapt in Grenada," "The First Two Martyrs of Trinidad," "The Misfortune of a Rabbit," "Letters from the Marquis of Teano to his Daughter," and "Carib Etymology of Certain Creole Words.") Many of these pieces were translated by Jacqueline Morin of Sciences Po in Paris.

Around the end of 1990, I was invited to give a lecture at Sciences Po, a rather famous school where most of the French leaders are trained, by Madame Morin who was a lecturer there. We became close friends. Quickly thereafter, I spent my sabbatical year (really a semester) in Paris trying to learn the language and getting to know the city. During that period Madame Morin sought to teach me French. She also translated most of these pieces. In some instances, she translated lines and sentences that seemed untranslatable, so bad were the copies of the original materials that I had copied.

There is a tragic note here. When the terrorist incident occurred in Paris in November last year, I wrote Madame Morin a letter, via FedEx, to express my sympathy for the tragedy that befell her people and her beautiful city. A week or so later I received a call from FedEx saying that they were unable to deliver the letter. Madame Morin had died. Should they destroy the letter or return it to me? I asked that they return it. I don't think Madame Morin was a victim of that attack. I only mean to suggest that it was unfortunate that she was not alive to share in the happiness that this publication would have brought her. She would have been happy that I was able, after all these years, to publish this exciting work.

"Carib Etymology of Certain Creole Words," another exciting find, was translated by Adrian Bockian in 2008. Formerly a student at Wellesley, and now a schoolteacher in New Jersey, Adrian has gone on to become a translator of note. When I discovered "Carib Etymology of Certain Creole Words," I was ecstatic. I wasn't aware of any etymology of Carib words that was produced in Trinidad. After all, I had come from Tacarigua that was named after one of the many Carib groups that had settled in the island. In his introduction to this very insightful work, R. de M. notes:

In his book entitled Essai Politique de la Nouvelle Espagne, the famous Alexandre de Humboldt says the following with regard to primitive inhabitants of Mexico and in addition inhabitants of the rest of America:

"The Caribes or Caribs, after having wiped out the Cabres, conquered a considerable part of Southern America. They ruled exclusively from the Equator to the Virgin Islands."

This is why it is necessary to look in the Carib language for the etymology of the names of places, mountains, rivers, etc., lands the Caribs occupied at the time of the discovery of the American continent.

Such a description allows us to make sense of words such as gua-na, calalou, hammock, Guyayaguayare, Chacachacare, Tabago, and Guarajaro from which the French got the word Ortoire or Guarapouche from which the French got the word Oropouche.

And how about this explanation for the origin of the name Trinidad itself? R. de M. says:

According to the authors who have written about the primitive story of Trinidad, this island was called "Yere" or Cairi by the aborigines. But "Yere" is not Carib, as far as I can judge, and caire if it is Carib means the earth which boils, which is a rather plausible etymology given the numerous little volcanoes (mud volcanoes) which are in the South-West part of the island. The island could also be called "Land of the Hummingbirds" or "Yere" in Tamanac or in Aranguac, because the Tamanacs and the Aranguacs and other tribes lived then in Trinidad along with Caribs. But the language of these diverse tribes was more or less different from Carib.

Aricagua, Tacarigua are Carib names indicating the settling in these places of Carib tribes with the same name. The word "Caroni" means in Carib "our river." It is probable that this race dominated alongside this great river. The Chaguanas (Chu-guana, eater-lizard) would also seem to be, according to their name, Caribs.

Anyone who is interested in the history of Trinidad could not but be fascinated by the roots of so many words that have become so familiar and notable in the island.

R. de M. premised his search of the roots of these Carib names by drawing on the work of Alexandre de Humboldt, the German scholar who, was one of the most famous men of the 19th century, the person responsible for revealing to Europeans the wonders of the Latin American world. Not only did he describe South America as a continent of unrivaled beauty, he also refuted the negative things that Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, the French naturalist, said about Latin America especially since he had not been there to see for himself. According to Humboldt, the indigenous people of Latin America were anything but feeble: "One look at the Carib nation in Venezuela [from which the Amerindians from Trinidad came] rebutted the wild musings of the European scientists. He [Humboldt] had encountered the tribe on his way from the Orinoco to Cumana and thought they were the tallest, strongest, and most beautiful people he had ever seen-like bronze statues from Jupiter" (Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature (2015).

