Every year in August the folks at Jamaican Products organise a celebration of the independence of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. This timing relates to the actual days in August when the respective countries became independent: 6th for Jamaica, and 31st for Trinidad and Tobago. The celebrations are inclusive of the wider Caribbean community in Sydney and Caribbean food, music, dance, culture and history are featured. Unfortunately in 2020 a physical gathering is not possible because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but hopefully in 2021 it’s back on!

Map of Trinidad and Tobago

In the meantime we will reflect on aspects of the culture and history of the Caribbean starting long before the independence of Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago in 1962.

August is a significant month in history for our two countries and some other Caribbean islands. The first day of August 1834 marked the bill in the British House of Commons which abolished slavery in most parts of the British empire. Some historians consider the slave uprising in the French colony of Saint Domingue which began on August 22nd and 23rd, 1791 and which resulted eventually in the creation of the independent state of Haiti, also influenced the abolition. August 23rd is the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition (UNESCO). Finally, in passing, we remember that Marcus Garvey was born on August 17th.

These events in Augusts past continue to leave their mark. Since 1962 in Jamaica celebrations of August 1st (Emancipation Day) and 6th have merged and in Trinidad and Tobago, after it became a republic on August 1st 1976, Emancipation Day was declared a public holiday in 1985. It is also a public holiday in Jamaica and Barbados since 1997. In Trinidad and Tobago Emancipation Day formerly was called Discovery Day because Christopher Columbus reportedly landed on the south coast of Trinidad at Moruga on July 31st 1498 when he “discovered” the island. Columbus is commemorated by a municipal square and statue in Port-of-Spain. Although the statue has been there since 1881 its future may not be secure, as there are echoes of the debate in Australia over Captain Cook statues.

Statue of Columbus in Port of Spain

Reverberations from the Black Lives Matter and cancel culture movements in the USA, UK and Australia are manifest in demands to remove Columbus and rename the square. The statue itself was daubed with red paint and a banner reading “murderer” was draped around it in June 2020.  

The current uproar about whether Columbus should be removed highlights the resurgence of the long-suppressed and ignored First Peoples (Amerindians) of Trinidad and Tobago. They were lumped by the Spanish into Caribs ( tagged as fierce, warlike cannibals and therefore legally could be enslaved) and “peaceful” Arawaks. But there are many other First Peoples within the Carib/Arawak nations: Carib (Kalinago) who can be Chaima, Nepuyo, Suppoyo or Yao; Arawak (Taino/Lakono) and Warao.

After the landing of Columbus, as no gold was discovered, the export of Amerindian slaves was the next resort. The First Peoples resisted fiercely and achieved some success. A chief named Boucanar defeated the attempt of the Conquistador, Antonio Sedeño, to settle in Mucurapo (west of Port of Spain) in a war lasting three years. Eventually Sedeño’s army left Trinidad on August 27th 1534. 

Warao Nation Queen and Delegation with Port of Spain Mayor

A century later in 1637, a Nepuyo chief –Hyarima- allied with the Dutch from Tobago to burn down the Spanish capital San José (now St. Joseph) and caused the Spanish settlers to abandon Trinidad completely. Of course, the Spanish returned in force and Trinidad was firmly incorporated into Spain’s Latin American empire. Tobago was left to be fought over by Dutch, French, Latvian (Courlander) and British colonisers. The Carib and Galibi First Peoples in Tobago were gradually replaced by the sugar-producing estates like in the rest of the Caribbean.

Some of the remaining First Peoples in Trinidad lived in encomiendas (estates worked by indigenous labour); the most prominent of these were at San Juan, Caura, Tacarigua and Arouca, which today are part of the urban sprawl eastwards along the southern foothills of the Northern Range from Port-of-Spain towards Arima. This town gradually became a centre for First Peoples as the last Spanish governor closed the encomiendas and moved the First Peoples to the mission in Arima between 1784 and 1786 to make way for the influx of French settlers and their slaves  and the post 1789 refugees from the French Revolution in the islands. Today Arima is where the Santa Rosa Carib Festival is held each August (except 2020!) by the revitalised Santa Rosa First Peoples Community.

The Festival incorporates a church procession, smoke ceremonies, parang music and  heritage foods, like cassava bread. It has become more prominent since the Government of Trinidad and Tobago granted a lease of 25 acres to the Community on August 9th 2018 to establish a First Peoples Heritage Village and Living Museum.

Now, back to the statue of Columbus and Columbus Square. The queen of the Warao Nation, Donna Bermudez-Bovell and Shabaka Kambon, the director of the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project (part of the Emancipation Support Committee of Trinidad & Tobago) met with the Mayor of Port-of-Spain on June 12th 2020 to request the removal of Columbus and renaming Columbus square – shown in the Warao delegation photo. However, at about the same time, the Chief of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community, Ricardo Bharath-Hernandez stated that replacement and renaming were pointless unless some tangible measures could be put in place which would benefit the indigenous peoples of Trinidad and Tobago. These conflicting opinions sparked a vigorous debate which continues to rumble along.

The Spanish ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago joined in the fray arguing strongly against removal of the statue and renaming the square. Even the Prime Minister, Dr. Keith Rowley, felt compelled to calm down the debate and is quoted  by Newsday on 11th July 2020 as saying:

Trinidad and Tobago Coat of Arms

“Columbus has gone a long time ago; let’s not fight over a statue. If we are no longer prepared to accept a colonial relic or anything that’s in our midst then let’s just look at it civilly and decide on whether he should be on a pedestal in Port of Spain or in a museum.”

Rowley promised to have a community discussion about it after the election. Well, his Peoples National Movement (PNM) has just won the election with a small but working majority so there may be some resolution soon. However, enthusiasm for change may well be tempered by the Columban symbolism embedded in Trinbagonian heraldry.

The Coat of Arms of Trinidad and Tobago, as shown above includes the three ships of Columbus’ fleet on the central shield. The three peaks of the Southern Range from which Trinidad was named by Columbus are also in the design below the shield. The Amerindian name is Iere or Ka-iri, but Trinidad and Tobago is the country’s formal, official and internationally recognised name.

Every country has so-called contested heritage in which historical commemorations compete to be the preferred view of the past. The statue of Columbus in Columbus Square can be compared with Hyarima’s statue near the Arima velodrome since 1993. Moruga also has a statue of Columbus and celebrates Discovery Day with a pageant of the landing of Columbus. He and his crew disembark from his three ships in the Columbus Channel and are welcomed by Tainos and Caribs. (By the way, Morugans also celebrate Emancipation Day).

But let’s leave the last word to Marcus Garvey:

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

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