The Resurgence of the Caribs, and of Indigeneity, in Trinidad & Tobago
In which ways can one speak of a “resurgence” of indigeneity in Trinidad? What does
it mean to be Carib in Trinidad today? Does acknowledging a Carib presence
significantly alter mainstream theories of the historical and cultural development of
Caribbean societies? How have Trinidadian self-perceptions and self-representations
been altered by acknowledging the Carib presence? These and related questions are
addressed by Maximilian Forte in his outline and analysis of the increased recognition
of the Carib presence in Trinidadian society, and the many political contradictions
faced by the “Carib resurgence”. In particular, we are invited to examine the meanings
and valuations of indigeneity, the multiple interests vested in erasing the theme of
indigenous extinction (long prevalent), and the poisoned chalice of state support for
the organized, formalized Carib Community in Arima, Trinidad. We will look at the
roles of the state, the Catholic Church, the national media, and the transnational
indigenous peoples’ movement in both spotlighting and circumscribing the Carib
resurgence. Ultimately, the discussion will broach the question: If there is Carib
resurgence, why does it matter?
How I came to know of the Caribs
The “decline” and “resurgence” of indigeneity in Trinidad
1) Extinction by miscegenation
2) Extinction by localization
3) Extinction by recognition
Baptismal Statistics for Amerindians in the Arima Mission, 1820-1852
TIME TOTAL # OF TOTAL # AMERINDIANS
PERIOD AMERINDIANS OF PEOPLE AS A % OF THE
BAPTISED BAPTISED TOTAL
1820-1835 192 1511 12.71%
1835-1840 51 497 10.26%
1840-1852 7 1446 0.48%
Sources: Baptismal Registers of the Mission of Santa Rosa, Arima: Book 1 (1820-1835), Book 2 (1835-1840),
Baptismal Register of the Church of Santa Rosa, Arima: Book 3 (1840-1852)
Sir Ralph Woodford to Captain William Wright:
2. You will require from your predecessor a general return of the Indians and you will verify the Indians and their families thereby,
signing a duplicate of the same which you will forward to me.
3. You will then proceed to make a return of them by families, shewing their lineage or descent as well as their trades, and if
intermixed with other than Indian blood
5....you will be led to inquire into the tenures of the houses built by others than Indians of which many have been introduced into
the Mission without my knowledge and concurrence. You will therefore fix an early day for all persons to deposit with you their
Titles to the lots and houses built thereon. You will enquire if the same were purchased from Indians, and in such case you will take
the declarations of the parties of the circumstances, the laws expressly forbidding and annulling any such sales
7. You will call upon all persons not being Indians, residing in Arima, to show my permission for the same, and in default of their
possessing it you are at liberty, if you judge it necessary or desirable for the good of the Mission, being idlers and vagabonds or of an
immoral habit of life, to order them to quit the Mission within a reasonable time to be fixed according to the nature of their
establishment; for those having none a very short notice will suffice.
8. You will cause all strangers to be apprehended that enter the village not being furnished with my permission to reside in this
island, nor will you allow any person henceforward to reside in Arima that has not my express authority for that purpose. It is,
however, desirable to attract respectable inhabitants and useful artizans; the former may be encouraged and the latter permitted to
exercise their trades upon condition of teaching the same to one or more young Indians under the usual stipulations of
10. Investigate the cultivation of conucos, notifying all persons encroaching therein to justify themselves before you in the first
14. You will not allow any of the Indians to work abroad until you shall receive further orders for your guidance, and you will order
back to the Mission those who now may be employed abroad
Statement of resurgence from Ricardo Bharath Hernandez:
We the members of the Santa Rosa Carib Community, and even
those who are not members but can identify their Amerindian
ancestry, are the descendants of those displaced from their original
We have persisted and survived as a voiceless and invisible people
in the midst of the arrivals from Europe, Africa and India. Our ties
with the mission placed us in the records of history, but there are
many of our fellow Amerindians who are not organised, but live in
other parts of the country, such as Lopinot, Moruga, Siparia,
Tabaquite and other areas. There are also many who are not
conscious of their Amerindian roots and assume other identities
such as mixed, “cocoa-panyol” and “douglas”.
These marginal conditions and circumstances are the consequence
of centuries of policies which reflected Eurocentric perspectives.
Indigenous peoples were viewed as part of the flora and fauna of the land and not as the true owners of the
land. We were seen as being too primitive to own land, or to be incapable of governing ourselves.