Humboldt also made an interesting observation about the Carib language. He said: "The Carib language was so sophisticated that it included abstract concepts such as future and eternity. There was no evidence of the poverty of language that previous explorers had remarked on, Humboldt said, because these languages brought together richness, grace, power and tenderness" (161).

Eusebio Atanasio Valerio's The Sieges and Fortunes of a Trinidadian in Search of a Doctor's Diploma recounted the life of an Amerindian. It is one of the few autobiographies that we have about the life of this group of Trinidadians. Instinctively, he begins with the mixed-up (perhaps interracial is a better word) nature of the Trinidadian, a cosmopolitanism that keep us in check and which explains our tolerance for one another. Significantly, he embodies his search for his Trinidadianness his work of the same title. Valerio explains his interracial heritage:

My father and mother were known respectively as Jose Tiburcio Valerio and Eleonore Valerio, both being natives of the island. From them I have inherited a natural legacy. ...This legacy consists of a mixture of three strains in my blood: the Caucasian, the Indian, and the Negro. My father, a man of small stature, was born of white and Indian parents, and, in color and other external characteristics, would have had no difficulty in passing for a white man. My mother, a dark skinned woman, also of small size, and very kindly disposition, is descended from the Negro and the Carib Indian, the latter being now almost extinct on the island.

Humboldt had written that the "restless activity of large communities of men gradually despoil the face of the earth" (The Invention of Nature, 288). He also said that the natural world was linked to the political and moral history of humanity "from imperial ambitions that exploited colonial crops to the migration of plants along the paths of ancient civilizations" (The Invention of Nature, 288). Like Humboldt, Valerio's autobiography forces us to reflect on a world in which people seems to live in harmony with nature. As to their ways of life and perceived laziness, James Hamilton's letter to Governor Lewis Grant offers an important corrective.

There are other compelling stories in Narratives. It begins with an early description of the island in 1803 if only to suggest that when the English arrived in 1797 there were still thriving Carib communities in places such as Toco and Cumana. It is a rather long extract but it captures the state of the island when the English encounter took place. Jean-Ch. De St Avit's "The First Two Martyrs of Trinidad" records a turbulent part of our history when the missionary zeal of our Christian friends conflicted with the freedom-loving ways of our ancestors. In this context, the dramatist reminds us that he is dealing with fact rather than fiction even though he chooses to capture that historical moment in drama rather than in poetry or prose.

Readers will have to discover the other notable aspects of this text for themselves. Here is the intriguing story of Inez as told by Tronchin, a figure that any serious Trinidadian should know about and in whom we see the intellectual seeds of J. J. Thomas, Eric Williams, and C. L. R. James. There is also the drama of Lewis Osborne Inniss, Trinidad's premier folklorist of the 19th century, a figure of whom we know precious little. I am almost sure that a reader would be fascinated by the poetry of Montgomerie E. Corbie, whose high-flown language is very much Trinidadian in that it reflects our penchant for displaying our knowledge and demonstrating that "no body better dan we." I am grateful to Mary Lefkowitz, Professor Emerita of Classical Studies at Wellesley College, for proving an annotation for this wonderful poem.

These narratives of Trinidadian life are compelling vistas into the lives of Trinidadians of the nineteenth century. These narratives offer lucent vantage points from which to view our social, political, and cultural development in a period that is usually hidden from our gaze; a people whom we sometimes place beyond the pale, and a civilization that continues to remain opaque in the national gaze. In her wonderful book on the life of Alexandre von Humboldt, Andrea Wulf quotes George Perkins Marsh, an American naturalist, as saying: "The future is more uncertain than the past" from which she concludes, "By looking back, Marsh was looking forward" (297).

This is the case I want to make for Narratives of Amerindians in Trinidad and Tobago; or, Becoming Trinbagonian. As we move forward into the uncertainties of our world, we may tend to be timid and afraid. However, we can understand ourselves a little bit better when we try to envisage what our ancestors looked like, the hardships they endured, and how they managed to stay alive in spite of the many obstacles that they encountered. We owe it to ourselves to know a little bit more about that generation of heroes and how they confronted their world.

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