History, Memory and the Continuing Catastrophe

“There are lieux de memoire, sites of memory, because there are no longer milieux de memoire, real environments of memory.”
Pierre NoraBetween History and Memory

“Force, whatever its morality, has its function and merit and must be re-called(theatred) and placed at man’s disposal.”
Rawle GibbonsRoom to Pass 

 

In an article dated July 20, 2014 published in the Trinidad Newsday, Trinidadian poet and journalist, Andre Bagoo draws our attention to the renaming of the King George V Park in Trinidad by the Mayor of Port-of-Spain, Raymond Tim Kee. The park is now known as Nelson Mandela Park. Tim Kee prefaces  and justifies this rechristening of the park by establishing what had provoked this change:

“Today we pay tribute and celebrate an icon’s life. An outstanding citizen of the world who fought for social justice for more than 67 years not only for those of his native South Africa, but indeed for the entire world”

mandela 1 Mandela 2 Raymond tim kee

(See Bagoo’s article here: http://www.newsday.co.tt/commentary/0,197915.html)

Bagoo berates the Mayor and the Port-of-Spain Corporation, as they seem to be “embarked on a campaign of just re-naming streets and places within the capital. The mayor renamed the park days after re-naming a street in Port-of-Spain. The mayor this month honoured US Private First Class (PFC) Le Ron Adrian Wilson by adding the deceased young man’s name to that of Marli Street, the address of the US Embassy.”

One understands Bagoo’s ire, and indeed his argument seems to be about equal representation and political adhocracy although he goes about this in a roundabout way before he comes to his actual point: “Those who feel they have a power to just change our collective narrative by upsing and seeking to erase the fact that this nation is the sum of many parts, including a colonial heritage with English and European lineage, do a unique violence to the country they claim to serve.”  The notion that English/European/colonial heritage is under threat is an odd and surprising concern. Andre should have stopped at ‘the sum of many parts.’  On the other hand, taking the man by his word, I can see the link that is being made by Raymond Tim Kee between Mandela as one who fought for social justice, and a part of a region whose history is marred by a lack of social justice. Besides, didn’t the same affinity for such figures result in the naming of Cipriani Boulevard after the Trinidadian national hero whose statue stands tall on a plinth on Independence Square? Perhaps there is something else that Bagoo suspects is at play, something subtle and insidious but he does not succeed in explaining clearly to us why the renaming in itself is wrong as opposed to how it was carried out. What he does provide is an account of George V’s life that does no justice to his argument and ironically mirrors the flippant naming practices that Bagoo upbraids the Port-of-Spain mayor for engaging in:

“King George V visited Arima, San Fernando and St Joseph in 1880. Though he has a reputation among some historians for being relatively dull, the many places named after him include King George V Park in St John’s, Newfoundland; Stade George V in Curepipe, Mauritius; major thoroughfares in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; an avenue, a hotel and an underground station in Paris; King George V School, Seremban, Malaysia; and a school and two parks in Hong Kong.”

Bagoo further marrs his claim by using this allusion: “The decisions of the corporation appear to demonstrate a callous approach to history. They mirror decisions taken by the former Mayor Louis Lee Sing to modify the classic design of City Hall itself by embarking of an extension which destroys all the balance of the original design and undermines the place of Carlise Chang’s mosaic at its front.”

George V 2 George V andrebagoo

This prizing of supposed stability and its vindication in ‘long-standing’ ways of being/seeing, is a dangerous one. It is redolent of English historian James Anthony Froude’s similarly angst-ridden philosophy of history which Wilson Harris uncovers. Froude, he states, “prized stability as so fortuitous, so accidental that any society which ‘worked’, which held itself together in some shape or form, should be safe-guarded against change.” Or even similar to the Jamaican Christian community’s slippery-slope argument against the repealing of buggery laws in that country. I am sure Bagoo would not like to align himself with Froude nor the Jamaica Church. And although they get lost in the original article, Bagoo’s most pressing questions are there: “what degree of public consultation was involved in the decisions taken by the Port-of-Spain corporation? Why did we not hear about these name-changes until they were virtually faits accomplis? Assuming there was no widespread consultation, is this how the mayor and the corporation will run the city in coming years?” The rest of the article seems to obscure these questions and mis/represents Bagoo’s more sensible concerns.

