Saturday 11 February 2017

Angelo Bissessarsing's Gift to Trinidad

Angelo ‘a scavenger of the past’
SEAN DOUGLAS Sunday, February 5 2017
HISTORIAN Gerry Besson had seen the late Angelo Bissessarsingh as a youngster onto whom a small and aging cohort of local historians could pass on their artefacts and insights in the vital task of unearthing and preserving this country’s heritage. Sadly Bissessarsingh died last Thursday, age 34, his work incomplete .
“The history of TT and the sources of the historical record have over the past 40 years been very sadly neglected. So I was extremely gratified to see this young guy so keen and taking source material and turning it intro popular presentations,” Besson told Sunday Newsday. He said Bissessarsingh would venture into Lapeyrouse Cemetery to take notes from the headstones, while are now being destroyed by vagrants. “He was putting together a virtual museum of great variety and content which is very, very good, when you see the state of the National Museum.” Besson said Bissessarsingh was not a university historian but an amateur who was more spontaneous and free to follow his own hunches and inclinations, staying close to the ground .

“Us amateur historians are getting old - Fr Anthony De Verteuil, Michael Anthony, Adrian Camp Campins and myself. I am 75 years, so to suddenly see this young fellow (Bissessarsingh) arrive on the scene gave us all the sense that we have someone to pass on our archives or a box of old photos. He wasn’t writing with any political overtones but wending his way to the real facts and putting it across in such a way that people really liked.” He said Bissessarsingh’s books became popular as gifts to recall a past time, spur conversation and trigger memories. However he noted that such publication was a labour of love, saying such a local book would typically sell about 700 to 800 copies, quipping, “If you sell 1,000, you’ve got a best-seller.” Besson wondered why in contrast Jamaican publisher, Ian Randle, can sell thousands of books on the Jamaican market and thousands more overseas .

“How does Jamaica have such a strong sense of national identity that people want to read about, but not TT?” mulled Besson. “I ask question how come a lad from deep south would have the impulse to do this (historical research)? They are not rich people, and this work won’t make him a living. This thing comes from the heart.” Yet history is vitally important, he said .

“People are growing up in this country but don’t know why a place is called a certain name, why certain animosities exist in society and why we have certain customs,” related Besson .

“So people like Angelo who pursue the historical record are exceedingly commendable.” He hoped the media could whet public thirst for local history by way of pondering why is George Street called George Street, why do the streets of St James bear the names of cities of India, and why are many streets in Woodbrook are named after Boer War commanders such as Kitchener and Gatacre? Saying the answers to such questions build a country’s identity, Besson said, “Angelo was contributing to a sense of identity of the place, what Jamaica and Barbados have.” He lamented that just a few old people know the full history of the Red House and President’s House, both whose current dilapidation pose a future threat of demolition one day, a loss of edifice that he likened to the death of somebody .

“Things just fall apart, and next thing a rich man bulldozes it and it is gone overnight.” Besson recalled learning of the mindless past demolition of an old Spanish colonial building at lower Charlotte Street, Port-of-Spain, likely used historically by the Cabildo or Treasury which he ended up scavenging for relics .

“Angelo too was a scavenger of the past,” he said .

While post-Independence politics may have led many persons to disdain TT’s history as being too linked to TT’s colonial past, Besson said heritage buildings can also be cherished by the fact of who were the persons who crafted them, the masons and craftsmen, the grandfathers of ordinary persons in TT today .

“These things give continuity and give us a sense of identity and make you stronger as a person in the context of the place where you live, so you take better care of it and have a better sense of belonging .

“So Angelo was one on those really remarkable people who somewhere in his subconscious he understood all of this and was prepared to dedicate the rest of his life to this. God rest, good old Angelo. 

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