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Dr. Earle Kirby – A tribute

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In my column last week in giving an off the cuff response to Dr. Kirby’s death about which I had only then been informed, I mentioned that a book which was dedicated to him was being published by Macmillan.

In communicating the information to the editors I learnt with deep regret that on September 5 Macmillan had informed them that the book was to be printed on Friday, September 9. It is really amazing how things sometimes happen. What they are now trying to do is to adjust the dedication page and the biography taking account of his death, before its publication. In any event I believe that the intention is still to launch the book here.{{more}}

Tomorrow Dr. Kirby’s body will be laid to rest and with that a tremendous wealth of knowledge much of which was kept in his head. A lot of what he has written particularly in the area of archaeology where his real interest lay was geared to a particular audience, one that revelled in ancient remains. Some of his papers were read at archaeological conferences and others passed around to a limited audience. So a storehouse of knowledge has disappeared and the country is the worse off for this, particularly since archaeology, especially that of the early peoples is not a common field of study and interest here. There are, however, persons such as Morrison Baisden who worked closely with Dr. Kirby and assisted with some of the work and perhaps members of the Historical and Archaeological Society who might want to keep the fire burning.

Earl Kirby was an all rounder. He had an interest in and a theory about everything, much of it homespun. Many persons would therefore remember different things about him. I first knew about Dr. Kirby as a school- boy when I saw him at the Ministry of Agriculture always with animals around him. Later, after having left school I was able to accompany him on several of his field trips in the search for ruins. One of those I remembered clearly was one mentioned by Bassy last week, that is, a trip up the Rabacca River looking at the remains of the aqueduct that once conveyed water from the Rabacca to Lot 14, Tourama, Orange Hill and Waterloo. It is quite easy to forget that the Rabacca was one of the larger rivers in the country, supplying water to the surrounding estates. There were other climbs and digs and he was always at the forefront providing information. Dr. Kirby was such an active person that it was difficult to see him bedridden. Even in that condition, however, he was still himself speaking about the world around him and always telling stories, some of it with his well-known dry wit.

Today the connection between the Caribs of St.Vincent and the Grenadines and the Garifuna of Central America is well known. What is not well known is that I.E Kirby was one of the persons who helped to popularize this fact. In his little booklet, “Pre-Columbian Indians in St.Vincent and the Grenadines” he uses the term Callinago to describe one of the last waves of people who came to this country. He doubted, however, that the term would have become fashionable since as he puts it the word Carib was ‘too entrenched in the literature and history’. He used the word therefore, ‘out of respect for these hardy people’. That booklet was published in 1971, but again in 1972 when he produced along with Cims Martin ‘The Rise and Fall of the Black Caribs’, he expressed the hope that the booklet would make the link clear between the Caribs and the Garifuna of Belize. At first when efforts were made to reconnect the Caribs of St.Vincent with the Garifuna of Central America the emphasis was on Belize. This might have been facilitated by the fact that English was a common language between Belize and St.Vincent and the Grenadines, although in some communities the Garifuna language was quite common. Later we realized that there were relatively large communities in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras and that there was a large migrant population in North America.

“The Pre-Columbian Indians in St.Vincent, West Indies” is a useful work. Using pottery remains he was able to identify the different groups of early migrants and in the case of the non-ceramic ones shell tools, petroglyphs, pictographs and stone implements. He was strong in condemning what he called a misconception, the idea that the Indians lived only on ridges for defence and health reasons. He states, “The writers contention is that it is very much easier to find pottery on ridges, as erosion exposes sherds and makes them noticeable. In the lowlands the sherds are further covered by eroded material from the slopes above, by landslides and eruptions.”

While examining the different waves of people who inhabited the country, one of the things that stands out is the impact on these people of volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters. About the Igneri he noted that an eruption buried their original level and was again interrupted by another eruption. In the case of the Terminal Taino (Arawaks) volcanic eruptions covered their original surface. It was partly for this reason that Dr. Kirby had strong reservations about the Cross Country Road. He felt that the surface in some areas would have been largely compacted volcanic ash. Furthermore there was the strong possibility that major pre-historical sites were covered by volcanic episodes, flooding and vegetation, a point made in the Environmental Investigation and Cataloguing report after discussion with Kirby who supplied much of the information on the archaeology of the country.

The Sugar Mills of St.Vincent 1720-1962 was done after an examination of the Byre map of 1765 when he realized that some of the sugar mills indicated were unknown to him. His purpose was, as he put it, ‘to bring the map of St.Vincent up-to-date in this respect.’ The value of that work which was published in 1973 by the Archaeological and Historical Society was in the information it provided about the location of the mills. The information is very precise. In writing for example about the Lauders mill he stated, “The Lauders road branches off the right across a bridge to lead to upper Lowmans. About 60 yards past the bridge, the road veers to the right and misses the humps that mark the site of this factory.”

“The Rise and Fall of the Black Caribs” is an updating of the work of Young and Shephard. It contains an epilogue that traces the exiled Caribs to Central America and provides information based on more recent works. Its value however, apart from making the story of the Caribs available to a wider audience is in presenting a Vincentian perspective. Ebenezer Duncan in his Brief History of St.Vincent identified with the British and helped to perpetuate an European view. The Rise and Fall of the Black Caribs is a counter to this.

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