***

I have always found Caribbean naming practices to be very interesting and at times very funny. Like the mother who told a midwife that she wanted to name her child ‘Imagine’ and when asked to spell it she proceeded: E-M-M-A  J-E-A-N. Or the father who named his son Leon, because the boy was his only child,”Li yon” in St. Lucia Kweyol meaning ‘Him/Her/It alone’ or ‘Only him/her,it’. Or less on the humorous side, the way hearing names like Devon, pronounced DEV VAUGHN in my country, have always seemed like St. Lucian names to me before I came across the more restrained, more closed-mouthed DEVN of England. Or the following example which is more closely related to Bagoo’s quarrel. In his book St. Lucia: The Romance of its Place Names, Father Charles Jesse (the priest who condemned Derek Walcott’s ‘idolatory’ in heroic couplets in 1944) expounded upon the provenance of several of St. Lucia’s place names that proved to be unromantic to the point that one begins to suspect a hint of irony in the title. Many of the villages and towns such as Dennery, Micoud, Castries, Vieux Fort were named after such and such general or landowner, whose achievements (if there were any) even when magnified did not seem to warrant such honours as having a whole town named after them. But then there are names beyond those, such as La Sorciere, a mountain literally named ‘the witch’. I am sure any visitor to St. Lucia who has merely glimpsed La Sorciere would agree with this name. However, Father Jesse found this incredulous:

“The name Sorciere is puzzling. Literally it means the Witch but that seems improbable as a name for a mountain. One may wonder whether there has not been a mistake in spelling here. Ought the word, perhaps, to be Sourciere, the feminine for Sourcier—  a water finder? It is certain that the Sorciere river rises there, certain also that Castries draws much of its water from this mountain’s flanks.”

Such situations are striking, where the land seems to name itself, or its parts. Like Devil’s Bridge and the Faustian story surrounding its construction. And there are several other examples of the Devil’s architecture in places within and beyond the region; places like Leaper’s Hill, Sangre Grande, La Gwo Kola or (one I recently learned of from Trinidadian Historian Brinsley Samaroo) Kase Kou. Names such as these seem to be the land speaking for itself, or a way in which the land bears witness long after the catastrophe the names recall has dissolved in time. ‘Kase Kou’ in Kweyol means ‘break/broken neck’, and it is rumoured to be associated with child sacrifice in Trinidad among Hindu secret societies known as ‘panths’ which Raymond Ramcharitar expounds upon grippingly in his Doctoral Thesis. Ramcharitar also published an article in 2011, entitled, “Indo-Gemeinschaft vs Creole-Gesellschaft”, in which he alludes to the existence of these secret societies: “DWD Comins, a British official, in the 1890s, reported the existence of several secret societies transplanted from India. One practised necrophilia, one preached caste eradication, another, Hindu-Muslim amity.” The story of La Gwo Kola is just as arresting. In the east coast village of Anse-la-Raye in St. Lucia which has suffered the neglect and contempt of successive governments, there is a small warren within the already small village. When descending into Anse La Raye proper, along the winding road, one may catch a glimpse of a crucifix on the hillside. This crucifix is in remembrance of a number of persons who died during a major outbreak of cholera in the area. La Gwo Kola literally translates to ‘The Great/Big Cholera’. During this catastrophe, several persons were said to have been buried alive, as their comatose aspect was mistaken for death. And although the place is occupied, those who do not live in the area are warned not to venture there as it may summon misfortune or other malediction or as they say in Kweyol, ‘maledisyon’.

In these cases some great cataclysm —whether man- or nature- (un)made— by its force and violence has claimed a part of the land, has (to use the modern teenage lingo) ‘owned it’. Like the Colonel in One Hundred Years of Solitude who says “We have still not had a death. A person does not belong to a place until someone is dead under the ground.” More than any other thing that has happened on this or that piece of the land, this particular event is the one that has made an im/depression on the land. It is almost as if, this is what persons SAW when they passed this piece of land. Not wide open space, or its present usage but the catastrophe that has claimed it, happening over and over again, sometimes subtly in the lives they see being carried on upon that broken ground.