On the same issue of land rights for the First Peoples there is substantial documented evidence to justify the
settlement of land for the descendants of the First Peoples, as compensation for their loss.
What does it mean to be Carib in Trinidad today?
L.A.A. De Verteuil:
“Once every year, they elected, with the sanction of the corregidor, a king and queen to preside over their festivities, and to act
as their principals on solemn occasions.”
“The village of Arima was formerly, and for a long time, celebrated for its festival of Santa Rosa, the patron saint of the mission.
On that day the Indians elected their king and queen - in general, a young man and young girl - and all appeared in their best
apparel and most gawdy ornaments. The interior of the Church was hung with the produce of their industry - bunches of
plantains, cassava cakes, and the fruits of the season; game of various descriptions, coincos, lapos, parrots, &c., and draperied
with the graceful leaves of the palm tree. After mass, they performed ceremonial dances in the church, and then proceeded to
the Casa Real, or royal house, to pay their compliments to the corregidor, who gave the signal for dancing and various sports -
among others, that of archery, in which the men exercised themselves until a prize was adjudged to the best marksman. People
from all parts of the country would resort to Arima for the purpose of witnessing the festivities, which were invariably attended
by the governor and staff. Sir Ralph Woodford, in particular, always took the greatest interest in the mission, and every year
would distribute prizes to the children of both sexes, who deserved them by their good behaviour, and their improvement at
“Santa Rosa's day was really a gay anniversary, at which the poor Indians, the simple children of Jere, were, for the first time, the
principal actors, and during which they forgot both the loss of their heritage, and their own individual serfdom.”
By the 1850s, with the de facto dissolution of the mission: “The 30th of August is a holiday still, but bears quite a different
character: people still crowd to the village from different parts of the island, but there are no more Indians, neither are their
oblations to be seen adorning the church; their sports and their dances have passed away with the actors therein, and, in their
stead, quadrilles, waltzes, races, and blind-hookey are the present amusements of the village.”
Does acknowledging a Carib presence significantly alter mainstream theories
of the historical and cultural development of Caribbean societies?
Ricardo Bharath Hernandez:
A few of some of those who concede that we exist see us as leftover or unfinished business of
the process of civilization and assimilating of the primitive people. We affirm that we are not a
people of the past. We are a people with a past.
Our invisibility is understandable because we have been buried in the mounds of his-story.
Exctinction via miscegenation:
Martin Sorzano Corregidor of the Mission of Arima:
“562. To what, then, do you ascribe the gradual and rapid diminution in their number? –
[Reply] Chiefly to the gradual mixture of the races. As pure Indians they were compelled to
remain at the mission, and conform to the regulations; but the children born of Spanish and
Creole fathers could not be so classed, and would not submit to the restraint of remaining
De Verteuil, 1858, on Virtually Extinct Amerindians:
“It is highly probable that many did seek a refuge and home in the virgin forests of Venezuela;
but I also coincide in opinion with some judicious observers, who trace the approximate
extinction of those tribes to the marked presence manifested by the Indian women towards the
negroes and the whites, by whome they were kindly treated, whilst they were regarded by their
husbands, of kindred race, more as slaves and beasts of burden, than as equals or companions.
As a consequence of those connections, there exists at present, in the colony, a certain number
of individuals of Indian descent, but of mixed blood.”
De Verteuil, 1858, on Trinidad’s Remaining Indians, 1850s:
“The few aborigines yet remaining in the colony are leading an isolated life in the forests,
depending for their subsistence upon hunting and fishing, using the bow and arrow in
preference to the fowling-piece, and, in short, retaining their savage ancestral habits precisely as
if the light of civilization and the sun of Christianity had never beamed on their lovely island of
Jere. A few families of Indian descent are still, however, to be met with in different parts of the
island, all speaking the Spanish language and having preserved Spanish habits - fond of
smoking, dancing, and all other kinds of amusements, but above all, of the dolce far niente.
They are, generally, possessors of conucos, that is to say of a few acres of land, which they
cultivate in provisions and coffee, but particularly in cacao.”
