Wednesday 9 May 2012

The Black Caribs of Saint Vincent

She proudly showed me a picture of her mother and her aunt, two very good-looking black women, well dressed in the style of the 1910s. They had handsome, regular features with bright, intelligent eyes that looked directly into the camera. I could not help but notice their hair. Both girls had luxurious, thick, wavy black hair, parted in the middle and arranged at the back in a bun. She looked across at me and smiled.
"Carib," she said.
"From St. Vincent?" I asked.
"One of the finest vistas in the Caribbean is that from Coke's View in the St. Vincent, looking down the rock-bound coast to the Grenadines; a view that is best on a day when the trade winds are freshening and the white foam breakers against the dark rocks and the sea seem to be racing towards Bequia," wrote Sir Philip Sherlock in a radio script, which he delivered one Sunday in October, 1963. Because there are so many Vincentians or people of Vincentian descent living in Trinidad today, and especially in memory of Mrs. Gittens, who showed me the photograph of her mother and her aunt, I will bring to you the text of Sir Philip Sherlock's most interesting account of the Black Caribs of St. Vincent.
"Drive over the mountain ridge behind Kingstown, and you come to a very different view, as Mesopotamia valley opens up before you with some of the finest terracing of land in the West Indies. This fine sweep of cultivated land is in sharp contrast with the north end of the island. St. Vincent is as mountainous as Dominica, and the central ranges are so high and difficult that up to several years ago it was the only island that was not crossed by a road.
"Mount Soufrière itself rises to just over 4,000 feet, and it reaches this height within two miles. Flying over the crater, you could look straight down into a bleak, deep cup, sinister with its yellow lake 2,000 feet down in the centre. Perhaps Soufrière looks all the more sinister because it is one of the two active volcanoes remaining in the Caribbean. It's a fantastic location and holiday makers and groups of excursionists make their way down the inside of the crater. In 1902, Soufrière and its partner, Mt. Pelée in Martinique, erupted. Before that, Soufrière erupted in 1812, causing the most dreadful destruction and laying waste much of the island."
"This triggered a mass exodus from St. Vincent of entire families to Trinidad, a migration that continues to this day.
"The volcano is itself a reminder that the island is almost entirely volcanic in origin," writes Dr. Sherlock. "It is made up chiefly of ash and other broken material. It is not too fanciful to say that St. Vincent has had elements of the volcanic in its history also. It was a Carib stronghold. Columbus testified on the strength, courage and determination of the Caribs, and in his journal, when he advocated making slaves of them, he writes that—'they are a wild people, fit for any work, well proportioned and very intelligent, and who, when they have got rid of their cruel habits ... will be better than any other kind of slaves.'
"The Caribs held St. Vincent in such strength that the island was one of the last of the lesser Antilles to be settled by Europeans and the first group of settlers, whether French of English, had to make treaties with the Caribs in order to get a foothold. The last of these treaties was made in 1773, ten years after the island became British.
"As in Grenada, so in St. Lucia, the French and English fought each other for possession of the island. The sharpest conflict took place in the 1790s, the period of the conquest of Trinidad by the British and the revolt of Fedon in Grenada. One of the most skillful of the revolutionary leaders in the Caribbean was Frenchman Victor Hugues, a man of extraordinary energy who stirred up the slaves and the Caribs against the English.
"In the years immediately before Hugues arrived in the Caribbean from France, the English expanded sugar production in St. Vincent in preference to cotton, with the result that sugar production rose from 3,700 tons in 1787 to over 14,000 tons in 1828. The increase in sugar meant an increase in the number of slaves, and where there is slavery, there is the fear of slave uprisings. Hugues knew well how to organise disaffection and he had considerable success. On landing in St. Lucia, he immediately proclaimed all slaves were free, organised a rising and recaptured the island from France.
"After St. Lucia, he stirred up the Black Caribs of St. Vincent. These Black Caribs were a mixture of African and Carib. You will find them in St. Vincent to this day. The 1960 census showed that there were 1,200 Caribs in St. Vincent, most of these are in fact Black Caribs.
"Urged on by Hugues, the ancestors of these same people rose in rebellion and there was desperate fighting, so desperate that it looked at one time as if the French and their Carib allies would succeed in throwing the English off the island, as they had done in St. Lucia. In the end, the rebellion was put down, and large quantities of Black Caribs were carried away from St. Vincent and settled in the Bay islands, in Ruatan and Bonacca off the Mosquito coast of South America.
"Years later, some of these Black Caribs were allowed to leave Roatan and settle in the southern part of British Honduras, and today you will find them among the most progressive and hardworking of the inhabitants of Belize. Some make a living cutting timber in the forests, others fishing, others are farmers. They number about 7,000. It is because of this transportation that the number of Black Caribs in St. Vincent is so small.
"After a period of turbulence, St. Vincent settled down to become a sugar island. England often exported criminals. Many "poor whites" came to the Caribbean and made a home for themselves at Dorsetshire Hill, northeast of Kingstown. Many Portuguese were settled there in the same way that many also came to Trinidad. West Indian immigration to Trinidad and Tobago over the last 150 years has contributed to an aspect of our cosmopolitanism in that tens of thousands of people, mostly of African descent, have come here, their origins at first very diverse, but in the melting pot of Trinidad and Tobago we all have become one people."

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