Friday 14 March 2008

The Heart and Soul of Gerry Besson

by Kenneth Ramchand, 2002

Review of the book "The Angostura Historical Digest" by Gerard A. Besson
Published by Paria Publishing Company Limited (presently out-of-print)

This book consists of a large number of articles, essays and sketches written by Gerard Besson in different styles and moods about familiar and unfamiliar episodes in the evolution of the two islands of Trinidad and Tobago. You can think of it as a history book, but the author approaches his subject from many different angles, draws upon many disciplines, and, unusual for "a kind of history book", scorns to tell the stories in chronological order.
So you can dip into it and read of 'The Power of Rice', come back a week later without bothering to find your page and read about 'The Glory of African Kingdoms' or 'The First Oil Well in the World'; if you are minded you may thread your way through the story of the setting up of 'J.N. Harriman's and Company Limited', the oldest still existing firm in Trinidad. If you begin at the beginning you will read of the superb obsessed Creole of plantation La Resource in Haiti who loved the Count Loppinot but never became his lover and who secured his escape from certain slaughter in Haiti by shipping him out in a heavy oaken barrel; and a little further on, you might be stirred by the love of Governor Dillon of Tobago for his patois-speaking Black mistress who delighted in his reading of tales from La Fontaine in the sometimes strange and indefinable words of the French language.
In style and in content, this is a book written to reach out to a wide popular audience, but I want to register an important emphasis. The Angostura Historical Digest belongs in the library of every school in Trinidad and Tobago as a supplement to any and every subject in the curriculum. It can even be a supplement to the curriculum itself for it covers topics that are not accommodated formally in a curriculum. Combining the techniques of journalist, cultural historian and story-teller, and proceeding in an interdisciplinary fashion, it presents, in an exciting way, vitalising information about the people, places, events and institutions (social, political, economic, and cultural) that have gone into the shaping of Trinidad and Tobago, and into the formation of the Trinidadian person.
It is easy to read but it is also a book heavy with information and implication. I hope readers will bear with me as I spend a little time on this important dimension of the book. I would have liked to see a greater appreciation in the book of Learie Constantine, C.L.R. James, and the social cultural and artistic implications of cricket. But the coverage of items of major structural interest is remarkable. These items include: the dramatic change from an agriculture-based economy in the nineteenth century to an oil-based economy in the twentieth century; the description of the French Creole culture and economy of the nineteenth century (see especially p.162-165), and a clear showing of the differences within the colony's White elite; the development of a Black intelligentsia('The Products of Excellent Schoolmasters p.136); the relationship between Trinidad and Tobago; the growth of the labour movement; the emergence and growth of Creole, largely African-driven, cultural expression including carnival, calypso and pan (see 'La Vida Loca Behind the Bridge' and 'Music and Rituals of East Port of Spain'); the massive immigration of people from the other islands into Trinidad not only with the Cedula of population but also in the period before oil (65,000 between 1871 and 1911), and in the period following the turn to oil. And then, of as yet unmeasured significance, the grievous brain drain of the 1940's and 1950's "when urban middle class people with secondary and tertiary education" left and were replaced by "rural primary school-educated" immigrants from other islands, a kind of immigration partly encouraged by "the politicians who took the country to Independence".
Some of the excitement of the Digest comes from the fact that the book is more than a collection of words. Over 300 of its 347 pages of glossy art paper contain excellent reproductions of original photographs, cartoons, advertisements and other illustrative material from private collections and old books. You could buy the book just for the reproductions, but these illustrations are even more valuable because they supplement the text eloquently and add beauty to the layout and design.
The book is patriotic (containing so many reasons for loving our country) and educational (fostering knowledge and self-knowledge). It shows respect for and takes delight in every part of our heritage. All the ethnic groups and every element in our population are represented. Unlike a textbook, however, this Digest makes knowledge personal and near. It satisfies and arouses curiosity about what and where we come from, and it stimulates thought about where we are going and what we are becoming. It shouldn't only be in the school library. It should be in every home where it can open up dialogue between generations. A young person reading it cannot help realising that his elders have a life and their own testament to add to some of the things described in the book.