Charles Kingsley, 1877:
“Probably many of them had been absorbed by intermarriage with the invaders….At present,
there is hardly an Indian of certainly pure blood in the island, and that only in the northern
Lionel Mordant Fraser, 1891:
“there are few traces left of those to whom the hills and forests once belonged. As, in North
America the Red Indians have gradually disappeared before the encroaching white races, so in
Trinidad the Aruacas and the Chaymas, the Tamanacos and the Cumanagotes have little by
little faded away out of the community, and are now barely represented by a few families of
John Bullbrook, 1940:
“To this day we speak of the Queen of the Caribs at Arima, yet I
doubt if there is much - if any - Carib blood in her or her race”
How have Trinidadian self-perceptions and self-representations been altered
by acknowledging the Carib presence?
Extinction by localization
The increased recognition of the Carib presence in Trinidadian society
The multiple interests vested in erasing the theme of indigenous
extinction (long prevalent)
The roles of the state, the Catholic Church, the national media, and the
transnational indigenous peoples’ movement in both spotlighting and
circumscribing the Carib resurgence
Nation-Building and the Caribs:
“Caribs were an intractable and warlike people; they were proud and dominating and preferred
death to subjection. Throughout history the Caribs have always been indomitable and
implacable opponents of all invaders. The early Conquistadors…found in the Caribs valiant
and worthy opponents, and only too often the Spaniards suffered disastrous defeats”
“[T]he Amerindians were key to defining the foundation of the Republic”
—John Donaldson, the Vice-Chairman of the Peoples National Movement, on Republic Day in 1998
From a nationalist perspective, positing Amerindian history as being of foundational importance to the creation of the modern nation-state also serves to
bolster the construction of a national history that dates back not to European conquest, or the transplantation of workers from other continents, but instead
several thousand years. The Amerindian thus bestows on the nation a sense of antiquity and a sense of continuity of occupation of the territory that is
Trinidad. Given Caribbean nationalists’ often invidious comparisons between themselves and their former European masters, the new antiquity of a national
history that appropriates the Amerindian renders Caribbean states as nation-like and ancient as any in Europe.
Bridget Brereton, 1996:
“Only a few people in Trinidad and Tobago today have Amerindian blood, but we should all be
proud of our first people. Their legacy is all around us. We can see it in many words and place
names, reminding us that these people made the islands their own by settling down and naming
places, rivers, bays, districts and things. We can see it in roads which date back to their paths.
We see it in ways of cooking, especially dishes made with cassava. We also have a community in
Arima, who call themselves ‘Caribs’ and are very proud of their culture. They are working hard
to make us all more aware of the heritage of our first people”
“I was the reject stone”
Matthew 21:42-43—Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in
the Scriptures: ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the
chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in
our eyes’? Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken
from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it”
Psalm 118:22-23 The stone which the builders rejected has become
the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD’S doing; it is marvelous in
The many political contradictions faced by the “Carib resurgence”
The poisoned chalice of state support for the organized, formalized Carib
Community in Arima, Trinidad
News Release No. 360, May 8, 1990:
“Cabinet has decided that the Santa Rosa Carib Community be recognized as representative of
the indigenous Amerindians of Trinidad and Tobago, and that an annual subvention of
$30,000 be granted to them from 1990. Cabinet also agreed that an Amerindian Project
Committee be appointed to advise government on the development of the Community....as the
oldest sector of this country's multi-cultural society, the Amerindians have, for some time, been
recognized as having unique needs for their cultural and economic viability. Such needs come
into higher relief and sharper focus as the country prepares to celebrate, Columbus'
Quincentennial in October 1992.”
Dr. Brinsley Samaroo:
“The third project that is being undertaken by this Government has to do with the way in which we have duly
recognized the presence of, and importance of, the descendants of the indigenous peoples of our lands.…No one can
deny that those who laid the first foundations of our civilization were the Caribs and the Awaraks [sic] the two largest
nations of our early history and the smaller tribes such as the Tianos [sic] and Lucayos [sic] who also inhabited this
country. These were our ancestors who taught us to use our hammocks and to boucanour [sic] fish and meat. These
were the people who showed us how to live in harmony with nature and gave us our first lessons in the protection of
the environment. From them we obtained such names as 'Mucarapo' from the Amerindian word Cumo Mucurabo, a
place of great silk cotton trees; 'Arima', the place of water [sic]; 'Naparima', no water [sic]; and 'Tacarigua' being the
name of an Amerindian chief from the Caura Valley. For many years, their local descendants, these descendants of
early and first members of this country, were vainly clamouring for recognition from the past administration, as the
representatives of the indigenous Amerindians of Trinidad and Tobago and for Government to help in preserving
that part of the national heritage. It was this Government which gave such recognition by Cabinet decision of April,
1990. We agreed, among other things, to recognize the Santa Rosa Carib community as the representative of the
indigenous Amerindians of this nation; we agreed to an annual subvention of $30,000 towards their upkeep and
preservation of the national heritage; we agreed to make the contribution of the indigenous peoples, an essential part of
our observation of the 500 years of our achievements which will coincide with the quincentennial of Columbus arrival
here 500 years ago. The year of course for that is 1992. At the present time, the Government is talking to these persons
whom we have recognized about giving them a piece of land as a permanent site for the establishment of a village to
commemorate their ancestry”
Michelle Loubon, Trinidad Guardian:
“In history classes, children learn that before Columbus came, T&T was inhabited by the Caribs and
Arawaks. This is followed by the description of the Caribs as ‘warlike’ and the Arawaks as ‘peaceful.’ The
Arawaks were decimated, but there remains a strong Carib community in the town of Arima—which
diligently celebrates the Feast of Santa Rosa every year. For the 2009 Summit of the Americas, visiting US
president Barack Obama and the other dignitaries will get a cultural history lesson on these indigenous
peoples from reigning bandleader Brian MacFarlane.
