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‘The French Church and the Caribs’

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Later this afternoon Rev. Mark de Silva’s “The French Church and the Caribs” will be launched. It is described as a Brief History of the early Roman Catholic Church in St.Vincent and the Grenadines (1652-1797). There are two kinds of historical works needed in St.Vincent. First, those that provide the Vincentian public with material that is already available although not easily accessible and second, original research, to question what we formerly accepted as the gospel truth.{{more}} There are three good things about Father Mark’s latest historical piece. It is easily read and appeals not only to persons interested in the history of the French Church or in Church history, but in the early history of SVG; any work on the French presence in St.Vincent and the Caribbean is welcomed, especially when the author is able to draw on some French sources (even with some of them being already translated into English). He would have been fortunate to tap into the historical research done by Father Robert Divonne, that is stored at the Robert De Divonne Collection at the Roman Catholic Church Archives. The account of the massacre of two Jesuit Missionaries in St.Vincent in 1654 would have been based on the work of Pere Pelleprat that had been used by D.Gualbert Van Der Plas to make the plight of those missionaries better known, as was hoped for by Pelleprat.

Father Mark sings the praises of the early missionaries agreeing with Armando Lampe that “The political officials of the church carefully examined the moral qualification of the priests and brothers who were to be sent there. Strict criteria were used in the selection and nomination of bishops.”(p5). The missionaries were of exemplary character and conduct. Much is made of the love of the Caribs for the early missionaries quoting Fr. Pelleprat who “was particularly surprised to see a large number of persons of all ages and all sexes asking (Fr.Aubergeon who started the RC Church in St.Vincent) insistently for baptism.” By 1679 it was felt that “…it was more necessary to instruct the Christians and the Negroes than the Caribs amongst whom thus far no progress had been made.” (p. 23) Christianity, he concluded was used as tool to pacify the Caribs. The first resident missionaries were in his view sent to convert the Caribs. Despite the work of the early missionaries Fr. Mark is led to “suspect that the Church was actually sought out and misused as a mere pacifying tool for the English and French political authorities to help solve this apparently never ending was against the Caribs..” However the early missionaries do not share much of the blame for this because he suspects “…that some of these priests must have eventually realized this evil manipulation-hence their efforts through letters sent home, to stop this shameful slaughter.” (p. 26)

If we were to broaden this context, the history of the Church in the colonial period puts the Church and Christianity as tools of Colonialism. In fact it is commonly said about Africa that the Europeans came with their missionaries who were armed with their bibles and met the Africans with their land. They left the Africans with their bibles and controlled the lands. The role of the Church in Colonialism and during Slavery is a complex one. Undoubtedly there were missionaries/priests who did exemplary work in the colonies, and among the indigenous peoples. Bartolome de Las Casas stands out. Father Adrien Le Breton’s HISTORIC ACCOUNT OF SAINT VINCENT- the Indian Youroumayn, the island of the Karaybes which Fr. Mark was instrumental in editing and publishing, stands out, too, for its effort to portray the Caribs as human beings, delving into their culture. “They habitually go into the minutest detail, the better to discern through an exchange of ideas what is the best thing for the community to do.” There are many other examples that can be mentioned. But then there were many of the Church who were collaborators in the dehumanising and exploitation of the native peoples. Bartolome’s criticisms were levelled not only at the political authorities and adventurists but at some of his colleagues within the Church.

Father Mark did a wonderful job in situating the work of the early Church within the context of inter-European Rivalry. He blames the misfortunes and lack of success of the early missionaries on “the European introduced culture of war and revenge that existed at that time…” (p. 25) Most of us have been exposed to the English version of their early encounter with the French in St. Vincent and in other English colonised areas in the Caribbean. We find an account from de Divonne’s collection that recalled the English raids that “looted and burned the Caribs’ long-house, Basse Terre (Buccament), the chapel and the little house the Jesuits had built. These poor Fathers were forced to escape into the woods of St.Vincent to avoid falling into the hands of the English, insolent in their victory…” (p 21) The early French missionaries not only had to face these onslaughts by the British but to deal at times with the wrath of the Caribs, with diseases and with an environment that would have been hostile to any newcomers.

The Caribs developed close relationships with the French. Their early exposure to Roman Catholicism through the French contact allowed even those who were exiled from St.Vincent or departed in other ways to cling to that religion. We have to be somewhat cautious in examining the nature of the relationship of the Caribs with the English and the French. The French attempted a smaller type of farming compared with the English who came to St.Vincent to go into sugar thus craving the lands of the Caribs. The Caribs, especially under Chatoyer, were aware of the geo-political situation with the struggle between the French and the British and sought to ally with the French who were, at least in the short term, not as voracious where their lands were concerned. But as the Intendant Robert reported to his superiors, “…it is a very steadfast sentiment that they (Red Caribs) prefer to see 2,000 negroes settled in their island than to see disembarking here only 50 armed Frenchmen.”

Father Mark’s latest piece which goes beyond Church history is an important contribution to the early history of SVG. It flows smoothly and is reader friendly. We anxiously await the other two parts of the history of the Roman Catholic Church in SVG.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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