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The March 14 mentality

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Every year, March 14 brings the same reaction from Vincentians. There are calls for more information on Chatoyer and the Caribs. We ask questions about the name Chatoyer and wonder why the name has disappeared from St Vincent; questions, too, about Chatoyer in loin cloth. Then everything ends until next March 14, when the same concerns are expressed and questions raised. It is certainly true that we pay little attention to our history, not only of the early peoples, but generally.

More needs to be done in schools and to engage those out of school in the effort to reclaim our history. But there is an element of hypocrisy. Every year for the past four or five years, the Garifuna Heritage Foundation has been holding conferences, where information about Chatoyer and the Carib people is highlighted. So, information is available, but there is little interest in accessing it. We are years behind in this, because there is so much to be ‘unlearnt’ about our early history. The traditional story about Caribs attacking Arawaks and driving them out of the islands is now not believed by many historians. The Caribs were an Arawakan speaking people, the language passed on from their ancestors, who were ‘long time residents’ of the Windward Islands. Their relationship with mainland Caribs from Central America is said to have arisen from trade and alliances.

As more linguistic and archaeological evidence emerges and are reinterpreted, traditional stories are being overturned. My presentation at this year’s Garifuna International Conference was entitled “From Villain to National Hero – Revisiting the story of Chatoyer”. I looked at the story of Chatoyer being killed in a duel with Major Leith. I tried to show that this was the stuff of fiction. This duel was supposed to have taken place at 1 a.m. on the morning of March 15. Why would Chatoyer be fighting a duel at that time, in pitch dark? After all, the Caribs fought what we call guerrilla warfare. When we examine the evidence carefully, we find instead an ambush of the Caribs. They were only aware of the presence of British troops when they were about 80 yards away. At about 20 yards the British opened fire. The official reports made no reference to Major Leith. Four other officers were singled out for their service in that attack. Why then is there a tombstone in the Anglican Cathedral in tribute to Major Leith, “the Carib Chief Chattawae falling by his hand?” British colonialism was established, not only by superior weaponry, but through psychological warfare and destruction of the peoples’ language and culture. So, what better way than to show that Chatoyer was killed in a duel with their Major!

Chatoyer is said to have owned 1,000 acres of land and held slaves, 300 acres of the land being cultivated through loans given by British gentlemen. Who managed his estate? Who were those slaves? Africans? But how was this possible when the Caribs were being joined all the time by runaway slaves? When Governor Seton sanctioned the attack on Dorsetshire Hill, it was out of fear that the Caribs would control Kingstown. But he feared that more slaves would have been driven to their ranks by their message of emancipation. The British also jealously guarded their control of sugar cultivation. Our questions and concerns must not only be raised in March. Our professed patriotism must not only be expressed at Independence and National Heritage Month!

History helps us to define ourselves and to understand why we are where we are, something so important in strengthening us. There is a strong case for making it a compulsory subject in school. Bob Marley’s plea to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery is still unfulfilled.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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