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]

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeI 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.

7 thoughts on “Looking Back to Look Forward”

  1. Most of our natural history is either muted or not spoken about by the educational directorate of this country. What appears to be obvious, is that political culture is taking the lead in trying to redefine our history, with a very strong emphasis on making history relevant to today’s political reality. Such an approach is dangerous and can never truly reflect history that shaped our culture and way of life, to the future generations of Trinbagonians. Case in point is the Prime Minister’s effort to re-claim the arts of our native son Michel-Jean Cazabon. Had the Prime Minister not made it public, many of us in the national community would not have been aware of the artist nor his works.
    He is our first internationally known painter and as such we must speak with both pride and joy of his accomplishments. Such accomplishments are not only good for his legacy but also for Trinidad and Tobago as well. We need our children to be aware of this great man. Our current state of history is being made up by a group of so-called academics at St Augustine. Their intent is not to accurately ponder and reflect the events and times this country have experienced, leading to our present day living. But more to inch into the history books, inclusions of those coming from an ethnic perspective that did not necessarily add impact on the lives and times of our development. People like Welwyn Cudjoe and Earl Lovelace need to be cognizant of these efforts and must address that kind of re-writing of our history, only to reflect a narrow point of view. The Amerindians are part of our past. Many who are still alive are mindful of that history. Recently I met a gentleman from Arima.
    He is of Amerindian stock and have a large collection of artifacts from the life and times of the Amerindian. He told me that he has given the government about 20% of his collection but have the other 80 percent for himself. His fear is that to disperse with his collection entirely is to ‘kill’ the history of his people. He is correct in his thinking and sad that we cannot trust those who record history to tell the truth. We need to scrutinize those who take it upon themselves to ‘publish’ history without the necessary vetting of the accounts they promulgate for future accounting. In this effort we need to be coherent and exact in that accounting.

      1. I did not know that ‘truth’ had different versions. Truth, can best be told exactly as they occur. The coloring of events cannot be considered truth.

  2. The history of the indigenous people is best written by those who have experienced it in a way that is unique to them. I applaud Dr.Cudjoe’s effort in a brave attempt to unravel an enigmatic movement of people whose mark in terms of village descriptive remain etched in the annals of TnT history. It is good to know that he was able to “source” some of the materials by he indigenous people.

    I have to admit as a young boy growing up in Trinidad I knew more about American history through a series of American history books that I manage to have accessed. I still remember reading stories and looking at pictures of Gettesburg, the emancipation proclamation, the tax revolt, the Boston tea party, a picture with a man holding a Bible in one hand along with a gun in the other. Then there were the books on the Quakers that I read along with their tall dark hat. To further supplement my thirst for knowledge, I bought comic books on Cowboys and Indians along with all those Audie Murphy western, gun smoke with James Arness and a few John Wayne movies. This learning was up until age 17.

    Now I say all of that to say this, there was little or no literature chronologically looking at the history of TNT. To date there may be limited scattering of a few. We are essentially a people now living in an age of mass communication without a genuine reflection on a distant look at TNT past. I have for years secretly contemplated writing my own notes on history seeing I live in an agrarian culture that changed into and industrial and now mass communication culture. I hope one day to find the inspiration to place thoughts on paper or computer.

    Except for the work of Dr. Kumar and Dr. Cudjoe there isn’t much to understand and reflect on. It would be nice if the Ministry of Culture could invest some of the millions spent on Carnival and other fetes into some genuine historical foundation grants. The recent book by Angelo Bissessar is to be applauded. Yes there are some who are working, but more must be done and should be done to continue the mapping of our history….

  3. Maybe we begin now:


    There are many persons who were born in Trinidad and Tobago and who have gained international recognition in their respective spheres of activity but neither they nor their achievements are known in the land of their birth.

    I am happy to note that Dai Alian the mother of modern Chinese dance who died in China in 2006 at the age of 90, has recently become known in the land of her birth. Her father has been immortalised, since he was the Isaac after whom Isaac Junction in Couva was named.

    I will now introduce you to three other achievers who have gained international recognition. Two of them were born in Trinidad and the third was born in Canada of Trinidadian parentage.

    He is Kwame Ryan the son of well-known Professor Selwyn Ryan with his first wife Joy.

    Wikipedia correctly describes Kwame as a Canadian conductor of Trinidadian descent,but for the purpose of this article,I consider him to be a Trini.

    His early schooling was at the University School at St.Augustine . He left Trinidad as a teenager to attended Oakham School in Rutland,England, and then studied music at Cambridge University. He then attended the University of Tubingen in Germany for language and cultural studies and later studied conducting at Freiburg. From 1999 to 2003 he served as the Musical Director of the Freiburg Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra.

    In 2004 ,at the age of 34, he made his professional conducting debut at the Edinburgh International Festival and followed that up in 2005 by making his UK opera conducting debut with the English National Opera ,in a production of Salome.

    From 2007 to 2013 he was the music director of the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine.

    Kwame’s work with his orchestra which has been making appearances throughout Europe and in Japan ,has been attracting increasing international attention. In November,2012, Kwame conducted an orchestra made-up of local and non-local musicians at a performance at the Hyatt Hotel in Port-of-Spain. He has a home in Freiburg,Germany.

