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Seeing history through the eyes of the dead

Sunday, June 29, 2014

On the grave of John Augustus, manager of the Palmiste empire of estates, the following epitaph is inscribed in marble: “Oyez traveller, stop ere you go by, remember as you are now so once were we, as we are now, so you will be, prepare yourself to follow us in good faith.” If the pronouncement is chilling, it sets a handy segment of the emotional stage historian and Guardian columnist Angelo Bissessarsingh presents in his debut full-length publication, Walking with the Ancestors. Self-published in 2013, the book is subtitled The Historic Cemeteries of Trinidad. This clarification seems, at first, lazy description: aren’t cemeteries, the resting houses of the long-dead and dustily interred, implicitly understood to be part of historical record? 


What Bissessarsingh shows us, with no small allotment of scorn for governmental neglect, is that we’ve forgotten how strongly history resides with the dead. It’s barely our fault, he generously allows, since the long mechanical arm of Trinidadian industrialisation and urban development casts anti-preservationist shadows of progress over our cultural legacy. The entire book thus becomes an impassioned compilation of cemetery-by-cemetery case studies, in which Bissessarsingh aims to flesh out a portrait of each graveyard’s departed citizenry. The bulk of attention is paid to Trinidad’s two most prominent resting places: Lapeyrouse Cemetery in Port-of-Spain, and Paradise Cemetery in San Fernando. In his historical descriptions of both Lapeyrouse and Paradise, Bissessarsingh strives for all-rounded contextualisation. In so doing, the writer mercifully avoids a sort of tomb-by-tomb drive-by approach to his subject material. In all of our local catacombs, both urban and rural, we are reminded of a graveyard truism: Death is the greatest of levellers and social equalisers. 


One of Lapeyrouse’s most neglected plots houses a mass grave of mostly-unnamed victims of the cholera epidemic that ravaged the island in 1854. This “sad and neglected corner” of the cemetery, Bissessarsingh notes, is at odds with the numerous ornate, though almost universally vandalised mausoleums erected in honour of Trinidad’s august architects of colonial rule.  However, the historian clarifies that even the most formerly impressive pillars of pre-Independence society aren’t immune to having their tombs desecrated. Remarking on Knowsley’s William Gordon Gordon’s Lapeyrouse accommodations, Bissessarsingh says that “a vagrant now resides in the space where lie the remains of the finest Trinidadians of yesteryear and one of its most powerful men.” 


Admittedly, the book’s narration veers more than occasionally into staid waters of dry historical reportage; tracts of such data, dutifully recited and awash with a roll call of calendar dates, are unlikely to appeal to any but the most eager of archivists. It’s when Bissessarsingh’s text delves into the personal that the reading zips along, avoiding the dreaded passive voice treatment. When the historian allows his own colourful, sometimes—unforgiving insertions to pepper his frames of reference, the writing acquires much-needed bursts of life. For instance, Bissessarsingh makes no bones about previously recorded historical inaccuracies, such as those that “had been gleefully reproduced in social studies textbooks used in our local schools from the 1960s-1990s.” 

When he allows himself speculations on the nature of some of the graveyards’ dearly departed, the conclusions are often wryly tongue in cheek. Commenting on Archdeacon Samuel LaRoque Richards’ alleged embezzlement of Indian labourers’ funds, the historian observes that “of course he (Richards) was exonerated, as it would have been bad for the image of colonial whites, had a white Barbadian clergyman been convicted of stealing from coolies.” This is one of the work’s subtler merits: it avoids the mounting of hagiographies, despite the devout allure of advice that cautions against speaking ill of the dead. From far-flung Fullerton Public Cemetery in Cedros, to the neatly manicured grounds of the Botanic Gardens’ Colonial Cemetery, Walking with the Ancestors shows up the dead, in their decaying urban finery and rural modesty alike. Bissessarsingh draws on a wealth of secondary resource material, both print and anecdotal, to render a study of Trinidad as few people actively picture it. 


Each of the book’s nine sections are accompanied by copious photographs, including lithographs by Richard Bridgens, the 19th century artist whose work focused on Trinidadian sugar estates and the people who populated them. The finished product is at once both a visual and written treasury, one that suffers slightly from a stilted layout and enough typographical errors to jar the flow of reading. The results of Bissessarsingh’s scholarship are far less gruesome than they are revelatory: sometimes the most telling signposts of our past are located six feet under the earth. If we lose sight of that, Bissessarsingh strongly cautions, we can only blame the living.


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