It is perhaps understandable, event natural, that some of the earliest and purest glimpses we have of the lifestyle in these islands in the formative years of our history, comes form the record of the development of the folk arts: Calypso, carnival and, in another sense, folklore.
Thanks to the remarkable work done by individuals such as Andrew Carr, Harry Pitts, Mitto Sampson, Andrew Pearse and David Crowley, we have preserved a view of how it was to live in Creole society from the 1800s onwards. In this issue, we trace the development of Calypso from the myths of calypsonian Surisima the Carib, on through to the slave calypsonians Gros Jean, So So, Papa Cochon, and Ofuba the Slave, to the great ones of the mid-19th century, such as the Mighty Thunderstone, Hannibal, and Cedric Le Blanc.
Mitto Sampson achieves the hangman’s drop
It was, however, Mitto Sampson who, through his endeavour in collecting oral traditions in the 1940s and 50s, saved much of the body of information that came down to us. Mitto Sampson was a known personality around Port of Spain. I knew him when I was a boy; I seem to think that he lived at Gonzales. I know he used to lime on an ice box at the end of Observatory Street, opposite to the Hospice. He was known as “Strong Man”.
When Mitto was young, he was a scrawny boy. As a teenager, he took up weightlifting and became phenomenally strong over the years. “A daring acrobat, he dived from heights into crowded streets, and he even achieved the “hangman’s drop” on his 17th birthday,” reports Andrew Pearse (Caribbean Quarterly, 1958).
Mitto told Pearse in an interview how he had read of Palmer Berns who had developed his neck to such an extent that he was able to resist the hangman’s noose. He put himself in training, developing his neck muscles and those of his back and shoulders.
One Monday morning, followed by an entourage of well-wishers, Mitto arrived at the Washhouse Bridge - the bridge over the Dry River on Belmont Circular Road, just after the Hospital. Without much ado - but after saying a prayer - he tied a hangman’s “slippery knot” around his neck, tied the other end of the rope to the bridge’s railings and jumped!
The small crowd gasped at his daring and ran to the rail. Mitto was dangling several feet from the Dry River bed. The thick rope was taunt with his considerable weight. It took several strong men to haul him up! Mitto climbed back over the railing, and under the thundering cheers of the crowd took of the rope from around his bull’s neck. He had done it!
Mahalle, who had parked his invisible car nearby, immediately got in and drove off so as to inform the town of this incredible act.
Naturally, Mitto acquired the reputation of a man of power, a science man. In fact, he was well educated. He had attended Nelson Boy’s R.C. School, Belmont Intermediate and St. Mary’s College. In true Trini style, his background was cosmopolitan - his father, an Arima druggist, was a “dougla” of mixed Indian and African descent, and his mother was half Portuguese and half quadroon, that is a mixture of three parts white and one part black.
Mitto got his information about 19th century calypsonians from his grandmother, Mme Florence Atherley, who was a noted genealogist and whose hobby was reminiscing about old Trinidad. His other informant was Remmy Roberts, who at the age of 93, in the 1940s, could remember well people and incidences way back into 19th century.
Remmy was one of the great “raconteurs”, story tellers, of his time. He was a “sweet man”, a gigolo, and a “maco” (formerly this word meant a pander or tout, but now it has come to mean someone who minds other people’s business). He had spent his life in the Behind the Bridge world of east Port of Spain. He had known the famous ladies of the night: Britan Boobooloops, Alice Sugar, Mossie Millie, Ocean Lizzie, Sybil Steele to name but a few. He had met the famous homosexuals of his day such as Papy/Mamy, Darling Dan and Ling Mama. He had encountered badjohns like Congo Jack and Tiny Satan, and of course all the chantwells, stickmen and mad people that walked the city in those days. Remmy told Mitto who told Dan Crowley: “Son, calypso today come from the mouth, but longtime it come from the soul.”