View from Bird Island Tobago
By Kim Johnson
July 19, 1998
"Keep it light and breezy," the man said. "Easy to read." That was almost a decade and a half ago when I was commissioned by a small publishing company to visit Tobago. The editor had in mind a book on the island describing its history and culture. To cast the net even wider, he'd thought to include a tour guide - which is what I was asked to write. Enthusiastically, I replied, "Uh."
Ramshackle Scarborough was asleep when I arrived around 9 p.m. I searched for a restaurant. I asked a passerby, an elderly lady. She didn't know of anywhere open "so late", but we fell into conversation anyway. She questioned me about myself. Where was I from? Was I married? What did I do for a living? Then she gave me some free advice.
"You shouldn't just shack up with your girlfriend," she continued. "Get married. Don't rush into it, though, because divorce is a sin too. I know it's difficult to stay celibate. After all I was young too. So it's understandable if you lapse once or twice. But not too often. And on no account let another woman come between you and your wife. If you must stray, because you know you men, be discreet please. And if your wife catches you, don't lie and lie and lie. Admit your guilt and mend your ways."
And so it went. The people, for the most part, were friendly and willing to spend the time of day talking. The market vendor at whose stall I ate every morning dropped her prices, as I became a regular.
Old Mr. Rubin Charles told me with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes of the Les Coteaux folktales. When the community repertoire ran dry he expansively continued with a few of his own invention. So too the shopkeepers, hitchhikers, waitresses, lifeguards, roadworkers, fishermen, the security guard at the museum - they all showed a formal peasant loquaciousness and generosity towards me. And if they were usually ignorant of what I asked, they told me a lot anyway.
For instance, Edgar Wilson, a crusty old retired policeman whom I met at Franklyn's Estate, recounted, in a deep, official voice, his life's story: the 36 cents he'd received daily at trade school; 56 cents in the oilfields; $24 a month in the police force. But he had little to say about the estate of his childhood, which was what I’d asked about.
"In those days you couldn't watch white people," this burly man explained patiently. "When they pass you had to look down."
But since then things had changed, and not necessarily for the best.
Young people had no respect; they weren't interested in anything, not even the correct names of their friends or their antecedents. "I would most humbly offer the advice," as I made to leave. "Be disciplined, punctual, honest and reliable and you will go far in life."
The fecklessness of youth, their indiscipline. It was a common complaint made even by the youths themselves. This was partly prompted, no doubt, by the nature of my inquiries: Did anyone know the old legends about Gang Gang Sarah the African witch? Were the traditional fiddle-and-tambourine wedding ceremonies still performed? How did the Belmanna Riots start?
All of this used to be the living knowledge of an independent peasantry 30 years ago. Then Hurricane Flora, which devastated the island in 1963, changed that. Agriculture and the peasant life, wellsprings of the folk traditions, were completely destroyed.
Central government, based in Trinidad, pouring money into the island, created a dependency on the council job, the road works. So that today the market, in an island where everybody has a plot of land, was virtually empty. The few stalls sold vegetables imported from Trinidad. On Sundays it was closed.
In Parlatuvier the shopkeeper brought out a tambourine that he owned.
He didn't know how to play it, however, and kept it for sentimental reasons.
Formerly this instrument - really a flat goatskin drum, the European name, and perhaps its shallowness too, being only a disguise - used to be part of the African ritual dances called "jigs" and "reels". But all that ended with the decline of the peasantry. And the African mythological life of the countryside languished, abandoned by the youth.
On another day, in pursuit of the folktales, I pushed onto Les Coteaux in the interior, the heart of obeah country. From here many of the spiritual healers hailed, a district considered to be the least Christianized and where many of the African names - Quashie, Kwamie, Quamina - were still carried.
Gang Gang Sarah's grave, still used perhaps for communication with the dead, was nearby, an old man told me. "Joe Quashie could have told you all about that," he said, "but he's dead." He cackled.