“Their legacy would form part of the opening presentation, expected to take place at Hyatt Regency Hotel,
Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain on April 17. The show, expected to take 45 minutes, will include a 600-
member cast. As Mac Farlane, who will embark on a journey to tell the story of Caribbean colonisation,
said yesterday: ‘The story begins with the Caribs and Arawaks. They were the first people’.”
“Another ugly feature of the cultural ceremony was highlighted by the shaman (medicine man) of the
Carib Community Cristo Adonis. Adonis said, ‘It was disgusting and quite a bitter pill to swallow with the
disrespect shown to the First Peoples. Here in T&T we boast of our Carib ancestry, yet the world was
presented with people acting as Caribs. I have no political allegiances, I simply work for the good of the
Carib community. The world when viewing the cultural ceremony must think that the Caribs are dead.
‘For whoever is responsible, am I a living dead?’ Adonis questioned.”
“The only Caribs I'm seeing these days are in bars wearing a blue label, and the only Arawaks
are chickens in plastic bags.”
Extinction via Recognition?
United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD):
“351. The Committee expresses its concern at the absence...of specific information on the
indigenous population as well as other relatively small ethnic groups of the State party in the
report, and particularly the absence of a specific categorization of the indigenous population
as a separate ethnic group in official statistics on the population. The Committee encourages
the Government to include the indigenous population in any statistical data as a separate
ethnic group, and actively to seek consultations with them as to how they prefer to be
identified, as well as on policies and programmes affecting them.”
“34. Members of the Committee asked why the Caribs had all but disappeared, exactly how
many were left, why they were not treated as a separate racial group and whether measures
were being taken to help them, particularly in the economic and educational fields, so as to
compensate them for the injustices they had suffered.”
“These Amerindians, whom we call ‘Caribs,’ are the primordial tribe, the
red ancestors of all ‘Trinbagonians.’ They are the first children of our
earth….we need to turn to the Caribs….We here need to note that all
four tribes consider themselves indigenous. This land is home for all of
us. Hence these tribes are all descended from the primordial tribe-the
Roi Kwabena: Here is Not West India
I am revolution…..Being born “Spic” in an alabaster complexion.
My Grandfather couldn’t see beyond my green eyes, so it was my skin I grew to despise. But “Papi”, hold
me, speak to me, tell me about “La Isla” with its swaying palm trees. Tell me bout Don Pedro, sing to me
Ramito, dime de los esclavos.
Cause I, Papa, have been searching an eternity of years it seems, to understand the visions in my dreams;
of a Taino reaching out his arms, trying to warn me of the harms….That Amerikkka and its democracy,
will blind us with its glorious “Land of the free” ….
What price did you pay, Papa, if at my hue, the whiteness of my being, tu rechasa?
I am the victim of “O beautiful with gracious skies”, while another of my kind dies! But don’t put that on
the radio or the TV, there is no room between the weather forecast, the Mets and the Yankees….
You see I am the revolution, as each day I fight, when in the mirror my enemy stares back with might. And
yes Papa, I’ve scarred my skin with my flag tattooed again and again, so when the day comes of the
concrete revolution, my “pale” body will lie next to all my fellow Puerto Ricans!!!
And Abuelo, when you see me again, I will be covered in the souls of my Indians….
POR QUE TAINO SOY!!!!
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