Monday 14 November 2011

Christmas - a Cocoa Panol Festival

The tourist brochures enjoy describing Trinidad and Tobago as a land of festivals. This is so because from the closing decades of the 18th century, all the way through to the opening years of the 20th, people from all over the world have found their way here to work in various economies. Christians and Jews from Europe, Africans with various belief systems from the western coast of that continent, Muslims and Hindus from India, the Chinese from the furthest east, and elements of the Ottoman Empire from the Middle East.
All of these, masters, slaves, merchants, planters, adventurers, the hopeful, the despaired, the indentured, the castaways, and the refugees, brought with them to these islands their concept of the divine. Their festivals provided a focal point for the joining together, for the communing of the beliefs.
Spanish sailors and adventurers, euphemistically called discoverers, explorers and conquistadors, brought Christianity and western civilisation to this hemisphere at the start of the 16th century, much to the detriment of the original inhabitants. The Spaniards, possessed with an overwhelming verve to conquer new lands, were acting in the spirit that had liberated their own land from the Moors, the Islamic invaders of several centuries before. These men, clad in the iron mantles of the chivalric orders, had fought a holy war on the Iberian peninsula, so as to defend Christianity and western civilisation. The overlooked irony was that ultimately both Christianity and Islam had a common root in the antique Syriatic civilisations of the Middle East. Notwithstanding the wholescale destruction of the civilisations of Central and South America, and whatever may have existed on these islands, followed quickly upon the heels of the newcomers. The tribal people experienced very much the same treatment that had been meted out to the Moors in Spain. A combination of expulsion and extermination. Later, with the sincere intervention of the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, conversion became the “viable” alternative. In Trinidad, after several wars that held the Spaniards at bay for more than a century, the missionaries began to establish themselves. This in itself was not an easy undertaking. There were revolts and massacres and eventually the mass suicide of the remnant of the more militant tribal folk. The remainder tended to drift into the mountains and coastlines of the mainland, and to vanish almost completely. Some were brought together at various points. Arima, for example, received the Amerindian populations of Arouca, Tacarigua and Tunapuna; Mission (Princes Town) the populations of Oropouche, Tamana, the Naparimas, Mayo and the Moruga coast. Thus pacified, the lively memories of their previous existence spent in the ancient wilderness soon passed into dream, vaguely maintained in customs, folk art and cuisine.
The process of assimilating new religious themes and concepts superimposed itself upon the collective memory of this remnant of our tribal people. By the 1770s, the purity of their bloodlines was already being altered, mixed with the Spaniards and the liberated mestizos. Mixed with the Africans who were slowly arriving, the “zambos” were created.
But it was with an economy that they, the remnant of the original people of this place, were to be eventually named. They would become the cocoa panols. Catholic, Spanish-speaking, with Spanish names, sometimes referred to as Carib, usually called Spanish, they were responsible for the rebirth of the cocoa economy. Cocoa truly belongs to them. Indigenous to these forests, it was a modest crop during the 1770s, but it became significant one hundred years later, when after the emancipation of the African slaves and the collapse of the first French planter economy, cocoa was reintroduced and with the active help and in fact expertise of this tribal, Christianised, mixed remnant that could be described as our first indigenous peasant class.
They, together with the French Creoles, created the cocoa economy, which produced wealth and a culture, a way of life.
Deeply religious, devoted to the many aspects of Catholicism, devotion to the sacred heart of Jesus, to the blessed virgin, to Mary, to the saints of the Catholic calendar, to the church as the central institution of life itself. A commitment to the land, to the way of life that supports the maintenance and the improvement of the land and its crops. The sacredness of family life as reflected in the holy family and the value of community life expressed in mutual help and support.
The cocoa panols of Trinidad maintain perhaps to the present traditions that include fold medicine, folk art and cuisine and beliefs and customs that go back hundreds of years. They have maintained religious customs and religious festivals unique to themselves.
Christmas in Trinidad draws upon the cocoa panol culture for its uniqueness. It is in Trinidad as well as down the main to Venezuela that parang as Christmas music is maintained. The annual singing of the glorious mysteries of the birth of Our Lord herald the beginning of the Christmas season. The musical instruments themselves speak of the syncretic movement that produced these people. The Spanish guitar, the more local cuatro, the Amerindian chac-chac, the gourd, notched and scraped, the medieval mandolin, the magic violin, the one-stringed box bass - all sing of the coming together of many cultures, of the endeavour of many people.
Parang at Christmas blends the sacredness of the memory of the word that was made flesh and dwelt amongst us to the hospitality and generosity of family life. It brings in communality, the joy of sharing food and drink and visiting, and gives meaning to the giving of gifts with love. The cocoa panol culture brings to us its own cuisine. From it come pastelles, pone and paymee. Out of country life comes sorrel and ginger beer.
The cocoa panol culture of Trinidad with its gentle simplicity is swiftly fading to become yet another memory of the good old days. Parang is now electrified and no longer sings of the visitation, the annunciation and the birth of the babe. It now booms into a more profane night, creolised and "soca-ised", to the extent that no one notices that the stars have vanished from our once innocent eyes.

Bartolomé de las Casas (1474 - 1566)
The 'Apostle of the Indians'
Born in Seville, Spain, de las Casas sailed to the New World with Columbus' third voyage of 1498, where he would have seen Trinidad as the first land after the crossing of the Atlantic. In 1502, he went to Hispaniola as a planter. In 1510, he was ordained as a priest. A year later, he accompanied the conquistador Diego Velásquez to Cuba, assisted him in the pacification of the island and was rewarded by a commandery of Amerindians. Soon, he gave up his own Amerindian slaves in a desire to protect and defend the natives.
In 1515, de las Casas went to Spain, where he urged Cardinal Ximenes to send a commission of inquiry to the West Indies. He revisited Spain to secure stronger measures and to finally prevent the extirpation of the natives. He proposed that the colonists should be permitted to import African slaves, which was readily acceeded to. In those times, Spain had no qualms about subjugating African peoples, seeing that they had successfully rebuked Islam and the Moors from that continent to the south.
De las Casas also attempted to Castilian peasants as colonists in a model settlement in Veneuzela, but failed. From 1522 - 1530, he spent time in a convent in Hispaniola. Again he visited Spain, and from there traveled as a missionary to Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Guatemala. Upon his return, he devoted four years to the cause of the Amerindians, writing his treaty "Veynte Razones" and "Brevísima Relación de la destrucción de las Indias" (1552).
In 1544, he was appointed bishop of Chiapa, where he was received with hostility from the colonists. In 1547, he resigned his see and returned to Spain. He still contended with the authorities in favour of the Amerindians until his death in Madrid. His mst important work is the unfinished "Historia de las Indias".
(from: Chambers Biographical Dictionary)

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