I made the climb on the left in the car. Some steps led to the unmarked graves. They were recently plastered, uninteresting to look at. A young rasta lolled in a hammock strung under a shack nearby. A woman attended to him. I asked of the significance of the graves. Whose were they? Who upkept them?
He shrugged: "The Government sees about that."
Driving along the road I sometimes saw, on the hills overlooking what were once wealthy estates. "Rich as a Tobago planter" was a saying in 19th-century London. Now, the Great Houses were mostly vacation homes for Tobagonians who had met success abroad. Richmond Guest House was once a showpiece great house owned by the Shorts, who ruled the belle Garden plantation. In its heyday visiting dignitaries were entertained there in grand style.
But declining production, labour shortages, a lost lawsuit in England, financial improprieties, all of these combined to take it away from this last white planter family.
Ownership passed to Hollis Lynch, a professor of black studies at Howard University. The symbolism wasn't lost on him. He furnished the house with African artifacts. A bookcase displayed a carefully chosen selection of books: a dash of Fanan, a sprinkle of Du Bois, Sartre, and Eric Williams. Here was one black man who had arrived.
I pursued the story further, to the Shorts' quiet villa at the other end of the island. Mayo Short called off Simba, a huge dog, and invited me in. Born at Richmond in 1902, he was a slim, white-haired man with a courteous but sad air about him. His tale began with his grandfather, who came out from England to serve as a judge in Jamaica.
Here his narrative stopped. Mrs. Short strode into the room. "Who are you?" she asked in an aggressive Cockney accent. "Where do you work, if you work? Don't your type know how to make an appointment? Don't you realize that people value their privacy on a Sunday?"
Her rage had the frenzy of an impotent and dying ruling class. The husband who'd invited me just sat quietly. I blew before the storm.
But the mythology from Europe lives on, albeit in a new disguise. It began as a white Tobagonian romance that Daniel Defoe set his great shipwreck story in Tobago - Crusoe's Isle. At the Colonial and Indian Exhibition held at Glasgow in 1886 a makeshift cave belonging to Crusoe, complete with stuffed goat, was presented as Tobago's exhibit. By 1935 a guidebook, since reprinted many times, displayed a photograph of the adventurer. Another book published in 1969 described where the cave could be found; "though it is falling into ruin".
The myth of Crusoe's Isle was protean. It became the myth of Tobago's pristine beauty. Which is what I'd been paid to write.
Beauty. One day, driving back to town I gave a lift to a young Tobagonian worker. He was tall and slim, had a straggly beard although his face was smooth and he spoke with a soft voice. I had to strain to hear him. He asked whether I, being a tourist, could explain what was so beautiful about Tobago that so many nations fought over it in the past. I explained that it was the wealth in black slavery and sugar plantations that had excited them so. He was surprised. "I thought it was the beauty of the place," he said, " and that's why they expected so much from the tourism."
His was a startling hodge-podge of ideas but it was also quite indicative. Tobago's beauty, clamourously proclaimed by the Governemnt, has been given romance, not by the recent centuries of slavery and economic decline. Rather, it harked back to the 17th and 18th centuries when the island was nothing but Europe's cockpit. The island was littered with cannon, many of which had then been sited for effect. Every estate had its graveyard. Every headland its redoubt christened Fort this or the other and adorned with a summary of its "history" like that on the Cuoronian (=Courlander =Latvian) Monument by Fort James.
"The Dutch town Niew Vlissingen and settlement Niew Walcheren (1628-1630, 1634-1636) twice destroyed by the Spaniards and Caribs; later the capital (Fort Jacobus and Jacobusstadt) of the Cuoronian colony Nen-Kurland (Jaunkurzeme) and the site of the oldest church (Evangelican Lutheran) in Tobago (1654-1659); renamed as Fort Beveren under Dutch occupation (1654-1669); restored to the Cuoronians by the English; remained as a point of attraction for French, Dutch, British and Carib invaders for the next 100 years."