    My next achiever is Conrad Albert Lau,an aeronautical engineer,inventor and executive who was bornin Port-of-Spain on February 8th ,1921 to Mr and Mrs Egbert Lau. He was one of four boys and his brothers were Neil, Roy and John. Conrad received his Secondary Education at Queens Royal College before entering the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received his B.Sc. Degree in 1942 and his Masters Degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1943.

    On leaving MIT, “Connie” as his family,friends and business associates called him, joined the staff of Chance Vough Aircraft, a Division of United Aircraft Corporation He devoted his entire professional career to the Company that had become Ling-Temco-Vough Inc., at the time of his untimely death on April18,1964 . Through his initiative,superb intelligence,and human wamth, he had advanced rapidly from the position of Junior Aerodynamics Engineer to Director of the U.S.Navy Light Attack Aircraft Programme.

    Connie made significant personal contributions to the United States Defense Programmes, beginning with the F4U Corsair of World War IIwhich was flown by both Navy and Marine Corps.pilots who racked up an 11:1 kill ratio over the Japanese in the Pacific. Continuing with the F7U Cutlass Series and the many versions of the famous F8U Crusader aircraft. Connie directed the Vough Light Attack Aircraft Programme which was in response to the Navy’s request for a light attack aircraft based on existing design to keep the costs down. In May 1953,Vough’s design based on the F8 Crusader won the competition and the Corsair II was born. The resulting A7 series aircraft were supplied to the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force and first saw action during the Viet Nam War.

    Conrad Lau died on April18,1964 at the age of 43 years. His memorabilia ,including models of the military aircraft which he designed,is lodged at the Military and Historical Museum at Chaguaramas. Do you know of anyone who has been a champion in any sport for eighteen consecutive years ?

    My third achiever was a World Masters Champion in Weightlifting for eighteen consecutive years from 1985 to 2002.

    Harrison “Freitas” Skeete, was born in Trinidad in1921. He represented Trinidad and Tobago in Weightlifting at the 1951 Pan American Games in Buenos Aires and at the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. In1956 Skeete migrated with his family to the USA where he worked as a driver for the Postal Service and later became a full time personal trainer in the gymnasium of the North Shore Towers Country Club in Floral Park, New York.

    He first represented the USA at age 64 in 1985 and became a World champion and was the winner in his respective age group at every World Masters Championships ,until his retirement in 2002 at age 81. In that year,he established three World Records in the 80 plus age group. In 1998 he had been inducted into the Masters Weightlifting Hall of Fame.Harrison Skeete passed away on 5th April,2008 at the age of 86 years. I competed against him in 1956 before his relocation to the USA. Imagine pumping iron at age 81.

  4. The Prof. at his best.
    He is at his worst when he delves into the political arena.

  5. As usual , an excellent , thought provoking piece Doc. Very informative indeed. Hey Tman , not that I agree with you ,re your typical swipe at our Patriotic Dr Cudjoe , as far as his ummmm….’damblays’ “into the political arena,” but let me add for de record , dat I many others ,feel the same about your Nobelist Literature hero,Sir V.S Naipaul.
    Some much wiser than yours truly , might even go so far as to say , that The House for Mr Biswas, & Miegul Street, were enjoyable classics,while all the rest ,mere condescending, political dribble.
    Well, I take that back, for even the good British fellow , Sir Vidia , would admit ,that those two books , were his most potent political work yet, since they were an attempt, to paint a much ignored narrative ,that reflected the historical , post indentured struggles ,of his socially conflicted people then- and as we can see , still prevalent now, even as they’ve acquired millions, under…. drum roll please— the political stewardship of African leaders, and not White conniving English Europeans.
    What separate the good Doc , from your VS, Cuz TMan , is that the former is a Globalist , who refused to sell his soul ,for the highest European, Yankee, or Hindustani ancestral land bidder.
    He is comfortable in his own skin, is passionate about his race, but yet ,sees no contradiction in showing some ‘love for the other,’ and especially , as displayed in this piece ,by playing a role ,in acting as a voice for our voiceless , almost extinct, indigenous folks.


    I personally ,would never wish harm ,for self aggrandizing elites ,scattered across the Global Village, but I’m always fascinated by folks – with no reason to- who go out of their way, to represent the interest of the weak, downtrodden ,powerless, maligned ,neglected ,and disenfranchised , whether they do so in Ecuador, like my former Pol Sci Professor here, or on behalf of the scrunting, neglected folks ,from Los Bajos, Lavantille , Bethel Tobago , Caranege , Marabella, and Carapichima, or Bantu looking Haitian refuges, in genocidal Pro Euro-Espania -Santo Domingo,or oppressed Arabs in the Gaza.
    The world is laden with folks like say a John Woods, who choose to go out of their way , to make a difference. He parlay this gesture , into a Global Library entity , called Room to read.


    We in La Trinity , is sitting on a Gold mine , but many are not quite aware of it, and part of the reason is because we – just like our provocative Piasano TMan,(pretending in his direct case) to have a narrow conception of what POLITICS really entail. Eeehhhhh, mi Hermano?
    Love Humanity , and forget the tribe people! Failure so to do , can have dire consequences , trust me on dat.
    It’s a beautiful life ,so embrace it!

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