Reading Bagoo’s article I was reminded of poet Kamau Brathwaite for more than one reason. The first is that while living in Trinidad, I remember being told by a very old friend of mine that this same George V Park had once been a slave burial ground. Where Kamau now lives in Barbados—-an area referred to as Cow Pastor or CP— is said to be an old slave burial ground as well. Not merely that, but Kamau recounts an encounter with a spirit of a dead slave whom he refers to as Namsetoura, the countenance of whom he photographed and appears on the front cover of his Griffin Prize-winning collection Born to Slow Horses.

Kamau Born to Slow Horses Namsetoura

 

Although Bagoo’s article was indeed about representation and democracy, I feel that this ‘spiritual aspect’ is a worthy deviation, if not an area of confluence. What Kamau introduces with his own experience is an alter/native reality which has yet to be embraced in West Indian (not Caribbean) literature. Oftentimes when the archetypal magician, the Obeah man, figures in our literature, he has been undercut by irony, satire or sarcasm—- these negative, nugatory devices. In the more positive expressions of kinship with the Obeah man, he and his world have been held at arms length, having him serve as a metaphor or analogue for something else. Erna Brodber, in a foreword to the groundbreaking work, Obeah and Other Powers, provides a sort of bridge:
“At the annual pre-Emancipation reasoning in my village, Dr. Adolph Edwards, author of the unpublished Ph.D thesis “The Development of Criminal Law in Jamaica,” asked to share his knowledge with us of legislation, and particularly obeah laws, designed expressly for handling “our” people in the days of slavery. Some young visiting academics heckled, attacking the messenger. Their behaviour was an expression of frustration and anger: anger at the treatment of their ancestors —- “ancestral anger”, I call it — but more anger about knowing so little about the system of thought that their ancestors had celebrated, frustration at being robbed of the connection with their ancestors that could allow them to make a good defense of them, frustration that now initiates into Akan, Dagara and Yoruba traditions; they still did not know the points at which their grandparents had connected with these traditions. They were now living with burning candles, wearing full white, keeping their heads covered and leaving plates of food in their yards for their ancestors, but they still did not know if they were connected with the feared obeah man down the road, formerly the butt of jokes in their friendship networks. Their anger was at the knowledge vacuum that made positioning themselves in spiritual history impossible…..”

Kamau, in the interview provides an experience of “spiritual history” and its inextricable connection to physical/ geographical history (the decimation and harrowing of CowPastor) and personal history (the risk of losing of his oumfo/ home)

KB: Yes. Namsetoura. ‘Nam’ is a concept of mind which is the opposite of man’s mind, ‘man’ spelt backwards, and ‘nam’ also means an imperishable spirit; so ‘man’ is a distortion of ‘nam’.  And Namse is a version of Anansi the Spider. So the spider is part of the ‘Nam’ and the ‘Nam’ is a part of the Spider. And ‘toura’ is a way of telling stories.

JM: I see! So when you saw her in your garden, do you feel that that was another kind of intervention?

KB: Of course, that was a presage to what was going to happen because nothing had happened yet. What had happened was that when I was told that I would have to leave CowPastor, I began to photograph everything I could on the pasture, and the pasture itself is about two miles long, and my little area, which is on a ridge between the sea and the hill, is only two acres. And I decided that I would try to photograph everything I could as a kind of memory bank for what I assumed I was going to leave. And on this afternoon when the sun was at two o’clock, three o’clock, when my wife and I were in this little clump of bush which was just behind the house, what you call the garden, and the sun suddenly illuminated this magnificent spider’s web, with a spider at the very center of it. So naturally I went to photograph it. I could see the spider perfectly clearly through my naked eye, but as soon as I looked through the view finder of the lens there was no spider, there was no web, there was nothing! And this happened, of course, two or three times. Each time I went to take the picture there was no evidence of reality. So finally I decided to take the picture anyway. And as soon as I did that the lens split right across its equator.

JM: That’s amazing!