How many of us would have known that the expression "cool as Gokool" referred to Haji Gokool Meah (1847-1940) who came on an indenture ship when he was just six years old and grew to be businessman, cocoa proprietor and cinema magnate, builder of the Globe and Empire cinemas in the 1930's? Gokool drank his cup of dhal every day, and in the face of racial prejudice conducted his business with an icy calm that became proverbial, hence "cool as Gokool". How many have heard of the African Muslim Jonas Mohammed Bath who gained his own freedom and formed a Mandingo society that owned property in Port of Spain, cocoa estates in the country, and put up money to buy the freedom of Muslim slaves, and to organise repatriation to Africa?
The Digest is a wonderful book for browsers and intermittent readers, and you can dip into it and be surprised by Mahal driving his invisible car from Icacos to Port of Spain, or the lady pirates of the Caribbean, or 'Fargo' (A.P.T. James) "who worked for Tobago like no one had ever done before". You can register the bold entry of Cyril Duprey into the insurance industry, a field regarded in his time as the domain of Europeans. You can watch the beginning of the debate about the roles of State and Church in our educational system as Lord Harris pushes to establish a system consisting of state schools ('Ward Schools') in each ward, a 'Normal School' or Training College in Port of Spain and 'Model Schools' for teachers to practise under supervision. You can allow the passage of time to make you appreciate that although his family owned slaves, the mulatto J.B. Philippe's heroic struggle and eventual success in winning civil rights for Free Colureds was a step towards civil rights for everybody. You can see and read about: Adrian Cola Rienzi and the labour movements that contributed so decisively to the beginnings of our democracy; Albert Gomes, Eric Williams and the beginning of party politics; the beginning of the end of Crown Colony Government; and, ironically, the exchanging of the governor for the maximum leader.
You could read all of this in bits and pieces, take it like slides and film clips appearing at random, defying chronological order, refusing to be part of a linear argument, and not asking you to do more than be absorbed in each as it comes. You could read it like this, and you might think you are reading the work of a post-modernist duppy dancing on the grave of coherence and integration. But you would be dead wrong. This is neither an embrace of fragmentation nor an acceptance that order is impossible. This is a New World book bursting with life and possibility.
There is a controlling idea that makes the parts hang together and prompts the images to coalesce. And there is an informing vision of a desirable wholeness which makes this a stubbornly positive work: "We have tried to show how, as inheritors of a historical process as a cosmopolitan nation, we now have to contend with a segmented society, born from a colonial experience yet to be reconciled, whose segments describe themselves as Syrian, Indian, African, French Creole, Chinese and even Tobagonian – all unresolved issues, inflammatory in themselves and unsupportive of national unity. As such we have pointed out the dangers of so-called tribalism."
The things that make this book hang together form the credo of the man Gerard Besson. His love and appetite for Trinidad and Tobago and his belief in its peoples are the source of the passion and the crazy joy you feel as you tear yourself from one subject to the other.
The author's description of the Lapeyrouse cemetery and its origins explains why a visit there is mandatory for all who want to learn about the founding of modern multi-faceted, cosmopolitan Trinidad. In this essay which he calls 'Colonial Order in Lapeyrouse' Besson's awareness of the ultimate absurdity of race colour and class distinctions comes out in his comment after telling the story of a keeper in Governor Woodford's time who lost his job because out of incompetence he often buried Blacks among Whites contrary to the Governor's policy of segregation: "It must have been extremely upsetting for the White dead who had avoided personal contact with Blacks throughout their entire lifetimes, to find themselves sharing the same worms in death."
He acknowledges explicitly in 'The Segmented Society' (316-318) that after 200 years of miscegenation (he should have said five hundred years of the meeting of peoples and cultures) ours is still a segmented society. But he makes it clear in his Introduction that the value his book champions is "the commonalities of our shared experience". And the evidence of centuries of contact gathered in his book allows him to hold that once people stop perpetuating segmentation for political ends, segmentation will vanish, and integration will take its place. When you read this book, you will want to come along too. Many rivers flowS
The Digest is set out in twelve volumes which contain most of the material that first appeared in thirteen supplements in the Newsday newspaper during the year 2000. The articles were written down in pencil on large sheets of paper just as they came out of the head of this extraordinary raconteur and then typed up by his wife Alice. They were hardly changed up then and have not been much altered for the book. But it is important to recognise that there are some deft adjustments that make the book more structured than a mere gathering of the newspaper volumes would have been. It is useful to notice that Besson re-shapes Volume I and turns it into a Prelude that serves several guiding functions so that once you read Volume I, the rest of the book takes on an impressive order.
