Reinterpreting history?

Culture Matters

I Hyarima

Dream dreams of freedom ...

I pledge to live free or to die fighting

From 1625

I spit upon those who enslave my people

with their guns

And their God

You can say massacre

I say

Man must fight for justice

against greed and oppression

– Extract from the Eintou Springer play, I Hyarima

DESTINY. In the Yoruba belief system it is called ipin. In Hinduism, they speak of bhaagya. We understand destiny as one’s calling in life, a fulfilling of the purpose for which one was created. If you are fortunate, you will leave this realm having accomplished your purpose.

It may be argued that the destiny of George Floyd was to usher in a new world order. Although the pain and indignity of his death is no doubt still too much for his family to bear, his passing has energised the world to seek justice for those who have suffered generational oppression. This was his ipin, his purpose.

In 1699, the proud Nepuyo chief Hyarima led an uprising of indigenous peoples against the mission of San Francisco de los Arenales, located near the area known today as San Raphael. Undeniably, this was Hyarima’s reason for walking the earth.

As legend recalls, Hyarima united previously warring indigenous communities to take a decisive stand against the brutality of the encomienda, a system of free labour developed by the Spanish to enslave indigenous peoples. Initially, the encomiendas or villages were managed by Spanish landowners. Later, the Spanish put indigenous people into “missions” run by the Catholic Church, administered by priests or friars.

In TT, the main encomiendas were Tacarigua, Arauca (Arouca), Aricagua (San Juan) and Caura. They were linked by what we now call the Eastern Main Road, initially a path created by indigenous peoples who lived here some 6,000 years prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

Apart from deaths from diseases brought by the Spaniards, unrelenting Christianisation was part of the strategy to engender compliance. By turning indigenous people away from their ancestral beliefs, it made indoctrination and submission easier.

Eradicating native languages was another key aspect of stripping away identity. In Dominica, “the Kalinago language was rapidly replaced by a French Kweyol and, to a lesser extent, English.”

Beyond these tactics, the brutality of the encomiendas is well documented. Their methods included stealing food from indigenous peoples, “killing the men, enslaving and raping the women, and various tortures, including slowly roasting Indian leaders alive on griddles.” The elderly, pregnant women and children were not spared; an account from Cuba recalls 7,000 children dying in one month. In other words, the Spanish perpetrated genocide against indigenous peoples.

Thus, in 1699 the siege led by Hyarima saw the killing of the priests in charge of the mission as well as the governor, Don Jose de Leon y Echales and almost everyone in his party. Although some of the warriors managed to escape through the Nariva Swamp, the rebellion was brutally put down by the Spanish. Hyarima was never found.

This part of the history of TT was taught as the Arena Massacre; today it is referred to more appropriately as the Arena Uprising. Is this a case of reinterpreting history? As people around the world demand their right to have a say in the new world order, there are some who prefer to trivialise and tribalise their protests. There are some who choose to ignore socio-economic imbalances caused by centuries of oppression, reinforced by decades of political complacency. Why is there still so much inequity in communities like Sea Lots and Cocorite?

In 1783, indigenous peoples were pushed to various corners of the island to make way for French plantation owners coming with their enslaved Africans. Historical accounts show that across the Caribbean, indigenous people worked alongside Africans to resist enslavement. Rebellions flared up especially in the 1790s, from Sandy in Tobago to Boukman in Haiti.

In 1881, the statue of Columbus was put up at the same time of the Canboulay riots in Trinidad. It did not have the desired effect of intimidating the stickfighters, as today we boast of a Carnival that is replicated around the world, generating significant income for our nation.

The queen of the Warao Nation, Donna Bermudez-Bovell, has stated, “We want one of our freedom fighters to replace Columbus to reconnect this country with its whole past. Our history did not start 500 years ago.”

In this moment, we will not just reinterpret our history. We will reclaim it; that is our destiny.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN


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