THE EDITOR: Congratulations to TTT in Trinidad and Channel 5 in Tobago for organising broadcasts in recognition of the annual African History Month.
The SINUHE Centre, which I founded in 2016, dedicates this year’s commemoration to great African women, some of whom may be named but some of them are not known.
Around Christmas 1805, women on the Shand Estate in Diego Martin were part of a plot against the slave regime and had prepared to poison their masters.
Poison was a feared weapon in the arsenal of slave resistance. The planned revolt was to begin on the estate and then to spread throughout Trinidad.
This event has been recorded by EL Joseph in his History of Trinidad, VS Naipaul’s The Loss of El Dorado, Gertrude Carmichael’s History of Trinidad and Fr Anthony De Verteuil’s History of Diego Martin.
Earl Lovelace began his 1996 novel, Salt, with a recollection of the revolt. He wrote, “Two months after they hanged his brother Gregoire, King of the Dreadnoughts band, and Louis and Nanton and Man Man, the other three leaders of the African Secret Societies, who Hislop the Governor claimed to be the ringleaders of an insurrection that had a plan…to use the festivities of Christmas Day to massacre the white and free coloured people of the island."
The late calypsonian Brian Honore (Commentor) composed a calypso based on the incident, using the song of the enslaved in his chorus. George Carter informed me that Edric Connor included “Pain ou ca Mange” from the planned revolt in his book, Songs of Trinidad.
French creole slave owners first came about 1776 and more after a second Cedula of Population in 1783.
Historian Gerry Besson wrote, “...when the Cedula of Population brought thousands of Catholic settlers and their slaves to Trinidad from the other Caribbean islands, Port of Spain saw a hitherto unknown amount of women step ashore. French and patois-speaking, often already used to the climate and the frugality of plantation life from Grenada, St Lucia, the French Antilles and Haiti, these women – black and white – followed their men or their masters to Trinidad."
He also stated, “The African women who came as slaves were, naturally, deprived of expression of their free will and/or making decisions for themselves.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
A hallmark of the times was that Africans organised themselves into societies called convois (convoys) but they later changed the name to regiments. They were found in Maraval, Diego Martin, St Ann’s and Carenage. Each regiment had a king, a queen and other ranks. There were the Cocorite, the Macaque, St George, Danish, Guadeloupe, La Fantasie and the Dreadnought.
The societies were a means of maintaining solidarity, they were organised for dancing and mutual support, caring for the sick, burying the dead and “to assist one another, when any one can’t pay their house or their hire to their master.”
But the convois had a more militant purpose. On that occasion there was a plot to poison the whites.
Enslaved Africans in Trinidad were among many others in the Caribbean who were inspired by the successful Haitian revolt in 1791, culminating with independence in 1804.
Around Christmas 1805, women were heard singing a song in French creole (patois). Pain nous mange c'est viande Béque with a refrain St Domingo, the French name for Haiti. It was a coded message which was a parody of the Roman Catholic Mass.
The translation is: The bread we eat is the white man’s flesh,/The wine we drink is the white man’s blood,/Hey St Domingue, remember St Domingue
When the planned revolt was discovered, severe punishments were imposed on the leaders of the convois. The names of many men were recorded. But I have the name of one woman, a free woman, Adelaide Dison – alias Buzotter – queen of the Macaque Regiment. She was suffered to work in chains for life, with an iron ring of ten pounds affixed to one of her legs. Further research will reveal the names of other women.
The SINUHE Centre