KB: I know, right. So I changed the lens, and got a different lens, and then I did the same thing, and this particular lens almost melted in my hands, got very hot, in fact it burned my fingers as well. So then I felt quite desperate because this seemed to me an extraordinary phenomenon. So my wife went to fetch her box camera, just determined to take this picture. And she clicked the spider, twice. And that was it. We couldn’t see if she got the picture but at least she clicked, and nothing more had happened.

When we took the Kodak to the guy who processed the film, what came out was two, three, actually four pictures came out that afternoon. One spider, normal looking, in the web, the second one, still reasonable, in the web, the third spider seemed to be receding from our gaze, and the fourth shot came up was the image of Namsetoura.

JM: And that’s the image on the front of your new book?

KB: Right. And you can imagine how one felt.

(See full interview here: http://www.raintaxi.com/online/2005fall/brathwaite.shtml)

Many persons have used this encounter to vindicate cynicism surrounding Kamau’s unrelenting claims of Cultural Lynching. In the Italian journal Scritture Migranti, Brathwaite speaks of this Second Time of Salt, and so does Bajan curator Janice Whittle. But in this reality that Kamau offers us (both in his creative work and his life) if we care to see it,  human catastrophe is as much a part of spiritual history as it is part of our materialist history. One cannot in fact many times tell one from the other.  In this world, toponymy is not merely a means by which politicians or officials can play mas’. And although one can argue that this is one artist’s poetics or his own personal mythopoeia, it is reflective of a very pervasive and central Caribbean reality that has yet to permeate our literature in any meaningful way.

2 Female Witches Stuck In Roseau (Part 4): http://youtu.be/eYQrOmZOA8U

If Mayor Tim Kee did have such foresight as to replace George V ( who has parks all over the world, including St. Lucia) with Mandela or someone who represented a similar spirit whatever their race, I think it is a move in the right direction. Andre is right though in pointing out the undemocratic nature in which he went about doing so which is a similar evil to what we condemn here. Bagoo’s article made me wonder for a second, if the spirits of the dead are as real as Namsetoura was to Kamau, as real as the dead are to those who listen to deceased relatives offering advice in dreams, then whose spirit would we prefer presiding over the park: George V or Mandela’s?

What Caribbean people must continue to do is to battle the culture of silencing and obliteration that is christening itself all over our countries over and over again. What we should hope for is  an awareness of the continuing catastrophe that some of those place names bear witness to: Sangre Grande, Leaper’s Point, Malgre tout (In spite of all). Our blindness to all these submerged things, from slave burial grounds to spiritualities to sexualities to the sinking voices of those who shake up our realities by the “unreal” things they have seen or by who they are, will be our undoing. It has already begun by silencing persons like Kamau, robbing him, as he puts it, of his ” last generation of completion, continuation and contribution.” Gordon Rohlehr’s ominous words at the end of this recent interview with Paula Morgan should serve as warning enough:

PM: Would you say that you have had a prophetic role and vision in
relation to the region?
GR: It’s interesting that you would put it that way. The legend says that
children born with cauls have second sight and I was one such child. The story
goes that I would see things and tell my family dreams. This is another thing
about Caribbean identities. People live in dream spaces. They live in worlds other
than the visible and they are constantly looking for signs. I was a sickly child and
I caught the things that were going around. I must have caught malaria – we had
some very fierce mosquitoes. I definitely caught typhoid fever and it nearly killed
me. At one point, so the family lore goes, I was sick with typhoid and I told them
to get this weed and that weed and the next, boil them and serve the brew in a new
calabash. And they did and I got better. All these details blew my mind…what
kind of thing is that?!
But at the same time they were not comfortable with this child that was
seeing this and living in a spirit space. They were concerned about madness, you
see. So they determined that they had to stop this thing …put the eyes out. I cannot
quite fathom at exactly what age …maybe not much more than five or six. And the
way in which they put out these eyes out was to hold one over a pot of boiling
steaming rice to steam out the vision. I think they were successful. I have not seen
anything since and I stopped telling them my dreams. My mother who was very
strong and vocal always said they – the older women in the family – should not
have done that, but oddly enough, in this case, she seemed powerless to intervene.
But this is why today I see nothing. I hear very little. And I am moving towards
the point of speaking nothing: neither good nor evil.

 

 

 

 

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