"Yes," agreed Eddie Hernandez, the archaeologist and artist. He laughed: "They only write about our colourful history when it's only the colour of blood."
Many place names reflected this: Man-O-War Bay, Pirates' Bay, Dead Man Bay, and Gun Bridge. Yet, when I visited Bloody Bay I only found a small beach of grey sand and one or two sheds. A seine had just been pulled in - you could have seen it miles before when the road still clung to the mountainside. The silver heap of fish had already been emptied onto the sand. The useless ones were thrown back to sea and the others, gritty, lay quiet. A dozen men and women hung around to get whatever was for free. A part owner of the seine grumbled that they hadn't helped, but he didn't stop them taking a fish or two. One man ran up from behind to insist that I couldn't take photos "just so".
Every book on Tobago gives the romance of Bloody Bay, where an English fleet under Sir John Harman defeated a combined force Dutch and French sail, some time in the 1660s. So bloody was the battle that the sea turned red.
But the only record in which Sir John engages those nations describes a battle off Martinique. And the origin of Bloody Bay's name remains unsolved.
It might be noted, however, that the early Dutch maps give it the name "Rasphuys Bay". Rasphuis, according to English historian Simon Schama, was a 17th-century workhouse in Amsterdam where brazilwood was powdered to produce dye. The timber was rasped by convicts, and hence the name "rasp house". Indeed, until 50 years ago Parlatuvier, the village in the next bay, still had a sawmill. And one of the most important dyewoods from the district, called redwood, used to also be known as "bloodwood", for it stained the rivers in which it was floated.
All that was forgotten in the writing about bloody naval battles.
Indifferent, the fishermen washed off their catch in large baskets by dipping them in the sea, and took them away to be sold, leaving behind only a few dead fish for the birds, and the sighs of the waves on the sand.
History and legend, landscape and mythology all fed off one another. Things acquired a density of meanings that added to or detracted from their immediate reality. I could no longer tell whether the image of a solitary cotton tree alongside the road at Black Rock, its ragged bolls fluttering like a flag of surrender, had imprinted itself so starkly on my mind solely because I'd been told cotton was at one time the island's staple crop.
Or a sound, the lugubrious hymn sung to the beat of a tambourine - the European kind. Seeping out from a country church that was also a school, it evoked the white planters who had built these edifices for "their Negroes" as a substitute for the whip.
The red scar on a hillside bared by landslip, sutured by weeds, conjured up generations of black peasants scratching at this exhausted earth for survival. They'd never been allowed to own the flat, fertile lands. Today the villages of the south coast still perch on the rockiest spurs.
After all of this the gentle waves that lapped hypnotically on the beach at Charlotteville - surely one of the most serene places in the world - seemed to say, "Shhhhh…" As if to soothe the ghosts of the past.
George Town, my last stop, planned in the 1780s to be the capital, never materialized. Its governor never bothered to set foot on the malarial shore, preferring to remain for two years on board a hulk moored in the bay. An archaeological report described Fort Granby, which had been intended for the protection of the town that never existed: "the entire fort is well preserved."
I saw nothing of the kind. Only a few new benches ad a Tourism Bureau pavilion and a tombstone commemorating one John Clarke who died at 30 in 1772. Even this wasn't a real grave, just a tombstone which had been brought there from Studley Park, as the guns at Gun bridge had been dragged from Fort King George.
In spite of its nonexistence, or perhaps because of it, Fort Granby at first had a ghostly ambience. Its tiny promontory was populated by short, spreading, skeletal trees, leafless in the dry season, their gnarled branches twisted and reddened by the sea blast, growing out of a russet bed of dried leaves.
The wind whistling through it would have been eerie, melancholy even. But then I heard the birds singing all around and saw an emerald sea shimmering to the horizon. A fine spray brushed my face. And in my mind everything became, well, light and breezy.
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