By Earl Bousquet
It was like going back to School…
There I sat, listening to brand new lessons on the same old Caribbean history I never learned at school about the same people, places and islands we know today.
It was the second of the 2020-2021 Online Regional Schools Reparations Series hosted by the UWI’s Reparations Research Center (RRC) on Thursday (October 29), during school hours, with students and teachers logging-in from Belize, Dominica, Jamaica, Saint Lucia and Trinidad & Tobago (among others).
The subject was ‘The Myth of Extinction – Indigenous People and Their Survival Strategies’, with two main presentations by Dominican and Caribbean historian and archaeologist Lennox Honeychurch and Egbert Higinio, Leader of the Garifuna Nation of Belize; and another by Dominica’s Minister for Kalinago (Indigenous People’s) Upliftment Hon. Cozier Frederick.
They guided the online regional classroom through untold stories about the encounters between the Caribbean’s First Peoples and Europeans after 1492 — of their bravery and resistance, stout defense of their islands, truces and treaties that were violated, the massacres they suffered, the conquests and banishments – and their survival despite it all.
Dr Honeychurch and Dr Zachary Beier (a lecturer in the Department of History & Archaeology and Director of the Archaeology Laboratory at The UWI in Jamaica who is also President of the Archaeological Society of Jamaica) both revealed how modern research methods like DNA are quickly changing perceptions about the strength of the indigenous presence in Caribbean societies today.
They referred to initial DNA surveys in Puerto Rico and Jamaica yielding surprising results indicating a wider and deeper indigenous genealogical presence than ever perceived, turning on its head the conversation about identifying people’s genetic origin by how they look.
But most revealing to the students and teachers watching and listening across the region was the story of the Garifunas uprooted from St. Vincent in 1796 and banished into exile on a small island off Honduras, their descendants in Belize holding dear to their long story of coexistence between the various First Peoples of the Caribbean.
Attendance and participation by Saint Lucian schools was minimized by the forced COVID closure of all schools until November 9, but many students, teachers and principals have since contacted the [St Lucia] National Reparations Commission [NRC] to inquire about arrangements for future broadcasts.
But those who tuned-in welcomed the lectures as positive and worth following – and there have also been inquiries from Grenada.
As I sat back in my wheelchair watching and listening, I noted that most of the CSEC, CAPE and CXC students tuned-in were hearing and seeing Caribbean indigenous people’s representatives for the very first time – and engaging in online exchanges like everyone else, teaching lessons not usually learned in class.
It had happened once before, on June 12, 2020, when the CARICOM Reparations Commission [CRC] and the Saint Lucia NRC hosted a regional youth reparations seminar addressed by indigenous leaders from Dominica and Trinidad & Tobago’s Santa Rosa community.
As I listened with my eyes closed, I saw a giant shoal of man-made indigenous canoes, powered by Nature and propelled by wind and kinetic energy, taking Caribbean students on a Garifuna tour from Belize to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, from where another group was setting out to Dominica for the Kalinago experience, the first fleet led by Higinio and the second by Honeychurch.
And as the two fleets of students with cameras, IT devices and other research-related materials crossed in mid-ocean, the students exchanged greetings in Kalinago and Garifuna languages, with others blowing conch shells to boot.
Then, something I heard forced my eyes open and brought me back to school…
Dr. Honeychurch was talking about how the Europeans misnamed and falsified the characters of First People as ‘cannibal Caribs’ fighting ’peaceful Arawaks’ when he called for a regional approach to ‘the decolonization of nomenclature’.
The phrase switched my imagination to the CARICOM Reparations Commission’s (CRC) Renaming Project encouraging member-states to revisit and appropriately rename things and places that amount to monuments to slavery, racism and native genocide.
Honeychurch also drew attention to the conditions in Europe in 1492, when the Spanish Christians had just defeated the Muslims in Granada and embarked on their Caribbean adventure in what CRR Director Professor Verene Shepherd (who moderated the two-hour session) described as ‘a project with genocidal intent.’
After it was all over, I again thanked COVID-19 for creating the conditions for such online educational instructions across seas and skies, borders and boundaries, at no cost.
The next lecture in the Saint Lucia NRC’s national series — by Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) Ambassador Dr June Soomer — will take place on November 19 on the topic: ‘First People, Last Citizens – From Native Genocide to National Isolation, What Next?’
Ambassador Soomer is a nexus between the UWI and its entities involved in the two lectures series.
Described as ‘a woman of firsts’, she is: The first woman to receive a PhD in History from the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus, first woman to serve as Saint Lucia’s Ambassador to CARICOM and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States [OECS], first woman to serve as an OECS Commissioner, first woman to be ratified as the Secretary General of the ACS and first woman Chair of the UWI Open Campus Open Campus Council.
Her lecture, to be delivered on a Thursday evening, will not only benefit students and teachers, but also parents, family, friends and everybody else at home interested in keeping-up with the unfolding story of Caribbean history evolving from these lectures.
It’s also a teaching and learning project that equally benefits not only the region’s schools, but all, everywhere interested in learning more of the Caribbean’s true history — and not only from 1492, but as far back as continuing research will continue to allow, with the help of innovations through science and technology driven by the needs, challenges and opportunities created by humanity’s natural inquisitive instinct.