Between pages 8 and 23 this Prelude announces all the peoples and cultures that constitute the segmented society. They are all here, from 'The first Spanish settlers' of the seventeenth century, the British and the French; the Lebanese (1902) and Syrians (1906) and the Ashkenazi Jews during World War II; the Germans, the Italians and the Portuguese. And in greater numbers, the toiling masses from Africa and India. The parade of peoples and cultures begins out of chronological sequence with a portrait of the Grenada–born Roume de St Laurent (who obtained the Royal Cedula of Population from the King of Spain in 1783), and an account of the fourth wave of immigrants to the island - the descendants of French people coming with their slaves from the French islands to claim the free grants of land in Trinidad and other benefits offered by the Cedula, a shaping document in Trinidad history since it marks the island's beginning as a plantation economy and his contributed seminally to its cosmopolitan character.
The second group Besson introduces are the Africans: in 1782 there were only 310 slaves in the island; by 1789 there were 6,451; in 1797 when Trinidad was captured by the British, the slave population was 10,000; five years later the slave population was 20,000. Next in the book are the free blacks and the people of colour, the latter introduced with the sentence "Miscegenation has been a central feature of Caribbean society from those early days of Spanish conquestS". It is a Besson theme.
The Prelude gets us ready for some of the issues of race, colour, class, language and religion that are to arise on the long road to national unity. But Besson is scrupulous to present each group as its unique self. The effect of letting the sections cross the stage one after the other, however, is to suggest the possibility of the birth of a music to make them one band. This book is intent upon showing how from the beginning, no matter what it thought it was doing, every creed and race was laying claim to its equal place and helping in its own way to invent and describe the Trinidad character.
Before this crossing of the stage, however, the author works one of the book's main strategies, that of telling the story of Trinidad and Tobago through the doings of families and individuals of whatever ethnic origin or political bent. He introduces as "a family at the heart of the country" the Cipriani family out of Florence and Corsica, a follow-up to an account of a kind of Caribbean man, the Count of Loppinot, a Frenchman who served in Louisiana, lost all he had in St Domingue, joined up with the English in Jamaica, and lived out his last years as a prominent citizen in the British colony of Trinidad. You can enjoy the episodic quality of the book, but if you concentrate on the accounts of families and individuals over the twelve volumes you will realise that you are tracking the making of Trinidad and the Trinidadian person. Other topics can be followed similarly. The episodic quality is on the surface but there is a powerful internal order that binds the scattered elements.
The first Volume closes with an introduction to the folklore of Trinidad and that of Tobago; a description of the economies of Trinidad under the title "King Sugar, King Cocoa and King Oil' that encapsulates the island's shift in the twentieth century from agriculture to oil; and an 'Ode to the Woman of Trinidad and Tobago'. The romantic author's appreciation of women is apparent in this ode and in the story of the Count of Loppinot. Again, if you follow the representations of women throughout the book you will find a feminist perhaps in spite of himself describing the struggles against oppression and bringing into calculation of the national product the sterling contributions of women of all classes and ethnicities, and you will feel the full force of the book's concern that gender oppression should come to an end. The poem on p222 'A Young Lady's Soliloquy' by Valentine Rostant, a young French Creole woman of the mid-nineteenth century might be the first feminist poem in our written literature. It cannot be an accident that the last stories in the Digest are the stories of Valiama a Madrasi woman who came from Martinique; a European woman Poleska married to a French Creole whose civic preoccupations forced her to make sure the family had food on the table; and climactically, the political radical Black woman Elma Francois who came from St Vincent.
Mr Besson totes a lot of information in his head and unloads without having to check chapter and verse. He is a wonderful talker, and he writes as he talks. All of this makes the book easy to read. But the virtues lead to faults. He is not a great speller. Some of his talk sentences need straightening out when they go into print. There are minor factual errors arising from the fact that the author did not feel the need to check for accuracy. There are stories for which sources are required because they are hard to take dry so. All of these must be corrected in the revised edition, for this is a book that must be laid in every school and every home in Trinidad and Tobago.
All of us who read the supplements as they came out in 2000 are indebted to the advertisers, and to the vision of Mrs Therese Mills and the newspaper that published the series. We are already indebted to Angostura for setting up the Angostura Museum with Mr Besson as Curator and now we have to praise the private sector company again for making possible the manufacture of this beautiful and important work of cultural history. Our greatest debt of course is to Mr Besson whose personality and patriotism give heart and soul to the wide learning in his book.