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We become Caribs

MARION O'CALLAGHAN Monday, August 20 2012

I would place the beginning of our Colonial period from the time that Spaniards establish an administrative structure on the island of Trinidad. Our first revolt against colonialism was the Carib revolt of December 1699. There may have been tension and conflicts before this time.

However the Carib revolt is planned, it embraces both the secular and the religious arms of Spanish power and the Caribs seek allies. The revolt comes at a time when the nature of Spanish colonisation is changing partly through the pressure of Spanish colonists anxious to expand, partly through the Portuguese and partly through the pressure of English, French and Dutch. In 1580 English sailors claimed Tobago nearby. All four countries are slave holding and slave selling and mix European American settlement with plantations and commerce.

The first hint of African slaves in Trinidad is at the trial of the revolting Caribs. Two Spaniards are mentioned as having slaves. From the context it would seem that those mentioned at the trial were linked to the domestic household. From the trial we also learn that female prisoners could be attached “in service” to a household as their punishment: This suggests a shortage of labour. However, as early as 1610, Dutch traders sell Trinidad their first slaves. By 1637 there is an attempt by Sir Henry Colt to settle in Toco.

This changes the impression of vicious Caribs slaughtering innocent Spaniards, in a non-slave Trini Paradise. Rather, between 1610 and the end of the century Trinidad was being integrated into what would become the Latifunda economy of the time. By 1723 only 23 years after the Carib revolt, cocoa had failed. It was followed by the Spanish Crown granting a trading monopoly to Caracas. The result was to cripple Trinidad with low prices. In 1772 cocoa fails again. By 1776 restricted foreign immigration is permitted. In 1762 Britain collects Tobago.

The Cedulas Arrive

In 1783 Charles II of Spain adopts St Laurent’s proposals by which Spain offers free immigration and land to Catholic immigrants. Not being far away what the Irish called the Penal laws, obtained in Barbados. This imposed a number of discriminatory laws on Catholics. Catholic-Protestant rivalry would be a secondary conflict throughout the colonial period.

According to Harold Sitahal, the population in 1788 was: 126 Whites, 2,958 Free Coloureds, 340 Slaves and 2,032 Amerindians.

In 1798, after an influx from the French West Indies, the population was: 2,151 Whites, 4,476 Free Coloureds, 10,000 Slaves and 2,100 Amerindians.

It is this rapid growth in the number of Whites, the growth in the number of slaves and the major distribution of land to settlers which changes the nature of the society. It also changes its preoccupations. White fear is no longer of a Carib revolt. It is now of a slave revolt as had happened in Haiti and Guadeloupe. And a fear of Republicans, as had happened in France.

Maintaining Our Culture

In 1797 Spaniards in Trinidad capitulate to Britain. There is some resistance but it is quickly dispersed. The population again changes. Slaves from the French islands are no longer the majority among slaves. By 1831 Trinidad had a White population of 3,319 and a Freed population of 16,285. Tobago had a White population of 304 and a Freed population of 1,266. By 1813 Trinidad had 25,696 slaves of whom 13,984 were registered as having been born in Africa and 11,633 as being Creoles. Of the Creoles, approximately 2,500 are born in the British sugar islands and only 1,592 born in the French West Indies.

And yet no culture is totally wiped out. In spite of being vastly outnumbered, Spanish and French ‘Patois’ continues down to the time of Independence. So does what was called ‘the Martiniquan’ head tie and dress. So does ‘a little pork for Christmas’ and Parang. Carib names remain: Arouca, Chacachacare, Piarco, Mucurapo. And there is Our Lady of Siparia.

In Siparia there is a brown statue dressed in the changeable stiff clothes of Spanish statues of the same period. Or of the statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague – also of the same period. The Trini statue is Our Lady of Siparia, or The Good Shepherdess, or Siparia Mai, or Mother Mary. No one knows how the statue got to Trinidad. The story belongs to the Our Lady Miracle stories of 17th and 18th century Latin America.

The statue is first the object of devotion for Caribs and other Amerindians coming from Venezuela. It is now the object of devotion for Catholics, Anglicans, Spiritual Baptists as Mother Mary and Hindus as Siparia Mai. And that is what Trinidad and Tobago’s culture is about. It transforms the identity of a small, almost forgotten, group into the consolation of us all. We become Caribs. Walcott would say “From all that sorrow / Beauty is our gain.”

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