Thursday 8 September 2011

Crop Over in Tobago

Cartlon Ottley remembers harvest time in Tobago. He describes how after the last load of canes had been ground and the last hogsheads (barrels) of sugar were rolled into the curing house, the fires under the boilders were put out and the preparations for crop over began. The estate owner as a rule contributed a young bull for the festivities. Heaps of ground provisions, chickens, suckling pigs and other foodstuffs were brought in by the ‘metayers’ and several demijohns of good alcoholic beverage, distilled right there on the estate, were much in evidence.
On crop over night, the metayers and his family and friends would gather in the millyard. The wings of the huge windmill were silhouetted against the darkening sky, creaking softly. Large pots of food have been cooking all day. Fiddlers found their bows and tightened up the strings, tuning their scratched instruments. The goat skin men, the drummers, warmed their drums over a coconut branch fire, tapping them from time to time to hear if the right pitch has been achieved.
Old Clay picked up a beat, and Balmoral de Noon followed quickly on his fiddle. Old Bacchus’ grandson was the steel man, tinkling away. Thus the music has started, fiddlers and drummers giving their best. With the music, the dance began. Men and women went round the blazing fire, dancing quadrilles, reels, jigs and polkas - dances which had supplanted the dances of their ancestors, but with the tempo that remained true over the ages.
Later, when everbody had eaten their fill and danced to drop, and the blazing fire had begun to burn low, men would sing the songs of long ago, tunes of African origin, and songs that they made up themselves.
In those times, they took about a week off during crop over. It was a time to recover from the work of the harvest, but also from the revelleries themselves!
These Tobago stories, idyllic and full of charm, were collected by Carlton Ottely in the 1940s. At that time, there still lingered in Tobago that long twilight that had begun at the end of the 19th century, even before Tobago and Trinidad had been joined into one crown colony. Tobago had gone into an economic slumber. The busy little island of 100 to 150 years before, that had enriched cotton planters from England and made fortunes for Dutch bankers, was now almost a waste land. Sugarcane production had stopped as a result of the collapse of the merchant trading house of Gillespie in London, which folded as a result of the fall of the price of sugar. The great windmills of the southern flatlands at Lowlands and Bacolet were now still. The waterwheels that had turned the mills in the lush valleys spun aimlessly. The great houses, unpainted, neglected, some abandoned, were being sold off.
The black people of Tobago were free from the pressures of assimilating waves of other island peoples and an abundance of catholicism, never knowing Indians or French creoles. Since emancipation, they had been creating a strong village life, extending family and kinship under the egis of Moravian preachers and later Methodist pastors. The school system produced individuals of particular merit, some outstanding.
As the estates were sold out, they were acquired increasingly by the Tobagonians themselves. Out of this shift in the landholding arose a sensitivity to property and ancestral land. The heritage of the older heads was embedded in the Tobagonian collective consciousness. At the time of Ottley’s writing, one could say that virtually every Tobago family owned land and possessed houses.
In this period, there was calm for some, economic depression for others. In the long quiet evenings, the sparks of the coalpot snapped in the wind, and the stories of long ago were told. The children drew near, the ‘home sweet home’jetchings on the glass chimneys of the pitchoil lamps throwing huge wavering shadows on the walls. The storytellers would recount the powers of men of old, of an old slave woman who had the gift of stopping a windmill at a glance, and the one who was able to cause the master’s wife’s back to raise in welts whenever one of her own was abused. There were stories of fairy maids who lived beneath the wheel at Arnos Vale and took the nice looking oby from Culloden for three days - some people say because he had smooth, glowing skin. Upon his return, he had wisdom where before he had been simple. He grew wealthy, buying one, then another, sugar estate. His son died, however, drowning...

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