THE Betty Stiven tombstone in Plymouth, Tobago, has been shrouded in mystery and intrigue for generations.
The epitaph on it reads, in part, “She was a mother without knowing it and a wife without letting her husband know it except by her kind indulgences to him,” continues to baffle locals and visitors alike.
And while the tombstone, one of the island’s tourist attractions, remains a major talking point, there has been a paucity of material about the life of this young, enslaved Tobagonian woman, her death and the inscription.
But that has changed.
Through their novella Sunsets For Betty, the Rev Israel D Gordon and Natasha Coker-Jones are hoping readers will not just gain insight into Stiven’s life, but also deepen their appreciation of Tobago’s history, particularly its plantation era.
“Today is history,” a beaming Coker-Jones said in brief remarks on Saturday during the launch of the publication at the Scarborough Library.
Coker-Jones is a Trinidad-born former journalist, author, trainer and entrepreneur. Sunsets For Betty is her fourth publication and Gordon’s first.
Coker-Jones said although she and Gordon were able to access some information for the historical novella through the heritage section of the library, they “determined there hasn’t been a significant body of work put together in a way that we have done it about the Betty Stiven tombstone.
“So this is definitely a first for Tobago, for the people of Trinidad and Tobago
With Sunsets For Betty, she said, “All those words that I learnt about – cultural imperialism, cultural hegemony – back in my university days – it feels as though we are contributing to the reversal of all of that by putting out our own. And this is significant, that we could do something of this nature.”
Gordon, originally from Plymouth, conceptualised the idea of a book about the tombstone in 1994.
Like Coker-Jones, Gordon is also enthusiastic about the novella and its significance not just to Tobago but the country’s literary landscape.
“The mystery tombstone, a tourist attraction which has been visited by thousands over many years, has now assumed a new dimension,” he told a small audience. “It will now be found in homes and libraries across the world.
“It is my expectation that this book will serve to increase the flow of visitors to the island, particularly from those countries by which it was colonised.
“It is also my expectation that this book, apart from increasing the flow, will be a resource for students from this entire hemisphere.”
Gordon described the publication as a literary gift to the world.
Sunsets For Betty has been endorsed by four notable names in academia and culture: retired senior lecturer and former head of the Department of History, UWI, St Augustine Dr Rita Pemberton; emerita professor of history Bridget Brereton; head of West Indiana and Special Collections at the Alma Jordan Library Lorraine Nero; and CEO of the Tobago Festival Commission, John Arnold.
Pemberton, in a review, wrote, “This novella utilises the experiences of the enslaved Africans in Tobago as it seeks to unravel the mystery inscription on the tomb in Plymouth. In so doing, it provides glimpses into the history of Tobago during the French occupation of the island.”
She also observed the story is woven around the realities of plantation life.
Brereton described Sunsets For Betty as an enjoyable read.
“It’s a romantic story of love between a British planter and enslaver and a young, Tobago-born woman and the disasters that followed their marriage.”
Nero regarded it as a compelling reimagination of a Tobago story.
“It skilfully interweaves Tobago’s traditions with historical nuggets,” she wrote.
Arnold said the book’s content – imagery and dialogue – transports the reader back to the plantation era.
“There are times when you read, you are transported into the story and you get absorbed so much you start to believe you are in the world that is being described.”
For Coker-Jones, Sunsets For Betty could not have been launched without God.
She revealed at the start of the year, she was working on a children’s series targeting middle-grade readers, but had to shelve the project because it was costing too much to produce.
Lo and behold, at the end of July, Gordon,
whom she had advised about the publication, returned to “meh yard,” saying he was ready to go to press, and asked her to read the manuscript one last time.
Coker-Jones said she almost said no, as she was busy with family and other commitments.
“I needed a vacation, preferably in Tobago. But Tobago came to me in another form. And looking back at the series of events, it was as mysterious as the tombstone that inspired your Tobagonian brother (Gordon) to take a second look.”
But she figured there was still some work to be done on the manuscript and told Gordon in “careful detail” how he should proceed.
Coker-Jones, who spent many July-August vacations in Tobago as a child, said she poured herself into the project and “God did the rest.
“We are here because of persistence and God’s divine favour. I make no apologies for that.”
She said the content of the book came about through “respect and research,” some of which was done at the library at UWI, St Augustine.
“We still do not know many factual things about Betty Stiven. Some question if her remains are even there. But the tombstone erected in her memory inspired us to research.”
Coker-Jones said she is proud of her Tobagonian heritage.
“It is a place that gives me pride as an adult because I see a lingering quest for better, a desire to own and a willingness to share. I see also a people who refuses to settle when there could be more. These are some of the themes that readers will get a chance to explore in Sunsets For Betty.”
She added the novella has something for everyone.
“There will be romance, plenty intrigue and lots of laughter. We will be entertained and we will learn some more about ourselves as Tobagonians, most of whom are descendants of enslaved Africans.”
She said readers will also discover why the Spanish, British and French fought for the island.
“Through it, I pray that you will be reminded to fight for your land, fight for your wealth, your preferred political arrangements, your pristine environment.
“Fight for distinction in service. Fight for your moral and spiritual values and fight for your position on the global stage. Do not settle Tobago. Where there is a number three, there is a number one. Fight for it.”
Coker-Jones said she and Gordon are hoping the novella will be embraced by locals and visitors, that it will be seen as a tool for engaging tourists, inspiring nationals and adding to the pool of local content that high-school students can learn from.
She believes it can also be turned into a film“And the beautiful part is that investors won’t have to go hunting for an appropriate venue.”
Dr Charleston Thomas, technical adviser in the THA Division of Tourism, Culture, Antiquities and Transportation, deputised for line secretary Tashia Burris.
A former lecturer in literature, French and Spanish, Thomas applauded the book, saying he and close friend Merle Hodge (retired lecturer and writer) “belly-gripe all the time about the absence of literature emerging from Tobago.”
But the reality, he lamented, is that many people do not know about Tobago’s writers.
“When we study literature in the secondary school as well as at university, often we are bombarded by Trinidad writers. So students tend to get a sense of who national writers are from Trinidad and not from Tobago,”
However, Thomas said the island can boast of several writers, poets and playwrights, including Marlene NourbeSe-Phillip, Dr Eastlyn Mc Kenzie and the late Eric Merton Roach, who he said was otherwise known as “Black Yeats.” Roach, he said, was regarded as the most famous playwright and poet in the western hemisphere after Derek Walcott. But he died by suicide.
Thomas said his own book, A Biography of Memory, should be out early in the new year.
“We tend not to recognise Tobago writers as part of the national trajectory of writers because we have not emphasised writers from Tobago.”
He observed the island’s reality is not made part of the national curriculum.
“So my six-year-old son is studying in Tobago about Arima, about Toco and he is learning nothing about Tobago; neither are the students in Trinidad learning anything about Tobago.
“We are continuing the tradition of miseducating our children in TT
“Tobagonians don’t learn about themselves in books, neither do Trinidadians learn about Tobago in books. So we could see what problems we have there.”
Thomas said TT is one country made up of two islands.
“It is a twin (sic). And if we have a twin, the word Tobago can go before Trinidad.
“I am really happy we have Sunsets For Betty from the other twin.”
Sunsets For Betty is available at Nelson’s Bookstore and Educator’s Book Store in Tobago. The authors are still working on venues in Trinidad. It is also available on Amazon as an ebook and a print book.